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Human Dignity - An Indispensable Idea

IMEW Briefing No. 2, September 2002

Human Dignity as a Central Ethical and Legal Concept

Germany's historical experience of the systematic violation of human rights under National Socialism had a direct impact on the formulation of the German Basic Law. Commitment to respect for human dignity as the fundament of human rights became enshrined in the Basic Law as its supreme legal norm. Article 1 (1) states: "The dignity of man is inviolable. To respect and protect it is the duty of all state authority." In the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights human dignity is also the point of reference of the rationale for human rights. Legal and political systems are to be based on human dignity as the supreme guiding principle which links ethics and law.

In the debate on biomedical ethics voices are repeatedly raised which question this universality. What exactly constitutes human dignity, they ask, what is the rationale for it and what consequences does it have? Some argue that human dignity is based on controversial theological or metaphysical assumptions which cannot be generally accepted in a pluralistic society and an ideologically neutral state. Others criticise an inflationary and imprecise use of 'human dignity' which leads to a trivialisation of the human rights idea.

Conceptions of Human Dignity

Human dignity as a moral principle is based on the assumption that all human beings are equal irrespective of achievement, rank or standing. The idea that a human being cannot be reduced to a 'value' in terms of something else is derived from the essential nature of humankind itself. 'Human dignity' in this sense means both the circumstance of possessing rights and the obligation to respect the fundamental rights of others. (Höffe 2002)

The sociopolitical demand for conditions fit for human beings is also based on this understanding of human dignity. These demands are the basis from which conditions for the protection of human rights, such as the protection against state tyranny or the fair access to social resources are derived (Braun 2000).

Human dignity as defined above must be distinguished from 'dignity' as particular estimation of a person on the basis of an office or an achievement. In this sense 'dignity' distinguishes a particular person and may serve as a justification for privileges, for example.

Sometimes 'dignity' is also used in the sense of the subjective value attached to a person's life. According to this position constant suffering and loss of independence can cause a person to regard his or her life as being without dignity or no longer worth living (c.f. Jens and Küng 1995). Dignity in this sense cannot be defined objectively, it can and must be self-determined. However, it is not an expression of the fundamental aspect of human dignity as moral principle.

A further interpretation understands human dignity as a higher value which accrues to humankind as a whole but not to the individual. However, such a position can allow the violation of human rights in the name of higher social goals (c.f. Meyer-Abich 2002). It thus contradicts the human rights idea.

The Theoretical Foundation of Human Dignity

The key rationale for human dignity as supreme moral principle is its universal validity. In Kantian ethics the basis for human dignity is reason and thus the specifically human quality of acting and judging morally. Human dignity in this sense is the rational insight into the mutual obligation to treat other human beings "always as an end and never as a means only" (Kant 1789).

In the Judeo-Christian tradition human dignity is derived from the fact that every man is made in God's image as a result of the act of creation (Reiter 2001). However, in principle many modern secular moral philosophers also share Kant's view that respect for human dignity gives rise to universally binding rights and obligations, albeit for different reasons. They are either of the opinion that Kantian ethics have formulated the only plausible moral principle to date (Tugendhat 1993), or of the view that in our actions (Gewirth 1978) or in discourse (Habermas 1991, Apel 1988) we always presuppose the existence of fundamental standards such as human rights.

Area of Application of Human Dignity and Human Rights

In biomedical ethics the area of application of human dignity and of the rights derived from it is disputed particularly at the beginning and at the end of life.

In some ethical conceptions the possession of interests is crucial for the attribution of rights (c.f. Birnbacher 2002). The interest in avoiding pain is tied to the capacity to feel pain, the interest in living is tied to self-awareness. On this basis embryos, and sometimes babies or people with severe mental disabilities too, are denied such rights. The argument against these concepts is that they would mean that no-one could rely on their rights being respected because they could lose the capacities on which they are based at any time.

Now, in Kant human dignity is also tied to certain criteria, namely to autonomy and thus moral capacity. However, the crucial point is that the characteristics that make up the moral capacity of the human being are inherent in human nature. They need not always be realised at all times in a person's life. Human development is characterised by identity and continuity from conception to death. The fertilised egg is not a different person from the individual who is later born. Because of the potentiality of being a moral subject, human dignity is what characterises human beings as human beings. Human dignity is therefore not something that can be acquired with time or lost again; it can be neither divided nor does it have different grades (Honnefelder 2002).

Human dignity is not something that can be bestowed or taken away; it is above all the self-commitment to respect the unquestionably existing dignity of other human beings (Baranzke 2002).

Recognition of Human Dignity by Society

In the context of biomedicine it is not only important to establish who is to be regarded as possessing human dignity. It is also crucial to establish how fundamental rights can be effectively protected (Düwell 2001). Biomedicine tends to reduce human beings to genes and body functions; to see them as objects. Medical ethics often place one-sided emphasis on human self-determination while disregarding aspects of physicality and social dependence (Mieth 2001). With the tendency to relativise the protection of human rights at the beginning and at the end of life (Schneider 2001) and the increasing pressure of costs on the social and health care systems (Eibach 1992) adequate protection of the rights particularly of the weaker and more vulnerable members of society becomes doubtful.

However, recognition by society of the rights derived from human dignity requires social conditions in which the protection of these rights is institutionally anchored, as well as a social climate which promotes a moral attitude of recognition of fundamental rights - including those of people not able to defend their own.

Sigrid Graumann

(Translation by Hilary Coleman)


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Düwell, Marcus (2001): Die Menschenwürde in der gegenwärtigen bioethischen Debatte. In: Graumann, Sigrid (ed.): Die Genkontroverse. Grundpositionen. Freiburg, pp. 80-87.

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Honnefelder, Ludger (2002): Die Frage nach dem moralischen Status des Embryos. In: Höffe, Otfried/Honnefelder, Ludger/Isensee, Josef/Kirchhof, Paul (eds.): Gentechnik und Menschenwürde. Köln, pp. 79-111.

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Meyer-Abich, Klaus Michael (2002): Die gesellschaftliche Menschenwürde des Embryos in der Naturgeschichte. Zeitschrift für Rechtspolitik 5, pp. 219-223.

Mieth, Dietmar (2001): Die Diktatur der Gene. Biotechnik zwischen Machbarkeit und Menschenwürde. Freiburg, pp. 126-145. For further details: Mieth, Dietmar (2002): Was wollen wir können? Ethik im Zeitalter der Biotechnik. Freiburg, pp. 415-509.

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Schneider, Ingrid (2001): Menschenrechte und Biomedizin. In: von Arnim, Gabriele et al. (eds.): Jahrbuch der Menschenrechte. Frankfurt, pp. 339-352.

Schwartländer, Johannes (1998): Menschenwürde/Personenwürde. In: Korff, Wilhelm et al. (eds.): Lexikon der Bioethik. Gütersloh, pp. 683-688.

Tugendhat, Ernst (1995): Vorlesungen über Ethik. Frankfurt.

Werner, Michael (2000): Streit um die Menschenwürde. Zeitschrift für medizinische Ethik 46, pp. 259-272.

I would like to thank Dietmar Mieth and Heike Baranzke for their constructive criticism.

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