Why Human Dignity is Important
What is Dignity?
Dignity is the quality of being honourable, noble, excellent or worthy. With a human regarded as the most supreme living creature, dignity, in its appealing sense, is better referred to as human dignity. It is the conceptual basis for the formulation and execution of human rights and is neither granted by the society nor can it be legitimately granted by the society. An imperative implication of human dignity is that every human being should be regarded as a very invaluable member of the community with a uniquely free expression of their right to life, integrated bodily attributes and their spiritual nature (Chapman, Audrey R, 2010).
Human dignity is a sense of self-worth. Therefore, dignity is a sense of pride in oneself that a human being has with them. This conscious sense makes them feel that they deserve respect and honour from other human beings. Many scholars argue that if a human being is in a humiliating or compromising situation then this is a major threat to their dignity. However, other human persons may still assert that they have dignity even though they find themselves in such situations. All in all, humans deserve dignity not because of their lifelong achievements but by the fact they are already human beings (TerMeulen Ruud, 2010).
Three Perspectives of Human Dignity
The question of human dignity has hit the headlines world over in the recent past. The pre-colonial period has been used as the base reference for crimes against humanity and abuse of human dignity, thence redefinition of the term human dignity by international law courts and the United Nations. Human dignity has been defined from the philosophical, religious and legalistic perspectives.
The deep philosophical roots of the term human dignity were articulated by Emmanuel Kant, a great philosopher of the famous late Enlightenment. He is considered as the source of the now contemporary concept of human dignity. He holds that the fundamental principle behind moral duties of human beings is a categorical imperative. According to Kant, imperative means that it commands us to exercise our wills in a particular way. As a result, human beings with respect for human dignity should not possess any irrational wills against their fellow human beings and the generally acceptable societal norms and values.
And according to Emmanuel Kant, the only thing we should will about is our happiness as human beings. Once we have happiness we’ll be able to enjoy good health and nourish proper relationships (Sensen Oliver, 2011). Human dignity should operate on the basis of volitional principles or maxims. Hence, the basic rational requirements and morality should be the primary demands that apply to these maxims which motivate all our actions.
Human dignity has also been developed along the lines of religious, theological and ethical perspectives. Christian and Islam views make up this perspective at large. According to the Christians, the Bible reveals that God not only created the human nature but also endowed man with unique qualities after creating man in His own image and likeness (Genesis 1:26). It is from this basis that we can deduce that the human nature deserves a very inherent dignity.
According to the Russian Orthodox Church’s basic teaching on the issue of human dignity, God has endowed all human beings in a very generous manner by distributing His gifts equally such that His showing of human dignity, nature and abundance of His unending grace remains undisputable. Owing to the fact that Jesus Christ offered His life as a ransom for sin and the sinful nature of human beings, human dignity was lifted at its best, hence it should be respected. The Bible also asserts that life according to the desires of the flesh that don’t withstand respect for other human beings is loss of and abuse of human dignity.
The Islam Texts Society puts forth the idea that human dignity is the basis of human rights. Several references are drawn from the Holy Quran which indicates that a human being deserves dignity as a result of their physical and spiritual nobility. The Quran says that God’s love for humanity is immense, the sanctity for human life immeasurable, the necessity for freedom a prerequisite thus restating the need for human equality and accountability for all acts done to humanity (Kamali, H, M, 1999) .
For this reason, Sharia Laws have been developed to help in protecting human dignity and also promote a high level of social interaction. Since God has honoured mankind by His great love, human beings should also reciprocate the same and show their love and respect for their fellow human beings. In other words, dignity is not earned by the meritorious conduct which is an expression of the favour and grace of God towards human beings.
The legal perspective of the concept of human dignity was coined at the end of the Second World War. It has been regarded as the central perspective that discourses human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that all humans have been born with equality in dignity and rights. For this reason, they are endowed with enough reason and pure conscience, hence should acts towards one another with a deep spirit of brotherhood. In its preamble, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights seeks for recognition and respect for the inherent dignity as well as the equal and inalienable rights of every member of the human dignity despite where they come from, their religious beliefs or background history.
Drafters of this perspective add that the human person possesses many rights because of the fact they have been born as a person, wholly, a master and manager of oneself in many aspects (Frame Tom, 2007). Therefore, all human beings deserve to be treated with utmost dignity. International Law, in pointing out the contempt of and disregard for human dignity says that abuse of human rights has resulted in numerous barbarous acts that have completely outraged the pure conscience of mankind. Digging deep the question of human dignity has led to the coining of and questions in aspects of human liberty, equality and fraternity because many people died and suffered in the hands of their fellow human beings during the war.
Case Analysis of Human Dignity
In March 28, 2010, Conor McBride brutally murdered his fiancée before turning himself to police. As a result, nobody sought a death penalty. Several issues emanate from his ordeal: justice and several elements of justice, deterrence and forgiveness. However, of concern to us now is the question of human dignity by the murderer.
The death penalty for all crimes has been abolished in Australia. The major question that arises is whether we should use justice to arrive at human dignity and justice. Is punishment a means to attaining justice? First of all, McBride hasn’t respected the dignity of his fiancée by killing her. Nonetheless, killing him would be a disregard for his dignity as well.
Several arguments arise from the death penalty for someone who has shown contempt to human dignity. The most obvious one is the fact that a murderer loses their dignity by performing this act. Therefore, they also deserve to lose it in the same manner. The other argument says that by killing another person, a murder can only retain their human dignity by being put to death as well. The last argument says that a murder’s human dignity should be respected hence they shouldn’t be put to death (Perry, Michael J, 2005).
In the case of Oscar Pistorius who participated in the 2012 Olympic Games, a powerful thought and question on human dignity has been put forward. He became the first man with a disability to participate in the able-bodied competition. He was amputated on both legs at birth. This raised tough questions as to whether he should participate in the able-bodied Olympics or in the Paralympics for those with disabilities. He insisted that he wanted to participate in the normal-bodied Olympics. However, others argued that he had an undue advantage because he runs on blades.
Later on, a question as to whether technological advancements should be allowed to take toll in the issue of human dignity arose. This is clear because without the blades, Oscar Pistorius couldn’t have participated in the able-bodied Olympics. The arguments put forward in three perspectives say that human dignity actually places limits on the enhancements of individuals. Others say that it encourages human dignity while the last group argues that those who dispute that enhancements actually threaten human dignity are those who cannot benefit from such enhancements (Kurt Bayertz, Human Dignity, 1996).
In April 1986, an unidentified university lecturer from Belfast was practically seized by some Muslim gunmen in Beirut, Lebanon. After about 5 years, Brian Keenan was a free man once again. He had survived a painful incarceration, chained to some walls of a very tiny cell. To add insult to injury, he’s a blinded musician.
Everybody thought he was actually dead but after being released, he wished to travel the whole world, eat all the food in the world and make love possibly with all the women in the world as he had said. Silently, he began recording his ordeal on tape in an attempt to make sense of his life.
This ideally meant that his dignity had been abused and he never felt as though a human being. It deeply reminded him of the ancient times of slave trade when human beings haggled the price of their fellow human beings in attempt to claim supremacy and gain access to mighty riches. As a learned man, Keenan had been taken hostage to and work as a prisoner for the Jihad in Patagonia, Chile.
Brian was captured at Belfast as a man with full vision but after about five years, he came back blind. Why did this happen? Well, he was blinded by an attack of smallpox. He actually felt that he was better dead than alive at that time. This perhaps is the greatest disregard for human dignity when people you are offering services involuntarily and free of charge can’t even treat you so that you live as a human being just like them.
Brian Keenan, in an interview with The Guardian, a British newspaper, says that he wasn’t prepared for such an endeavour. He wasn’t a musician or historian but he found himself buried in those works of art. To this day, he can’t tell how he started playing the harp yet he wasn’t a musician. That’s why he said that when one ends up spending a lot of time in some small dark place, some strange people and ideas end up visiting you. He attributes all these as an attempt to recover one’s lost dignity. Anderson Duff Attorney
As a university lecturer before his capture, Brian Keenan could actually exercise his freedom of speech and movement and even do whatever he wanted but this didn’t turn out the same when he was captured. When he was a free man, Keenan never highly regarded those who visited him. However, he found himself being very grateful to those who visited him in what he describes as a cell without a wall. This he attributes to the fact that he was surrounded by conditions beyond his wish, conditions that he didn’t perceive to be good.
It is clear from various case studies that the question of human dignity brings out a lot of questions in the areas of justice and equality in the society. It affects societal norms and generally accepted principles. For instance, no society allows a human being to kill a fellow human being.
Critically looking at all the three perspectives from whence the issue of human dignity arises, it is important to look at all of them because without one perspective, several factors surrounding human dignity cannot be properly articulated. Therefore, all the three perspectives should be used depending on the situation bringing the issue of human dignity to question.
Chapman, Audrey R, Inconsistency of Human Rights Approaches ot Human Dignity with Transhumanism, The American Journal of Bioethics 10, no. 7 (2010): 61 – 63.
TerMeulen, Ruud, Dignity, Posthumanism, and the Community of Values, The American Journal of Bioethics 10, no. 7 (2010): 69 – 70
Frame, Tom 2007, The Legacy of Ronald Ryan’s Last Day, Quadrant Magazine51, nos. 1-2 (2007): 53-60.
Kamali, H, M 1999, The Dignity of Man: An Islamic Perspective, 2nd edn, Ismalic Texts Society
Perry, Michael J, Capital Punishment and the Morality of Human Rights, Journal of Catholic Legal Studies 44 (2005): 1–36.
Sensen, Oliver 2011, Human Dignity in Historical Perspective: The Contemporary and Traditional Paradigms, European Journal of Political Theory, 10:1, 71-91.
Kurt Bayertz, Human Dignity: Philosophical Origin and Scientific Erosion of an Idea, (Sanctity of Life and Human Dignity, ed. Kurt Bayertz [Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic, 1996], 73-90)
Mary Ann Glendon, The Bearable Lightness of Dignity, (First Things, May 2011, 41-45)