Human dignity is the most fundamental of all ethical principles. We can sum it up with the famous formula of Enlightenment philosopher Emmanuel Kant: Every person exists as an end in itself, and not simply as a means that one can control and use.
Human dignity involves reverence, respect and protection towards each person, as a free being with a unique history.
Human dignity is therefore not relative to social status, nor to physical or intellectual performance. Among the most ancient laws of mankind, this principle was already recognized, as the Laws of Manu in India testify: “The children, the old, the poor and the sick must be regarded as lords of the atmosphere”. The Universal Charter of Human Rights also recognizes this principle by stating that everyone has rights just because of his of her own humanity. This is what we call intrinsic dignity, which does not depend on any external (extrinsic) factors.
A person never loses his or her dignity. Even the most serious illness or the most servile condition can not render a human being unworthy. There may of course be attacks on dignity, such as exploitation, murder or abandonment, but always a person will retain a fundamental dignity, which is the basis of his or her rights. This is why the expression “Dying with dignity” is misleading, since it implies that a person may lose his or her dignity by cause of illness or vulnerability.
Human dignity is based on the superior value of the human being, endowed with reason and therefore freedom. We call “conscience” this properly human concern to act well and to reflect on one’s own goodness or moral faults.
Being human is not just about exercising an intelligence, being free or being a body. It is all of this at once (an individual is “indivisible”). Human dignity requires an integral point of view on the person. This is why a person whose mental faculties are impaired also owns a human dignity, and so does a person with a physical disability. In the same way, a person who loses memory remains dignified, since he or she still has a living body, a personality and a history of his or her own which remain and progress in the eyes and affection of others.
This integral perspective can be seen, for example, in the civilized way of treating the corpses of the dead. Although there is no life, and therefore no more freedom and reason, it is fundamental to respect the body, to give it a burial, etc.
Human beings are fundamentally relational. The perception of our own dignity always involves the gaze and presence of others, as well as our ability to contribute to a group, be it the family, an association or the political community.
No individual is fully independent. The human condition is one of fragility and incompleteness. Everyone needs the presence of others to develop and enjoy life, for example in work or friendship. This dependence is constant and only increases at the end of life.
Perfect autonomy, without dependence and without fragility, is therefore an illusion. No one is omniscient and often choices are affected by isolation, distress, suffering or fear. The autonomy of the person can be understood only in a context of interdependence, where “allonomy”, the right of the Other, is also important.
The first obligation that ensues from human dignity is to preserve people’s lives and to ensure their safety.
The second is to work for the human development of every person, to recognize to them a unique personality and a participation in the community (recognition).
The third is to be compassionate in times of difficulty and distress. Every person
deserves to receive care adapted to his or her particular condition.
It is sometimes ethical to stop certain treatments, when they can no longer contribute to the well-being of the person. Medical acts and surrounding care must accompany life and healing, not replace them completely.
To deal with vulnerability, we must add to the principle of human dignity an ethic of care, which Living with Dignity also promotes and on which we can offer information and advice.
Alasdair MacIntyre, Dependant Rational Animals, Chicago, Open Court Publ. 1999.
Thomas de Koninck, De la dignité humaine, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 1995.
Louis-André Richard, La cigogne de Minerve. Philosophie, culture palliative et société, Québec : Presses de l’Université Laval, 2018.