Understanding Human Dignity?

World Youth Alliance
World Youth Alliance
That's What Am Talking About!
That’s What Am Talking About!

The English expression ‘human dignity’ consists of the predicate ‘human’ and the noun ‘dignity’. The adjective qualifies the noun, thus determining the kind of dignity in question as the human kind. The adjective has a similar function in the expression ‘human being’: Here it qualifies the noun ‘being’, to determine the kind of being in question as a being of the human kind. ‘Human’ is etymologically related to the Latin for earth, humus, so that ‘human’ means what is ‘earthly’ (as an adjective), or an ‘earthling’ (as a substantive). Generally speaking it means what is proper to the kind that ‘we’ are, or to the species of rational animals, referring in particular to their kindness (humanity) and their fallibility (‘all too human’).
‘Dignity’ comes from the Latin noun decus, meaning ornament, distinction, honour,glory. Decet is the verbal form (which is impersonal), and is related to the Greek δοκεινto seem or to show. The Latin participle form decens, -tis, has survived in the English language in the adjective ‘decent’. But dignity means, generally speaking, the standing of one entitled to respect, i.e. his or her status, and it refers to that which in a being (in particular a personal being) induces or ought to induce such respect: its excellence or incomparability of value.
When ‘human’ and ‘dignity’ are used in conjunction they form the expression ‘human dignity’, which means the status of human beings entitling them to respect, a status which is first and to be taken for granted. It refers to their highest value, or to the fact that they are a presupposition for value, as they are those to whom value makes sense.
Value is disclosed in feeling and it affects us deeply and personally. The highest values affect us at the deepest possible level. As I recognise the other, his value is experienced as equivalent to mine, because it is a presupposition for his valuing activity, just as mine is for me. Love, kinship and friendship are the human relationships in which I am enabled to explore these depths, and to realise that this highest value is constitutive of personal identity, simultaneously in myself and in the other. The idea of human dignity conceptualises or embraces this experience of recognition, and the principle of human dignity is the affirmation that the experience is possible in relation to all human beings. When formulated, the principle affirms the fundamental value of every human being, or of human beings as such. It enjoys general acceptance all round the globe as a basic ethical and legal principle because it draws upon the universal experience of the dynamics of recognition. It clearly is in everyone’s interest to be respected as having human dignity, i.e. as having the highest value due to an inalienable humanity.
The experience, idea, and principle of human dignity have to be presupposed for us to talk about different accounts of it. But the differences between the accounts make it manifest that the fundamental value of human beings is taken to consist in different things. Here we go 😉      


In the cosmo-centric framework human beings are thought to have fundamental value because they have dominion (over their passions, their household or group, or over the brute beasts). It is to the end of maintaining moral dominion that human beings acquire virtue, and it is by this acquisition that they are able to participate in social life, to legislate and to found society. It is, however, nature that has assigned the human being a superior place in the cosmos, by granting reason for the task of dominion. It is the responsibility of the human being that this moral dominion should not fail. If it should, it is uncertain what would happen to human dignity. Moral dominion in accordance with nature is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for the possession of human dignity; the possessor must also be of the human kind. But then again: It is because moral dominion is considered to be characteristic of human beings that it can be taken as a criterion for human dignity.

In the Christo-centric framework human beings are thought to have fundamental value because they are made in the image and likeness of God, and therefore reflect the creator-God in whom and from whom all things have their being and value. But the fundamental value of humans is also affirmed by the incarnation of the Son of God as man, and is even restored through his death and resurrection. The fundamental
value of human beings, therefore, does not so much consist in their rationality or dominion as in their God-likeness and in the relationship with God this likeness brings about. It is this likeness which enables human beings to acquire virtue and to live in community, and which therefore in turn founds society and its laws. God’s relationship must be accepted in love, however, if it is not, then it is uncertain what becomes of human dignity. Divine relatedness is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for the possession of human dignity: The possessor must also be human. But then again: It is because humanity is considered to exist in the image and likeness of God that this reflexive likeness can be taken as a criterion for human dignity.

In the logo-centric framework human beings have dignity because of Reason, or, in the Kantian expression, because they are capable of understanding the implications of the ‘universalisability’ of any of the maxims of their actions. Virtue, in this scheme of things, is the characteristic of the kind of acts, the maxim of which is ‘universalisable’ according to the categorical imperative. Reason, also, is enough to certify status, account for law and found society, even if the ultimate destiny of man and his reward depends on God. No guarantee apart from reason is needed for human dignity in this life. If reason fails, however, it is uncertain what happens to human dignity. Reason is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for the possession of human dignity. The possessor must also be human, belonging to the human kind. But then again: Humanity itself is considered a dignity because of its rationality, and this is the reason why rationality can be considered a criterion for human dignity.

The polis-centric framework was the result of the political experience of ‘reason’ being used ideologically by those in power, to make assumptions as to who was to be accounted reasonable. The polis-centric framework was born of the rejection of the one and unique point of view, hence it is also poly-centric and poly-morphic. Virtue is defined in relation to the function it has in society (for example, its usefulness), and
status is understood in its aspect of relying on political decision. Society, in turn, is increasingly experienced as the basic, inescapable reality that stands in no need of founding because it is everywhere – just as nature was for the Ancients. Thus law becomes the set of rules which society gives to itself through its mechanisms of government, whereas the destiny of the individual is to be the reason for society’s metabolism. Human dignity is what society ought to recognise as its foundation, ideology notwithstanding. If recognition fails, then it is uncertain what becomes of human dignity. Recognition is a possible consequence of, but not a necessary condition for, the possession of human dignity. The possessor must also be of the human kind. But then again: it is because personal identity is understood to consist essentially in social relations that recognition was able to be made a criterion for human dignity in the first place.

Bottom line 😀        

Human dignity as the fundamental value of human beings is common to then frameworks treated, yet each understands it to rely upon, or to be conditioned by, different features of human reality: human nature; God-relatedness; the faculty of reason; or recognition within society. This is because the four conceptions each understand the human to consist in different things, and consequently take the fundamental value of the human being to consist in different aspects of its being. The human being exists in and through these aspects, which characterise it essentially. Fundamental value, however, pertains to the individual human being and not merely to its nature, faith, reason or status. Herein the frameworks agree. Hence they also agree that human dignity pertains to the human being as such, even if they disagree as to what exactly it is that justifies this attribution.
The definition: ‘Human dignity is the fundamental value of the human being’, is merely formal, however. To account for the content of human dignity we are referred back to the experience of its fullness in love, kinship and friendship. In these I learn to identify with the essential attributes focused on by each of the frameworks. I learn what it means to be human.
The experience of human dignity underlies the idea and principle of human dignity. The idea was, however, thought of as relying upon different aspects of the human being: on its nature; on relativity to God; on reason; or on social integration. The differing accounts were identified and analysed in different historically-based frameworks (the cosmo-centric, the Christo-centric, the logo-centric and the poliscentred frameworks), which exemplify various possible ways of justifying human dignity. Whereas the explanatory factors of the various frameworks indicate the essentially human, none of them taken in isolation provides us with a sufficient condition for human dignity. As indicators of the human they point towards the being whose existence is of fundamental value.
The definition underlying the accounts embodied in the various frameworks is merely formal. It is that human dignity is the fundamental value of the human being. For the content of the idea of human dignity we must, however, turn to the experiences of love and friendship, in which the constitution of the person enjoys the most  favourable conditions. Here we learn to respond out of our own depth to the equally fundamental value of the other. Hence, as an expression, ‘human dignity’, refers beyond criteria to the fundamental value of the existence of individual human beings. A fact I must state…all this is catered for by WORLD YOUTH ALLIANCE mission of promoting human dignity, solidarity and culture of life among the world youth.

 Consequently, Iam bound to say that human dignity:-        

  • You could hurt yourself while making a fool of yourself.
  • It keeps you from making a fool of yourself.
  • It builds self-respect.
  • It keeps you from making bad choices in people.
  • It builds moral.
  • It builds respect of others.
  • Makes you think twice.
  • Makes you think about ethics.
  • Keeps you from making bad choices in general.
  • It keeps depression from breaking you.

Brian Kanaahe Mwebaze is currently a masters student of public health where he is advocating for the inclusion of ‘human dignity’ in all public health programmes and projects. He also finished World Youth Alliance’ Track A Training and got officiary accredited 🙂        



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