When we say someone or something has dignity, we mean they have worth beyond their usefulness and abilities. To possess dignity is to have absolute, intrinsic and unconditional value.

The concept of dignity became prominent in the work of Immanuel Kant. He argued objects can be valuable in two different ways. They can have a price or dignity. If something has a price, it is valuable only because it is useful to us. By contrast, things with dignity are valued for their own sake. They can’t be used as tools for our own goals. Instead, we are required to show them respect. For Kant, dignity was what made something a person.

Dignity through the ages

Beliefs about where dignity comes from vary between different philosophical and religious systems. Christians believe humans have dignity because they’re made in the image of God. This is called imago deiKant believed humans possessed dignity because they’re rational. Others believe dignity is a way of recognising our common humanity. Some say it’s a social construct we created because it’s useful. Whatever its origin, the concept has become influential in political and ethical discourse today.



A question of human rights

Dignity is often seen as a central notion for human rights. The preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognises the “inherent dignity” of “all members of the human family”. By recognising dignity, the Declaration acknowledges ethical limits to the ways we can treat other people.

Kant captured these ethical limits in his idea of respect for persons. In every interaction with another person we are required to treat them as ends in themselves rather than tools to achieve our own goals. We fail to respect people when we treat them as tools for our own convenience or don’t give adequate attention to their needs and wishes.

When it comes to practical matters, it’s not always clear what ‘dignity and respect for persons’ require us to do. For example, in debates around assisted dying (also called assisted suicide or euthanasia) both sides use dignity to argue for opposing conclusions.

Advocates believe the best way to respect dignity is by sparing people from unnecessary or unbearable suffering, while opponents believe dignity requires us never to intentionally kill someone. They claim dignity means a person’s value isn’t diminished by pain or suffering and we are ethically required to remind the patient of this, even if the patient disagrees.

Who makes the rules?

There are also disputes about exactly who is worthy of dignity. Should it be exclusive to humans or extended to animals? And do all animals possess intrinsic value and dignity or just specific species? If animals do have dignity, we’re required to treat them with same respect we afford our fellow human beings.