This brief article is about how the term dignity is used. The article presents dignity as it is used by international organizations, governments, bioethicists, academics, and the general public. The article explains how someone might understand what those who use dignity mean by it.

Dignity and diplomacy

Through much of the 20th Century, dignity appeared in assorted writings as a reason for peacemaking and for promoting human rights. For example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948, speaks in its preamble of "the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family." Later proclamations speak of dignity in the same way. The American Convention on Human Rights (1969), art. 11(1), proclaims, "Everyone has the right to have his honor respected and his dignity recognized." The African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights (1981), art. 5, insists, "Every individual shall have the right to the respect of the dignity inherent in a human being."

In the latter half of the 20th century, dignity became a reason to curtail genetic research and to regulate human reproduction. In 1996, the Council of Europe used dignity for this purpose in its Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Dignity of the Human Being with regard to the Application of Biology and Medicine. In 1998, the United Nations mentioned dignity in the UNESCO Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights. At Article 24, the Declaration says that germ-line treatment "could be contrary to human dignity." The Commentary which accompanies the Declaration says that, as a consequence of the possibility of germ-line treatment, "it is the very dignity of the human race which is at stake."

At the beginning of the 21st Century, dignity was a reason to curtail human rights and to foment strife. Clergy and laity invoked dignity to explain their agreement with the anti-human-rights resolutions that were being approved by the United Nations. Those resolutions bid all nations to impose legal sanctions upon blasphemy (defamation of religion) and upon all conduct that a religious person might find offensive. One archbishop favored legal sanctions because, he said, it is "the manipulation and defamation of religion which threatens human dignity, rights, peace and security. One law professor hoped "the law against defamation of religions may be constructed in a way that does not abridge legitimate speech including artistic freedom and yet protects the dignity of religion.

As the 20th Century was turning into the 21st, not everyone was invoking dignity for the purpose of restricting rights. Switzerland, for example, was resisting the trend. To the dignity of humans and to the dignity of religion, Switzerland, by its Constitution in 1992, added a third idea: the dignity of all living beings. The Constitution says Swiss citizens must respect the dignity of animals, the dignity of vegetation, and the dignity of other organisms. Accordingly, the Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology (ECNH)(Switzerland) published a brochure in 2008 about how researchers can respect the dignity of plants.

What is dignity? All the international proclamations leave Dignity undefined. The commentators who say that genetic research and algeny need to be curtailed for the sake of dignity either leave dignity undefined or fill it with ambiguity and contradiction. Those who say that criticising a religious belief or practice threatens dignity do not define dignity. Those who say that the dignity of religion needs protection do not tell us what they mean by dignity. They do not tell us why the rights of an idea should be superior to the rights of human beings. They do not tell us why it is a good idea to forget, as Madalyn Murray O'Hair said, "Religion has caused more misery to all of mankind in every stage of human history than any other single idea." The ethicists who wanted to help researchers in Switzerland to respect plants found themselves mired in metaphor when they tried to agree on what the dignity of a plant is and on whether vegetation is part of the moral community.

The trouble with dignity is that it can mean whatever anybody wants it to mean; or it can mean nothing. In 2008, The President's Council on Bioethics (United States) tried to arrive at a consensus about what dignity meant but failed. Speaking of the human moral community, Edmund D. Pellegrino, M.D., the Council's Chairman, says in the Letter of Transmittal to the President of The United States, "… there is no universal agreement on the meaning of the term, human dignity.

The most common meaning of dignity is: being human and alive. The most common meaning is very similar to the meaning ascribed to dignity by the Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant said that being human means having dignity. In other words, dignity is humanness. If one accepts either Kant's meaning or the most common meaning, one can say of every living person that he or she has dignity, or that he or she is human.

Equating dignity with humanness is meaningless. To say that a person has dignity, that is, that a human is human does not impart any useful information. The statement does not prove anything. As Scottish philosopher David Hume noted, an is-statement does not give rise logically to just one ought-statement. I cannot logically say, "I am human; therefore, we ought to curtail human rights." Both my statements are assertions. My second statement does not arise necessarily from the first. My insertion of therefore between the statements is merely a rhetorical trick.

It matters neither to those who want to expand human, other animal, or vegetable rights nor to those who want to curtail such rights if dignity is meaningless. Dignity is useful because it has the connotation of goodness. Because of its connotation, dignity is equal to just because as a reason for anything. It is like all the other meaningless, make-believe authorities. It is unassailable and all-purpose. Anyone can use it to support or to condemn any cause or activity.

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