As a moral principle, dignity is fundamental to the understanding of what constitutes fair and ethical treatment. The principle of dignity is crucial in providing a basis for arguments against certain social injustices, such as sexual exploitation and slavery. In addition to causing physical harm, these practices violate human dignity by humiliating and dehumanizing individuals. Dignity is also important in cases of individuals who cannot defend their dignity themselves, such as individuals who are physically and mentally disabled.
The first major Western philosopher to argue for dignity as a core moral principle was Immanuel Kant. His claim was that dignity should be placed at the center of a moral theory that was guided by respect and that individuals should be treated as an end in and of themselves, instead of a means to an end. Kant's moral theory was very influential to ethical theory and was echoed in the 1948 universal declaration of human rights, which began by emphasizing the importance of dignity in its preamble: "Recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world."
In recent years, moral theorists have argued that the principle of dignity should be extended to non-human living things and the natural environment.