Human Rights and the Significance of Human Dignity

One of the current students in the MA in Bioethics program at Trinity has also been observing in my medical office the past few months.  When there is a lull in the care of patients our conversations often turn to bioethics (while the paperwork on my desk waits a little longer to be attended to).  The other day we were talking about the concept of human dignity and whether it was a morally significant concept.  We agreed that it was and that we need to be clear that it has to do with the intrinsic worth of human beings.  It also needs to be distinguished from the concept of being dignified which is a very different cultural concept with which it is confused.

That discussion made me think about an essay by David Little in the book Prospects for a Common Morality. In his essay Little points to the impact of the rising concept of universal human rights that is changing the face of our global community.  He says that “some advocates and defenders of human rights seem to suggest that there are certain moral beliefs and concomitant claims about the world that are universally true and universally justified.”  This universally justified understanding of human rights is closely related to the idea that human beings have intrinsic moral value or dignity.  The impact this idea is having in global political processes makes it clear how significant this idea really is.

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John Kilner
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John Kilner

Thanks, Steve, for investing the time in adding to the value of the Trinity bioethics student’s education. I know that the office paperwork is not forgiving when you set it aside! The distinction you note between the dignity that all human beings have in common (a key basis for human rights) and the dignity involved in being more or less dignified is explored well in Gilbert Meilaender’s recent book Neither Beast Nor God: The Dignity of the Human Person, for those who are interested.