Human dignity is a term I've come across when reading about Kantian ethics, but also bioethics (note: Yes, bioethics is not normative ethics).

I've found arguments against using human dignity: Ruth Macklin, in Dignity is a useless concept, suggests respecting autonomy instead of dignity. PETA's Why Animal Rights? quotes Jeremy Bentham on suffering for animals. So the concept of having rights by being born human is not required for respecting life.

I assume some ethical systems require human dignity and some don't. Kantian ethics I assume would have a hole without human dignity, and utilitarian wouldn't be worse for wear. What about the others? (The list of normative ethical systems in Wikipedia are: Virtue ethics, Hedonism, State consequentialism, Pragmatic, Role, Anarchist, Postmodern. How do these fair without human dignity?).

(This question has been modified as per suggestions by virmaior.)

  • What distinction are you making between dignity and autonomy. As I see it, Kant's 'Kingdom of Ends' formulation makes it pretty clear they mean the same thing to him. Dignity is just potential autonomy, respected before the point of conflict.
    – user9166
    Commented Sep 21, 2015 at 17:34
  • I guess with your explanation in Kant's "Kingdom of Ends", the distinction is simply the spelling. This is important, since there is less confusion as to the definition of autonomy, the definition of dignity is varied and more confused. Can every instance of "dignity" in Kantian ethics be replaced with "autonomy" instead? If you replace all "dignity" with "autonomy" and "potential dignity" with "potential autonomy", then I would consider Kantian ethics a valid candidate for not requiring dignity.
    – James
    Commented Sep 22, 2015 at 5:09
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    I don't follow. Kantian "autonomy" is probably as good a definition as we have of "human dignity," the capacity to exercise free and rational judgments. So Kingdom of Ends would be the paradigm of the concept in a formal system. Apart from that, "dignity" like "freedom" can be highly relative. The "dignity" of the Greek citizen is based on the fact that he is "not a slave" and "does not labor," thus owns slaves. Dignity as self-esteem, honor, duty, even existential "authenticity" may have nothing to do with a universalist ethics....unless qualified by "human" in that sense. Commented Sep 22, 2015 at 13:16
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    I am proposing replacing all versions of 'respect for dignity' with 'allowance for potential autonomy'. I think that is the trick that transforms the 'Not Mere Means' version of the imperative based on dignity into the 'Kingdom of Ends' version based upon autonomy.
    – user9166
    Commented Sep 22, 2015 at 16:09
  • @jobermark, I just realized I did use the word "autonomy" in my question. That "autonomy" is actually a term from Ruth Macklin, who says autonomy has aspects of rational thought and action and not a corpse. This term is preferable for bioethics specifically since it allows study of cadavers and genetic research. With this bioethics version of "autonomy", can you still do the word replacement and still be valid Kantianism?
    – James
    Commented Sep 22, 2015 at 21:07

2 Answers 2


You may want to refine your question in terms of "human dignity" as distinct from "human rights." While it is often invoked, I am not sure that "human dignity" is well-defined or anything more than a vague appeal.

In Kant's deontic ethics there has always been a tension between the categorical imperative to act in accord with "universal maxims" and the treatment of each individual as an "end in him/herself." The latter might be called "human dignity" as an essential and incomparable value. But even if we leave "dignity" vague in this way, we can still have big problems with "human," as in cases of abortion, euthanasia, artificial intelligence, or bioethics.

In utilitarian systems, such as Hobbes, Bentham, Singer, or Buddhism, the "human right" is defined negatively as the reduction of misery or suffering, which can then be extended as far as "all sentient beings" with the capacity to suffer. But here generally individual "dignity" is contravened by some "summum bonum" or the avoidance, as in Hobbes, of the "summum malum."

In Marxism, utilitarian "human rights" are looked upon with suspicion, since they are rooted in, reducible to, and idealizations of the right to own property. This "right" then functions to degrade real human "dignity" in the capacity to be free, social, and creative beings. Real dignity or "self-worth' becomes completely indexed to property.

My inadequate answer, then, would be that most ethical systems make some appeal to "human dignity" in the sense of some immeasurable, in-exchangeable worth by which human beings are naturally "recognized" and cared about. But the system becomes "ethical" only as it begins to define, restrict, and rationalize this overly broad starting point into rules of action and reciprocity.

If some absolute "dignity" (etymology: "privilege, honor, worth") accrues to human individuals or families, say, then the purest ethics of "human dignity" would be the bloody world of the Iliad or the Medieval lord where each subject struggles for recognition of his honor and his unique "human" willingness to die for it.

  • If most ethical systems make an appeal to human dignity, that implies there are some ethics that do not. Can you list some or even one ethical system that doesn't appeal to dignity?
    – James
    Commented Sep 20, 2015 at 22:04
  • Hard to do, for the same reason that "human dignity" is not well-defined. If the term "human" has a universalist "all humans" implication, then any system of "justice" countenancing slavery or genocide would not, but that would include Aristotle's ethics and others. Any system with a superhuman end would also count, which might include the Old Testament or most monotheisms, where the "dignity" of man is highly suspect in relation to absolute fealty to God. We could just as easily say that "human dignity" is a recent Enlightenment term of value. Commented Sep 20, 2015 at 22:53
  • To go back to your first statement, yes I am intentionally muddling "human dignity" and "human rights". I'm seeking a list of ethical systems that doesn't require definitions for either, but specifically "human dignity" if we can only avoid one. However, I believe Utilitarianism defined "human right" isn't a good definition since you would still allow things such as slavery, torture, etc. that we would consider contrary to human rights. (See abstract journals.cambridge.org/action/…) (Sorry, I got more questions after re-reading your answer.)
    – James
    Commented Sep 22, 2015 at 5:33
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    I would agree that strict utilitarianism, Aristotelean ethics, most traditional religious systems, and Abrahamic monotheism do not entail "human dignity"....necessarily. But do not exclude it. While Buddhism, Singer's utilitarianism, and certain ecological ethos may not privilege the "human".... exclusively. The centrality of a universal "humanity" with all individuals accorded an equal and incommensurable "dignity" is post-Enlightenment... with Kant, Rawls, Unitarianism, or existentialism as primary examples. Commented Sep 22, 2015 at 13:03
  • Can you put that list of ethical systems into your answer?
    – James
    Commented Sep 23, 2015 at 21:57

If you take the term dignity quite literally, following from its etymology, it is simply the sense of having value. So of course, the core of any ethics is going to dictate its own sense of dignity.

Since the word itself is simply about a 'sense' or an appearance, tou might perhaps, dispense with this extra wrapper if your ethics complete bounds itself in a way that avoids extending into aesthetics. I would suggest that systems that roll that sense of dignity produced by the ethics itself into the ethics proper cannot dispense with it. But more explicit forms of ethics that have less permeable boundaries around them, can.

Kantian ethics always presumes, in some sense that the primary value of autonomy comes 'pre-wrapped' with the assumption you are extending not only the right to self-determination, but that your rights are clear to you, and go unchallenged, whenever that is reasonable. On the other hand, this latter aspect is in some sense just about people being comfortable, which is 'officially' not an essential aspect of the system. Kant purposely avoids considering motivations that are simply about sentiments or humanity as valuable.

But at the same time, Kantian ethics passes over into all other fields of reasoning, including aesthetics. As humans from his culture, to have this polish stripped away would itself fail to be moral. If all of our decisions were contentious, and challenge was the order of the day, most of us would find that untenable. This is only because of our general sense of decorum, and not basic to morality, but it is still a moral maxim.

Utilitarianism generally also comes with a recognition that ugliness has negative value, and reaches over into a certain layer of aesthetic prescriptiveness. I cannot imagine a utilitarian motivation that would favor the kind of stress that having one's decisions constantly challenged. So I do not think Utilitarianism can do without a sense of dignity.

Even in the stripped-down, bare-metal, lassez-faire Capitalist economics that is the most oversimplified version of utilitarianism, there needs to be a sense that we all know the rules, for a market to function properly over time. Disobeying the basic principles of the system constitutes a form of cheating. And any concept of cheating comes with its own sense of dignity: When can one be accused of cheating? Is the accusation itself normalization or aggression? Are there compensations and punishments? Who decides them? Etc.

Even a Nietzschean ethics that recognizes the right of an individual to 'do art' on themselves would need a sense of dignity, if one that moves about as the individuals involved create different sorts of tension by refining power and power relations. The process of the ethics needs to remain possible, and without some breathing room around one's agenda, things would be too rigid.

But more self-consciously modern moralities have explicitly pointed out the damage done by decorum, in fixing social class boundaries, limiting individuals with unusual temperaments, affording different rights to the sexes, etc. without having to own up to the damage done. So something like social contract theory does not have permission to cross over and prescribe aesthetics.

If behavior is to be judged uniformly, based on principle or on shared taste, it is part of the contract, or it is not. Although the contract may be vague on the issue, the boundaries are those set by what we agreed to, whether or not that is clear yet. In that case, there is no need for an additional layer of 'dignity'.

  • Is this a list of ethical systems that do require dignity?
    – James
    Commented Sep 23, 2015 at 21:59
  • It is a decision criterion. I could consider it one by one against the ones in your list, but it is a stupid list. Your own given examples aren't even on it. And every one of the listed items has versions that do and versions that don't. I gave Nietzche as an Postmodern example that does, for instance, but there are others in the same class, say Schopenhauer, that would not.
    – user9166
    Commented Sep 23, 2015 at 22:27

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