Is "human dignity" sufficient to be a "foundational value"? Why?

Human dignity as per human rights (and associated laws) use them.

I personally have great difficulties in subscribing to the idea of:

Every human is intrinsically worthy.

Or (an example definition, https://actionaid.org/opinions/2019/human-rights-universal-inalienable-and-indivisible):

"Human rights are universal, inherent to every individual without discrimination; inalienable, meaning that no one can take them away; indivisible and interrelated, with all rights having equal status and being necessary to protect human dignity.".

Because it's such a broad generalization. It's not because I don't like the idea, it's because it's too difficult to demonstrate. I find it similar to a religious statement, which is unprovable or undecideable, when rigorously examined, but it's still possible to abide to it due to subjective bias.

Counter examples:

  • Is a criminal worthy and deserves humanly treatment?
  • Do I need to value people that I personally dislike?
  • If one prohibits "hating people" or "devaluating people", then is this not restriction of free speech etc. about expressing one's personal view. It sounds unintuitive that "if you hate someone, then you should not, even when you still do" or "even if you genuinely hate someone, then we should prohibit you from doing so, since 'we know better about you than you'". Hoccuspoccus and a generalization of subjective preference.

  • It doesn't necessarily require "human dignity" in order to have "lawful behavior". People can intuitively (or by comparison to themselves) understand that prohibiting expression of others by e.g. deprivation of liberty is problematic, without it having to be motivated by some abstract, supernatural "intrinsic human worth".

Is there another "valid" way to synthesize human rights, than this kind of foundational (flawed) argument?

  • Every human is intrinsically worthy, "worthy" is a vague term that you are interpreting differently than I would have initially interpreted. in laymen's terms, i would say the quote means that if we were in another humans shoes we'd do the same thing. the counter examples would than be considered follow up questions rather than negations. .. I do think it is fair how you posed having difficulty subscribing to every human is intrinsically worthy because the quote itself is vague, and your counter examples make sense
    – Noah
    Commented Feb 18, 2020 at 9:08
  • @Noah I refer to human rights terminology. Worded e.g.: "Human rights are universal, inherent to every individual without discrimination; inalienable, meaning that no one can take them away; indivisible and interrelated, with all rights having equal status and being necessary to protect human dignity.". actionaid.org/opinions/2019/… And then I ask, "what is human dignity?".
    – mavavilj
    Commented Feb 18, 2020 at 9:37
  • @Noah If it's to serve as a foundational value, it must be e.g. generally accepted and objective-like. Or then it collapses to too much subjectivity and loses its "foundation-capability". Since it's pointless, if "anyone can pose or use any foundation", because then it's also possible to say "I don't agree on this foundation" and the foundation "does not generally exist". We cannot take scientific foundations, unless we agree on them broadly. Because with too much subjectivity, objectivity becomes hardly reachable, when the purpose of science may be to reach towards it.
    – mavavilj
    Commented Feb 18, 2020 at 9:54
  • 1
    ohk, I think to look at the question critically "Is human dignity sufficient to be a foundational value?" seems a bit too much word salad, in that "dignity" and "foundational value" are very difficult to define... reading the article, a description of dignity was the adequate standard of living and right to education/work, which I would find controversial. ..I guess I would agree with you the idea is too difficult to demonstrate
    – Noah
    Commented Feb 18, 2020 at 10:01
  • sorry i hit the enter button to early before i finished typing the previous comment
    – Noah
    Commented Feb 18, 2020 at 10:02

3 Answers 3


I think this question raises genuine difficulties about dignity as a foundational value. The term, 'dignity', is entrenched in moral and political theoretical discourse but is hardly used outside it. Its sense is, I take it, linked to the idea of instrinsic value or intrinsic worth. This at any rate is how I will take it.

It seems clear that a person or humankind could not have intrinsic value or worth except by virtue of some other property or quality (or properties/ qualities) that it has. In this it is like goodness. A person cannot be just 'good'; they can be good only by virtue of being kind, or considerate, or sympathetic, or self-sacrificing, etc.

Generally a person or humankind is said or thought to have intrinsic value or worth by virtue of (1) being a child or children of God whose image they bear or, more likely nowadays, by virtue of (2) having rationality or (3) autonomy.

There are three problems here. The first is that if we do not believe in God, (1) is unavailable to us in the attribution of intrinsic value or worth. The second is that on whatever definition or conceptualisation of (2) rationality and (3) autonomy we settle, it is hard to see how either capacity can have intrinsic value or worth; their value depends on how they are used. The third problem is that even if rationality and autonomy did or do have intrinsic value or worth, it is false that everyone has them or has them in equal degree.

Morally it matters extremely how we regard and treat others. That I don't dispute but I doubt if intrinsic value or worth, aka 'dignity', is a foundational moral criterion. An alternative approach via human rights - the view that all human beings have certain rights simply by virtue of being human - now has wider currency but it is not without difficulties of its own. What is it about 'being human' that confers human rights? If we appeal to 'the sanctity and ultimate value of human personality' as the ground of such rights, the question immediately arises of how and why 'human personality' (supposing that we can give a definite and agreed meaning to that phrase) has the property or quality of 'sanctity and ultimate value'. By a neat manoeuvre some theories of human rights justify such rights in terms of the intrinsic value or worth of persons, which however takes us back to the problematic notion of dignity with which we started.

I don't dismiss the ideas of human dignity, of the intrinsic value or worth of human beings, or of human rights. I do find their bases problematic. Problems can be solved but I am unable to offer any solutions.


I think the proper way to approach this question is to turn it around to the contrapositive. Think for a moment about the worst, most despicable, evilest, and most unworthy person imaginable: a serial killer, a genocidal dictator, an ideological tyrant, or whatever bogieman you happen to favor. What can we do to such a person that we could not do to someone worthy? Set aside imprisoning them, which is a practical matter more than a moral issue, and ask yourself:

  • Can we beat or torture this person, as payback?
  • Can we mutilate or disfigure him, for a pragmatic purpose or out of pure vindictiveness?
  • Can we strip him naked and tie him up for people to gawk at, like a wild animal in a cage?
  • Can we force him into slavery (even sex slavery) to debase and disgrace him?

In other words, is this person completely exempt from the consideration and restraint we show 'humans', so that he is an open target for whatever petty, vindictive, vicious, vengeful thought might occur to us?

Moral philosophy generally argues against this kind of treatment, even for the worst of the worst. On one hand there's a deontological issue that no one would ever accept this as a universal rule: in other words, no individual would agree that s'he should be subjected to this kind of treatment if s'he were judged to be among the worst of the worst, and thus cannot reasonably suggest that other people should be subject to it. On the other hand, there's the semi-consequentialist argument that indulging in these brutal acts against a horrible person reduces us to the moral level of that horrible person, bringing into question our right to render any judgement against him at all.

The point here is that even those people we rightly and justifiably despise are due a certain amount of consideration and circumspection, if only to preserve our own moral consistency, integrity, and security. We do not want to be sociopathic; we do not want our society to be sociopathic in our stead. We want to be better than the sociopaths we condemn for their horrible behavior, we want our society to rise above them, and so we must place limits on our behavior when we deal with them.

This 'placing limits on our behavior' is tantamount to respecting certain basic rights and dignities of these horrible individuals. And if we do it for them, why shouldn't we do it for everyone?

The problem we face in a lot of social settings is that concepts like 'evil' and 'despicable' are inherently subjective. While we can all generally agree that someone who (say) runs around killing people for the sheer fun of it is despicable, and subject to some form of punishment, there are plenty of people in the world who think that others are 'evil' or 'despicable' merely because they have a different skin color, a different ethnicity, a different sexual preference, a different religion, etc. Half of the world's population is treated quite poorly because they happen to have been born with two X chromosomes, not one, and where's the logic in that? And so we have pogroms, genocides, terror campaigns, suppression and oppression: all of the horrors that occur when one group decides that another is despicable and completely unworthy of respect as humans.

This is what the political concept of 'human dignity' is aiming at: that there is a baseline of behavior that we cannot sink below without bringing our own humanity and moral nature into question. Even when dealing with criminals, we want our system of restraint and punishment to be 'humane' so that it has a positive effect on both the criminal and the society. A system that is 'inhumane' (which, incidentally, literally translates as 'not human') degrades the prisoner and the society and ourselves. And how much more true is this for people who are merely different from us?

  • This seems as if what you describe was necessarily so. That's not the case, not historically in western Europe before the ~17th-18th century nor contemporarily in many parts of the world. Thus, I would argue that many arguments against moral paternalism/imperialism apply. Modern approaches seem much more intuitionist and moving away from moral realism towards much more pluralist approaches (see e.g. Graham et al.'s Moral Foundations Theory). Dont get me wrong, I'd love if what you write was justifiable against criticism, it's pretty much my view. It is problematic philosophically, though.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Feb 18, 2020 at 22:37
  • @PhilipKlöcking: yeah, clearly none of this reasoning would have been pertinent before the Liberal Enlightenment (though the moral principles behind it would still have been considered sound). My argument is more that it is the this con pet of human dignity is the njatural trajectory of classical Liberal philosophy. The perfection of the form, if you will... Commented Feb 19, 2020 at 2:58

Dignity, if argued for as a foundational value for morality, is commonly considered to be an intrinsic and essential property. If taken in this sense, the concept falls prey to a plethora of valid criticisms and should be discarded philosophically.

Even more troubling may be that the empirical evidence for moral pluralism is overwhelming (citation see below). But what if there are some other kinds of "foundations"?

One of the many approaches to moral foundations is the Moral Foundations Theory which originated in empirical psychology. This approach identified and empirically validated five different intuitional foundations which are thought to be native to moral thinking (list is explicitly plastic and object of continuous review):

  1. care/harm
  2. fairness/cheating
  3. loyalty/betrayal
  4. authority/subversion
  5. sanctity/degradation

Now, if we take this list, you can see that they are positive as well as negative extremes of five different behavioural/intuitional spectra. Since the theory clearly involves intuitions being prior to rationalisation, this suggests an alternative approach towards the concept of dignity:

If we understand dignity not as an abstract intrinsic property, but as the concept which tries to accommodate the fact that we have moral intuitions towards certain individuals, which happen to be our social peers (humans), there is no problem with "bad" persons having dignity. It's not about them having intrinsic value, it's about us having moral intuitions towards them and their behaviour.

Does that make them having a "value"? In fact, this use would mean that dignity thus understood does not, in itself, have prescriptive power but is merely descriptive. It describes the individual as an object of moral consideration because their behaviour solicits moral intuitions.

In a sense, dignity could then well play a foundational role for morals, since it basically would only describe that moral categories apply. There could not be any analytical derivation of particular rights or moral obligations from such a concept of dignity, though. The theory is deliberately general in order to be applicable to all kinds of moral systems and cultures.

  • Good answer. I like that you present what I would usually view as "naive social constructs" or "eastern philosophical ideals": care, harm, ... in a scientifically believable context. I genuinely believe the argument "originated in empirical psychology", even when someone could present the same list from some "idealist theory" (Taoism or whatever).
    – mavavilj
    Commented Mar 13, 2020 at 15:16

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