Concepts and Definitions

Dignity is discussed constantly, but it’s rarely defined. That’s a problem, because different people may mean very different things by it.

Our work on this is ongoing. Here’s how we’re thinking about dignity for now:

“Dignity is inherent to all people, regardless of who they are or how they act. Because people have dignity, they are entitled to respect.”

    • We are talking here about ‘moralized’ dignity, which is universal, characteristic, inalienable and entitles its holders to ‘recognition respect’. In this sense, ‘human dignity’ refers to the inherent or unearned moral worth or status, which all humans enjoy equally.
    • We are not talking about another common use of the word dignity, which is a ‘merit-based’ dignity that can be earned, forfeited or stripped away, and which is the object of  ‘appraisal respect’.
    • Dignity is not exclusively rooted in reason, and is not rooted in stewardship or shared aristocracy. Each individual does not always have to be treated as an end in themselves.
    • Respectfulness is shown by respecting autonomy, individuality and equality.
    • Respectfulness can only be evaluated subjectively, and is rooted in people’s expectations of what is sufficiently respectful.
  • There remains scholarly dispute about which agents have dignity, but we do not attempt to resolve it here. Anyone who can take part in our research will be assumed to have dignity.

It’s a tricky concept. You might want to read our longer concept paper, which discusses in more detail dignity, respectfulness, how we’re defining them and why it’s so important.

Suggested citation for the concept paper:

If you’d like to learn more about defining dignity and respectfulness, we strongly recommend the Stanford encyclopedia entry on respect, and Remy Debes’ edited collection, ‘Dignity: A History’. We’ve also compiled a bibliography of further reading. Some writing by The Dignity Project and by others on these topics is listed here.

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Dignity: Often discussed, rarely defined

Resources

Concept Paper

Bibliography