Dignity is discussed constantly. Almost all cultures and religious traditions have had ideas of dignity, and it is central to ethical debates in medicine and law. Development actors often say that dignity is important to them.


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Despite that, dignity is rarely defined. Different people may mean very different things by it. That’s why Mika LaVaque-Manty calls it ‘multivocal’. There are big differences between dignity among Kenyans, Syrians, Rohingya, and other groups – and all of these definitions can exist simultaneously.

Our work on this is ongoing, and we don’t have a single definition of dignity. However, there are some common themes that appear in quite a few definitions that we tend to agree with.


‘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 ‘moralised’ 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 that 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 it 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.

It’s a tricky concept. You might want to read our literature review, which discusses in more detail the ways in which dignity and respectfulness have been defined around the world.

If you’d like to learn more about defining dignity and respectfulness, we recommend the Stanford Encyclopaedia entry on respect, Remy Debes’ edited collection, ‘Dignity: A History’, and the various papers in ODI’s series on dignity around the world.


Concept Paper