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The roots of the philosophical dignity-concept can be traced back to the Latin word dignitas. In the ancient Rome the expression meant prominent persons and executives. Such people had dignitas, their supremacy was accepted by others. Dignitas was connected with expressions such as auctoritas (authority), maiestas (majesty) and humanitas, what suggests that it was a moral and aesthetic expression as well: such a person was a moral man, his dignity was perceived in his appearance and behaviour [1]. This meaning was widened by Cicero who belonged to the stoical school. Cicero writes that man rises above the other beings by the excellence of his soul, this is what makes him similar to God. Such theories can be read from the ancient Greek philosophers, however, Cicero underlines that each of us resembles God due to his nature thus each person has the same dignity and deserves the same respect [2]. The dignity of the prominent persons becomes universal human dignity. Later, if philosophers wrote about human dignity, they thought of this meaning. Some authors, e.g. Petrarca, widened the meaning of dignity by indicating the values of nature [11]. The expression ‘the dignity of nature’ is still used today, which is not a problem, however, it needs to be pointed out that the human dignity and the dignity of nature mark a different quality since one has different kinds of duty regarding nature and human beings, e.g. the duty of respecting life is interpreted differently.

The original meaning of the word ‘dignity’ is still used today to mark prominent persons. However, it still has another meaning derived from its original meaning: it means morality. People possess this kind of dignity to a different degree. Nevertheless, it is not about universal human dignity because its essence is that everybody has a minimum respect independently of whether they are good or bad or how moral they are purely because they are human beings and they have human dignity, a fundamental, inherent value.

Whether this value exists, might be a question of discussion. Great philosophers have thought that it does not exist or even that the question is wrong. (Naturally, the Greek philosophers did not talk about universal human dignity but their theories established this principle. Some of the authors who did not accept the concept of human dignity: Hobbes, La Mettrie, Nietzsche, Singer; some of them who thought that even the question is wrong: Wittgenstein, Derrida, Foucault.) However, there are numerous philosophers who try to establish the doctrine of universal dignity. One of them is the already mentioned Cicero. Christians see the basis of one’s dignity in the concept that God created man to resemble Him; numerous Christian theologists dealt with this, e.g. St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas. Human dignity is still one of the central ideas of today’s theology (e.g. see John Paul II.’s encyclicals). In the age of the Renaissance, in the era of man’s “rediscovery” one can perceive two important processes according to Ágnes Heller: the humanization of the myth and the deification of man: God becomes man, man becomes God [6, p. 63]. This process is well depicted by the religious scenes in fine arts, e.g. Maria is not represented as the queen of Heaven but as a mother caring for her child or as the ideal woman, on the other hand human characteristics are underlined by the artists in the way they depict Jesus (e.g. work of arts by Mantegna). The other process, the deification of man is based on the realization of man’s capability for creation and self-creation. In De dignitate hominis by Pico della Mirandola human dignity is interpreted as the possibility of self-creation [12].

Philosophers of the Modern Age dealing with the concept of natural right and that of social contract contributed to the interpretation of dignity. The most relevant dignity-interpretation is linked with Immanuel Kant. In his work Grundlegung zur Methaphysik der Sitten he writes: The basis of man’s and all intelligent nature’s dignity is the autonomy [7]. Therefore, morality is the relation of deeds to the autonomy of will; that is to the general legislation through the maxims of will. One is allowed to do something that is consistent with the autonomy of will, and is not allowed to do something that is inconsistent with it. Thus – according to Kant – human dignity is based on man’s capability to be morally legislative, however, man is also subject to the same legislation [7, p. 74]. The “material” concept of the categorical imperative is one of the most beautiful expressions of the principle of human dignity: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means” [7, p. 62]

According to Marx the essence of man lays in work, in his consciousness and in his Gattungswesen, which means that man is a social being. Man’s universality is present in the previous factors [10]. Due to the private ownership the product of work is separated from the work itself and is made a strange thing, another person’s property, the object and the result of his work are estranged. The discrepancy of the social and individual development comes into existence by the estrangement: the historical development of humankind is separated from the development of the individuals, thus estrangement is the withdrawal of the human essence from the human being. The communism is the acquisition of the human essence by and for man. Thus in the estranged societies one does not live according to his essence and dignity. Marx does not talk about dignity only in this sense because he alludes that the living subject, the living workforce does not possess any exchange value but it has dignity because it is the source of value.

The atheist existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre made the connection between dignity and self-creation [14]. Martin Heidegger believes that man’s essence lies in the idea that man is more than a pure man provided man is considered to be an intelligent being. Man is not the lord of beings but it is the shepherd of Being [5]. Besides this, one can find numerous theories trying to depict human essence and dignity in the 20th century, e.g. the German philosophical anthropologists (especially Max Scheler’s concept [15]), and contemporary philosophers also deal with this question regarding philosophical-ethical or legal aspects.

These concepts are different from each other in many respects but most of the theorists agree that there is a factor (X factor after Fukuyama) that each of us possesses to the same degree purely by being humans; this provides man’s essence and dignity [4]. The base of the X factor may be that man resembles God (Christian concepts), the possibility of self-creation (Pico della Mirandola, Sartre), the human Mind (Scheler), the nature of man (Cicero, Fukuyama), the moral autonomy (Kant). Because of this factor everybody deserves a minimum degree of respect (from the previously mentioned authors Cicero, Kant, Scheler and Fukuyama provide an ethic theory as well).

Most of the cited authors underline that human dignity is a fundamental value. According to Kant that only the person possesses absolute value, everything else has either only conditional or relative value. The intelligent being as moral legislative does not have any other value than the one that the moral imperative decides for them that is why the legislation has to have absolute value [7]. In Scheler’s opinion the person is the final carrier of values, and denying the Kantian formalism he tries to describe a material value ethics [16]. Heidegger takes a different point of view: he thinks in opposition to values. His way of thinking does not say that everything one considers as “value”, such as the “human dignity” (or “culture”, “arts”, “world”, “God”) is without any value but it states that if one considers a thing as valuable then one deprives it from its dignity, since each evaluation is subjective. If one declares God as the “most valuable”, it means the degradation of God’s essence, states Heidegger, however, the same can be said if one considers human life or dignity as the most valuable [5]. A similar opinion is taken by Enrique Dussel according to whom human life and dignity are not values but the basis of values [3].

It is a problem that not everyone possesses the previously described superior human abilities. In such a case how can one argue for their dignity? In the case of a foetus we may say that it potentially carries the X factor, or rather that it comes from two human beings possessing the X factor. The last statement is true of a severely disabled person, too, who does not possess any of the abilities said to be superior. However, the previous cases also point out the limits of the former statement. It is a debated question what is the point from which one may talk about the beginning of human life and dignity (conception; between conception and birth; birth), so the moral status of the foetus is controversial. This question becomes more acute in connection with the abortion problem: since the opinions differ from one another due to philosophical-religious-ideological reasons, the state has to stand for the point of view of neutrality: it has to make the abortion possible, the undertaking or refusal of which is a matter of conscience and morality (in the background of which is how one thinks about the beginning of human life). It does not mean that the state cannot initiate some limitations (or rather it has to do everything concerning prevention or if the child has been conceived, it has to support childbirth) since it has to take the foetus’s interest into consideration, if I deny its being human because it comes from persons possessing human dignity and it is a potential human being that develops in such a person. In case of the some days old infants or the severely disabled the question does not even arise that they are not beings possessing human dignity: I recognize them as persons thus I acknowledge their fundamental value, their dignity. Thus from this respect dignity does not manifest itself in the special characteristics but in a relationship or rather a gesture: one’s relation to the others is marked by the fact that one considers them as humans to the degree one considers themselves humans, too, even if the others do not possess any superior abilities (see the concepts of dignity as care: [8, 18]). In this sympathy-based morality mutuality manifests itself in the fact that we take responsibility for our common humanity and is based on our need for the others at each stage of being. This kind of mutuality requires “common humanity” but it does not prescribe the proper behaviour: it aims at understanding the situations and shows sensibility to finding the proper behaviour.

Nowadays a lot of philosophers argue that the traditional Western concept of nature is problematic because according to this concept natural entities have only instrumental values. One may find numerous environmental-philosophic and environmental-ethic trends that share the idea of describing the basis of a new view of nature. However, it often results in denying the principle of human dignity: man is also only one of the living beings. The Animal Liberation concept expands the theory of human-subject. Peter Singer denies the doctrine of human dignity, he accuses people of race chauvinism, and following the logic of utilitarism, which sees the ability to sense happiness and pain the basis of moral respect, he states that superior animals that also possess such abilities have to be treated the same way as humans [17]. In his Land Ethic Aldo Leopold, the father of the holistic view, underlines that ethic has to include the relation of man towards land and the plants and animals living there. He writes about the pyramid of life in which man is one of the elements that provides for the height and complexity of the pyramid. He describes life community as a fountain of energy that wells up through the chains of the soil, plants and animals; the food chains carry energy upwards, death and decay return it to the soil. The fundamental principle of land ethic is the following: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” [9] The clear description of the status of man is missing even from those theories that connect the individualistic and holistic views, although Holmes Rolston III points out that there are no rights, that is why environmental ethics has different characteristics from humans: culture is good for humans but it is often bad for animals; too much human caring for them would change their wildness into an artificial product. However, one may recognize that each organism represents a value itself: the organism is a spontaneous system that maintains and reproduces itself, carries out its programme thus it is more than the sum of the pure physical reasons. There exists the information coordinating and directing the reasons which gives the organism a telos, a final, unintentional goal. Nevertheless, Rolston hints to the fact that not only the living being but the race is valuable as well and deserves protection: the genes where the telos is encoded belongs as much to the race as to the individual that it goes through. The ecosystem has a system-value [13].

 In my opinion one has to take into account the following when describing the relation between man and nature. One recognizes inner values in each living being (“system-values” in the biotic community), special inner values in man that we call human dignity. Man is part of nature but he also possesses distinctive characteristics. Nature to man means Life-community. Life deserves respect in all its forms. It does not mean that man may not utilize the natural entities to maintain his life but he needs to do this by respecting Life’s wonderful and mysterious order, and by respecting the dignity of the ecosystem and each natural entity. Exploiting the inert natural resources is also limited by providing the maintenance of Life and the preservation of the beauty of the natural formations and landscapes.

If one talks about dignity, it is about unity and diversity: about the (biologically also supported) unity and diversity of man (the human race) and nature, about the (biologically also supported) unity of people and the diversity of individuals (and cultures). On these grounds, one may clarify the fundamental duties to one another, on the other hand one may try to describe what kinds of ethical duties can be present for man (the human race) towards nature and the other living beings. One needs to give priority to points of views that are able to interpret human unity and diversity together, and besides describing the “concept of essence” they also draw ethical conclusions (this requirement was best met by Cicero’s viewpoint, the Christian dignity theory, and the concept of Kant, Scheler and Fukuyama from the above cited authors).

Reference list:

  1. Adamik Tamás: Az emberi méltóság fogalma Cicerónál. PoLíSz, 2004. december- 2005. január. 2004/2005 — 14. p.
  2. Cicero: A kötelességekről. In: Cicero válogatott művei, Európa, Bp., 1987 — 325-326. pp.
  3. Dussel, Enrique, Dignity: Its Denial and Recognition in a Specific Context of Liberation. In: The Discourse of Human Dignity, Concilium, 2003/2, SCM Press London. 2003 — 93-104. pp.
  4. Fukuyama, Francis: Poszthumán jövendőnk. Európa, Bp., 2003 — 201-240. pp.
  5. Heidegger, Martin: Levél a „humanizmusról”. In: „…költőien lakozik az ember”, válogatott írások, T-Twins Kiadó/Pompeji, Bp.-Szeged, 1994 — 117-170 pp.
  6. Heller Ágnes: A reneszánsz ember. Akadémiai Kiadó, Bp., 1971— 63. p.
  7. Kant, Immanuel: Az erkölcsök metafizikájának alapvetése. In: Az erkölcsök metafizikájának alapvetése, A gyakorlati ész kritikája, Az erkölcsök metafizikája, Gondolat, Bp., 1991 —13-101. pp.
  8. Kittay, Eva: Disability, Equal, Dignity and Care. In.: The Discourse of Human Dignity, Concilium, 2003/2, SCM Press London, 2003 —105-115. pp.
  9. Leopold, Aldo: Föld-etika. In: Természet és szabadság, ed.: Lányi András, Osiris, Bp, 2000 — 115. p.
  10. Marx, Karl: Gazdasági-filozófiai kéziratok 1844-ből. Kossuth, Bp., 1962— 68-69 pp.
  11. Petrarca, Francesco: Kétségeim titkos küzdelme, Secretum. LAZI Bt., Bp., 1999— 42. p.
  12. Pico della Mirandola, Giovanni: Az ember méltóságáról. In: Reneszánsz etikai antológia, Gondolat, Bp.1984 — 212-215. pp.
  13. Rolston III, Holmes: A környezeti etika időszerű kérdései. In: Környezet és etika, Szöveggyűjtemény, ed.: Lányi András és Jávor Benedek, L’Harmattan Kiadó, Bp., 2005 — 85-11. pp.
  14. Sartre, Jean Paul (1965): Az egzisztencializmus: humanizmus. In.: Az egzisztencializmus, Gondolat, Bp., 1965 — 219. p.
  15. Scheler, Max: Az ember helye a kozmoszban – tanulmányok. Osiris, Bp., 1995 — 89-98. pp.
  16. Scheler, Max: A formalizmus az etikában és a materiális értéketika. Gondolat, Bp., 1979 — 562-565 pp.
  17. Singer, Peter: Animal Liberation. Random House, New York, 1990 —213-250 pp.
  18. Valadier, Paul: The Person who Lacks Dignity. In.: The Discourse of Human Dignity, Concilium, 2003/2, SCM Press London. 2003— 49-56. pp.
    My paper points out a few basic problems of the philosophy of human dignity. First a short introduction is given on various meanings of dignity and on the notion of human dignity; then an outline is drawn on the major traditional interpretations of human dignity. This is followed by my attempt to answer the question why it is important today to create a philosophy founded on human dignity.
    Written by: Barcsi Tamás
    Date Published: 12/29/2016
    Edition: euroasia-science.ru_26-27.02.2016_2(23)
    Available in: Ebook