Dignity as Intrinsic Human Worth

Yesterday I introduced Three Concepts of Dignity in Constitutional Law, 86 Notre Dame Law Review 183 (2011).  Below I explain the first concept of dignity, the dignity of intrinsic human worth.  This may be the most familiar concept of dignity in American culture because of its association with classical liberal principles of individual liberty. This is an abbreviated discussion of the topic, so for a fuller treatment and for more history and examples, please see the article.

The first concept of dignity is the dignity that attaches to the intrinsic worth of each individual.  This is the most universal and open understanding of dignity—it identifies the worth that arises in each person simply by virtue of being human.  Historically, this conception of dignity has roots in classical Greek and Roman thought that extolled the wonder of man.  Similarly, the Judeo-Christian tradition emphasizes the “godlike” nature of man who is made in the image of God.

Importantly, this dignity is not about status or social standing—instead it belongs equally to each person.  In this way, inherent dignity is neutral between different conceptions of the good life—it recognizes and allows for different human goals and aspirations.  It is primarily a liberal, individualistic conception of dignity that depends on human agency or the ability to choose a good life—but it does not turn on any particular choice between good lives.  As we will see, this makes intrinsic dignity different in important ways from other conceptions, such as substantive dignity, which requires living in a certain way, or recognition dignity which turns on whether one feels respected.

Inherent dignity has a natural connection with negative liberty, the classical liberal idea of the maximum degree of freedom from interference by others and the state.  This freedom encompasses so-called first-generation rights such as rights to life and property, freedom of speech and expression, freedom of religion, freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention, and the like.  The basic idea is that a person’s dignity is best respected or enabled when he can pursue his own ends in his own way.

In particular, the U.S. Supreme Court has linked dignity as intrinsic human worth with negative freedoms.  Some examples can help demonstrate how courts have used this concept of dignity.

In free speech cases, the Supreme Court has frequently extolled the dignity of the speaker.  For example, in Cohen v. California, the Supreme Court upheld the right of an individual to wear a jacket printed with “F— the draft,” on the grounds that even profane, anti-government language must be protected because “no other approach would comport with the premise of individual dignity and choice upon which our political system rests.”  Dignity here did not depend upon an externally defined conception of respectful or civil speech; rather dignity inhered simply in the capacity for self-expression.  The Court passed no judgment on the actual expressions used.  By contrast, constitutional decisions in other countries often uphold speech restrictions, such as on hate speech or defamation, out of concern for the incivility of the speech and to respect the dignity of the listener.

In cases about racial equality, the Court has stressed the importance of individual dignity and being free of government-imposed racial categories. In his concurring opinion in Rice v. Cayetano, Justice Kennedy explained, “One of the principal reasons race is treated as a forbidden classification is that it demeans the dignity and worth of a person to be judged by ancestry instead of by his or her own merit and essential qualities.”  Similarly, the Court has emphasized that the Equal Protection Clause protects “persons not groups” and that the government must treat citizens as individuals, not simply as members of racial or ethnic groups.  We will see that this conflicts with the dignity of recognition, which can be used to argue in favor of affirmative action because such programs recognize the persistent effects of social and economic discrimination.

The plurality opinion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey explicitly connected dignity, autonomy, and choice as “central to the liberty protected by the Fourteenth Amendment.”  The plurality highlighted the inherent dignity of a woman’s freedom to choose an abortion, but it minimized the competing inherent dignity of the fetus to life.  In several abortion decisions, the German Federal Constitutional Court has focused on the inherent dignity of the life of the fetus and held that dignity attaches to each human being before and after birth.  Weighing these dignities has proved difficult for courts, which have often avoided the conflict by emphasizing the centrality of one of these dignities at the expense of the other.

These examples show how dignity can be treated as a component of intrinsic worth of each individual and as a demand for freedom from state interference.  Yet, in each of these cases there are competing claims to dignity and dignity cannot answer the difficult constitutional questions raised by these cases.

There have been a number of criticisms of the association between negative liberty and dignity.   Those who favor a more communitarian understanding of dignity suggest that it is more than negative liberty or “American” liberal individualism.  Others who favor individualism, autonomy, and a minimum of state interference consider it important to separate these ideals from modern, largely communitarian, forms of dignity.  Indeed, dignity is more commonly associated with communitarian values.

In the existing confusion, it may be desirable to take dignity talk out of constitutional decisionmaking.  But if, as I suspect, dignity cannot be extricated, then we need more clarity about what dignity means.  In the process of clarifying, there is no reason to exclude regard for the individual from conceptions of dignity.  To the contrary, it may be important for individual rights to preserve and reinforce this link.

If dignity stands for what is worthy in human beings, American constitutional law has a long history of treating individual choice and autonomy as an integral and preeminent component of human worth.  The push to separate dignity from autonomy and negative rights demonstrates how the dispute over the meaning of dignity is part of a broader debate about what rights we value and consider important in political and social life.