A Roman Catholic Perspective
Monsignor Peter R. Beaulieu, M.A., S.T.L.
Improve Human Life by Always Preserving Human Dignity


The term dignity is frequently used in a variety of public policy discussions, though it is often interpreted in a variety of ways.  In the words of the first preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) the document was the “recognition of the inherent dignity and….equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.” While a noble word, it is often invoked by two sides of a contentious debate as support for diametrically opposed conclusions. The ambiguous nature of the word dignity makes its use (and abuse) almost inevitable. Daniel Sulmasy, OFM who is a physician, ethicist, and Franciscan brother presented a paper to the President’s Council on Bioethics on the issue of dignity.

Dignity in General

As a well-known though little understood term, dignity was not part of the moral language of Catholicism nor does that term have much of a basis in the Scriptures. Moreover, as Dr. Sulmasy stated, Western philosophy was not always consumed with the concept of human dignity either. This word came to play a vital role in the philosophical writings of the Roman Stoics, especially Cicero and his treatise De Officiis. Its common use, at that time, had a variety of meanings: social standing, personal reputation or the term could even designate the public office that someone held. Stoicism was a Greco-Roman school of philosophical thought which functioned from a juridical perspective—the law of nature and the law of duty. The phronimos (or wise man) was framed as an individual endowed with sufficient wisdom to live “according to nature.” In the time of Cicero, then, the position a man held in the community was the source of true virtue (or moral excellence) and dignity was the degree of respect warranted by such a way of living. Therefore, Ciceronian dignity was not something inherent or subjective; no, it was accorded to a man based upon true excellence — “to have merited a degree of respect from others because of one’s excellence as a human being.” Immanuel Kant, in his moral philosophy, combined human dignity with his essential principle of universalizability—only a good will is good without qualification and practical reason is best suited toward guiding the will, right action is what the practical reason would will as applicable in every similar situation. Dignity is linked, then, with treating yourself and others only as an end and never as a means: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means.” For Kant, dignity derives from humanity itself, not personal worth or individual merit.

Dignity’s Contemporary Use

An appeal to dignity and invoking  perceived threats to it are often used to promote a position or to undermine a competing proposition in matters affecting individual lives or life in a given society. In regard to cloning and the concept of dignity, the Holy See released a statement in 2004: “The term ‘dignity’, as used in this Position Paper and in the Charter of the United Nations, does not refer to a concept of worth based on the skills and powers of individuals and the value that others may attribute to them - a value one might call ‘attributed dignity’. The notion of attributed dignity allows for hierarchical, unequal, arbitrary, and even discriminatory judgments. Dignity is used here to mean the intrinsic worth that is commonly and equally shared by all human beings, whatever their social, intellectual or physical conditions may be. It is this dignity that obliges all of us to respect every human being, whatever his or her condition, all the more if he or she is in need of protection or care. Dignity is the basis of all human rights. We are bound to respect the rights of others because we first recognize their dignity” (Document of the Holy See on Cloning, n.8). In this statement, dignity is something intrinsic and universally applicable to every person, regardless of any qualifying attributes. It is this inherent quality that creates respect for each person and constitutes the basis of rights in general. While it has its origins in Cicero’s time, the modern tendency to make dignity contingent upon external attributes like merit or intellectual capacity is labeled as attributed dignity. Dr. Sulmasy, in examining the uses of the word dignity, labeled them as attributed dignity, intrinsic dignity, and inflorescent dignity. He believes that intrinsic dignity is the most fundamental: “By intrinsic dignity, I mean that worth or value that people have simply because they are human, not be virtue of any social standing, ability to evoke admiration, or any particular set of talents, skills, or powers. Intrinsic dignity is the value that human beings have simply by virtue of the fact that they are human beings.” This is the sense of the word dignity that must be used in public discourse and in our spiritual lives—dignity is God-given!

St. Peregrine
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