Human Dignity and Justice   /   Fall 2007   /    Essays

Human Dignity and the Basis of Justice

Freedom, Rights, and the Self

Michael Zuckert

“Déclaration des droits de l'homme et du citoyen,” Jean-Jacques-François Le Barbier. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The language of human dignity indelibly entered the world of practical politics in 1945 in the United Nations Charter, a document inspired by revulsion with the many affronts to humanity and human dignity experienced during World War II. Its preamble stated: “we the people of the United Nations determined…to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person.” The link between human dignity and justice, or rather the claim that human dignity is the basis of justice, was explicitly made three years later in the preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”

The references to human dignity in these two documents have been repeated numerous times in international documents since then. The 1976 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights repeats verbatim the Declaration’s assertion of human dignity as the foundation of justice, language that had already appeared in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of 1966. The language was repeated again in 1984 in the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and in 1989 in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, among other places. The UN Charter’s more modest reaffirmation of “faith in fundamental rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person” is also often repeated in later international documents, such as the 1971 Declaration on the Rights of Mentally Retarded Persons; the 1965 Declaration on the Promotion among Youth of the Ideals of Peace, Mutual Respect and Understanding between Peoples; and the 1969 Declaration on Social Progress and Development.

The language of human dignity has appeared increasingly in national constitutional documents as well. The Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany of 1949 contains language somewhat reminiscent of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

(1) Human dignity shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority.

(2) The German people therefore acknowledge inviolable and inalienable human rights as the basis of every community, of peace and of justice in the world. (I.1.1–2)

Most of the newer national constitutions or declarations of rights contain the nearly omnipresent language of human dignity. The Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria of 1999, for example, affirms that “in furtherance of the social order…every citizen shall have equality of rights, obligations and opportunities before the law [and] the sanctity of the human person shall be recognised and human dignity shall be maintained and enhanced” (17.2.a, b). Similar language is found in the 1997 Thai constitution, the South African constitution of 1996, the Swiss Bill of Rights of 1999, and the Finnish constitution of 2000.

The American Constitution was drafted well before the language of human dignity came into fashion, and that language plays little role in constitutive American texts or even in more recent Supreme Court opinions. But one sees a strong presence of this language in America in surprising places, such as President Bush’s National Security Strategy of the United States II. The chief principles of U.S. actions in the world are announced there in terms of human dignity:

The United States must defend liberty and justice because these principles are right and true for all people everywhere. These nonnegotiable demands of human dignity are protected most securely in democracies. The United States government will work to advance human dignity in word and deed.

It is clear that human dignity has become a central concern, at least at the level of statements of general principle. It is also clear that there is some connection affirmed among a cluster of ideas—human dignity, human rights, and justice. However, the relation among these is not seen in a consistent way, nor is there much by way of aid in understanding the relations so affirmed. Thus the UN Charter affirms our faith in human rights, human dignity, and “worth of the human person,” but it is unclear what the connection is among these three matters of “faith.”

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is somewhat more complex, for there the “inherent dignity” and “equal and inalienable rights” are together said to be “the foundation of freedom, justice and peace.” Human rights and human dignity seem to be on an equal plane, and justice seems to be subordinate or derivative from, in the sense of “founded on,” them. Yet in the Convention against Torture of 1984, after quoting the language of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the text asserts that “those rights derive from the inherent dignity of the human person” (emphasis added). If we take these various texts together, we get a hierarchy among the elements of this cluster of concepts: human dignity is most fundamental; from it flow rights, and rights and dignity together ground justice.

It is, of course, risky to treat these manifesto-like documents as though they contain a carefully thought-out and coherent doctrine about dignity, rights, and justice. Indeed, a third conclusion that flows from our perusal of these texts is that, like all manifestos, these various declarations are strong on inspirational language and weak or completely lacking in analysis. That said, however, we ought not to disregard the recurring cluster of concepts—dignity, rights, justice—and the tendency to give human dignity a certain primacy among them. My ultimate goal in this essay is to explain that cluster, to make intelligible what the vague phrase “human dignity” means, and how dignity might be understood to be the basis of rights and justice.

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