Human Dignity: What Does it Mean? 

How valuable is human dignity in the context of our lived experience? Dr. John Duddington explores what the Bible, Catholic Tradition and current legislation can teach us and defends the right to protect human dignity today.

girl holding paper sign

What exactly is meant by human dignity? How valuable is it in the context of actual lived Christian experience? It is my contention that human dignity is a precious idea which can, despite arguments to the contrary, have value in its application to our lives. Furthermore, it links with the concept of human rights, which is examined in the companion piece to this one.

The foundational Scriptural text is, of course, Genesis 1:26-27: God said, ‘Let us make man in our own image, in the likeness of ourselves, and let them be masters of the fish of the sea, the birds of heaven, the cattle, all the wild beasts and all the reptiles that crawl upon the earth. God created man in the image of himself, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them’.[1]

While in the New Testament, the idea of dignity is expressed in terms of equality and freedom before God and each other in Galatians 3:28: ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female – for you are all one in Christ.’

The essence of a claim to human dignity is that we all have something Godlike about us. However, where does that tremendous claim lead us? One argument is that dignity is then something functional in that it gives us dominion over the earth and all its living creatures. I would not be comfortable with this view with its connotation of power, and prefer the view of Paul in his Letter to the Romans 8:29, that we are to be ‘conformed to the image of His Son’.

The danger in basing dignity on some functional test is that if dignity is defined by what we can do, then what of those who, by reason of age, disability or illness, can, in fact, do very little? We have all seen heartbreaking cases where babies have been born with very severe disabilities and are kept alive by artificial means, and the issue has been whether these means should be withdrawn and they should be allowed to die. Yet if we say that, because of their apparent helplessness, they lack any human dignity, then we start to travel a very dangerous road indeed. Jesus turns this idea of a person’s perceived value and contribution upside down when he emphasises the importance of children, the need for healing and care of the vulnerable, and in his frequent meetings with those on the edges of society and religious practice.

In this context, the distinction is drawn by Christopher McCrudden [2] between’ human dignity as ‘intrinsic’ and human dignity as ‘attributed’ is a useful tool, with ‘attributed’ dignity being used to refer to dignity as attributed to (some) persons or institutions. His own strong view is that human dignity is intrinsic and comes from the inherent worth of each person, and he quotes Daniel Sulmasy as arguing that human dignity expresses: ‘that worth or value that people have simply because they are human’. [3] An interesting legal instance is from the Czech Constitutional Court identifying … ‘the fundamental basis from which arises the interpretation of all fundamental rights, human dignity, which, among other things, forbids treating a person as an object. In this conception, questions of human dignity are understood as a component of the quality of a human being, a component of his humanity.[4] Nor must we forget the opening words of The Vatican II Document Dignitatis Humanae:  ‘A sense of the dignity of the human person has been impressing itself more and more deeply on the consciousness of contemporary man’.

This last point is interesting because since World War II, the concept of dignity, like that of human rights, has come to the fore. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) begins with: ‘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’. Although the moving spirit in drafting the UDHR came mainly from Protestants together with Catholics such as Jacques Maritain, it is worth recalling that they received inspiration from the Christmas wartime radio broadcasts of Pope Pius XII [5] and when the United Nations General Assembly gathered in Paris in 1948 the future Pope John XXIII, then Nuncio in Paris, was active in its promotion. [6]

This emphasis on dignity as a fundamental concept can be seen in post-war constitutions, most notably that of West Germany, where Article 1(1) of the list of basic rights states that: ‘Human Dignity shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority. 

Yet we must pause here and ask: although these are all fine words, what do they mean in practice? A superficial answer would be that, as any glance at the news will show because governments often pay scant regard to broad concepts such as dignity, rights and freedom – the idea of dignity is of little or no practical value. I think this view is mistaken because:

a) It ignores the power of language to influence debate and, where needed, to set its terms. Think of the use by the Nazis of the awful phrase Lebensunwertes Leben – “life unworthy of life”. Can we say that it had no effect? Tragically, the answer is no.  

b) Dignity is an integral part of justice in society and, one might say, underpins a system of justice.

c) Finally, dignity is linked to the concept of human rights. As Christpoher McCrudden puts it: ‘human dignity expresses a value unique to itself, on which human rights are built’ [7]and it is to human rights that we now turn.

Dr John Duddington is Editor of Law and Justice: The Christian Law Review, a Fellow of the Centre for Law and Religion, University of Cardiff and a leading member of the Newman Association.

He is the author of ‘Christians and the State: a Catholic Perspective for the 21st Century’ (Gracewing, 2016) and The Church and Employment Law (Routledge, 2022). 

[1]All quotations are from the Jerusalem Bible. There has been some theological discussion on whether there is a distinction, as suggested by Irenaeus, between the image and likeness of God, given that Genesis 1.26 refers to the image and likeness of God, although 1.27 refers only to the image of God. The prevalent view is that there is none.

[2] In the 2022  Richard O’Sullivan Memorial Lecture and printed in 189 Law and Justice at p. 110.

[3] Daniel P. Sulmasy, O.F.M., ‘Dignity and Bioethics: History, Theory, and Selected Applications,’ in The President’s Council on Bioethics, Human Dignity and Bioethics: Essays Commissioned by the President’s Council on Bioethics (2008), available at: Cited in the lecture – see fn 2.

[4]  Czech Constitutional Court, Decision 2009/08/18 – I. ÚS 557/09 (Limitation of Legal Capacity), available at:, at paragraph 19. Cited in the lecture – see fn. 2.

[5] John Nurser, For All Peoples and All Nations  (Geneva: WCC Publications, 2005)., p. 165.

[6] Nurser, For All Peoples and All Nations, p. 171 fn. 27.

[7] See fn. 2