The paradoxical notion of human dignity


by Roberto Andorno


The notion of human dignity is regarded by many of our contemporaries as the last barrier to irreversible biotechnological interventions on our own nature. In this sense, the two most important international instruments on bioethics, of UNESCO and the Council of Europe, take this notion as a key-concept in order to set some limits to the increasing powers of biotechnologies over humankind. This is not at all surprising: human dignity is one of the very few common values in our world of philosophical pluralism[1]. This principle is universally accepted as the ground of human rights and democracy, and its reasonableness is not discussed at the political and juridical level. Most people assume, as an empirical fact, that human beings have an intrinsic dignity. This common intuition may be called the «Standard Attitude»[2].

However, in recent years, an important debate concerning the rational justification of this notion has taken place. The deconstruction of the perceived assumptions of philosophical tradition also attempts to challenge the idea of human dignity. The new situation raises, of course, extremely difficult problems. Let us not forget that the whole juridical system is based on the supposition that human dignity really exists. At present, a striking contrast between the unquestionable function of this concept as a normative principle in law and its controversial reception in bioethics can be observed. At the same time, its inflationary use has been denounced as purely rhetorical, as if it were an easy instrument with which to criticize some biomedical practices, like genetic germ-line interventions or cloning, when other rational arguments fail[3]. The ambiguity of this notion could even permit its use in supporting opposing positions, as happened in the debate concerning euthanasia and assisted suicide.

What, after all, is human dignity? The English word dignity is rooted in the Latin dignitas, «the state of being worthy of honor or respect»[4]. This notion is usually associated with supreme importance, fundamental value and inviolability of the human person. The concept of human dignity carries a long history of being at the forefront of ethical and juridical reflection, since the Stoics, the Christianity, the philosophers of the Enlightenment until the political Constitutions of great number of countries and the main international instruments on human rights. The notion of dignity is also used as a current argument in the bioethical discussion, particularly in issues of genetic research and the so-called «human engineering». This phenomenon is understandable. On the one hand, nobody can deny the amazing contributions of the most recent biomedical progress to the well-being of humanity, permitting the prevention and treatment of many diseases and sufferings. But on the other hand, the new knowledges raise enormous questions, which are directly related to the idea of an intrinsic worthiness of human beings: Can we —should we— do all that is technically possible in artificial reproduction and in the intervention on our genome? Do we have the right to duplicate individuals (cloning) or to modify our genome, in order to add new qualities? Is the purpose of «enhancing» the human species in accordance with human dignity or contrary to it? Does the present generation have the right to direct our own evolution as a species? Do future generations also have an intrinsic dignity or is it only a prerogative of actually existing individuals?

The aim of this paper is not trying to answer those hard questions, but just to point out some of the difficulties raised by the concept of human dignity in the context of genetic advances, and particularly its greatest paradox: that, from a practical point of view, we need that concept to ensure a civilized social life even if from a theoretical perspective, it seems extremely difficult, if not impossible, to justify it without having recourse to any metaphysical reference. Finally, this paper suggests the necessity of exploring a possible way out of this dilemma in a more concrete approach to human reality.


1. A Practical Agreement Concerning Human Dignity

One of the main achievements of modern societies is the universal recognition of human dignity: all human beings possess a unique and unconditional value; they are entitled to basic rights just by being part of Humanity. No other qualifications of age, sex, ethnic or religious origins are needed. Today, at the juridical and political level, the «inherent dignity» of human beings is unanimously recognized[5]. According to Dworkin, anyone who professes to take rights seriously must accept «the vague but powerful idea of human dignity»[6].

Even if our era is characterized by the decline of universal foundations and criteria, paradoxically, no other time has presented such an existential sense of universality. «The human Phenomenon appears for the first time as a Phenomenon which exists and covers with its universality the diversity of conditions and particular situations»[7]. Beyond all socio-cultural and philosophical differences between peoples, there seems to be the need and the expectation of human dignity among all civilizations. The requirement has always been that «something is due to the human being by the only fact that he or she is human»[8].

Within this context, it is not surprising that the «Universal Declaration of the Human Genome and Human Rights» approved by UNESCO in 1997, gives a very central role to the principle of human dignity. The notion is employed fifteen times in the whole document. The Preamble alone invokes this principle four times. One of these references stresses the fact that «genetic diversity of humanity must not give rise to any interpretation of a social or political nature which could call into question the inherent dignity (...) of all members of the human family».

Articles 1 and 2 adopt the principle of human dignity as a starting point for their statements, the first, with regard to humanity, and the second, with regard to individuals. According to article 1 «the human genome underlies the fundamental unity of all members of the human family, as well as the recognition of their inherent dignity and diversity». Article 2, reminds us that the principle of equality does not admit any exception due to genetic illness or predisposition to genetic illness that might be discovered among individuals with the new technologies. More precise, article 6 forbids any discrimination based on genetic characteristics, because such an attitude would infringe on «human rights, fundamental freedoms and human dignity».

Article 10 recalls a classical principle of medical ethics, which is already stated, with a similar formulation, in the Helsinki Declaration of 1964[9]: «No research or its applications concerning the human genome (...) should prevail over respect for the human rights, fundamental freedoms and human dignity of individuals or, where applicable, of groups of people». Article 12 states that «benefits from advances in biology, genetics and medicine, concerning the human genome, shall be made available to all, with due regard to the dignity and human rights of each individual». Reproductive cloning and germ-line interventions are both considered as practices «contrary to human dignity», among others that should be identified by States, competent international organizations, and by the UNESCO International Bioethics Committee (articles 11 and 24).

The European «Convention on human rights and biomedicine» also reaffirms the need to respect every human being both as an individual and as a member of humankind over biomedical developments. It reminds us that the misuse of biology and medicine may lead to acts, which could endanger human dignity. Its first article reads: «Parties to this Convention shall protect the dignity and identity of all human beings and guarantee everyone, without discrimination, respect for their integrity and other rights and fundamental freedoms with regard to the application of biology and medicine».

The reference to the notion of human dignity in international instruments is certainly not new. The «Universal Declaration of Human Rights», adopted by the United Nations in 1948, already proclaimed the «inherent dignity (...) of all members of the human family» (Preamble) in order to form a basis for the list of rights recognized. According to its first article, «all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights». In fact, all the main international declarations on human rights invoke human dignity as a basic concept[10].

At the national level, the German Constitution is the most impressive example of the need to root the whole social and political order on the principle of human dignity. It is important to point out that it has been approved only few years after the end of the Second World War, in order to avoid a return to inhuman ideologies and practices. Its first article reads: «Human dignity is inviolable. To respect and protect it is the duty of all state authority»[11]. Many other national Constitutions also affirm this principle as the basis of legal systems[12].

The question of how human dignity should be justified in theoretical terms is left largely open in modern documents on human rights. They prefer a pragmatic approach, in order to facilitate an agreement on this matter. This option is perfectly comprehensible. Moreover, it may be noted that it is indeed when we have to face real situations of cruelty that we better understand, by contrast, what «dignity» means. Because it is enough to bear witness to extreme human suffering (starvation, arbitrary arrests or executions, cruel punishments, etc.) to understand that dignity, even if difficult to define with precision, is a very real feature of human beings and not just a metaphysical hypothesis. In other words and paradoxically, it is easier to understand what is contrary to human dignity than what is in accordance with it. Evil is easier to conceive than good. That is why one of the best ways to explore what human dignity really means, is to start from the experience of indignities suffered by human beings in concrete situations. Perhaps this pragmatic approach does not afford in an academic definition, but it provides us with a vivid experience of what it means to have a dignity, which is disregarded in dehumanizing treatment[13]. It is for this reason that just after the atrocities of the Second World War, a practical agreement on human rights was possible and resulted in the formulation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, even between persons with completely different philosophical backgrounds. This allows us also to understand why legislators, who are familiar with practical situations and are fully aware that extreme injustice may really happen, do not hesitate to affirm with the strongest emphasis the principle of human dignity. Of course, they do not give any explicit definition of dignity because they don’t need to do so. They prefer to leave its intrinsic meaning to intuitive understanding, conditioned to a large extent by cultural factors. This attitude is reasonable because, as it is stated in the ancient Roman dictum, «omnis definitio in jure periculosa est». Legislators assume that denigration of human persons can be recognized in concrete situations even if the abstract term of «dignity» cannot be defined with precision, or cannot be defined at all because it expresses a basic quality of human beings. Thus, usually the best we can do with this difficult notion is to try to approach it with the help of comparisons, analogies and examples, in an intuitive manner[14].

However, it is understandable that this vagueness may lead to a certain dissatisfaction. Is it not embarrassing to realize that we are unable to indicate with precision what constitutes the most basic principle of social life, law and ethics? Precisely in order to solve the problem of the vagueness of this notion and to avoid its inflationary use, it is tempting to explain the idea of human dignity as a group of inalienable and unforfeitable rights[15] or as the «right not to be humiliated»[16].

This kind of explanation has the merit of giving a more concrete formulation to the notion of dignity, which otherwise seems to escape from the operational terminology of law. It also illustrates that some rights are more directly related to dignity, and that is why they cannot ever be renounced or lost. The idea of a «right not to be humiliated» has the virtue of showing the close link between dignity and the acts of treating somebody like a mere object. On this basis, we may affirm that acting against the dignity of a person is equivalent to degrading him or her.

Nevertheless, it seems that dignity is not a right stricto sensu, but rather the basis of all human rights. «Human dignity is a notion which precedes human rights (...) Human dignity as a concept belongs to a pre-political or pre-juridical realm»[17]. Certainly, some violations of human rights attack human dignity more directly than others: those that are grievously humiliating for persons, for example, torture, slavery and degrading punishments[18]. But in all cases, the common root of human rights is human dignity, which is something more than a «super-right».

This point of view is significant and has two important practical consequences: the first is the idea that basic rights are not given by authority and therefore may not be taken away; the second is the idea of equal rights: if human rights are derived from human dignity, and the latter is the same for all, all human beings are entitled to the same basic rights. Moreover, if human dignity were just synonymous with «basic rights», the use of the two expressions in the international documents (for example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) would be a mere rhetorical redundancy[19].

Thus, one can say that the same difference exists between these two concepts as between the foundation of an idea and its expression. Human dignity is the center core of human rights; human rights are justified by reference to human dignity; human beings have rights because they are worthy of respect. If we want to express human dignity using the terminology of rights, the most we can say is that human dignity is the «right to have rights», or in other words, the «right to be recognized as a person»[20].

In short, it is not by chance that international instruments and national laws, especially in recent years, insist so much on invoking human dignity. At the back of it all is the conviction that this principle is a necessary condition in order to establish a civilized society. To put it negatively: the law assumes that the refusal to recognize equal dignity to all human beings leads inevitably to barbarity[21]. And it is not just an academic hypothesis, because in each period of history, humanity is exposed to the temptation to subjugate individuals, in particular the weakest and the ill, to an absolute power, violating their intrinsic dignity. The ancient slave, the medieval serf, the industrial worker of the nineteenth century, and the citizen of the totalitarian States of the twentieth century are among the most impressive examples of the failure to recognize that all human beings deserve an equal respect. In our time, the use of human embryos for research purposes; the perspective of an irreversible modification of the human genome; the possibility of cloning and other eugenic uses of human engineering risk becoming new forms of alienation of humans derived from biomedical technologies.



2. The theoretical difficulties of human dignity

         The references to human dignity in legal and ethical instruments concern an intrinsic and universal perspective: all individuals, by the mere fact of being «members of the human family»[22], are entitled to such a dignity. It means that dignity is equal for all humans. Because it depends on the being of the person, and not on his behavior, it cannot be gained or lost; it does not allow for any degrees. It is the «idea of humanity», which is present in each human being, that requires unconditional respect from the State and other individuals. As Dworkin has well observed, the principle of dignity refers «to the intrinsic importance of human life»[23] and requires that «people never be treated in a way that denies the distinct importance of their own lives»[24].

This unconditional nature of the idea of human dignity is a basic presupposition of the law, which considers it as a self-evident principle, that is, as something that does not need to be demonstrated, but just affirmed. This peculiarity of the concept of dignity is both its strength and its weakness, and raises many paradoxes. The most significant one has already been indicated: we need to respect each human being unconditionally, that is, like an absolute, without knowing exactly why there is such a dignity or how we can rationally justify this unconditional respect. The radical skepticism about the human capacities to recognize any objective truth or value, which is dominant in our time, is a tremendous obstacle to any tentative to find a rational foundation to human dignity and, in fact, to any social value. And yet, we need values in order to give some sense to our social life. Moreover, because of the immense capacities that biotechnologies give us, and the consequences of these powers on future generations, today more than ever, we need to affirm the principle of human dignity. In fact, if we abandoned it, we would replace it immediately with another similar principle in order to maintain civilized social relationships.[25] The paradox is vexing: modern societies see the urgency to affirm a principle in an unconditional way, just at a moment when they believe less in unconditional principles.

Of course, in the history of philosophy there have been many a tentative of rational foundations of human dignity. One of them is that of Kant. The Kantian notion of dignity, as a requirement of non-instrumentalization of human persons, is one of the most powerful. He introduces this concept in connection with the second formula of his well-known categorical imperative according to which each person is to be treated as an end in himself and never as a means only[26]. Dignity is, in this sense, contrasted with «price», the kind of value for which there can be an equivalent, whereas «dignity» makes an object irreplaceable[27].

Nevertheless, when Kant tries to justify human dignity, he claims that it attaches directly to morality as based in moral legislation. From this perspective, moral autonomy is the basis of the «dignity of human nature and of every rational nature»[28]. However, this explanation does not give a satisfactory answer to the problem of the foundation of human dignity, because it remains on a purely formal level. According to Kant, each person is worthy of respect because he or she is as a self-legislator giving the moral law unto him- or herself. But it is far from clear why self-legislation entails dignity in any ordinary sense of the word. Why should only the making of universal rules entail dignity, but not other human acts (for example, generosity, capacity to love, etc.)? Otherwise, if the Kantian reverence for dignity only expresses reverence for autonomy, how can the principle of dignity bring additional reasons for assisting the weak into the field of bioethics and law?[29]

Precisely by invoking Kantian autonomy, a bioethics without any substantial content has been proposed as the only way to resolve disputes between «moral strangers», that is, between people of our postmodern world, who do not share the same values[30]. In this way, bioethics becomes just a matter of procedural resolution of conflicts. The preeminence given to the principle of autonomy conduces also to make a distinction between «persons strictly» and «human biological life», so as to conclude that «not all human are persons. Not all humans are self-conscious, rational, and able to conceive of the possibility of blaming and praising. Fetuses, infants, the profoundly mentally retarded, and the hopelessly comatose provide examples of human nonpersons»[31].

One may well be surprised at this conclusion —that the weakest human beings do not have even the most basic rights. If this is the case, what remains of the principle of human dignity? Is it only a privilege for the strongest people? Is this conclusion not contrary to our common intuition that infants and severely mentally handicapped are persons just as we are? Is it not a terrible paradox that «moral autonomy», which is one of the most relevant signs of human dignity, could be used against it?

A second paradox is related to the eminent place classically attributed to human person in the cosmos, that supposes a sharp separation between humans and the rest of nature. Human beings possess an unconditional value, they are end-in-themselves, while animals and plants are just means to serve human needs. This idea is clear in the Judeo-Christian belief, according to which the whole creation is at the service of human persons, the only beings on earth that are «image and likeness» of God[32]. It may be noted, however, that the anthropocentrism of the religious viewpoint is still relative: humans are regarded as subordinated to God and not having an absolute power over nature, which also reflects, though to a lower degree, God himself[33]. It was not until the Rationalist philosophers that this anthropocentrism was exaggerated. If before, human beings had been simple administrators of nature with limited authority, they were now in possession of tyrannical powers. At the same time, the disenchanted nature no longer reflects a cosmic order, which inspires respect; it is just matter (res extensa), submitted to the unlimited power of humans.

The crude materialistic conception of nature gives place to extremely serious problems, not only by justifying the irrational exploitation of nature and the degradation of the environment, but also because the same perspective is extended to the human body itself, which tends to be reduced to a mere thing. And here lies the paradox: humans, who wanted to be the supreme masters of the cosmos, in the end risk becoming an object of themselves.

The philosophy of René Descartes is usually considered to be at the origin of the radical mind-body dualism. It is well known that he was interested in discovering whether there were truths of which one could be absolutely certain. He concluded that the basis for this indubitable knowledge was provided by direct knowledge of one's self as a thinking thing. Since he could «clearly and distinctly» conceive of himself without a body, but could not «clearly and distinctly» conceive of himself without a mind, Descartes concluded that mind and body must be two completely distinct types of things or «substances». The nature of one's self is thought, res cogitans (a thinking thing), but the nature of the body, and matter in general, is only extension, res extensa[34]. Consequently, the human person is identified only to its thinking faculty, while its bodily dimension is relegated to the «external world», like a thing among others of the planet. The body is just a kind of marvelous machine whose movements take place under the terms of nothing but the laws of mechanics. Therefore, the body is not something that the person «is», but something that the person «has»; it is a simple instrument at the service of the «rational values». The bodily reality of human beings and all that this implies —life, health, disease, mortal condition—, become just purely technical questions. Consequently, body is subjected to domination like the rest of the world.

The reductionism of person to simple matter leads to the denial of its intrinsic dignity. If the person is just an organized ensemble of chemical elements, it is meaningless to speak about «human dignity», because it would be absurd to sustain that those elements have a dignity, even if they are combined in a very particular way. In fact, if we do not recognize any kind of spiritual element in the configuration of each individual, it seems extremely difficult, if not impossible, to support the idea of human dignity. If any possibility of transcending mere matter is denied, does not the notion of human dignity become a product of our imagination or of our arbitrary will? This is why it has been stated that «the comprehension of our dignity, as beings of flesh and blood, depends on the answer that we give —or refuse— to the mind-body problem»[35].

Here, we are confronted with another great paradox: the idea of human dignity seems to claim the recognition of some spiritual principle in each individual. But at the same time, the idea of a soul, when it is exacerbated like in Cartesian dualism, provides the philosophical basis for increasing intervention regarding the human body and therefore, to the threat of human dignity. An example of the new risks engendered by an anthropological dualism can be found in the development of genetic technologies because they show a tendency to see the human body as a collection of objects that are open to «commodification». This threat is particularly evident in the competition between biotechnology companies to market products derived from human tissues and to patent human genes. The possibility of a genetic predetermination of individuals gives way to frightening perspectives for future generations, which could be homogenized according to the subjective prejudices of the present generations.

 This is one of the greatest paradox of the new technological powers: the increasing mastery over nature was considered a way in which to exalt human dignity. But in fact it risks conducing to a new radical form of domination of some humans over others. In other words, science and technology, which are usually esteemed as expressions of human dignity, seem to blur the sharp boundaries between humanity and nature, and thus, erode the notion of dignity itself. As Kurt Bayertz has well remarked, the fact that human beings become master over their own nature necessarily implies that they are reduced to an object of their own subjectivity[36]. The increase of human subjectivity leads paradoxically to an increase of human’s objectivation. In the same measure that humans distance themselves from nature in their role as subjects, in their role as objects, they penetrate Nature with increasing depth[37].

Within this context, the blurring of limits between humans and animals, encouraged by the most recent genetic discoveries, is also used as an argument against the idea of human dignity[38]. The theory of «animal rights» is sometimes invoked to condemn the idea of human dignity as an unjustified anthropocentrism, the so-called «speciesism»[39]. An objection to this argumentation could be that there is no opposition between human dignity and the interests of nonhuman animals, because the notion of human dignity is inclusive, not exclusive: «to accept the principle of Menschenwürde does not mean to privilege the human species over other species. On the contrary, (...) it invites the extension of the same amount of minimal protection to other species»[40]. But this conclusion is far from being clear. If we say that each human being deserves unconditional respect, and that this is not the case of nonhuman animals, how can we deny the immense gap that exists between humans and the rest of nature? Of course, human dignity is compatible with a kind of respect toward nonhuman animals, even if we do not express it with the notion of «rights». To uphold that human beings deserve unconditional respect does not inevitably lead to an irrational exploitation of nature. Respect of human beings and respect of nonhuman animals and plants, even at different levels, are not opposing ideas. But the nature of this respect is different in both cases, and that difference (absolute respect in the first case, relative respect in the second) is precisely what makes human dignity. That is why the idea that Homo Sapiens is just a species among others seems to strike at the very heart of the notion of human dignity. If all animals ­—including humans— are equal, no one has a dignity, because the notion of dignity implies precisely an intrinsic distinction between the human realm and the extra-human realm[41].


3. Conclusion: towards a more concrete approach to human reality?

The preceding analysis showed some of the difficulties raised by the concept of human dignity in the context of genetic advances. Within this framework, the greatest dilemma can be summarized in a few words: how can we explain the notion of dignity and even more, how can we justify the notion itself, avoiding at the same time, as far as possible, the recourse to (too strong) metaphysical arguments?

If beginning from the «top», that is, from metaphysical concepts, in order to explain the idea of dignity is «forbidden» in our postmodern time, perhaps we should begin from the «bottom», that is, from concrete relations to other individuals as particular persons with distinctive needs. That means that the way out of the labyrinth in which we are placed is probably a new effort to rediscover the human person in its concreteness and only then deducing general rules. Because how will we be able to preserve the human person, if we do not know it, if it does not exist, if it is nothing more than a concept?

In other words, it seems that we need, today more than ever, to think about our own dignity as persons. In order to do this, we must take a clear look at human reality; each person deserves to be admired and wondered at with a new freshness. Otherwise, we will not be able to understand the mystery that each individual contains. In this effort, we should not use the «eyes of the flesh», because they are unable to discover the essence of the human person. We must employ the «eyes of the heart», which can transcend the matter —the flesh—, permitting us to discover the person hidden behind. Only then will it become clear that love is the unique antithesis to the instrumentalization of the person. Only love enables us to perceive that, the sicker or weaker a person is, the more he or she is in need of our care.

Some modern philosophers have developed concrete approaches to human reality which can perhaps be helpful in order to better explain the idea of dignity. Emmanuel Levinas is one of them. According to him, the contemplation of the human face is the most significant way to discover the incommensurability of each individual. The relation with the face is «a relation with the other absolutely other, which I cannot contain, with the other in this sense infinite»[42]; the face of the other resists our power to assimilate him or her into mere knowledge. The face of the other silently remembers us the command: «you shall not commit murder»[43]. For him, ethics emerges primarily on the concrete level of the contact from person to person. The responsibility for the other as a singular being, with singular needs and concerns, establishes «me» in a unique relationship, as irreplaceably responsible for the «other». The Levinasian approach does not find the moral «ought» inscribed within the laws of the cosmos. Instead each individual case of moral conflict produces the moral «ought» itself. In other words, responsibility for the other is born primarily in the face-to-face situation and not in purely theoretical knowledge. It is worth stressing that this approach does not commit any «naturalistic fallacy», because the starting point is not an «is» but already an «ought»[44].

If this kind of argumentation is valid, then we have to focus our moral attention on the other in his or her concreteness, as a particular person with distinctive needs. From this basis, we have to develop a more realistic explanation of human dignity. Perhaps a more experiential approach, which takes concrete human beings with their hopes and their sufferings, as the starting point of its reflection, could help us to rediscover the infinity which is present in every individual and to find fair solutions to the new bioethical dilemmas.


[1] See Herbert Spiegelberg, «Human Dignity: A Challenge to Contemporary Philosophy», in Human Dignity. This Century and the Next, ed. R. Gotesky and E. Laszlo, New York, Gordon and Breach, 1970, p. 62.

[2] Dan Egonsson, Dimensions of Dignity. The Moral Importance of Being Human, Dordrecht, Kluwer, 1999, p. 34.

[3] See, for example, Ulfrid Neumann, «Die Tyrannei der Würde», Archiv für Recht und Sozialphilosophie, 1998, 2, p. 153; Dieter Birnbacher, «Ambiguities in the concept of Menschenwürde», in Sanctity of Life and Human Dignity, ed. K. Bayertz, Dordrecht, Kluwer, 1996, p. 107; Martin Hailer and Dietrich Ritschl, «The general notion of human dignity and the specific arguments in medical ethics», in Sanctity of Life and Human Dignity, p. 91; Claudia Wiesemann,  «Medizinethik und Menschenwürde. Paradox und Dekonstruktion», in : Die Würde des Menschen, edited by H. Kössler, Erlangen, Universitätsbund Erlangen-Nürnberg, 1998, p. 104.

[4] The Oxford Encyclopedic English Dictionary, New York, Oxford University Press, 1996, p. 398.

[5] Universal Declaration of Human Rights, United Nations (1948), Preamble.

[6] Ronald Dworkin, Taking Rights Seriously, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1977, p. 198.

                [7] Jean Hyppolite, «Le phénomène de la ‘reconnaissance universelle’ dans l’expérience humaine», in Le fondement des droits de l’homme, Florence, La Nuova Italia, 1966, p. 122.

[8] Paul Ricoeur, «Pour l’être humain du seul fait qu’il est humain», in Les enjeux des droits de l’homme, Paris, Larousse, 1988, p. 236.

[9] «Concern for the interests of the subject must always prevail over the interests of science and society» (art. 5, Helsinki Declaration of the World Medical Association).

[10] See Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, 1949; International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 1966; International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1966; Convention on the Elimination of All Form of Discrimination against Women, 1979; Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, 1984; American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, 1948; American Convention on Human Rights, 1969, etc. See also Béatrice Maurer, Le principe de respect de la dignité humaine et la Convention européenne des droits de l'homme, Paris, La documentation française, 1999.

[11] See a detailed commentary on this article by Ernst Benda: «Die Würde des Menschen ist unantastbar», in Beiträge zur Rechtsanthropologie, ed. Ernst-Joachim Lampe, Stuttgart, Steiner Verlag, 1985, p. 23.

[12] See Constitution of Belgium, art. 23; Constitution of Switzerland, art. 119 (concerning biotechnological interventions on human beings and nature); Constitution of Ireland, Preamble; Czech Republic Constitution, Preamble; Constitution of Spain, art. 10; Constitution of Sweden, art. 2; Constitution of Finland, art. 1; Constitution of Greece, art. 7.2; Constitution of Poland, Preamble, art. 30; Constitution of Lithuania, art. 21; Constitution of Slovenia, art. 34; Constitution of Russia, art. 21; Constitution of South Africa, Section 7.1 and Section 10; Constitution of Mexico, art. 3.1, 25; Constitution of Israel, art. 1; Constitution of Brazil, art. 1; etc. See a selection of legal texts which mention dignity explicitly, in Dignity, Ethics and Law, ed. J. Knox and M. Broberg, Copenhagen, Centre for Ethics and Law, 1999.

                [13] See Herbert Spiegelberg, «Human Dignity: A Challenge to Contemporary Philosophy», p. 61.

[14] See Robert Spaemann, «Über den Begriff der Menschenwürde», in Menschenrechte und Menschenwürde, ed. E.-W. Böckenförde and R. Spaemann, Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1987, p. 297.

[15] Dieter Birnbacher, «Ambiguities in the concept of Menschenwürde», p. 110. At the same time, the author recognizes that the principle of human dignity enounced in art. 1 of the German Constitution «is clearly more than a mere summing up the human rights of the articles 1 to 19» (p. 113).

[16] Philipp Balzer, Klaus Rippe, Peter Schaber, Menschenwürde vs. Würde der Kreatur, Freiburg/München: Alber, 1998, p. 28.

[17] Martin Hailer and Dietrich Ritschl, «The general notion of human dignity and the specific arguments in medical ethics», p. 93.

[18] In France, the jurisprudence has considered that the practice consisting in the throwing of dwarfs (lancement de nains) is contrary to human dignity because it reduces the person to the status of a mere object. Therefore, it can be forbidden by local authorities (see Conseil d’État, October 27, 1995, Revue française de droit administratif, 1995, p. 878).

[19] See art. 1: «All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights».

[20] See Universal Declaration of Human Rights, art. 6: «Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law». In an analogous approach, it has been said that «the protection of dignity concerns the protection of the natural conditions without which man cannot be Subject» (Ludger Honnefelder, «Person und Menschenwürde», in Philosophische Propädeutik, ed. L. Honnefelder and G. Krieger, Paderborn, Ferdinand Schöningh, 1996, p. 261).

[21] «Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind... » (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948, Preamble).

[22] Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Preamble.

[23] Ronald Dworkin, Life's Dominion. An Argument About Abortion, Euthanasia and Individual Freedom, New York, Vintage, 1994, p. 236.

[24] Ronald Dworkin, ibid.

[25] See Kurt Bayertz, «Human Dignity: Philosophical Origin and Scientific Erosion of an Idea», in Sanctity of Life and Human Dignity, ed. K. Bayertz, Dordrecht, Kluwer, 1996, p. 88.

[26] Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten, Berlin: Akademie-Ausgabe, vol. IV, 1911, p. 428.

[27] Ibid., 434. The contrast between persons and things is indeed one of the best ways to approach the notion of human dignity. It is precisely the blurring of this distinction that gives rise to the so-called reification of person. See Roberto Andorno, La distinction juridique entre les personnes et les choses à l’épreuve des procréations artificielles, Paris, LGDJ, 1996; La bioéthique et la dignité de la personne, Paris, PUF, 1997; in Spanish: Bioética y dignidad de la persona, Madrid, Tecnos, 1998.

[28] Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten, p. 436.

                [29] See Peter Kemp, «Four Ethical Principles in Biolaw», paper at the 2nd International Conference on Bioethics and Biolaw, Copenhagen, 3-6 June 1998, p. 8. The interpretation of Kantian texts is not unanimous. For other specialists, even adopting a Kantian position we cannot deduce from the principle of autonomy that the weakest human beings are not persons (See Jan P. Beckmann, «Patientenverfügungen: Autonomie und Selbstbestimmung vor dem Hintergrund eines im Wandel begriffenen Arzt-Patient-Verhältnisses», Zeitschrift für Medizinische Ethik, 44, 1998, p. 146).

[30] H. T. Engelhardt, The Foundations of Bioethics, New York, Oxford University Press, 1996.

                [31] Ibid., 138.

[32] Gen., 1, 26.

[33] This is why this perspective does not exclude the idea of duties towards nature, which is called to join man in praising God (See Psalm 148).

[34] «I have a clear and distinct idea of myself inasmuch as I am only a thinking and unextended thing, and as, on the other, I possess a distinct idea of body, inasmuch as it is only an extended and unthinking thing, it is certain that this I, that is to say, my soul by which I am what I am, is entirely and absolutely distinct from my body, and can exist without it» (Meditationes de prima philosophia, VIth meditation).

[35] Thomas De Koninck, De la dignité humaine, Paris, PUF, 1995, p. 16. See also Xavier Dijon and Christianne Hennau-Hublet, «Les droits de l'homme, corps et âme: la déchirure bioéthique», in Dignité humaine et hiérarchie des valeurs. Les limites irréductibles, ed. S. Marcus Helmons, Louvain, Academia-Bruylant, 1999, p. 33.

[36] Kurt Bayertz, «Human Dignity: Philosophical Origin and Scientific Erosion of an Idea», p. 88. See also from the same author: «Die Idee der Menschenwürde: Probleme und Paradoxien», Archiv für Recht und Sozialphilosophie, 1995, p. 465.

[37] Kurt Bayertz, «Human Dignity: Philosophical Origin and Scientific Erosion of an Idea», loc. cit.

[38] In this sense, it is sometimes invoked as an argument against human dignity the fact that human DNA and DNA of chimpanzees are identical in more than 99%.

[39] Peter Singer, Animal Liberation, New York, Avon, 1977, p. 7.

[40] Dieter Birnbacher, «Ambiguities in the concept of Menschenwürde», p. 114.

[41] Let us not forget that some of the most prominent defenders of animal rights do attack the principle of unconditional respect of human life, and justify such practices as euthanasia and infanticide. See Peter Singer and Helga Kuhse, Should the Baby Live ? The Problem of Handicapped Infants, Oxford, University Press, 1985; Peter Singer, Rethinking Life and Death: The Collapse of Our Traditional Ethics, New York, Oxford University Press, 1995.

[42] Totality and Infinity, The Hague, Nijhoff, 1969, p. 197.

[43] Ibid., p. 199.

[44] See this kind of approach with reference to the concept of human rights in: Roberto Andorno, «Les droits de l'homme sont-ils universels?», Etat de droit, droits fondamentaux et diversité culturelle, Paris, L'Harmattan, 1999, p. 199.