Samuel Moyn outlines the surprising history of the idea at the basis of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Human dignity is a fascinating notion. It seems to mean that every human being is valuable. And if human beings indeed have these rights that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights gives them, it has to be on some basis. And the Universal Declaration, like the United Nations Charter before it, tells us that human dignity is what entitles every person to these rights.
But in fact, we don’t find this notion of human dignity a very longstanding political idea. So when Americans, in my country, staged a revolution after announcing the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, they didn’t mention human dignity. Frenchmen in 1789 didn’t either.
And in fact, dignity originated as a Latin word, dignitas, that means ‘rank’. And its uses for most of history were to distinguish some human beings from other human beings. And so it was connected with, if you like, an aristocratic idea that some human beings were better than others, got better entitlements than others. And yet in the 1930s, it begins to be used in the broadest possible way, to mean that human beings as such have high rank. Now it’s not that it had never been used that way before, but it had never been used in law and politics. And staggeringly, the first document to really use it in this way was the Irish Constitution of 1937, which puts the idea of human dignity in its preamble. And then we get the 1945 UN Charter and the 1948 Universal Declaration, and the 1949 West German Constitution.
The interesting thing is that this idea of dignity has to mean that human beings have high standing relative to something that doesn’t have high standing, but it can no longer be an aristocratic principle. So perhaps it’s animals, or a broader nature, non-human nature that isn’t high-ranking. But that’s what’s at stake in saying that it’s human dignity that is the basis of human rights.