What does it mean to say that humans have “dignity”? The term “human dignity” has become common parlance in recent decades, particularly in political and ethical discourse, where its use ranges from titular to foundational. It is trumpeted noisily as the warrant of many autonomous rights and is also the cornerstone of many international documents instituted for the promotion of peace and human rights. The resulting pervasiveness of the term, however, has masked the extent to which its substance has been lost,[1] for despite its prevalence, the concept today remains elusive and largely descriptive, defying definition.“Human dignity” seems recognizable, yet indefinable.

Historically, the meaning of the term has varied with the philosophical tide, reflecting the particular philosophical framework of the era. Yet despite the fact that “human dignity” is not a specifically Christian term, the impact of Christianity on the concept is nevertheless unmistakable. While the classic notion of dignity as “worth” in an aristocratic and comparative sense still exists, it has been largely supplanted in the Western world by dignity as egalitarian and non-comparative; this change in meaning is attributable to the importance of Christian theological anthropology and the doctrine of the incarnation on Western thought.

There exist several distinctions within the semantic domain of human dignity which must be recognized. In particular, dignity as quality refers to those excellences that set humans apart both as individuals and as a species, and is largely ascribed; conversely, dignity as equality is that dignity possessed by virtue of membership in the human species and is an inalienable aspect of our personhood, understood broadly. The derivation of dignity is contingent upon the kind to which one is referring—whether of quality or of equality—and is the object of much discussion and debate. Opinions regarding the source of dignity vary widely, ranging from the notion that it is one of many human capabilities to that it is an inalienable gift of the God in whose image we were created. In considering the options, one must be cognizant of the fact that only a source of dignity grounded in a non-degreed capacity will result in a dignity that can be ascribed to all.

Much of our contemporary understanding of human dignity was birthed out of conflict, war being the impetus for reflection on the issue and pushing it to the forefront of political discourse. Yet in the midst of this political discourse, its substance has been gutted of any religious understanding, leaving only an empty form. Despite Christianity’s historical impact on the concept of human dignity, it is only in recent decades that the term itself has been appropriated from primarily philosophical contexts by Christian writers as a means for referencing the concept of the imago Dei in public discourse, infusing it with greater substance. Recognizing the intention behind this appropriation, many have clamored for the elimination of the term, proposing substitution of terms such as “rights” or “autonomy,” which carry no religious presuppositions. Consequently, the controversy over the concept has raised profound questions: what is entailed in human dignity? Does dignity apply only to humans? If not, how is the dignity of humans different from that of other creatures? And why does it matter? Despite the apparent ambiguity of the term “human dignity,” one’s understanding of the concept has profound implications for one’s approach to bioethical policies regarding health, gender and work, abortion, stem cell research, animal rights, cloning, and distributive justice.[2]

Christian anthropology has much to contribute to this conversation, for it rests on the centrality of the imago Dei and of divine giving as the ground of human dignity and well-being.[3] We are equal to each other precisely because none of us is the maker of another—we have all received our life equally as a gift from the Creator.[4] For each of us was given infinite significance, as a gift, by a personal Creator, which is the foundation of our human dignity.[5] Of all creation, humankind alone was granted that significance by creation in the image of God. Moreover, dignity as gift also carries tasks and obligations appropriate to good stewardship of that gift, an aspect lost in a purely secular understanding of the concept. In the end, only a theological anthropology can give us an absolute concept of dignity, one that applies to all humans in all circumstances and conditions and can justify our responsibility toward one another. Only a concept of dignity grounded in humankind as created in the image of God bestows the same dignity on all of us, without shadow of turning.[6] Hence, reflection on the natures of humanity and of God cannot be pulled apart.

Human dignity is indeed a nuanced and many-splendored concept that can be realized only through the full recognition of its complexity,[7] a complexity that encompasses the capacities for excellence found in our species, as well as the vulnerabilities and weaknesses of the individual as created and loved by God. It is not bestowed by persons or institutions and does not derive meaning from any human action or status: it is a gift given and universally shared.[8] More than a mere placeholder for ethical biases and commitments, as has sometimes been claimed, human dignity reveals a nobler, more robust vision of what it means to be human, referencing the essential and inviolable core of our humanity. In reality, the term “human dignity” is not as ambiguous as it is complex because the human component of the term is a multidimensional being defying definition, a creature of in-betweenness, who exists somewhere between the beasts and God. To define human dignity is ultimately to describe the meaning of being human[9] and to acknowledge and respect one’s place in the human community. Furthermore, to be human is to be a mystery just as God, in whose image we are created, is a mystery;[10] hence the dignity which is the mark of our human beingness is no less mysterious. Thus, in the ambiguity and paradoxical nature of the term human dignity is located both the height of human excellence and the floor below which our respect should not fall. It embodies an ethic of quality as well as an ethic of equality.[11] True human dignity is located in the convergence of the two—of the aristocratic and the egalitarian, of quality and equality, in the dignity of flourishing as well as the dignity of being.[12]


[1] R. Kendall Soulen and Linda Woodhead, “Introduction, ” in God and Human Dignity, R. Kendall Soulen and Linda Woodhead, eds. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 2.

[2] Martha Nussbaum, “Human Dignity and Political Entitlements,” in the President’s Council on Bioethics, Human Dignity and Bioethics : Essays Commissioned by the President’s Council on Bioethics (Washington, D.C.: President’s Council on Bioethics, 2008), 374–376.

[3] Soulen and Woodhead, “Introduction,” 19.

[4] Gilbert Meilaender, Neither Beast Nor God: the Dignity of the Human Person (New York: New Atlantis Books, 2009), 96.

[5] Peter Augustine Lawler, “Commentary on Meilaender and Dennett” in President’s Council on Bioethics, Human Dignity and Bioethics: Essays Commissioned by the President’s Council on Bioethics (Washington, D.C.: President’s Council on Bioethics, 2008), 279.

[6] Fraser Watts, “Human Dignity: Concepts and Experiences,” in God and Human Dignity, 249.

[7] Don S. Browning, “Human Dignity, Human Complexity, and Human Goods” in God and Human Dignity, 300.

[8] Jurgen Moltmann, On Human Dignity: Political Theology and Ethics, Introduction and trans. M. Douglas Meeks (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984), x.

[9] Ibid., ix.

[10] Soulen and Woodhead, “Introduction,” 22.

[11] Gilbert Meilaender, “Human Dignity: Exploring and Explicating the Council’s Vision” in Human Dignity and Bioethics, 255.

[12] Nussbaum, “Human Dignity and Political Entitlements,” 351.