It’s hard to imagine a decent politics that doesn’t depend on the notion of the dignity of the human person. It’s unfortunately also hard to specify how to anchor that notion in something beyond our earnest moral intuitions. As the bioethicist Adam Schulman poses the question: “Is dignity a useful concept, or is it a mere slogan that camouflages unconvincing arguments and unarticulated biases?” The question has implications far beyond the field of bioethics. Indeed, it has haunted the entire modern human rights project ever since the drafters of the UN Charter chose to begin that historic document with a profession of the member nations’ “faith” in “freedom and human rights” and in “the dignity and worth of the human person.” That act of faith in the wake of a war marked by unprecedented atrocities struck political realists of the day as astonishingly naive. Nevertheless, the concept of human dignity was made central to the scores of new constitutions and rights declarations that were adopted in the late twentieth century.
Today, controversies about the meaning and value of the concept are more intense than ever, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to evade the question of whether “dignity” can support the enormous weight it has been asked to carry in moral and political discourse.
Certainly few in pre-World War II intellectual circles would have expected the idea of human dignity to acquire the importance it was soon to achieve. Faith in science was riding high among the intelligentsia in Europe and the United States, especially among those who equated religion with superstition and ignorance. The progress of scientific rationality, Max Weber confidently proclaimed in his 1917 lecture on Science as a Vocation, means that the world is now “disenchanted”: