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Can Utilitarianism Ground Human Rights?

8. Objection: Dignity

Book cover: The Life You Can Save by Peter Singer

The second objection I want to consider to the view I am advancing is that thinking that considerations of human misery and happiness underpin all aspects of human rights misses out on the important dimension of human dignity and respect for persons. Here again, the Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights [United Nations (General Assembly) 1948] recognizes the 'inherent dignity' of all humans. Articles 1, 22 and 23 make further appeals to 'human dignity'. Similarly, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights [United Nations (General Assembly) 1966] recognizes the 'inherent dignity of the human person' in its Preamble and Article 10. Protocol No. 13 of the European Convention on Human Rights [Council of Europe 1950] also refers to the 'inherent dignity of all human beings', as do many other human rights instruments.

Basing human rights on some naturalized sense of 'human dignity' is admirable and I am partial to doing so. In other places, I speak about valuing 'autonomy and dignity' as being central to a moral outlook. But is it the case that the notion of 'human dignity' referred to time and again is unable to be captured by our disdain for human misery and want for human happiness?

The term 'dignity' has been borrowed from an earlier religious age, with some philosophers and ethicists recently striving to repackage the term in more secular garb. Thinkers such as Ashcroft [2005] and Macklin [2003] illustrate well the challenges. Is 'dignity' inalienable or can it be surrendered? Is it a metaphysical attribute of human beings or can it be understood in natural terms? These questions are still being debated and as such, 'dignity' as a foundational concept is an insecure foundation for universal human rights.

With a view to unpacking 'dignity', it is instructive to examine ordinary uses of the term. Doing so, it seems that appeals to a person's dignity translate to admonitions to respect the person, especially their privacy and autonomy. From my synopsis of contemporary theories of motivation based on human needs (see §4.1 above), we saw how the need for autonomy (and privacy as a precondition) is a basic drive in human beings. Both Maslow [1943] and Alderfer [1969] highlighted well that aspect of the human personality. For Rogers [1959, 1961], granting people autonomy and treating them with respect were central to his theory of human development.

Where respect for human dignity matters on the ground, one nursing credentialing organization put the components of 'dignity' very succinctly:

Human dignity, simply put, is when one believes in their own worth, pride in oneself or a conscious sense of one's own worth as a human being living a meaningful life that is worthy of respect from others. In the healthcare environment, human dignity is more focused on aspects of privacy, respect, and autonomy.

[Nursing CE Central 2023]

When we see appeals to human dignity understood in this sense of respect, autonomy and privacy, then there remains no barrier to accommodating fully such appeals within a utilitarian grounding of human rights. This notion of the inherent worth of every human being is also central to utilitarian thinking. John Stuart Mill [1863: ch. 5: 60] (putting it in the mouth of Jeremy Bentham) expressed it as 'everybody to count for one, nobody for more than one'. A little later, that other classical utilitarian, Henry Sidgwick [1874: 186], stated this principle of equal worth as:

I obtain the self-evident principle that the good of any one person is no more important from the point of view (if I may put it like this) of the universe than the good of any other

human beings is congruent with a utilitarian framing of rights. As we saw in the case of autonomy above, it is this utilitarian framing that makes best practical sense of our universal regard for human dignity.

Copyright © 2023

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