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More than two centuries have passed since the concept of human rights was first developed. During that time humanity has gone through various stages of history and the world has seen enormous changes. In Europe, what was once a collection of colonialist, autocratic states has transformed into a democratic society with a capitalist orientation, establishing a mechanism that protects individual rights.

Other societies are also seeing structural changes, and the concept of human rights is facing grave challenges. In part these challenges stem from the disparate demands of countries in different stages of development, with contrasting economic situations and competing interests. But challenges also come from divergent conceptions and understandings of human rights, human dignity, morality and responsibility, and from different interpretations and applications of the core principles of human rights. In the contemporary world, as our grasp of the fundamental values and principles of human rights and humanitarianism weakens, we risk losing our rights, responsibilities and our power to uphold human dignity.

History shows that a moral failure is always accompanied by painful realities, visible everywhere. The global refugee crisis is worsening daily, and 70 million refugees have been forced to leave their homes by war and poverty. Our living environment is constantly being degraded, and the ecological balance is ever more fragile. Armed conflicts persist and potential political crises lurk; regional instabilities grow more acute; autocratic regimes brutally impose their will, while democratic governance is in decline. Unreasoning and unrestrained expansion under a nationalist, capitalist order is exacerbating the global gap between rich and poor.

Our views of the world have become more divided and more conflicted than ever.

Individuals in many countries and regions lack the opportunity to receive an education, to access information or communicate freely. They have no chance to exercise their imagination and creativity or fulfil their ideals; no chance to enjoy freedom of belief and freedom of association. Such rights and freedoms pose a fatal threat to autocracy and authoritarianism.

Understanding Human Dignity

This is why, in so many places, lawyers have been imprisoned, journalists have been disappeared and murdered , why censorship has become so pervasive, why religious and non-governmental organisations have been ruthlessly suppressed. Today, dictatorships and corrupt regimes continue to benefit from reckless arms sales, and enjoy the quiet support of capitalist nations. African nationals are also at increased risk. Meanwhile in the UK, in a sad reversal of malice, hate crimes against Polish people increased fold in , and continue to make headlines.

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This April, a Polish man in Hull was chased by a gang of 20 men and beaten with a nailed plank of wood. The attackers were other children, some as young as eight. And then there is the United States, where such stories are turning up literally every day. In one incident this year, a woman was aggressively badgered by a white man in a park near Chicago for wearing a shirt printed with the Puerto Rico flag.

She captured the incident on Facebook Live. But other concerns were rightly raised. Others argued that the Chicago incident should not be reduced to reinvigorated white supremacy, stressing instead that the US, like Europe, is now breeding general xenophobia. I ncidents like the ones in Austria, Northern Ireland and Chicago contradict the contemporary Western dogma to treat every individual in a way that acknowledges his or her worth as a human being, regardless of their port of departure.

And yet, this dogma is delicate. No: the very concept of human dignity is tenuous. Dignity has three broad meanings. There is an historically old sense of poise or gravitas that we still associate with refined manners, and expect of those with high social rank. Third, there is the more abstract but no less widespread meaning of human dignity as an inherent or unearned worth or status, which all human beings share equally.


It is the kind of worth everyone has, and has equally, just because we are persons. This fundamental worth is usually taken to be distinctive in some sense. Sometimes, this distinctiveness has been expressed by the claim that humans are supremely valuable. The most influential expression of this modern idea comes from Immanuel Kant in Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals in In other words, the distinctive value of dignity demands a special kind of respect, which we express through a self-imposed restriction on our deliberations about what to do or say.

So, why think the concept of human dignity is tenuous? In the first place, it is very young. The term is not in any existing copy of the Magna Carta It does show up much later in the English Bill of Rights , but not with a moralised meaning.

Human Dignity Definition:

Nor does the US Constitution. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights used dignity to justify itself: a conceptual watershed. Ditto for suffrage. When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights used the terminology of human dignity to justify itself, this turned out to be a conceptual watershed. We have not been talking about human dignity for long.

However, his ethical philosophy was very slow to gain traction, especially beyond the German-speaking world. He enjoyed a flash of popularity in England around , but little of that was for his ethics, and it faded by the end of the century. Anglophone interest in Kant began to reemerge around but, again, not for his practical philosophy. Diderot was working towards his own conception of human worth.

Human Dignity | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

In his view, our basic moral status is what justifies our individual rights. However, this status also places us under a duty to respect the status and rights of others.

This assumption is conceptually implicit in any exchange between us. That is, we treat them as capable of being responsible to us, for that claim. Otherwise, why address them at all? However, once again, it never eventuated in any established terminology.

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Pufendorf was virtually forgotten by the end of the 18th century. A re the roots of dignity really so shallow?


How we answer this depends on what we take as the measure of success. If we want some unambiguous historical basis for the way we talk about human dignity today, then we will be disappointed. As the Court explained in Government of the Republic of South Africa v Grootboom, the specification of reasonableness is directly related to the human dignity of the applicants:. The Constitution will be worth infinitely less than its paper if the reasonableness of state action concerned with housing is determined without regard to the fundamental constitutional value of human dignity.

Section 26, read in context of the Bill of Rights as a whole, must mean that the respondents have a right to reasonable action by the state in all circumstances and with particular regard to human dignity. In short, I emphasise that human beings are required to be treated as human beings. Although the Basic Law does not incorporate socio-economic rights, the BVerfG held that the state should secure "the minimum requirements for an existence compatible with human dignity".

Kant's claim that human beings should never be used as a means to achieve an end contains three elements that are expressed through his categorical imperative: everyone has equal human dignity which has to be recognised and protected in a legal context. The Universal Declaration was the first international document to enact Kant's categorical imperative. Thereafter the elements of the categorical imperative were shaped by the Basic Law as the first constitution after the Second World War to construct the post-war rights-protecting paradigm.

It can be said that German constitutionalism concretely applied the principles embodied in the preamble of the Universal Declaration, interpreted them in terms of Kantian moral ethics, and legalised the recognition and protection of human dignity in the process. South African constitutionalism has followed in the footsteps of German law by applying the basic elements of human dignity as a definitional term in constitutional adjudication.

The adjudication of dignity in South African and German law has a shared commonality based on the three elements, a fact which contributes to the universality and legality of the notion. In this context human dignity can be defined in terms of its minimum and universal elements as endorsed by article 1 1 of the Basic Law and section 10 of the Constitution: human dignity is an attribute inherent in every human being, and has to be recognised and respected by the state and fellow men alike.

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African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man European Convention on Human Rights Helsinki Final Act International Charter of Human Rights International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Universal Declaration of Human Rights Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action Date published 7 June Email: acstein mweb. This article is an abstraction of the writer's LLD thesis, which is in process. The author wishes to thank Prof Francois Venter for his valuable input and mentorship.

We are not told what conception of justice is reflected in human rights, or how preserving human rights will promote peace in the world". See Henkin "International Human Rights" Also see the claim of Kretzmer with regard to the Israeli Supreme Court: "It is hoped that the Court will now start refining the concept so as to prevent its use as a catch-all phrase, which, if it means anything, may also mean nothing. See Habermas Metaphilosophy Since most states have ratified international human rights instruments and have agreed to be legally bound by them, human rights standards are universal.

Rights have a culturally relative character, irrespective of whether they are sourced from humans by virtue of their humanity or because of their societal relations. Mahlmann argues that the German Constitutional Court's decision to strike down anti-terrorism laws that allow the air force to shoot down hijacked aircraft because the dignity of the passengers and crew require that they not be objectified and sacrifice their lives in favour of a greater ideal is the most representative adjudication of the Kantian version of human dignity as demanding that a person not be treated as a means to an end.

See in general Mahlmann GLJ Despite differences in positive law, in historical and political context, in religious and cultural heritage, there is the common recognition of the worth of the human person as a fundamental principle to which positive law should be accountable". Also see Beyleveld and Brownsword Human Dignity , He argues that dignity thus defined may be contrasted against "organic theories of nationalism that submerge the individual with authoritarian political doctrines that condemn human nature as degraded by sin, with racist doctrines of biological inferiority and with aristocratic doctrines of national hierarchy".

It also relates to questions regarding the existence and arrangement of reality. He explains furthermore that "when the concept comes to be applied the appearance of commonality disappears, and human dignity and with it human rights is exposed as culturally relative, deeply contingent on local politics and values, resulting in significantly diverging, even conflicting, conceptions".

A discussion on a common meaning of human dignity beyond the three elements is hugely contested terrain and falls outside the scope of this article. Also, the French translation for dignitas is valeur, meaning intrinsic worth. The reference in the preamble of the Charter to the "dignity and worth" of the human person is tautologous, as the terms are synonyms. Thus, references to "intrinsic worth" may be used interchangeably with references to "inherent dignity". See Botha Stan L Rev Human beings are not commodities to which a price can be attached; they are creatures with inherent and infinite worth; they ought to be treated as an end in themselves, never merely as means to an end.

Principle VII para 2 of the Helsinki Final Act asserts that states "will promote and encourage the effective exercise of civil, political, economic, social, cultural and other rights all which derive from the inherent dignity of the human person and are essential for his free and full development". The African Charter on Human Rights and Peoples' Rights guarantees respect for every human being's inherent dignity art 5.