Human dignity and humanistic values

Human Dignity

At a time when B.F. Skinner’s (1971) Beyond Freedom and Dignity was casually rejecting the concepts of human freedom and dignity, humanistic psychology affirmed these concepts. The humanistic stance that affirms the ontological difference between human beings and objects was part of a worldview that was pulled along by an ethical concern – to protect dignity, which had become the basis for the protection of basic human rights, including the United Nations’ (1948) Declaration of Universal Human Rights. Article I of the Declaration states, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” To say that human beings have dignity is to say that human beings also have an obligation or duty to respect the rights of all people. These rights include the right to life, liberty, and security of person; the right to be freed from slavery; equal protection before the law; freedom from arbitrary arrest, detention or exile; and so on.

Philosopher and ethicist Immanuel Kant was influential in his distinction between price and dignity . To have a price, according to Kant, was to be measured against other values. A box of cereal and a 1998 Mazda MX-6 are objects, and objects have a price – their worth can be estimated in terms of other values, such as their economic worth. However, a being with dignity must be measured according to her intrinsic worth. “In the realm of ends,” he writes, “everything has either a price or a dignity . Something that has a price can be exchanged for something else of equal value ; whereas that which exceeds all price and therefore admits of no equivalent, has a dignity” (Kant, 1785, cited in Williams, 2005). To say that human beings have dignity is to say that any given person is beyond price, of non-quantifiable value that is non-fungible and therefore of infinite worth. This is why, against utilitarian ethics, we can say that it is impossible to estimate a person’s worth over and against the anonymous crowd. Human worth is not summative in the way something with a price has summative value. Therefore a single person – think for example of Rosa Parks – can be seen, ethically, to have as much value as a whole collective of people who stand against her.

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