[Steve who was interviewed earlier here gives his pub/BBQ answer to the question: What gives a human dignity? Please comment, with questions, requests for clarification, and even rebuttals, he wont mind. I'm hoping this will turn into a good discussion as human rights are something we all talk about but seldom think critically about.]
Contemporary (ethical and legal) usage of ‘dignity’ is still informed (albeit opaquely) by a Christian view of dignity which insists that Man is Imago Dei and, as such, elevated above the rest of Creation. That notion of being our qualitatively different to the other bits of Creation (and even higher animals) seems to me correct and doesn’t necessarily need God or any messy metaphysics. Because of things like sophisticated cultural practices, the meaning that we invest in the world, distinctive forms of consciousness, a distinctive susceptibility to mental and not just physical suffering, means that we are different to other animals. How these facts translate into values is a very different and difficult question.
Christian (particularly Catholic) thought has, via dignity, emphasised the sanctity of humans and all human ‘matter’ (regardless of its capabilities, capacities or potential) generating largely conservative ethical consequences (especially opposition to any ‘intervention’ which treats human matter as material on a par with non-human matter). It seems to me that these conservative consequences probably do flow from Imago Dei, but not necessarily from the ‘qualitative differences’ I identified (culture, consciousness, mental suffering etc.). In fact, I’m not quite sure how we derive values from facts full stop.
What is true is that dignity remains a meaningful part of our moral vocabulary, particularly in terms of articulating violation or inhumanity. To that extent it is something best ‘observed in the breach’: difficult to say what it is, but we can see when it’s diminished or destroyed. More positively, it generally functions as a way of opposing the utility of utilitarianism: talking about human dignity is a way of saying ‘there’s more to human life than what’s useful’ and ‘regardless of the will and needs of the majority, each individual is valuable’.
[So let us know what you think :-)]