The Institute for Human Rights, like many global NGO’s, aims to promote and protect human rights within our local, national, and international communities. Specific human rights issues have been explored on this blog, ranging from child marriage to the genocide in Myanmar. This is one approach to understanding human rights: picking apart the issues, analyzing human rights documents (such as the Universal Declaration for Human Rights), and working towards a world where human rights are universal and protected. Another way of conceptualizing human rights is through the lens of peace promotion. Whereas human rights are, typically, legal and political by nature, peace promotion calls upon a person’s moral and ethical faculties. While these concepts are similar in many ways (after all, laws are supposed to reflect the ethics of its society), ‘never the twain shall meet’ is more often the case. In preparation for the International Day of Peace – September 21st – this blog explores a central concept in both peace and human rights: human dignity. Human dignity, I argue, is why peace promotion is necessary for humanity and why its active promotion is ethically justified.
Dignity, Human Rights, and Peace
What is dignity? Many of us have a vague idea of what dignity means: self-worth, inherent value, spiritual or religious connotations, and the like. The operational definition of dignity in human rights and peace literature can be hazy as well; in fact, I have struggled to find a cohesive and comprehensive definition. Dignity seems to be a ‘one-size-fits-all’ concept, used with substantially different connotations, in many academic and applied fields.
The origins of dignity, in the formerly legitimate social systems of aristocracy, utterly juxtapose today’s definition (Kleinig & Evans, 2013). The medieval concept of dignity came from a ranked / hierarchical social system; ‘dignitaries’, a person who possessed dignity, held higher socioeconomic status than those who did not possess ‘dignity’. With dignity-from-rank came benefits: physical (in the form of land ownership) or metaphysical (with an endowment of gravitas). This conceptual framework of dignity shaped how the term was used in philosophy and other social sciences for many years, until the ideas of Immanuel Kant changed the relationship between dignity and ethical behavior. Sometimes, with the right idea and platform, words completely change their meaning within a society.
Moving away from the ‘ranked’ definition of dignity, Kant proposed a new form of dignity. First and foremost, dignity is shared by all humankind (this universality is also a feature of the current definition of dignity in the world of human rights and peace; Kleinig & Evans, 2013). Although Kant wasn’t the first to universalize dignity (many historical antecedents are found in Stoic and Renaissance theology), the popularity of Kant’s philosophy broadcasted the idea into the public sphere in such a way that the idea was intractable (Kleinig & Evans, 2013). In short, Kant emphasized the role of ethical choice and moral behavior in dignity. Dignity, in Kant’s view, is not a nebulous status enjoyed by the upper echelon of society. It is instead the byproduct of both a person’s God-given (in Kant’s words) ability to create an ethical code of behavior and a person’s choice to live by the code he or she created. Dignity is found in all persons because dignity reflects a skilled shared by us: our capacity to both make moral judgements and adhere to the rules we make. Through this example, we see how the concept of dignity experienced quite a stark transformation by going from an attribute only a select few possessed to an inherent potential all persons possess.
The story doesn’t end here, however. The definition of dignity is contested to this very day. While the role and influence of human dignity in human rights documents is uncontested (‘dignity’ is mentioned in Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for example), some thinkers propose the usefulness of dignity has been lost (Schroeder, 2012; United Nations, 1948). The vagueness of ‘human dignity’ increases the number of its applications, but Schroeder (2012) and other scholars claim the ‘one-size-fits-all’ mentality threatens the concept from within. They argue the dignity-based rights approach is fallible because the justification for rights comes not from human beings themselves, but from a philosophical virtue assigned to their experience. While the merits of this argument are important (one such example is the push for greater specificity in defining ‘dignity), the ubiquity of dignity in human rights literature makes the divorce of human rights and human dignity a herculean task. Dignity, with all its complications, is at the heart of human rights.
International Day of Peace
Moving away from the conceptual aspect of peace, let’s focus on a practical application. How can we identify normative values held by a society and whether these values are peaceful or not? One way is to look at cultural events and how these events are celebrated. Let us look at Independence Day as an example. On July 4th, many Americans attend cookouts, don red/white/blue attire, and a general attitude of patriotism is (hopefully) experienced by all Americans. By comparing the American independence celebration to other less extravagant independence day celebrations, we can make the assertion that America is an especially patriotic nation. Yet, what celebrations do we have for the concept of peace? We do not have a “Day of Kantian-Defined Human Dignity”, but we do have the International Day of Peace.
International Day of Peace is a celebration of the international values of dignity, human rights, and peace. First established in 1981, the United Nations unanimously voted to make September 21st the International Day of Peace. The UN stated the reason behind Peace Day: “commemorating and strengthening the ideals of peace both within and among all nations and peoples”. This is a day to reaffirm each person’s and each nation’s commitment to a peaceful way of life and to celebrate the strides made towards peace across the globe. The theme for 2017 International Day of Peace is “Together for Peace: Respect, Safety, and Dignity for All”. The UN created a short video for 2017 International Day of Peace which can be found here.
The IHR is celebrating the International Day of Peace with INTO UAB today from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. in Stern Library. INTO UAB is hosting an International Day of Peace Food & Culture Festival. INTO UAB provides English-learning opportunities and education assistance for non-US students with aspirations to study at a UAB undergraduate or graduate program.
Kleinig, J. & Evans, N. G. (2013). Human flourishing, human dignity, and human rights. Law and Philosophy, 32(5), 539-564.
Schroeder, D. (2012). Human rights and human dignity: An appeal to separate the conjoined twins. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 15(3), 323-335.
United Nations. (1948). The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/