Mary Ann Glendon writes the best short history I’ve come across on the history of “human dignity” as a moral, social, and political concept. I’m excerpting extensively to present what is, to my thinking, her most critically important thinking:

It’s hard to imagine a decent politics that doesn’t depend on the notion of the dignity of the human person. It’s unfortunately also hard to specify how to anchor that notion in something beyond our earnest moral intuitions. As the bioethicist Adam Schulman poses the question: “Is dignity a useful concept, or is it a mere slogan that camouflages unconvincing arguments and unarticulated biases?” The question has implications far beyond the field of bioethics. Indeed, it has haunted the entire modern human rights project ever since the drafters of the UN Charter chose to begin that historic document with a profession of the member nations’ “faith” in “freedom and human rights” and in “the dignity and worth of the human person.” That act of faith in the wake of a war marked by unprecedented atrocities struck political realists of the day as astonishingly naive. Nevertheless, the concept of human dignity was made central to the scores of new constitutions and rights declarations that were adopted in the late twentieth century. …

When the full horrors implicit in the idea of “life unworthy to live” (Lebensunwertesleben) came to light [post-World War II], the concept of the dignity of human life began to receive serious attention from opinion shapers.

Building on the references in the UN Charter, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed in the first line of its preamble that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world.” Article 1 of the UDHR affirmed that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” The concept of human dignity became the hermeneutical key of constitutions like the German Basic Law of 1949, which opens with the statement that: “The dignity of man shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority.” …

Among the proponents of these hopeful new charters, however, there was already a certain uneasiness about whether the concept of human dignity could really do all the work it was expected to do. For one thing, dignity was nowhere defined in these documents. Rather, as Adam Schulman has pointed out, the statesmen who drafted them seem to have used the word as “a placeholder for whatever it is about human beings that entitles them to basic human rights and freedoms.” …

“Different understandings of the meanings of rights,” [Richard McKeon] wrote, “usually reflect divergent concepts of man and of society.” “Difficulties will be discovered,” McKeon predicted, “in the suspicions, suggested by these differences, concerning the tangential uses that might be made of a declaration of human rights for the purpose of advancing special interests.”

For a while, it seemed that McKeon might have been overly pessimistic. The idea of human rights grounded in human dignity became the polestar of the movements that led to the nonviolent collapse of totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe and of apartheid in South Africa. And the dignity-based Universal Declaration became the single most important reference point for cross-national discussions of human rights. By the end of the twentieth century, however, McKeon’s prediction was borne out: The more that human rights ideas showed their moral force, the more special interest groups sought to capture the prestige of the human rights project for their own purposes. The concept of the dignity of human life was attacked by some, and co-opted by others.

Population-control lobbies and proponents of sexual liberation mounted the first assault. The turbulent decades of the sexual revolution were accompanied by campaigns to have sexual liberties and abortion recognized as universal rights. Since the proposed new rights clashed with established rights relating to religion and the family, it was only a matter of time before advocates of sexual and abortion rights began to speak of “deconstructing and reconfiguring the human rights framework.”

The postwar dignitarian constitutions and rights instruments, with their family protection provisions, became a principal target of these efforts. Test cases brought to the European Court of Human Rights resulted in decisions that many national laws were in violation of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects the “intimacy of private life.” That language in Article 8, originally a family-protection concept, has been reinterpreted by the European Court as grounding a right to individual self-determination in all matters relating to personal, sexual, and affective relationships.

The assault on the dignity-based vision of human rights was particularly intense at the UN’s Beijing Women’s Conference in the fall of 1995. In fact, a European-led coalition attempted to remove the word “dignity” from the Beijing documents because they suspected it might be in tension with their particular view of gender equality. They also opposed all references to the Universal Declaration’s provisions on marriage, the family, religious freedom, protection of motherhood, and parental rights. The reason, apparently, was that those provisions were regarded as obstacles to the new sexual and reproductive rights for which the coalition hoped to gain recognition.

Meanwhile, the idea of the dignity of human life was coming under attack from members of the scientific community who wished to remove obstacles to experimentation on human embryos. Stephen Pinker charged, in an article titled “The Stupidity of Dignity,” that the concept of dignity was not only meaningless but harmful when used to oppose biological innovations that could enhance or lengthen human life. The biotechnologists were joined in their efforts by the vast profit-making businesses that depend on the destruction of unborn human life—the in-vitro fertilization and abortion industries. In the affluent societies of the West, the idea of the value of unborn human life lost traction among people who had become inured to abortion, and who were now lured by hopes that embryonic experimentation would yield benefits in the form of prolonged longevity and enhanced youthfulness.

Yet another offensive was launched by advocates of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide. Proponents of the right to control the time and manner of one’s death adopted the slogan “death with dignity” to counter the tendency of euthanasia opponents to speak of the duty to respect the dignity of human life from conception until natural death. To supporters of euthanasia, the dignity of the person primarily refers to the rights of the autonomous individual, while its critics emphasize the obligation to protect those whose autonomy is very limited. In a much-quoted article, bioethicist and UN consultant Ruth Macklin weighed in on the side of right-to-die advocates, dismissing dignity as “a useless concept” and arguing that it should be folded into other conceptions, such as respect for individual autonomy. …

As Maritain observed about the future of the dignity-based human rights project: Whether it will be “in tune with or harmful to human dignity will depend primarily on the extent to which a culture of human dignity develops.” If Maritain was correct, the best protections for freedom and dignity will be in the habits and opinions of ordinary citizens and their political leaders, reflected in appropriate institutions.

I’ve written on the Culture of Life and what a meaningful spectrum of choice might look like; these are both things that relate directly to some sense of the worth of the human person. It’s an important concept, obviously.

What Mary Ann Glendon underscores is that, without a meaningful grounding in a shared sense of what “human dignity” is and where it comes from, the phrase can be a pretty-sounding weapon to be used by whichever tribe captures it to craft and impose its own vision of humanity.

This colonial-style approach is at odds with Maritain’s observation in the final excerpted paragraph above: that a sense of human dignity has to flow from experience, rather than its implicit opposite, ideology.