The Core Meaning of Human Dignity
Keywords:human dignity, human rights, supra-positive values, Kant, categorical imperative, inherent human dignity, moral ethics, post-war rights protecting paradigm, constitutional rights, constitutional values, cruel and unusual punishment, socio-economic rights
The concept of human dignity is relatively new in international and domestic constitutional law. Dignity is protected as a value or a right, or both, in international law and many domestic jurisdictions. It is difficult to define human dignity in a legal context, as the concept is not defined in the first international document which recognizes inherent human dignity and the protection thereof, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1946) and many international (and national) documents enacted thereafter. Despite dissensus regarding the widespread use of the concept, dignity has come to display three elements in constitutional adjudication post World War Two: the ontological element which entails that human beings have equal inherent human dignity that cannot be waived or diminished; the second element being the claim that inherent human dignity has to be recognised and respected; and the limited-state claim as the third element which entails that states have a positive obligation to progressively realise human dignity through the mechanism of socio-economic rights. It is widely accepted that these elements root in Kantian moral ethics which holds that man's autonomy is based upon universal dignity, as a result of which man should never be used as a means to an end, but only as a means in himself. Kant expressed this idea through formulation of a categorical imperative, namely that everyone's inherent human dignity has to be respected and protected universally. The preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1946), article 1(1) of the German Basic Law and section 10 of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996 embody the elements of Kant's categorical imperative. As a result, the three elements are applied as a definitional term of human dignity in German and South African constitutional adjudication. Based on these elements, it can be argued that the current idea of universal inherent dignity, at least in German and South African law, comports with Kant's ideal that man should never be used as a means to an end.
Ackermann 2004 NZ L Rev
Ackermann LWH "The Legal Nature of the South African Constitutional Revolution" 2004 NZ L Rev 633-679
Ackermann Human Dignity
Ackermann LWH Human Dignity: Lodestar to Equality in South Africa (Juta Cape Town 2013)
Barak "Human Dignity"
Barak A "Human Dignity: The Constitutional Value and the Constitutional Right" in McCrudden C (ed) Understanding Human Dignity (Oxford University Press Oxford 2013) 361-380
Barroso 2012 BC Int'l & Comp L Rev
Barroso LR "Here, There and Everywhere: Human Dignity in Contemporary Law and the Transnational Discourse" 2012 BC Int'l & Comp L Rev 331-393
Beyleveld and Brownsword 1998 MLR
Beyleveld D and Brownsword R "Human Dignity, Human Rights, and Human Genetics" 1998 MLR 661-680
Beyleveld and Brownsword Human Dignity
Beyleveld D and Brownsword R Human Dignity in Bioethics and Biolaw (Oxford University Press Oxford 2001)
Binder 1999 Buff Hum Rts L Rev
Binder G "Cultural Relativism and Cultural Imperialism in Human Rights Law" 1999 Buff Hum Rts L Rev 211-221
Botha 2009 Stan L Rev
Botha H "Human Dignity in Comparative Perspective" 2009 Stan L Rev 171-220
Cancik "'Dignity of Man'"
Cancik H "'Dignity of Man' and 'Persona' in Stoic Anthropology: Some Remarks on Cicero, De Officiis I 105-107" in Kretzmer D and Klein E (eds) The Concept of Human Dignity in Human Rights Discourse (Kluwer Law International The Hague 2002) 19-40
Carozza 2003 Tex L Rev
Carozza PG "My Friend is a Stranger": The Death Penalty and the Global Ius Commune of Human Rights 2003 Tex L Rev 1032-1089
Carozza "Human Dignity"
Carozza PG "Human Dignity in Constitutional Adjudication" in Ginsburg T and Dixon R Comparative Constitutional Law (Edgar Elgar Cheltenham 2011) 459-472
Chaskalson 2000 SAJHR
Chaskalson CJA "Human Dignity as a Foundational Value of our Constitutional Order" 2000 SAJHR 193-205
Chaskalson "Human Dignity"
Chaskalson CJA "Human Dignity as a Constitutional Value" in Kretzmer D and Klein E (eds) The Concept of Human Dignity in Human Rights Discourse (Kluwer Law International The Hague 2002) 133-144
Clapham Human Rights
Clapham A Human Rights in the Private Sphere (Clarendon Press Oxford 1993)
De Wet 1995 AJHR
De Wet E Can the Social-State Principle in Germany Guide State Action in South Africa in the Fields of Socio and Economic Rights? 1995 AJHR 30-49
Dicke "Founding Function of Human Dignity"
Dicke K "The Founding Function of Human Dignity" in Kretzmer D and Kleyn E The Concept of Human Dignity in Human Rights Discourse (Kluwer Law International The Hague 2002) 111-120
Dworkin Taking Rights Seriously
Dworkin R Taking Rights Seriously 2nd ed (Duckworth London 1978)
Eberle 1997 Utah L Rev
Eberle EJ "Human Dignity, Privacy and Personality in German and American Law" 1997 Utah L Rev 963-1056
Eberle 2008 Or Rev Int'l L
Eberle EJ "The German Idea of Freedom" 2008 Or Rev Int'l L 1-76
Eckert "Legal Roots"
Eckert J "Legal Roots of Human Dignity in German Law" in Kretzmer D and Klein E (eds) The Concept of Human Dignity in Human Rights Discourse (Kluwer Law International The Hague 2002) 41-54
Englard 1999-2000 Cardozo L Rev
Englard I "Human Dignity: From Antiquity to Modern Israel's Constitutional Framework" 1999-2000 Cardozo L Rev 1903-1928
Feldman 1999 Public Law
Feldman D "Human Dignity as a Legal Value: Part I" 1999 Public Law 682-702
Feldman Civil Liberties
Feldman D Civil Liberties and Human Rights in England and Wales 2nd ed (Oxford University Press Oxford 2002)
Fletcher 1984 UWO L Rev
Fletcher GP "Human Dignity as a Constitutional Value" 1984 UWO L Rev 171-182
Frowein "Human Dignity"
Frowein JA "Human Dignity in International Law" in Kretzmer D and Klein E (eds) The Concept of Human Dignity in Human Rights Discourse (Kluwer Law International The Hague 2002) 121-132
Gearty Principles of Human Rights Adjudication
Gearty C Principles of Human Rights Adjudication (Oxford University Press Oxford 2004)
Habermas 2010 Metaphilosophy
Habermas J "The Concept of Human Dignity and the Realistic Utopia of Human Rights" 2010 Metaphilosophy 464-480
Henkin "International Human Rights"
Henkin L "International Human Rights and Rights in the United States" in Meron T Human Rights in International Law: Legal and Policy Issues (Clarendon Press Oxford 1984) 25-67
Kant I Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals translated and edited by MJ Gregor (Cambridge University Press 1991)
Klein "Human Dignity"
Klein E "Human Dignity in German Law" in Kretzmer and Klein E (eds) The Concept of Human Dignity in Human Rights Discourse (Kluwer Law International The Hague 2002) 145-159
Kretzmer "Human Dignity"
Kretzmer D "Human Dignity in Israeli Jurisprudence" in Kretzmer and Klein E (eds) The Concept of Human Dignity in Human Rights Discourse (Kluwer Law International The Hague 2002) 161-175
Liebenberg Socio-economic Rights Adjudication
Liebenberg S Socio-economic Rights Adjudication under a Transformative Constitution (Juta Cape Town 2010)
Mahlmann 2010 GLJ
Mahlmann M "The Basic Law at 60 – Human Dignity and the Culture of Republicanism" 2010 GLJ 6-32
McCrudden 2008 EJIL
McCrudden C "Human Dignity and Judicial Interpretation of Human Rights" 2008 EJIL 656-724
Michalowski and Woods German Constitutional Law
Michalowski S and Woods L German Constitutional Law: The Protection of Civil Liberties (Aldershot Ashgate 1999)
Neuman 2003 Stan L Rev
Neuman GL "Human Rights and Constitutional Rights: Harmony and Dissonance" 2003 Stan L Rev 1863-1900
Neuman "Human Dignity"
Neuman GL "Human Dignity in United States Constitutional Law" in Simon D and Weiss M (eds) Zur Autonomy des Individuums (Nomos Baden-Baden 2000) 249-271
Rao 2011 Notre Dame L Rev
Rao N "Three Concepts of Human Dignity in Constitutional Law" 2011 Notre Dame L Rev 183-274
Réaume 2003 La L Rev
Réaume DG "Discrimination and Dignity" 2003 La L Rev 1-53
Schachter 1983 AJIL
Schachter O "Human Dignity as a Normative Concept" 1983 AJIL 848-854
Shultziner "Human Dignity"
Schultziner D "Human Dignity: Functions and Meanings" in Malpas J and Lickiss N (eds) Perspectives on Human Dignity (Springer Dordrecht 2007) 73-92
Venter "Human Dignity"
Venter F "Human Dignity as a Constitutional Value: A South African Perspective" in Ipsen J and Schmidt-Jortzig E (eds) Recht – Staat – Gemeinwohl: Festschrift für Dietrich Rauschning (Carl Heymans Köln 2001) 335-349
Waldron 2008 Acta Juridica
Waldron J "The Dignity of Groups" 2008 Acta Juridica 1-29
Weinrib 2005 NJCL
Weinrib LE "Human Dignity as a Rights-Protecting Principle" 2005 NJCL 325-345
Weinrib "Constitutional Conceptions"
Weinrib LE "Constitutional Conceptions and Constitutional Comparativism" in Jackson VC and Tushnet M Defining the Field of Comparative Constitutional Law (Westport Connecticut 2002) 3-34
Weisstub "Honor, Dignity and the Framing of Multiculturalist Values"
Weisstub DN "Honor, Dignity and the Framing of Multiculturalist Values" in Kretzmer D and Klein E (eds) The Concept of Human Dignity in Human Rights Discourse (Kluwer Law International The Hague 2002) 263-296
Wood 2008 Acta Juridica
Wood A "Human Dignity, Right and the Realm of Ends" 2008 Acta Juridica 47-74
Advance Mining Hydraulics v Botes 2000 2 BCLR 119 (T)
BVerfGE 40, 121 (1975)
BVerfGE 45, 187 (1977)
BVerfGE 49, 286 (1979)
BVerfGE 64, 274 (1981)
BVerfGE 88, 203 (1993)
Carmichele v Minister of Safety and Security and the Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development 2001 4 SA 938 (CC)
Conseil Constitutionnel [CC] Decision No 2010–613DC, 7 October 2010, JO 18345 (Fr)
De Reuck v Director of Public Prosecutions 2004 1 SA 406 (CC)
Dodo v The State 2001 3 SA 382 (CC)
Egan v Canada 1995 29 CRR (2d) 79
Government of the Republic of South Africa v Grootboom 2001 1 SA 46 (CC)
Harksen v Lane 1998 1 SA 300 (CC)
Hoffman v South African Airways 2001 1 SA 1 (CC)
Khumalo v Holomisa 2002 5 SA 401 (CC)
Malan v City of Cape Town 2014 6 SA 315 (CC)
MEC for Education: KwaZulu-Natal v Pillay 2008 1 SA 474 (CC)
Minister of Home Affairs v Fourie 2006 1 SA 524 (CC)
Minister of Home Affairs v Watchenuka 2004 4 SA 326 (SCA)
Mohamed v President of the Republic of South Africa 2001 3 SA 893 (CC)
National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality v Minister of Justice 1999 1 SA 6 (CC)
Prince v President of the Law Society Cape of Good Hope 2001 2 SA 388 (CC)
Prinsloo v Van der Linde 1997 3 SA 1012 (CC)
R v Kapp 2008 SCC 41 Robert James Stransham-Ford v Minster of Justice and Correctional Services (GNP)
(unreported) case number 27401/15 of 4 May 2015
S v Dodo 2001 3 SA 382 (CC)
S v Jordan 2002 6 SA 642 (CC)
S v Lawrence 1997 4 SA 1176 (CC)
S v Makwanyane 1995 3 SA 391 (CC)
Stanfield v Minister of Correctional Services 2004 4 SA 43 (C)
Vereinigung Bildender Künstler v Austria case number 68354/01, ECHR 2007-II
Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996
Grundgesetz für die Bundesrepublik Deutschland, 1949
African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights (1981)
American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man (1948)
European Convention on Human Rights (1950)
Helsinki Final Act (1975)
International Charter of Human Rights (1948)
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1967)
International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1967)
Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People's Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (2000)
Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948)
Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action (1993)
How to Cite
Copyright (c) 2016 AC (Rinie) Steinmann
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Copyright in all material published in PER/PELJ vests in the author, provided that authors grant, by submission of their contributions, permission that their contributions may be shared and adapted without restriction. An author furthermore agrees that the same contribution may not be published elsewhere without the written permission of the editor.
Anyone gaining access, electronically or otherwise, to a contribution to PER, may quote from such contribution, use the intellectual content thereof, share and adapt it, but subject to the following conditions:
you must give appropriate credit, provide a link and indicate if changes were made; and
the copyright of the author(s) may not be infringed in any way.