Human Dignity

Our inherent dignity as human beings derives from a higher principle

We should treasure our freedom as one of our most precious possessions. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which has now been accepted as law by almost every country in the world, establishes the right of every human person to be free from all forms of slavery.

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights . . . . ” (art.1).

“Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status . . . . ” (art.2).

“Everyone has the right to life, liberty and the security of person” (art.3).

” No one shall be held in slavery or servitude. Slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms” (art.4).

We are so used to enjoying such freedoms that we forget the thousands of years it has taken us as a human race to acquire them. Around 1800, for instance, most governments could still arrest and imprison subjects indefinitely without proven charges. Women had few public rights. Workers were totally at the mercy of their employers. Slavery thrived in all Muslim States. And European slave traders captured around 80,000 slaves a year in Africa, transported them to America under appalling conditions and sold them there into a life of total servitude and dependence.




Alexander Falconbridge, a surgeon who served on slave ships, has left us a contemporary record (1790 AD) of how slaves were treated. During the day they were chained, stark naked, to the railing of the deck. At night hundreds were packed in small spaces, manacled to each other, with no ventilation and no proper toilets. They were mercilessly scourged at the least protest. Many died from suffocation, dysentry and exhaustion (see: Ch. and D.PLUMMER, Slavery: the Anglo-American Involvement, Newton Abbot 1973, pp. 66- 67).

Among the forces which eventually put a halt to these inhuman practices was the growing sense of responsibility among European leaders. The slave traders excused their actions on all kinds of grounds: some races were inferior by nature and suited for slave work, they said, slavery was an economic necessity, and so on. But William Wilberforce tirelessly campaigned for the abolition of the slave trade. In 1789 he put its atrocities before the British House of Commons and added:

“There are principles that go beyond politics. When I reflect on the command which says: `Thou shalt do no murder’, believing the authority to be divine, how can I dare to set up any reasoning against it?

“And when we think of eternity, and of the future consequences of all human conduct, what is there in this life that should make any man contradict the dictates of his conscience, the principles of justice, the laws of religion, and of God.

“The nature of this trade and all its circumstances are now open to us. We can no longer plead ignorance. We cannot evade it. It is now an object placed before us. We cannot pass it. We may spurn it. We may kick it out of our way, but we cannot turn aside so as to avoid seeing it; for it is brought now so directly before our eyes that this House must decide, and must justify to all the world, and to their own consciences, the rectitude of the grounds and principles of their decisions (see: H.PEDERSON (Ed), The World’s Great Speeches, New York 1965, pp. 212 – 219).

It was only in 1807 that the Bill forbidding slavery in all British Dominions was finally adopted. It was a victory of conscience, that would be duplicated by similar victories in other parts of the world.

Slavery was abolished in French colonies in 1848 and in the USA in 1865. Legal slavery continued to exist in Saudi Arabia till 1964; among the Tuareg Berbers of the Sahara until 1973.

The source of human dignity

Today slavery persists in modern forms. Girls are sold into prostitution. Domestic slaves are kept in some Muslim countries. Bonded labourers are so tied to their masters that they enjoy virtually no freedom at all. But these aberrations are prosecuted as real crimes. Slavery is no longer tolerated by the world community. The Universal Declaration indicates the reason: it bases human freedom on the inherent dignity and inalienable rights of all members of the human family. Human dignity is its ultimate principle.

It could be argued that we are free because other people give us our freedom. It would then be just a question of everybody doing everybody else a favour. We would receive our freedom by common agreement. But that is obviously not how the Universal Declaration sees it. It speaks of `inherent dignity’ and `inalienable rights’.

“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.”

The International Law that protects human rights clearly bases human freedom on some worth we possess in ourselves, as human beings. What is that worth?

The Declaration also refers to our human conscience. “Disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of humankind”, it says. By what norms does our conscience judge? They are norms that transcend the capricious rules laid down by individuals, communities, nations and religious denominations.

The Declaration states that “everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible”. Again, are these duties just imposed on us by other people? Are they not of necessity duties that derive from higher principles?

Suppose for a moment that the United Nations is the highest human authority on earth. It could then be argued that our human freedom and basic human rights are given to us by the United Nations. This in turn would then imply that the United Nations might, at some future date, exclude these rights from a particular race, for instance from the Aboriginals in Australia or the Bushmen in South Africa.

A higher principle

This is not so difficult to imagine. In 1921, the seniormost archaeologist in the United States, Henry Fairfield Osborn, presided over the Second International Eugenics Congress in New York. Eugenics was a widely popular movement at the time. It held that some races are genetically superior to others. The interests of humanity are served best by breeding superior people and by preventing those who are inferior or unfit, from reproducing.

Osborn also opposed immigration into the United States of Asians, Italians, Greeks or Slavs from Eastern Europe. Racial purity should be promoted to halt the degeneration that would inevitably result in national decline, genetic suicide and extinction.

“In the United States we are slowly waking to the consciousness that education and environment do not fundamentally alter racial values. We are engaged in a serious struggle to maintain our historic republican institutions through barring the entrance of those who are unfit to share the duties and responsibilities of our well-founded government. The true spirit of American democracy that all men are born with equal rights and duties has been confused with the political sophistry that all men are born with equal character and ability to govern themselves and others, and with the educational sophistry that education and environment will offset the handicap of heredity.” neander

Osborn, who was the director of the Museum of Natural History in New York, arranged the exhibits of human evolution in such a way that it became a story of human decline by the intermarriage of such superior races as the Cro-Magnon with the dull-witted Neanderthals. The lessons for eugenics were explicitly pointed out in many exhibits (see: R.RAINGER, An Agenda for Antiquity, Alabama 1994.>

Suppose that in the future the United Nations would be dominated by leaders who think as Osborn did. They might believe it to be their duty to strengthen the human family by a judicious ethnic isolation of `inferior’ races or by prescribing birth control for all those deemed unfit. Would they have the authority to do so, if the majority of the members of the United Nations were to support them?

The present Universal Declaration of Human Rights clearly says No. Human beings have an inherent dignity. People have inalienable rights, rights which can not be taken away by other human beings, of whatever authority they are.

The Universal Declaration therefore unequivocally admits that human dignity and human freedom derive from a higher principle – which, by implication, can only be God.



The text in this chapter is from How to Make Sense of God by John Wijngaards, Sheed & Ward, Kansas City 1995. Tom Adcock designed the cartoons. The Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada awarded the book a prize on 25 May 1996.

View the following film on the meaning of conscience