from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

The Future of Human Dignity—and Human Rights

A Roma boy pumps water in the slum of Tiszavasvari, east of Budapest, Hungary, on September 26, 2014.

October 21, 2014

A Roma boy pumps water in the slum of Tiszavasvari, east of Budapest, Hungary, on September 26, 2014.
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For decades the global debate over human rights has been a dialogue of the deaf. This interminable argument pits advocates of civil and political rights against proponents of economic and social rights. The former take the classic liberal position that individual freedom is the foundation of liberty and, accordingly, that the only fundamental rights are “negative” ones that constrain state power. The latter invoke social justice concerns and argue that civil and political liberties are empty without “positive” rights like guaranteed employment, health, shelter, and sustenance. Their opponents retort that these are mere aspirations and should not become “entitlements.” And so on.

This longstanding dispute dates from the founding of the United Nations at the end of World War II.Following the horrors of fascism and especially the Holocaust, all UN member states were committed (at least rhetorically) to the cause of “human rights.” But what should the content of such rights be? The answer, as it emerged in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), was a little bit of everything. As Mary Ann Glendon describes in A World Made New (2001) the Universal Declaration reflected the artful efforts of Eleanor Roosevelt to balance negative and positive liberties. The UDHR built on her late husband’s celebrated “Four Freedoms” speech (1940), which envisioned a future based not only on freedom of expression and of religion but also freedom from fear and from want.

Despite her tremendous accomplishment, the fundamental tension between these two basic orientations has never been resolved. During the long Cold War, disagreements over which set of rights to prioritize divided East from West and (after decolonization) North and South. This legacy of division persists today.

Help, however, may be on the way. In a provocative new edited book, Human Dignity and the Future of Global Institutions, Georgetown University professors Mark P. Lagon and Anthony Clark Arend seek to transcend the stale human rights debate by advancing a more encompassing and fundamental concept: human dignity. As Lagon and Arend define it,

Human dignity is the fundamental agency of human beings to apply their gifts to thrive. As such, it requires social recognition of each person’s inherent value and claim to opportunity. To be meaningful, human dignity must be institutionalized in practice and governance.

In sum, all humans are entitled to be treated with respect; as ends rather than means; to be recognized as of equal worth, and to be permitted to fulfill their inherent potential. (As a practical example, the editors cite investment in girls’ access to education as a critical step in realizing the dignity of women as well as men). Lagon and Arend argue that human dignity is a universal concept, understood and embraced by all peoples worldwide. The quest for dignity is fundamental, providing the ultimate foundation for human rights claims. At the same time, it is the “yardstick” for measuring progress in achieving those rights.

The purposes of this ambitious book are threefold: to clarify the meaning of human dignity, to explore how international institutions might better embody it, and to propose how the principle might be implemented in real-world settings. One of the book’s most intriguing claims is that we live in a “neo-medieval” era of fragmented and overlapping authorities and identities, in which nonstate actors—ranging from NGOs to foundations, corporations, and illicit groups—compete with sovereign states as never before for influence and legitimacy. In such a world, enhancing human dignity will not occur in a single “San Francisco moment” (as in 1945) but through an ongoing, messier dialogue that the authors term “mosaic multilateralism.”

The book’s practical chapters explore how a new emphasis on human dignity might influence the work of existingglobal institutions (e.g.,the UN Security Council, International Criminal Court, African Union, and International Monetary Fund), ongoing global campaigns (e.g., against terrorism, human trafficking, and infectious disease), and the growing activism of nonstate actors (e.g., development NGOs, global corporations, and faith-based institutions).

The core thesis of this book—that the concept of human dignity can transcend stale human rights debates—is potentially transformative. But is it persuasive? The answer depends on whether the authors, in subsequent work, can clarify several niggling questions:

  • Is human dignity a truly universal concept? First, the editors assert that the idea transcends specific cultures, but the ethical traditions they invoke in defining dignity and depicting it as the fountainhead of all rights are overwhelmingly Western in origin. They include Plato and other sources from Greek antiquity, the Jewish and Christian scriptures, the work of Immanuel Kant, the New Haven school of jurisprudence, and the writings of Francis Fukuyama. Although at least one contributor invokes the Quran, many of the world’s major religions are missing, and the contributing authors themselves are predominantly from the West. In their concluding chapter, the editors declare, “The goal of our project is to construct a robust international consensus on human dignity.” If so, the next phase of the conversation should be more international and ecumenical. That conversation would determine, for example, whether their own assertions about the inherent dignity and equality of women (as well as minority groups, such as the LGBT community) are as widely shared as they hope.

  • Is dignity the property of individuals only, or of communities, too? Another possible Western bias is the assumption that the concept of human dignity is essentially an attribute of individuals, as opposed to groups. This is problematic. Much of the ongoing debate about “Asian” (or “Confucian”) values appears to relate to the dignity of the community. Do communitarian traditions that emphasize obligations owed to the collectivity share the same concept of dignity? More starkly, some of the most globally salient disputes over “dignity” reflect resentment about perceived historical or ongoing injustices toward particular religious, ethnic, or national populations. Many of the frictions between the Arab (and broader Muslim) world and the West, as well as China’s assertiveness, would seem to fall into this category of the quest for recognition of the collectivity’s amour-propre, or its desire for “face.” As Linda says to Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, “Attention must be paid.”

  • Does “dignity” actually engender “human rights,” or endanger them? Third, there is a risk that emphasizing dignity in international forums and diplomacy will actually weaken the global human rights regime that has emerged since the end of World War II, by providing a useful smokescreen for authoritarian governments. The editors take pains to affirm that dignity should in no way replace existing human rights instruments and conventions, but rather provide a stronger, cross-cultural buttress for these rights claims. And their definition of human dignity leans toward a “negative” as opposed to “positive” conception of rights, by focusing on individual human agency and equality of opportunity, not equality of outcomes. However, one can imagine tyrants embracing the term “dignity,” placing their own gloss on its definition, and using it to restrict fundamental rights.

In their conclusion, Lagon and Arend concede that their “book raises more questions than it answers.” And that is an excellent thing, in a world that is desperate for fresh ideas and approaches to policy dilemmas. Human Dignity and the Future of Global Institutions is one of those rare works that later scholars and officials may well look back on for jumpstarting an important global conversation.

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