Commentary, December 2007. Revised and reprinted in Human Dignity and Bioethics: Essays Commissioned by the President's Council on Bioethics (Washington DC, 2008), 297-331.
In contrast to continental Europe, human dignity has never been a powerful idea in American public discourse. We tend instead to be devoted to the language of rights and the pursuit of equality. For the egalitarians among us, the very idea of “dignity” smacks too much of aristocracy, and for secularists and libertarians too much of religion. Moreover, it seems to be too vague and private a matter to be the basis for public policy.
Yet we Americans actually care a great deal about human dignity, even if the term does not come easily to our lips. In times past, our successful battles against slavery, sweatshops, and segregation, although fought in the name of civil rights, were at bottom campaigns for treating human beings as they deserve to be treated solely because of their humanity. Likewise, our taboos against incest, bestiality, and cannibalism, as well as our condemnations of prostitution, drug addiction, and self-mutilation—all these, having little to do with defending liberty or equality, seek to uphold human dignity against (voluntary) acts of self-degradation.