The word "dignity" is frequently employed in many moral, political, ethical and religious debates or simple discussions. It generally refers to any human being's rights to be respected and treated ethically. This concept is extended from the Enlightenment age principles of inalienable, inherent human rights. In politics, the term is used when criticizing the bad treatment received by certain vulnerable, oppressed categories of people.
This English word called "dignity" derives from the Latin "dignitas" via the French word "dignité." In its ordinary sense, it refers to status and respect. It is most often used to imply that a certain person does not receive the proper treatment, or even that a certain person does not treat himself/herself with enough self-respect. The special philosophical use of this word has a very interesting history. Nonetheless, political, scientific and legal discussions avoid any clear-cut definition of the word "dignity."
So what does it actually mean?
Even international proclamations leave this word undefined. Present-day scientific commentators like for instance those who argue against algeny and genetic research use the word dignity to support their claim, but when it comes to its application, they are rather ambiguous.
Immanuel Kant, the Enlightenment Age (17th-18th centuries) philosopher, said that there are things which have dignity, and these things ought to be regarded as valuable without any discussion or debate. But of course, valuable is a relative term, because what one considers worthy and of value is disregarded by another, and so on and so forth. Value depends on the observer's perspective of that thing. And a thing that is an end in itself if it has a moral dimension. This means that the thing must be the representation of a choice between right and wrong. Kant asserts that only human's moral capacity is endowed with dignity. Kant also explained to the Western philosophical world that man's free will is quintessential. Human dignity is thus strongly related to humans' ability to be the choosers of their very own actions, be them right or wrong.
There are many 20th century philosophers that expressed his perspectives on the topic of dignity. These philosophers included Alan Gewirth and Mortimer Adler. Gewirth's points of view are usually compared to the ones belonging to Kant, and are often opposed to them. Although he shares Kant's perspective that human dignity comes from man applying the free will principle to his actions, Gewirth placed the focus more on the moral duties and implications derived from dignity. He refers to humans' moral obligation not only to avoid doing harm to anyone else, but also to provide others with active assistance in order for them to achieve and preserve a well-being state of affairs.
Adler developed the topic, referring also to humans' equal rights to dignity. He also made reference to the dignity of labor, and other things. He relates the question whether humans really possess equal dignity rights to the question whether humans are actually all equal. He also poses the question whether humans are to be set apart from other beings or things, including animals. He concluded that all humans are equal only in the sense that they are all equally different and distinct from the animal world. He said that the dignity of man is "the dignity of the human being as a person - a dignity that is not possessed by things." Where the distinction is not clearly recognized and accepted, there are complications in understanding the equivalence between dignity and equal treatment towards humans and other beings.
Although Dan Egonsson and later on Roger Wertheimer said that dignity is conventionally equaled with the fact of being human, they both enriched the idea of dignity with something more than human. Egonsson made the suggestion that the two conditions of being worthy of dignity include first of all being human, and second of all being alive.
Arthur Schopenhauer made the distinction between the objective and subjective definition of dignity. Thus, the objective definition of dignity implies other people's opinion about our own worth, and the subjective definition of dignity refers to our fear of other people's opinion.