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Human Dignity

The concept of 'human dignity' has been enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights promulgated by the United Nations in 1948 as the foundation of all other human rights. The German Basic Law (Constitution) drawn up in 1949 and many other constitutions and frameworks of human rights have followed this lead. The context of these affirmations is, of course, the horrors of the Second World War and the Holocaust which left millions dead and reduced many to slavery and to a state of inhumanity. Today, the notions that human beings are somehow 'special' and that 'dignity' is something intrinsic to our humanity have been challenged by some philosophers and scientists. Some would argue that the dignity of human persons is conditional on them having certain characteristics: consciousness, the ability to make decisions or to lead an enjoyable and useful life. But, among those who accept that there is something special and unique about human beings, there is disagreement about what this means. For some, it is about exercising individual freedom and autonomy (for example, the euthanasia movement in Britain calls itself Dignity in Dying); for others, for example, Catholics and other Christians, it means the possibility of being a member of, and being welcomed by, the human community and, ultimately, God himself whatever one's condition of life. In other words, this last conception implies the notion of 'the sacredness of human life'. One of the finest examples of such an approach is the Dominican Bartolome de las Casas, the patron of our Institute, who defended the humanity of native peoples of Latin America against the attempts by the Conquistadores to deny their humanity.


The Las Casas Institute’s research project on Human Dignity explores the genealogy of the notion of human dignity from the period of Classical Greece and Rome as well as the Bible, through the synthesis made by the Fathers of the Church and its blossoming in western humanism through music, art, literature and philosophy. It also examines contemporary debates in which often radically different and contradictory interpretations of the term are used. These concern bioethics, law, human rights, and policy areas such as migration, work, democratic practice. We are currently in the first phase of the project which consists of a series of public lectures (link here). In 2017-18 we will hold three invitation-only workshops to examine the relevance of the concept of human dignity in the areas of bioethics, employment and democracy. Reports of these workshops will be subsequently published. The LCI is also collaborating with the Blackfriars Aquinas Institute to explore the question of how both Aquinas's natural philosophy and contemporary natural sciences understand human dignity and whether it is still appropriate to speak of human persons as coherent and unified individuals capable of making moral choices and conscience.

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