Human dignity in brief: An ancient lineage

The idea of human dignity has a long history in both religious and philosophical thought and has undergone several evolutions in its journey to becoming a modern legal principle. In classical Roman times, the predominant view of dignity drew distinctions between those who occupied higher or lower social status, almost as a substitute for “reputation,” although Cicero used a limited concept of dignity to separate humans from animals.Christopher McCrudden, “Human Dignity and Judicial Interpretation of Human Rights, European Journal of International Law 19, no. 4 (2008), 655-724, 656-57.  Theologians, humanists and, later, philosophers between the Renaissance and Enlightenment broke with this conception and began to declare the universality of dignity—that dignity is inherent in all humans and is worthy of protection, underscored by a theological argument: “the dignity of human beings is derived from their creation in the image of God.”Leslie Meltzer Henry, “The Jurisprudence of Dignity,” University of Pennsylvania Law Review 160, no. 1 (2011), 169-233, 199-203,  In the 18th century, Immanuel Kant popularized the concept of dignity as a legal norm, grounded in the belief that “to treat people with dignity is to treat them as autonomous individuals able to choose their destiny."McCrudden, “Human Dignity,” 2008, 659-60. Some regard Kant as “‘the father of the modern concept of human dignity.’” Ibid., 659 (quoting Giovanni Bognetti, “The Concept of Human Dignity in European and US Constitutionalism,” in European and US Constitutionalism, edited by Georg Nolte (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 85-107, 75 & 79).  Thus, the core idea of human dignity that arose long before its use in international human rights law is the idea that “worth and regard arise in each individual simply by virtue of being human. This stripped-down dignity does not confer any status or social standing—but simply identifies the individual as the bearer of human dignity."Neomi Rao, “Three Concepts of Dignity in Constitutional Law,” Notre Dame Law Review 86, no. 1 (2011), 183-271, 196.