Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Dignity - Our Principles Defined Part IV

Let us begin with a description of what dignity means according to the online encyclopedia, Wikipedia:

Dignity is a term used in moral, ethical, legal, and political discussions to signify that a being has an innate right to be valued and receive ethical treatment. It is an extension of the Enlightenment-era concepts of inherent, inalienable rights. Dignity is often used in proscriptive and cautionary ways: for example in politics it is usually used to critique the treatment of oppressed and vulnerable groups and peoples, but it has also been extended to apply to cultures and sub-cultures, religious beliefs and ideals, animals used for food or research, and plants. Dignity also has descriptive meanings pertaining to human worth, although there is no exact or agreed upon definition of this worth. In general, the term has various functions and meanings depending on how the term is used and on the context.

Though dignity has long been used in conjunction with protecting vulnerable human groups, it is now used in discussions for other species as well.  Dignity, then, as used in the Unitarian Universalist First Principle, pertains to “beings” and their inherent right to be valued and to receive ethical treatment.  To have dignity does not prescribe how each is to be treated, and what precise actions are moral or ethical, only that the vulnerable group merits moral attention because of their presence on this earth, and that individuals’ needs matter. 

For humans, we might more easily see the dignity of those species more closely related to us, and who are more intelligent and social, including other primates, cetaceans, and smart and social birds such as crows and parrots.  Upon closer reflection, though, we can see how each species and individual evolved to exist in a particular time, place, and ecological niche, and that this placement is one that calls us to deeply respect the forces of nature that gave birth to such wonder and intricate relationships.Each individual portrays their deep embeddedness in a shared evolutionary path, and though this path may become crowded with the needs of the many, each occupies their place with dignity.  We know not where the road may take us all, but we do know that we journey together.

Rev. LoraKim Joyner, DVM
First Principle Project Facilitator


  1. There is a fairly standard philosophical distinction that I think might be helpful here. Moral philosopher, Kenneth Goodpaster, back in 1978 made a helpful distinction between "moral considerability" and "moral significance." Moral considerability is the question of whether an entity should be taken into account morally *at all.* Moral significance is about *how much* that entity is to be taken into account, It seems to me that what we are asking here in terms of inherent worth and dignity is that we expand our notion of moral considerability to include all beings. If we humans could just take that first step it would be amazing and completely transformational! After we take that first step, then can worry about the harder issues of moral significance in light of the sorts of conflicting interest claims that inevitably occur in life. It may be that we legitimately consider some entities as having more moral significance than some others, but that should be predicated upon the recognition that all possess moral considerability at least. It seems to me that we sometimes get hung up in our discussions by wanting to rush ahead into the thorny issues of moral significance before we have even taken the first step of expanding our conception of moral considerability to all. To me, inherent worth and dignity means at the very least having moral considerability. I see no reason why moral considerability should be limited to just humans, and I don't believe that in our heart of hearts we really believe it is that limited.

    1. Dear Mark,

      That is really, really helpful what you wrote here. I wonder if when I put this series together I can include your comment?

      In thanks,


    2. Thanks, LoraKim. Of course you can use it. You know I will do anything I can to advance this cause. It is very near and dear to my heart.


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