Lecture: How can a state guarantee dignity?

After the crimes in World War II dignity became part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and of many constitutions. The Ukrainian constitution also contains a right to be treated dignified. In the German constitution the first task of the state is to respect and protect the human dignity.

But who or what is a state?

Georg Jellinek, a German political philosopher in the 19th century defined: state territory, constitutive people and state power. It is comprehensible, that a territory cannot treat somebody dignified, but people and the state power can do. In principle, the members of the state power are also part of the constitutive people, but they have another status with the task to fulfil what is written in the constitution.

Does this mean, only the state power is responsible for dignity in a state? Of course not! The state power can only define the framework wherein dignity is possible.

However, what does dignity mean?

The German word for dignity, “Würde,” is closely related with the word “Wert” – value. In former times it described the rank, the prestige or merit of a person. But since the time of the enlightenment the German meaning has chanced to an abstract moral value. Immanuel Kant, for instance, described dignity as absolute inner value, which cannot be compensated. Each human being is unique and irreplaceable. In principle, dignity means the unconditional recognition of a human as human. “Unconditional” says, that dignity cannot be purchased or reduced by a particular behaviour. (The case of Breivik in Norway is a good example, because he was treated with dignity despite his killing of 77 people)

However, dignity is related to a concept of human. But this concept is less connected to the question “How is a human?” “How to be human” (actions of a human), but rather to the question “What is a human?” in the sense, what makes a human a human.

A natural scientist might answer, that a human is a living being, which pursues metabolism within an area until its death. For that a human has certain skills and attributes to provide this metabolism. This means, in the eyes of a natural scientist, dignity would be given, if a human has “dignified” conditions to pursue its metabolism: give some food, clothes and a dwelling, that a human can live “appropriate to its species” and voila – a human is a human.

Scholars of the liberal arts, such as philosophers, would not be satisfied and want to find differences, which raise humans from animals.

One thesis is, that humans have unlike animals a conscious freedom to choose, which is almost independent of instincts. External borders of this freedom are given by physical laws – a human cannot do everything that it wants (e.g. fly in the sky or travel on water without tools). Internal borders can be seen in moral ideas – not everything that a human can do is allowed. This inner borders are built during life and they are influenced by the respective society. Thus, dignity can be understood as achievement of civilization: to see a human in a foreign human and to respect its personhood.

What possibilities do a state have to guarantee dignity?

If dignity is something that we learn, education plays an elementary role. This is why states decide on the main content of basic education.

If dignity is something which is connected with freedom, it is the task of the state to guarantee this freedom. For that purpose there are state institutions as for example the police.

If dignity has something to do with a human’s ability to develop as human by developing its potentials and skills, it is the task of the state to define such a framework, that each human can do so freely.

And in this area there is an idea: Each person should receive monthly a sum from the state, to be able to live. Work is divided from livelihood. This idea has different names – basic income, guaranteed minimum, citizen’s income and others. In principle this state payment can be seen as monetary equivalent of dignity. The payment is also unconditional and it differs from social help, while no (often “not dignified”) proof of neediness must be given.


This lecture was held on 30th March 2015 in Kiev/Ukraine at the international conference “Philosophy of humans as way of humanism and dignity.” After the so called “Revolution of dignity” in the end of 2013 and beginning of 2014 when several people were killed by state security personnel, the search for new solutions in Ukraine is very high.

About Joerg Drescher

Joerg Drescher has written 3 articles.

The views expressed in this Op-Ed piece are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of Basic Income News or BIEN. BIEN and Basic Income News do not endorse any particular policy, but Basic Income News welcomes discussion from all points of view in its Op-Ed section.

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