Human dignity: intrinsic or relative value?

J Int Bioethique. 2010 Sep;21(3):51-62, 88-9. doi: 10.3917/jib.213.0051.


Is human dignity an intrinsic value? Or is it a relative value, depending on the perception or assessment of quality of life? History had delineated some of its key features, but the advent of human rights and the Holocaust put special emphasis on this notion, particularly in the field of bioethics. But if modern medicine regards human dignity as crucial, it tends to support this notion while assessing and measuring it. The quality of life becomes the gauge for measuring human dignity, starting from a distinction between a viable and a non-viable existence, which may eventually lead to assisted death, or to letting die. This article argues that the concept of quality of life is of great relevant for medical practice, but on the condition of not being used as a standard to measure the dignity of the individual. Rather, the quality of life should be regarded as an imperative posed by human dignity, which is necessarily intrinsic. If the quality of life measures dignity, humankind is divided into two categories: lives worthy of living, and lives unworthy of living, and society becomes a jungle. Raising the quality of life as a requirement of the inherent human dignity does not solve automatically all problems and does not eliminate a feeling of unworthiness. But it ensures its 'human' value: the equal respect for every human being.

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Personhood*
  • Philosophy
  • Quality of Life*
  • Religion