“Inherent Human Dignity: Biological Foundations and the Diversity Spectrum.”

By Jaseem Pasha, MD
Wednesday, November 23, 2022

The Biological Underpinnings of Human Dignity

The “respect for inherent human dignity” principle has deep roots in ethical and philosophical discussions. However, when viewed through the lens of biology, we discover intriguing connections that further illuminate why all humans might inherently deserve such respect. Delving into our shared genetic heritage, the complexities of human cognition, and the intricate tapestry of life reveals a profound link between biology and the philosophical concept of human dignity.

The universal human genome is one of the foundational pillars supporting human dignity from a biological perspective. Regardless of external distinctions like race, gender, or ethnicity, humans remarkably share most of their DNA. This undeniable genetic uniformity is a testament to our shared[1] lineage and offers compelling evidence of our fundamental equality at a molecular level[2]. When we recognize our collective heritage, the idea that everyone inherently deserves respect becomes an ethical argument and a biological reality.

Complementing our understanding of genetics is the field of neurobiology. With all its intricacies, the human brain is universally present across humanity. Our capacity for emotions, deep introspection, and complex social interactions stems from our brains’ shared structures and functionalities. By acknowledging the profound capabilities and complexities of human cognition[3] and emotion rooted in our shared biology, we further solidify the case for universal dignity.

Furthermore, biology grants us insights into the delicate and miraculous journey of human development. From the transformation of a single cell to a sentient being during gestation, we are reminded of the marvel and fragility of life. This understanding naturally fosters a more profound respect for human life at all stages, emphasizing the inherent worth of every individual.

Beyond human biology, we encounter the overarching theme of interconnectedness in the broader tapestry of life. Our shared evolutionary history with various organisms, underscored by common genetic markers,[4] paints a picture of a shared biological narrative. This interconnected tapestry extends the principle of respect from humans to all life forms, suggesting a universal ethos of dignity.

Another poignant reminder of the need for respect is our biological periods of vulnerability. Humans, during infancy and old age, are biologically predisposed to dependency. Recognizing these phases of innate vulnerability[5] evokes empathy and underscores the ethical imperative of protecting individuals when they are most susceptible.

Finally, the field of bioethics[6] bridges the gap between biology and ethics. As we grapple with the challenges and opportunities presented by advancements in biology and medicine, from genetic modifications to complex medical decisions, the unwavering principle of respect for human dignity offers guidance. It ensures that as we stride forward, we remain anchored in values prioritizing humanity’s intrinsic worth.

In conclusion, while biology and ethics may seem like distinct realms, they are intricately connected.[7] The biological facts about our shared heritage, cognition, and the web of life resonate deeply with the ethical principle of human dignity. Together, they present a compelling argument for recognizing and upholding the inherent worth of every individual.

The preceding conclusion leads to another critical question:

It is well known that all forms of human diversity, including skin color, gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, personal opinions, and ideologies, play an essential role in one’s identity. Yet, all these distinctive human diversities do not impact the status of one’s inherent dignity, nor do such differences create new human rights.

This perspective underscores a foundational belief in human rights discourse: every individual’s intrinsic, equal worth regardless of their distinguishing attributes or backgrounds.

So, the question arises: would creating diversity-based laws alone negate the principle underlying respect for inherent human dignity?

The answer is not straightforward and will need us to see beyond the spectrum of diversity.

B. Inherent Human Dignity: Beyond the Spectrum of Diversity:

Human societies, through the ages, have been marked by many diversities—race, gender, ethnicity, nationality, and ideologies, to name a few. These attributes undeniably play a pivotal role in shaping our identities, molding our perspectives, and influencing our interactions. They add depth to our collective narrative and enrich the tapestry of our shared history. However, as we stand at the crossroads of global integration and increased acknowledgment of diverse identities, we must grapple with a critical question: Do these diversities impact the inherent dignity each human possesses? And further, should they dictate the rights one is entitled to?

At the heart of human rights discourse lies the principle of inherent human dignity. This principle asserts that merely by being human, every individual possesses intrinsic worth that demands recognition and respect. This worth is not contingent on one’s racial or ethnic background, gender, beliefs, or other distinguishing factor. It’s universal and unalterable.

If we accept the universality of inherent human dignity, all humans are entitled to a core set of rights safeguarding this dignity. These rights are not privileges to be earned or attributes that vary based on one’s identity; they are fundamental, inalienable entitlements. The diversity of human experiences and identities, while influential in shaping societal structures and dynamics, does not—and should not—impact these foundational rights[8].

This reasoning brings us to the nuanced realm of law and policymaking. While recognizing and celebrating human diversity is essential, legislating rights based solely on specific diversities poses challenges. Such an approach could inadvertently reinforce divisions, create rights hierarchies, or negate human dignity’s universality. For instance, if a law grants rights to one group based on a specific attribute while ignoring another, it risks perpetuating exclusion and undermining the principle of equal dignity.

This logic does not say that laws should not address or consider diversity. On the contrary, many marginalized groups need targeted policies to redress historical injustices and ensure equity. However, these laws and policies should be grounded in the overarching principle of universal human dignity. Their goal should not be to create new rights based on diversity but to ensure that the inherent rights of every individual, irrespective of their identity, are recognized and protected.

In conclusion, while the kaleidoscope of human diversity enriches our global narrative, the foundational principle of inherent human dignity remains steadfast and universal. Laws and policies, as they evolve to address the multifaceted needs of diverse populations, must remain anchored in this principle. Only then can we hope to build societies that genuinely respect and uphold the worth of every individual.

Still, exploring this for clarity in thinking further would be helpful.

Diversity-Based Laws: Navigating the Waters of Human Dignity and Societal Needs

The overarching principle of inherent human dignity demands that every individual be treated with equal respect and worth, irrespective of their diverse attributes. This universality forms the bedrock of human rights discourse. However, applying this principle in the intricate labyrinth of real-world socio-political landscapes can collide with pressing societal needs and historical contexts.

This context leads to a pertinent question: Are there scenarios where laws focusing on specific diversities can be justified, even if they seem to negate the universal principle of human dignity?

At first glance, creating laws based on specific diversities might appear discriminatory or exclusionary. However, some circumstances merit such laws:

  1. Redressing Historical Injustices: Many groups have faced systemic discrimination and marginalization over long periods. For instance, affirmative action or reservation policies aim to rectify historical socio-economic imbalances. By targeting specific marginalized groups, these laws strive to create a more equitable society, thereby upholding, not negating, the dignity of historically oppressed individuals.
  2. Protecting Vulnerable Populations: Certain groups might be at heightened risk due to their specific attributes. Laws safeguarding the rights of indigenous peoples or legislation against hate crimes targeting specific racial or ethnic groups are examples. Such laws, while focusing on particular diversities, aim to protect the dignity of individuals within these groups.
  1. Cultural and Regional Specificities: In some contexts, cultural, religious, or regional specificities necessitate laws catering to particular groups. For instance, laws might protect the rights of religious or ethnic minorities to practice their customs and traditions. These laws recognize and respect the inherent dignity of individuals within these groups by acknowledging their unique identities and needs.

However, while there are scenarios where diversity-based laws can be justified, it’s crucial to ensure that such legislation:

  • Do Not Perpetuate Stereotypes: Laws should not reinforce harmful stereotypes or further marginalize the groups they aim to protect.
  • Have Clear Objectives: Such laws should have clear, well-defined objectives, preferably with sunset clauses or periodic reviews to assess their relevance and impact.
  • Are Inclusive: While addressing the needs of specific groups, care should be taken to ensure that others are not unjustly marginalized or disadvantaged.

In conclusion, the interplay between diversity-based laws and inherent human dignity is a delicate balancing act. While the universal principle of human dignity remains paramount, there are nuanced, context-specific scenarios where laws focusing on particular diversities are justified and necessary. The key lies in ensuring that such laws genuinely uplift, protect, and recognize the dignity of the individuals they target without undermining the broader tapestry of human rights and societal harmony.

Unfortunately, the government, which is made up of people, practices the ethos of society and will resist any attempt to uproot the systemic human backwardness and vices that benefit the ruling class and its apologists. Such a government would not be interested in confronting the real cause of corruption by strengthening society’s moral and ethical fabric by aggressively concentrating on educational and religious institutions, the two prime sources of intellectual, honest, and spiritual empowerment. Instead, such corrupt governments sometimes enact sunset laws as a political move and pretend to fight corruption, racism, discrimination, etc.

It is true that not everybody, as a rule, is equally honest or corrupt. There are certainly different levels of integrity and corruption, varying from society to society. The authenticity of government is simply the reflection of the ethos of the community. This ethos, in turn, reflects an ethos that prevails in all the educational and religious institutions traditionally trusted by the majority.

The root causes of violations of human dignity often stem from deep-seated intellectual, spiritual, and ethical backwardness backed by predatory selfish beliefs that are constantly nurtured, rationalized, and perpetuated through generations, leading to corruption comprising of systemic apathy, greed, corruption, and even hostility towards specific individuals or groups. This corruption of the minds of both rich and poor creates society’s indifference to systemic dehumanization of varying degrees.

The intellectual human backwardness often manifested as corruption does not disappear simply by enacting sunset laws, which are more a political move than a serious attempt to eradicate this backwardness.

Limitations of Sunset Laws:

Sunset laws, by their nature, are legislative tools; they cannot, on their own, eradicate deeply embedded biases or behavioral patterns. The sunset laws ensure periodic review of legislation. They don’t directly address the underlying societal attitudes or prejudices. A law’s expiration and subsequent check don’t guarantee its improvement or better alignment with human dignity principles.

The duration of sunset laws (or sunset provisions/clauses) — which stipulate an automatic expiration date for certain legislative acts unless they are expressly renewed — is determined by various factors. The objective behind a sunset provision is to ensure that the law, regulation, or government agency remains relevant, effective, and necessary over time. Ultimately, the duration of sunset laws is a matter of legislative discretion.

The sunset provisions are often used for political maneuvering. Politicians might introduce them as a compromise or to appease opposition without a genuine commitment to sincerely revisit the law’s implications.

[1] Jorde, L.B., & Wooding, S.P. (2004). Genetic variation, classification and ‘race’. Nature Genetics, 36(11s), S28–S33. [This article discusses genetic similarities and differences among human populations, highlighting the extensive sharing of genetic material across different groups.]

[2] Rosenberg, N.A., et al. (2002). Genetic Structure of Human Populations. Science, 298(5602), 2381-2385. [ This study provides evidence of genetic similarities across human populations, reinforcing the concept of fundamental equality at a molecular level.]

[3] Adolphs, R. (2003). Cognitive neuroscience of human social behavior. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 4(3), 165-178. [This paper explores how our brains process social and emotional information, underscoring the universal aspects of human cognition.]

[4] Dawkins, R. (2004). The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. [This book traces the shared evolutionary pathways of various life forms back to common ancestors, highlighting interconnectedness in the biological world.]

[5] Gilbert, S.F. (2006). Developmental Biology, 8th Edition. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates. [A comprehensive textbook detailing the stages of human development from conception to birth, illustrating the complexity and fragility of life.]

[6] Beauchamp, T.L., & Childress, J.F. (2013). Principles of Biomedical Ethics, 7th Edition. New York: Oxford University Press. [A foundational text in bioethics, discussing ethical principles including respect for autonomy, nonmaleficence, beneficence, and justice, which align with the respect for human dignity.]

[7] Beauchamp, T.L., & Childress, J.F. (2013). Principles of Biomedical Ethics, 7th Edition. New York: Oxford University Press. [A foundational text in bioethics, discussing ethical principles including respect for autonomy, nonmaleficence, beneficence, and justice, which align with the respect for human dignity.]

[8]Sen, A. (2006). Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. [Amartya Sen explores how identities are shaped by choices rather than inherent characteristics, supporting the notion that diversity should not dictate basic human rights.]

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