Dignity: A Universal Right

The U. S. Declaration of Independence asserts that “all men are created equal.” Many have struggled with the meaning of that phrase, because it’s obvious that we are unequal in lots of ways, for example, health, wealth, looks, talents, skills, etc. But, our differences need not be an excuse for invidious comparisons, let alone for humiliation and indignity. On the contrary, our differences are an important source of the delight we take in each other.

The Declaration of Independence tasked the nation not only with protecting life and liberty but also with providing fairness and
justice. While people are equal not in their endowments or attainments, they are equal in dignity and must be treated so. What would such a dignitarian society look like?

1. adj. a condition in which the dignity of all people is honored and protected
2. n. a person who advocates for a dignitarian society, one whose conduct and attitudes are dignitarian

Each of us has an innate sense that we have the same inherent worth as anyone else. Every religion teaches us so. We experience this as a birthright – a cosmic fact that cannot be undone by any person, circumstance, institution, or government.

That is why rankism is experienced on the deepest level as an affront to dignity. Like any animal vulnerable to being preyed upon, we're supersensitive to threats to our well-being. We're alert to subtle attempts to determine our relative strength, from “innocent” opening lines such as “Who are you with?” to more probing queries regarding our ancestry or education.

In proclaiming a right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” the Declaration of Independence touched on making dignity a fundamental right. Liberty means freedom from arbitrary or despotic government or control. Therefore, the right to liberty, by militating against rankism, affords a large measure of protection to our dignity. Likewise the right to pursue happiness is meaningless in the absence of the dignity inherent in full and equal citizenship.

Given the remarkable achievements of the identity-based liberation movements, it's not unrealistic to imagine a day when everyone's equal dignity will be as self-evident as everyone's right to own property or to vote.