Opening Plenary Session of IAMCR 2019 by Javier Gomá


Complutense University of Madrid, 8 July 2019

 Javier Gomá, Director of Juan March Foundation

direccion [at]

Dignity is the most revolutionary concept to come out of the 20th century. It is endowed with such transforming power that the mere mention of it, as if it were a magic word, has been enough to overcome enormous obstacles which have held back the moral progress of humanity. In the last few years, it has advanced dramatically. And yet, in spite of the extraordinary influence of this concept, philosophy,  strangely enough, has simply ignored it for the last two centuries. It has never been a subject of philosophical reflection.


It might be said that this omission is strange because this concept, except in the case of philosophy, is present in innumerable aspects of life. It is present in all kinds of juridical contexts (1).   It is the inspiration of countless ethical debates, such as those which arise in the field of bioethics (abortion, euthanasia, genetic manipulation and cloning). Among many others, it is at the origin of social causes like trade unionism, feminism or animalism. And as recently as the present century, it triggered the social movement of the indignados (the indignant), although those involved felt no need to define, even in simple terms, what it was that provoked their wrath and brought them onto the streets in protest.


Schopenhauer summarily dismissed the Kantian concept of dignity and in doing so, set in motion a tendency which has dominated the world of philosophy from his day till ours, to either ignore it or to distain it (2).   A good example of the first (ignoring the subject) is the Dictionary of Philosophy by Ferrater Mora, which makes no mention of the term throughout its four volumes. Neither does the more recent and much more extensive (2800 articles) Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which is even more surprising. As far as disdain is concerned, examples abound both in the juridical and the bioethical fields, the most eloquent of which could be the strident title of an article which Steven Pinker published in 2008: “The Stupidity of Dignity” (3).

The years, decades, even centuries go by and dignity continues to be ignored, vacant, lacking any theoretical prestige. Although there has been a certain revival of interest in the concept of dignity over the last decade, particularly in a historical or applied context (4), it still remains to be defined and is still untouched by philosophical thought (5).


Perhaps this persistent omission is due to some characteristic which is inherent in the concept and which, if it is not allowed for, makes it unpalatable for philosophers. Petrarch, a 13th century Latinist and humanist, refers to this elusive nature of dignity when he reports that, even in his times, writings on the misery of the world proliferated but on the subject of dignity there was only one. To explain this imbalance, he argued that knowledge of the misery in the world did not require special study – it was so widespread and abundant that it was simply enough to open your eyes; whereas dignity was much less obvious and required arduous speculative study, carried out in the face of resistance to the natural tendency and lacking a tradition on which it could be founded.


I do not deny that the misery of the human condition is great and of many classes and has been wept over in many a book; but if you look in the other direction, you will see many things that make it joyful and blissful; yet, if I am not mistaken, no one has written about this and there are some who began but desisted because it seemed to them that they had chosen a difficult subject which was dry and contrary to what others had written, and in any event more arduous than they had expected; because human misery is so great that it is clearly manifest to all, but human happiness is so small and concealed that it is necessary to dig deep in order to show it to those who do  not believe (6).




The history of dignity is usually recounted by using one after the other select texts taken from the Western literary canon which employ the word  with especial intention and frequency (7).      such  a history  cannot preclude a certain number of essential names – Cicero, Mirándola, Kant – but the arid juxtaposition of quotes, in itself lacking eloquence, becomes more intelligible when inserted into a wider context, the debate between misery and dignity, which permeates European cultural tradition up to the Renaissance.


In this debate, there are three principal viewpoints: those who believe that in this world the reign of misery is absolute, without any kind of dignity; secondly, those who admit there is misery but that there is also dignity; and finally, those who only see the excellence and gravitas of mankind and take no interest in the rest.


The first group created a new literary genre to express their pessimism: the consolations. A consolation is a treatise, cultivated first by philosophers and later by rhetoricians, which is directed to someone who has suffered a calamity; a typical case being a man or a woman who have lost a child. The author strives to accumulate arguments which bring solace and relief to the sufferer. The consolations which have survived by Seneca and that of Plutarch coincide in the strategy of their argument – which is anything but comforting – by attempting to convince the sufferer that no death is an evil because the only evil worthy of pity is to be alive. The best thing, they say, is not to be born, and, if we have been born, the next best thing is to die soon (8).


Cicero is the initiator of the second group. The Consolatio which he wrote after the death of his daughter has not survived but we do have his thoughts on the misery of death in a number of his writings, notably in the Tusculanae. The subject of Book I of this treatise is his own death, a source of unhappiness for those who, he says, are not wise; and the subject of Book III is sadness (in Latin aegritudo) on the death of the loved one, and in this sense it can be classed in the genre of the consolation, although the vitality of his own personality shines through its pages.

According to Cicero, philosophical meditation teaches us that death is only an apparent evil, whether we believe, like Plato, that the soul is immortal or that it disappears along with the body. And this supposition does not lead, as it does with Seneca and Plutarch, to a disdain towards life, but on the contrary makes room for dignity (9).   The source of dignity is twofold. If we strive to live well instead of simply living a long time, life will never have been brief. Our conscience is consoled, before death, by the memory of a worthy life: “Death is confronted with great serenity when life, at its eclipse, can find consolation in its own merits. Life is never too short for the person who has fulfilled his duty of perfect virtue” (10).     The  second  source which  is added to this  satisfaction is the solicitude which the virtuous have for posterity and which encourages them to carry out exemplary acts which will bring them posthumous glory and lasting memory, and thus endow human dignity with an influence which outlives the short-lived period of an individual life (11).


In Cicero, the recognition of a person’s dignity in this world is supplemented by a daring extension of its subjective basis. We must remember that dignitas in ancient Rome implied status, rank, higher position in comparison with others in the same hierarchy. It is not an inborn quality but inherent in an office, which can be won or lost, and there is not one single dignity but a multiplicity of them. At the end of the Empire, the lists of official positions continued to receive the name Notitia dignitatum.


Cicero introduces an important novelty into this state of affairs. In Book I of On Duties, he states that the general virtue of a person (honorability) is made up of four special virtues – prudence, justice, magnanimity and decorum – which entail different types of duties. He defines decorum as “that which corresponds to the excellence of the person, where  his nature differs from other living beings”, and the duty which is peculiar to this virtue consists of disciplining the impulse to pleasure and subjugating it to reason. The ability of reason to impose obedience on impulse gives humans – all humans without exception –a distinctive dignity. For the first time, Cicero universalizes dignity in all men and women, placing them at the same level because they are endowed with reason, in contrast to the lower animals, which being devoid of reason are also, as a result, devoid of dignity (12).


The dignity which in Cicero redeems the misery of this world is also worldly, since it is rooted in human nature, whereas in Innocence III, who in about 1195 issued his treatise De miseria humanae conditio, that dignity, which he does not reject, is supernatural: the hope of being saved by Christ and after death of attaining citizenship of Heaven.


This life is plagued with misery and the only dignity possible is in the other. This treatise blends into the penitential Christian tradition of the contemptores mundi, a genre aiming to convert the reader’s heart by instilling into him an abhorrence of this world. In the prologue, he explains that he could also address the issue of our future dignity, but he then continues simply to compile an abundant list of evidence of the abjectness of man, imprisoned in a fragile and corruptible body. Centuries later, the humanist Bartolomeo Fazio, with the express intention of completing the diptych which Innocence III had left unfinished, wrote De excellentia et praestantia hominis in 1447; in this work, he signaled, as Petrarch did also, the puzzling lack of books on the subject. For Fazio, a human being’s excellence stems exclusively from his immortal soul, which cannot be enhanced by anything originating in this corrupt world.

Petrarch also belongs to this second group and in the work I referred to before “On sadness and misery”, he shares the conviction expressed by Innocence III that the greatest excellence of a human person resides in his  supernatural destiny (13).    At  the same  time, he adds  a new tone: as a Christian humanist, he is able to perceive and enjoy the beauty of nature, the perfection of the human body and the wonders of the arts and sciences which dignify our human condition and the contemplation of which banishes the general sadness (aegritudo) which oppresses us and which is all the more dangerous, he maintains, if it has no specific cause (14).

Finally, the third group includes those writers who praise the dignity of mankind and pay no attention whatsoever to his misery, as if it did not exist. An important author in this group is Giannozzo Manetti, who in 1452 wrote De dignitate et excellentia hominis. The first three volumes are a hymn of praise of the perfection of the human body and soul and postulate an ideal of happiness and plenitude immanent in this world,  not as a substitute of the next, and incompatible with the defense of that misery which had been tirelessly repeated in innumerable previous writings. For this reason, Book IV does not complete the unfinished treatise of Innocence III, but on the contrary explicitly refutes it (15).


Giovanni Pico della Mirandola opens his well-known Oratio, written in 1485 (with a second version in 1488), and later called “On the dignity of mankind”, by stating that he is dissatisfied with the reasons usually proposed to justify the great dignity of mankind and that he believes he has finally understood why the human being is the most worthy of admiration of all living beings. God created the world conforming to eternal archetypes and then realized that none of them could be used to form mankind; so He created mankind “without a precise image”. Then He spoke to Adam and explained to him the eccentric nature of his dignity, saying that it derived not from possessing a specific place or gift within Creation but from having the freedom, similar to divine freedom, to create himself as he wished and to choose according to his own will the  determination of his nature (16).    So  if in  Cicero it  was reason which distinguished mankind from beasts, here it was an absolute and limitless freedom.


This history would be incomplete if we were not to mention the Diálogo de la dignidad del hombre (Dialogue on the Dignity of Man) which was published posthumously by the Spanish writer Fernán Pérez de Oliva (1494-1531), and which is a dialogue between Aurelio, who takes the part of human misery, and Antonio, who defends human dignity. The most interesting feature of this renaissance essay, in comparison with previous writings, is that it sets out the two opposing versions, one after the other, without deciding between them, and leaving that decision to the good sense of the reader. Furthermore, this dialogue acts as a gateway to later Spanish literature since, for the first time, it is not written in Latin, which until then had enjoyed a monopoly in writings on such an elevated subject. Written in the vernacular (17),   it is also innovative in that it is not written in the discursive style of the treatise or sermon which had been prevalent in classical tradition.



Kant dignifies the concept of dignity by integrating it into his sublime moral philosophy. But he does not define it either and, if we discount the Metaphysical Foundations (1785), where he uses the term sixteen times, it only occurs very occasionally in his work. Rather than being an essential component of his system, it tends to be a synonym for words which are essential: autonomous subject, self-legislating I, end in itself, compendium of the humanity of humans. The second formulation of the categorical imperative states: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end” (18).      Kant  could have  reformulated that  imperative, with identical meaning, by simply saying: “Act in accordance with the dignity you possess”.


Two distinctions in the works of Kant are useful to introduce his idea of dignity. In the Critique of Pure Reason he differentiates between happiness and dignity: “Morality is not per se the doctrine of how we achieve happiness, but rather how we can become worthy of happiness” (19).     In  our pursuit  of happiness,  which Kant identifies  with pleasure or desire, we resemble brute animals, who instinctively seek the same satisfaction. Therefore happiness, pleasure, sentimental wellbeing – aims of the morality of English empiricism (Hume, Smith) – do not do justice to the loftiness of human condition. In contrast to that sentiment- based ethic, Kant posits the ideal of an autonomous subject, who only obeys the universal-impersonal laws which his reason acknowledges, not only independently of experience and feeling, but even perhaps in spite of them, so that the struggle with his own instinctive inclinations will shed an even more favorable light on the grandeur of human morality. We might add that persistent adverse fortune may well stifle our desire for happiness because, however much we practice all the virtues, we will only be increasing the probabilities of achieving happiness, without, however, any guarantee of success; but nothing in this world, no circumstance whatever can deprive us of the privilege of living our lives with dignity and of always acting in accordance with that dignity which belongs exclusively to us. Therefore what is uniquely universal and distinctively human is not to be happy but to be worthy of being happy, and that dignity which is worthy of happiness but which this world does not provide justifies Kant’s postulation of a God and a future life where dignity and happiness finally coincide.


A foretaste on Earth of this future heaven would be the “kingdom of ends” which Kant imagines in the Foundations we mentioned above. In respect of this kingdom, the philosopher articulates the second of his interesting distinctions. “In the kingdom of ends – he writes –everything has a price or a dignity. Things which have a price can be substituted by something equivalent; however, that which is beyond all price and for that  reason cannot be substituted by any equivalent, has a dignity” (20).  There are, therefore, replaceable things which are not valued by their intrinsic worth but by their instrumental utility in obtaining other goods, whereas there are beings, like those belonging to the human race, which are not replaceable because, of themselves, they are endowed with intrinsic value. The immoral act par excellence would therefore be objectification, by virtue of which man is treated as an object and is dehumanized because he is given the treatment reserved for things which only have a price.


In conclusion, up to the time of Kant, dignity is understood to be a distinctive feature of human nature, associated to some positive quality which is exclusive it – in Cicero, reason, in Mirádola, freedom, in Kant, morality – which imposes on the bearer certain duties of validation. It is not by chance that the history of dignity begins with Cicero’s On Duties and culminates with Kant’s famous exclamation: “Duty, sublime and noble name” (21).    The being which distinguishes itself from brute animals because it possesses reason, freedom or morality – qualities which give that being a particular dignity – is expected to act in accordance with that dignity. The duty to confirm or complete the original, intrinsic dignity ends up by producing a selective effect because, in fact, only a person who fulfills those duties can rightly call him/herself worthy. This idea is also confirmed in Kant’s work where the concept continues to preserve hints of aristocratic overtones: following the lines of his argumentation, full dignity belongs, not to all men and women but only to those who are morally the best (22).




The historical itinerary we have just examined invites us to draw some provisional conclusions about the essence of dignity.


Only the human being possesses fully and unconditionally the quality of being irreplaceable, un-exchangeable, an end in himself and never a means. The following example is a rough illustration of the fundamental idea. Let us imagine a public highway under construction which has to pass through some private property: the State is empowered to expropriate the land by paying a fair market price, since a private interest should yield to the higher public interest. The land can be expropriated, but naturally the owner can never be, not even in the name of the common good or collective progress. From this we can deduce a rule: private interest yields to a general interest, but in its turn general interest yields to private dignity, for which there is no possible fair market price.


So dignity could be defined precisely as that which cannot be expropriated and makes the individual resistant to everything, general interest or common good included. Ever since Aristoteles claimed in Politica that “the polis takes precedent over the home and over every one of us” (1253ª), civic virtue has required the citizen to give way to the priority of the common good. But even virtue understood in these terms has its limits, the principal of which is dignity, that intimate quality of the individual, resembling a diamond in its beauty, brilliance and strength, which resists any good cause which involves the collectivization of the individual.


In the name of dignity, the citizen opposes the Machiavellianism of reasons   of State, both old and new (23),       and   when it   demands his collaboration saying that many others already collaborate, his reply will be what could be the motto of dignity; “Although others do, I won’t” (24).


In the name of dignity, the citizen opposes the possible tyrannies of majorities, which are not all-powerful, not even if they are democratic, and he rejects the utilitarian law of the happiness of the greatest number (25).


We shouldn’t expect the concept to provide a definitive solution, like the answer in a crossword, to the myriad of situations which raise so many subtle questions on applied ethics (bioethics, technology, business). Those who criticize the emptiness of the concept probably suffer from excessive expectations and feel disappointed because they find that it isn’t a recipe book to resolve dilemmas which are best resolved by applying prudence in each particular case. There is always a hiatus between the theory of the concept and the reality of experience which nobody can expect to bridge once and for all with such universal norms that we will be relieved in the future, as if we were robots, of the bother of thinking and deciding. Dignity presents itself only as a humanist principle of anti-utilitarian orientation which frequently falls foul of the desire to legitimize moral actions by their advantageous consequences for many or for the majority (consequentialist ethics).


So dignity might also be described as something that is a hindrance. It makes committing iniquities more difficult, of course; but, more interestingly, it also sometimes hinders just causes, such as material and technical progress, economic and social efficiency or public utility. And this hindering, obstructive and paralyzing effect which often accompanies dignity and which makes us stop and consider, opens our eyes to the dignitas of precisely those who are a hindrance, because they are no longer useful, they are left over, always threatened by a History which would advance more quickly without them. So if to begin with dignity resembled a luminous aura surrounding only perfection, its meaning is now widened to include the dignity of imperfection in all its forms, which are often even more powerfully and visually noticeable.


The transition from a state of nature to one of civilization is manifest in  a social organization which gives preference to the residual, the surplus, dignity’s favorites; that preference might be exemplified, in our daily urban experience, by one of those expensive cars driving at speed which has to pull up and stop because of a distracted child or an awkward old person slowing walking over a zebra crossing. In the world of nature, the struggle to survive is won by the strongest or the best adapted. Mankind enters that combat in better conditions because it has substituted ferocious teeth and sharpened claws for symbolic language and technology which have worked the miracle of adapting nature to its needs and of dominating the other species. Having reached a certain level of social evolution, without any apparent evolutionary advantage, the human species, allowing herself a luxury which apparently only she can enjoy, raises up a humanitarian ideal which overturns the law of the survival of the fittest prevailing in the natural world and puts in its place a new and revolutionary law of the survival of the weakest.


Perhaps the first vestige in history of recognizably human behavior was found only a couple of decades ago in the excavations at Dmanisi (Georgia): the fossilized remains of hominids which lived in the area 1.8 million years ago. Among them was a jawbone which exhibited the peculiarity of not having any teeth. It must have belonged to an old person who was unable to feed himself and needed the cooperation of the group to ingest a mash of pre-chewed meat. There is no other information of a prior fossilized hominid with such a great loss of teeth and remodeling of the jaw. There is no information either regarding primates with a similar degree of tooth loss. Before the Dmanisi discovery, there were no known cases of longevity either in hominids or chimpanzees, which in any event never outlived the post-reproductive period. Once the basic biological function to ensure the perpetuation of the species had been accomplished – reproduction with transmission of the genetic heritage – the individual was headed towards a quick death. Why keep living? Evolution is blind in respect of old age, a sheer biological absurdity (26).


Dmanisi certifies the birth of group co-operation which was anti- evolutionary, anti-natural and anti-utilitarian – in other words, genuinely human. The old fellow served no useful purpose and in spite of that the group considered him to worthy of care and protection. The first flashing glory of dignity occurred at Dmanisi.



In pre-modern tradition, full dignity was still reserved to those who deserved it. In fact, the concept survived without any significant conflict in a highly hierarchal society in which there were different dignities and abundant discrimination. But, as I have already suggested, the concept bore within itself the seeds of its own improvement. Sure enough, the 20th century brought about a mutation of its essence, which did not occur, as usually happens, through the influence of the teachings of a renowned philosopher or of a prestigious school of thought inspiring a program of political action, but which occurred, in the absence of the learned, through ordinary people and the force of events.


This mutation of essence implied, in the first place, the substitution of the old distinction of aristocracy and an extension to include all the members of the human race: something in the nature of an aristocracy of the masses: all people, for the sole reason that they belong to the human race,  possess it equally and forever (27).      Furthermore,  this egalitarian dignity is now perceived as self-grounded, not depending on another authority which acts as its foundation (reason, freedom, morality); full from the outset and not needing any later improvement, nor subject to loss, wastage or depletion through possible misuse by the bearer; absolute and not relative to others, men or animals; and finally centered, not on the duties which it imposes on the bearer, but on his right to demand it be universally respected by others – all of which prepare the ground for the doctrine of universal rights.


Democratic dignity is received at birth and entitles the bearer to rights without any moral virtue on his/her part, rights which are valid even if the original dignity is contradicted by the odious indignity of the subject’s life.


Dignity is inalienable, indefeasible and inviolable; although it is undeserved, it is nonetheless worthy of respect and in a certain way places the rest of humanity in a position of owing,


It is unique, universal, anonymous and abstract. And consequently, it is also cosmopolitan; in other words, it is the same for all the human beings on the planet.


An idea such as this, in spite of appearing to be a truism, is neither “natural” nor “normal”, which is demonstrated by the fact that no one seems to have missed it in the course of previous millennia. It has to be understood rather as if it were an exceedingly difficult lesson to be learned collectively, a lesson which is not written in a revealed book or in the book of nature. It is, as it were, a moral truth which has recently established itself with the majority as a result of recent historic events of unspeakable inhumanity which have created a consensus, in negative terms, that such events should never, under any circumstances, be repeated.


Something which is evident is perceived as such by those whose senses are trained to perceive it – which is what happens in the perception of artistic perfection or philosophical or scientific truth. Therefore, the reason for people’s dignity depends on their education. Kant’s distinction between dignity and price is again useful to encapsulate the multiple objectives of education into two: training professionals and training citizens.

A professional is a person who has learned the rules of a trade and applies them with competence in order to make a living by producing a merchandize or a service for which the market is prepared to pay a price. A country with competent professionals has the stamp of a truly modern country. Together with the training of professionals, the second objective is to educate that same individual to become a citizen, which means someone who is aware of his dignity. A rounded education not only becomes the source of practical and profitable skills, but also prompts the citizen to be aware of his own dignity and instills self- respect into him, to avoid what Kant describes as “the fear of examining himself with his own eyes and seeing himself as despicable and repugnant” (28).


The ancients, at the times when they were not engaged in negotium, recommended the cultivation of otium cum dignitate, a complacency in that intimate feeling about the value of each individual, subject neither  to price nor the rationality of the marketplace. Price and dignity are not locked in irreconcilable antagonism but there is certainly a tension between them which has no definitive solution. And if there is a conflict, dignity prevails, because, both in chronological and anthropological terms, we are citizens first and professionals second.




A common criticism to the concept of dignity is that it cannot be objectively and rationally explained, and that it is, therefore, indemonstrable.

There is no doubt that dignity is the postulate of a value, not an empirical fact which is observable by the senses. It does not resemble, for example, an identifiable object, or a logical deduction or a juridical law. Its  essence is of the moral realities, like bravery, decency, compassion, which are not apprehended by scientific reasoning, but which are recognized by feelings, even before they can be defined. Whatever dignity may be, is learnt not in the logical definition of scholarly treatises but in the direct intuition of its essence which is revealed by a specific example (29).


The law requires that something should be done and, if it is not obeyed, the law imposes it coactively. But in the realm of morality, unlike that of legality, it would be futile to order someone to be virtuous: you cannot tell people to be good, you invite them to be good. Every example of virtue includes an invitation to do the same and to make it generalized. And naturally this is also true of the practical acts of dignity. But it is not true of that innate and original dignity which every human being possesses by the mere fact of being. One thing is what a person does, which can be worthy or unworthy (pragmatism) and another is what he or she is (ontology). And as we have said before, the democratic concept of original, ontological dignity remains intact in spite of reiterated unworthy praxis. This dignity is not a fact, not even a moral fact, but a postulate, an attribution which, with the passage of time, has widened its subjective basis. This growth does not come about through an invitation, as in the case of virtue, but through scandal.


The witness of an action which was seen morally neutral in the past would get surprised at contemplating that today the same act is seen as an act of violation. That witness has implicitly applied to the victim and the group to whom the victim belongs a dignity which tradition had obstinately refused to grant. 19th century novels, for example, familiarized the readers of the times with the injustices suffered by abused women, abandoned children, impoverished masses, debtor prisoners and exploited workers. These novels showed readers for the first time that historically discriminated sectors of the population possessed the same dignity as the privileged, by highlighting the scandal produced by such wretched situations. In the majority of cases, dignity is recognized by its absence, when the respect due is missing, because it is then that unquestionable truths are clearly evident. And the feeling of scandal is not usually limited to benevolent compassion but sooner or later unleashes an active movement of social reform aimed at bringing to an end those situations of indignity which are now judged to be intolerable.

Egalitarian dignity has been ranked as sacrosanct and yet it is no secret that, in fact, it continues to be violated a thousand times a day. However, there is an important difference between the violations of the past and those of today: the dignity of women, children, workers or the poor may continue to be violated but today no one can do it without degrading themselves. For centuries, a woman’s body, for example, could be constantly violated without punishment and even without reproach, because that action, given one name or another, or none, had become invisible in the normalcy of total masculine domination. Today, many women continue, unfortunately, to suffer violations but now the violator can only carry out his repugnant act by degrading himself morally while creating revulsion around him and in himself too, if he is not totally corrupted.

The revulsion produced by indignity shows humanity the path towards moral progress.




Of all the human groups who have persistently suffered discrimination since the earliest times, one of the most affected has been foreigners. Over the centuries, law and civilization have made great strides of progress for those living within their own frontiers; but very often, those who were born outside those frontiers were all too often considered barbarians or savages and received the treatment accorded to slaves, an intermediary status between that of a human being and that of an animal. In this respect too, perspectives have evolved drastically in our time. Over the last few years, many voices have been raised to condemn the restrictive policies which Western governments have applied to migrants from other parts of the planet, who flee from war or poverty. They are indignant at the closure of frontiers or the expulsion of migrants, which they consider to be contrary to elementary humanitarian principles. The fact that their condemnation and anger are in many cases fully justified should not prevent us from seeing the unusual novelty that one and the other imply in strictly comparative terms: they both presuppose the tacit recognition, unprecedented in history, of the full dignity of all men and women without distinction as human beings, irrespective of whether they were born on one side of the border or the other.


The Spanish poet Antonio Machado formulates the original intuition with admirable precision when his character Juan de Mairena says: “No one is more than anyone else”, which is same as saying that “however much a man is worth, there is nothing greater than his worth as a man (30)”. The statement that “however much a man or a woman are worth, they have no greater worth than that of being a man or a woman” is the basis for the categorical statement we made earlier, that dignity is “unique, universal, anonymous and abstract”. In effect, if there is no greater dignity than that of being a man or a woman, then all the other attributes (birth, sex, fatherland, religion, culture, race) on which a wide variety of ancient dignities were based in the past, become mere accidents with no moral relevance and simply fade away. The difference between the president of the most powerful nation in the world and a homeless, or a migrant who swims across the sea to reach the promised land or a person in prison for serious crimes is accidental, irrelevant, because there is nothing greater than the common dignity. Although the variety of possible circumstances is humanly enriching, all individuals belong equally to the common lot of mortals.


It is often repeated that death is the great equalizer; but before death arrives, in our lifetime, we have all been made equal by our common dignity of origin.


Egalitarianism leads straight to cosmopolitanism (31).


The Cosmopolitan ideal would like to see the establishment of a single citizenry for all the inhabitants of this global polis which is our planet. Before being a member of a state, a nation or a country, each individual is firstly a citizen of the world. Because he belongs to the same species, the individual has a generic citizenry from which are derived the rights which every state should always respect, even though the individual is not granted the citizenry which every state can give. Perhaps we will never attain, perhaps it may not even be desirable to attain the world State which Kant longed for (the world ruled by one universal government), but powerful tendencies can be seen on all sides which converge on the future construction of a cosmopolitan civil society.

In the final analysis, cosmopolitanism means simply that: that there be only once race, the human race and only one principal, individual dignity.




1 Among other documents, the following: the Preamble of the Charter of the United Nations 1946, the Preamble and Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the Preamble and Article 1 of the International Convention of Civil and Political Rights (1966), the Preamble and Article 1 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (2002. And to quote a constitution of recent history, Article 10 of the Spanish Constitution (1978).


2 Schopenhauer writes: “We can see that this theory is a purely ornamental part of Kant’s moral system. That simple expression, “dignity of man”, once used by Kant, became the shibboleth of every moralist without ideas or counsel. With the help of that imposing expression “the dignity of man”, they have concealed their inability to provide a real, or at least plausible, basis for morality, cleverly counting on the fact that the reader would like to see himself adorned with such dignity and therefore well satisfied with himself. (…) Kant defines dignity as an “absolute, incomparable value”. Thus we are faced with an explanation which sounds so sublime and awe-inspiring that we don’t dare to look more closely at the proposition: if we do, we find that it is empty hyperbole”. On the basis of morality- Fundamento de la moral, Madrid, Aguilar, 1965, trans. by V. Romano García, p. 89.


3 In 1983, Norbert Hoerster published an essay commenting on Article 1.1 of the Fundamental Law of the Federal German Republic entitled “About the meaning of the principle of human dignity” (now published in En defensa del positivismo jurídico(In defense of Legal positivism), Barcelona, Gedisa, 1992, trans. by J. M. Seña, p. 91-103). In the essay, he states that Kant’s concept of dignity is vague, problematic and empty; not being a descriptive concept  which can be determined objectively, its content depends on a subjective evaluation and in consequence lacks rationality. Continuing in the juridical context, criticism of dignity was extended to include it as a failed basis for human rights in M. Bagaric and A. James’ “The Vacuous Concept of Dignity”, Journal of Human Rights, vol. 5, num. 2, 2006, pp. 257-270, where they repeat that it  is an empty concept, lacking content, mere rhetorical ornamentation. And this disdain finally moved into the field of bioethics with R. Macklin, “Dignity is a Useless Concept”, British Medical Journal, vol. 327, 7429, 2003, pp. 1419-1420: Macklin describes the concept of dignity as being hopelessly vague, unclear, redundant and, at the end of the day, useless. In reaction to Macklin’s article, the president  of The President’s Society for Bioethics coordinated a volumecontaining 28 contributions, Human Dignity and Bioethics, which was published in 2008. On  28th May of the same year, The New Republic published the article by Steven Pinker entitled “The Stupidity of Dignity”. According to Pinker, dignity cannot be used as a basis for bioethics because it is a relative, expendable and potentially damaging concept.

4 This partial revival of the concept of dignity is apparent in specific papers on the history of the idea, the hermeneutics of the Kantian Concept, as a basis for human rights, its role in the social doctrine of the Catholic Church, or in the resolution of ethical dilemmas, as E. Garzón Valdés points out in “¿Cuál es la relevancia moral del concepto de dignidad humana?” (What is the moral relevance of the concept of  human dignity) in E. Bulygin (ed.), El  positivismo jurídico, Mexico, Fontamara, 2006, pp. 13-58, in relation to the Law of Aerial Security passed on 24th September, 2004 by the German Parliament, which authorizes the government to shoot down an aircraft when it is assumed that it will be used against human life (obviously relating to the attack on the World Trade Center in Nueva York on 11th September, 2001). Worthy of mention in recent essays on the subject are those of M. Rosen, Dignity, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2012, and of J, Waldron, Dignity, Rank and Rights, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2012. More recently, G. Kateb, Human Dignity, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2014. And published originally in Spanish: V. Gómez Pin, La dignidad, Barcelona, Paidós,  1995; J. A. Marina y M. de la Válgoma, La lucha por la dignidad, Barcelona, Anagrama, 2000; Cándido, Qué es la dignidad, Barcelona, ediciones Martínez Roca, 2001; y A. Cortina, Las fronteras de la persona, Madrid, Taurus, 2009.

5 “The absence of philosophical interest in dignity is surprising” states M. Rosen, Dignity, op. cit., p. 4.


6 Petrarch, Obras I. Prosa, De los remedios contra la próspera y adversa fortuna, Libro segundo, XCIII, “De la tristeza y la miseria”, Madrid, Alfaguara, 1978, trad. de Francisco de Madrid (del año 1510), pp. 460-461.

7 Cf. O. Sensen, “Human Dignity in Historical Perspective: The Contemporary and Traditional Paradigms”, European Journal of Political Theory, vol. 10, num. 1, 2011, pp. 71-91. This article is highly recommendable because it synthesizes a vast amount of material into a few, lucid ideas.

8 The ethical temptation to be consoled by disdaining that which we have lost. See Seneca Dialogues. Consolations for Marcia, her mother Helvia and Polibio, Madrid, Gredos, 1996, trans. by J. Mariné, and Plutarch, Consolation for Apolonio. Moral Works & Customs II, Madrid, Gredos, 1986, C. Morales and J. García López. In both cases, consolation appears to take the form on the one hand of a philosophical anticipation and prior acceptance of our mortal condition with its inevitable adversities and on the other of the consideration that life is a kind of temporary loan which can be called in by Destiny or by the Gods whenever it pleases them. Death even appears to become the object of praise because it releases us from the servitude of living. Seneca’s Moral Letters to Lucilia 63, 93, 99 and 107 and his Treatise on Tranquility of mind should also be consulted.

9 Already anticipated in, among others, the Antigone of Sophocles, in which the heroine is condemned to a tragic death while the chorus exclaims the famous eulogy which begins: “Many wondrous things exist, and yet none more wondrous than man”. (v. 332 et seq.).

10 Cícero, Tusculanae Quaestiones, I, Madrid, Gredos, 2005, trans. by A. Medina, p. 195.

11 Cicero, op. cit., I, p. 132-135. In Book III, p. 263, we also read: “Glory is something solid and has a clear outline, not being a mere shadow: it is the unanimous praise of the good, the uncorrupted voice of those who are able to judge fairly on the eminent virtue, it responds to virtue as if it were an echo, and as it usually accompanies upright actions, it should not be disdained by men of mettle”. He shrewdly distinguishes between glory “clear and living example of virtue” and mere popularity “a pale reflection of glory”. Cicero wrote a treatise on glory which has not survived. Cf. Also my book La imagen de tu vida (The picture of your life) Barcelona, Galaxia, 2017, chaps. 2: “Humana perduración” (Human Endurance), and 3: “La imagen de tu vida” (The picture of your life).

12 Cicero, On Duties, Book I (De los deberes, Libro I), Madrid, Gredos, 2014, trans. by I. García Pinilla, p. 124: “Duty rests entirely on the idea that man should always remember how human nature is superior to that of the lower animals; they feel nothing other than pleasure and they are drawn to it impulsively, whereas the intellect of man is fed by learning and meditation; he never ceases to investigate or to begin new undertakings, and derives satisfaction from seeing and listening. (,,,) If we but consider the excellence and dignity rooted in our nature, we will understand how senseless it is to waste our lives on vices and idleness, and how honorable it is to live frugal, temperate and austere lives”.

13 The work of Petrarch is a dialogue between Sorrow and Reason. When Sorrow says: “I am saddened by the misery of this life”, Reason answers:” Be joyful with the joy of the other. Although this life cannot be so miserable, even if it sometime is, the other is joyful and blessed”. Supernatural dignity resides primarily in “having God’s image impressed on our soul”, “the immortality of the soul and the way to Heaven”. But there is a foundation which is even more important: “and what I have purposefully kept till the end, because they are things so great that without the help of the faith I would be unable to understand them, is the hope of rising again and taking up again, with much glory, this same body after death, but light, clear and impassible”. And above all, the incarnation of Christ, which dignifies the human condition and divinizes it: “He who was God wished to become man”, “So that man should become God, God was made man”. Cf. Petrarch, “On sadness and misery”, op.cit., p. 462.

14 The treatise by Cicero De natura deorum (On the nature of the gods) and the later work by Lactancio De opificio hominis (On the works of man) were to become a permanent source of inspiration for writers who, in the medieval and renaissance tradition looked for arguments to exalt the excellence and dignity of the human condition.

15 “That of Manetti is, then, the work which defends most decidedly, copiously and exhaustively the excellence of human nature in all aspects of life and in all the operations performed by man. And he celebrates this excellence to an even greater extent than Giovanni Pico della Mirandola would later do with theological and scholastic arguments, which were mainly concerned with the soul, without any reference - or at most only in passing – to the dignity of the body” comments María José Vega in her enlightening article “Miseria y dignidad del hombre en el Renacimiento: de Petrarca a Pérez de Oliva” (Misery and dignity of man in the Renaissance; from Petrarch to Pérez de Oliva) , Ínsula, 674, Feb. 2003, p. 22.

16 God’s discourse to the first man: “I have given you, oh Adam, neither a certain place, nor a physiognomy of your own, nor a certain gift; therefore the place, the physiognomy and the gift which you choose shall be yours and you will preserve them according to your will and your judgement. The nature of all the other creatures has been defined and will be governed by laws prescribed by me. You, who are not constrained by any limits, will of your own accord  determine the limits of your nature by your own free will, in whose hands I have entrusted you. I have placed you in the center of the world so that from thence you can examine at your ease what is around you in the world. I have made you neither celestial, nor earthly, nor immortal, so that, as the sovereign and responsible architect of your own being, you may become what you wish to become. You can degenerate to become an inferior creature like the irrational animals; you can, if such is the disposition of your spirit, become a superior being, or in other words a divine being” Discourse on the dignity of man in VVAA, Manifiestos del humanismo, edición de M. Morrás, Barcelona, Península, 2000, p. 99. P. O. Kristeller, en El pensamiento renacentista y sus fuentes, FCE, 1982 “The dignity of man” emphasizes that Mirandola takes the idea of man as a miracle from hermetism.

17 María José Vega, in “Misery and Dignity..” op. cit. 2.26 rounds off the list of its merits: “It is the most philosophical of the works on human dignity, with the best and clearest dialectical organization, the work with the least pretension towards moralization, penitence and consolation, and the work which presents the opposition between human misery and dignity with the greatest economy of exposition and elocution”

18      I. Kant, Fundamentación de la metafísica de las costumbres, (Metaphysical Foundations) Madrid, Espasa-Calpe, 1996, p. 104.


19 I. Kant, Crítica de la razón pura (Critique of Pure Reason), Madrid, Alfaguara, 1978, trans. by P. Ribas, p. 635

20 I. Kant, Fundamentación,(Foundations) op. cit., p. 112. This distinction is  already implicit in the definition which Thomas Aquinas gives of dignity in his Commentaries on the Sentences: “Dignity means the goodness which something has of itself” ” (“dignitas significat bonitatem alicuius propter seipsum”), Sent. III, d. 35, q. 1, a. 4, sol. 1.


21 I. Kant, Crítica de la razón práctica,(Critique of Practical Reason) Salamanca, Sígueme, 1994, trans. by E. Miñana y M. García-Morente, p. 110.


22 In Kant, dignity is not so much the foundation as the consequence derived from moral autonomy, on which it depends in the last instance. We read in the Critique of Practical Reason: “We can now easily understand that all dignity depends entirely on moral conduct, because this conduct, in the concept of the supreme good, is the condition for all the rest”, op. cit., p. 161. And in Foundations, op. cit., pp. 112 y 114: “Only morality and humanity to the extent that it is capable of morality possess dignity. (…) Autonomy is therefore the foundation of the dignity of human nature and all rational nature”. As Rosen points out, in Kant “dignity, rather than being a quality which is intrinsic to all human beings inasmuch as they bear the moral law within themselves, is a characteristic of those who follow the dictates of the moral law”, in Dignity, op. cit., p. 29.


23 For the genealogy of the concept, from Machiavelli to Hegel and disciples, see F. Meineke, La idea de la razón de Estado en la Edad Moderna (The idea of Reasons of State in modern times) Madrid, Centro de Estudios Políticos y Constitucionales, 1997.

24 Inspired by the book Yo no, Taurus, 2017, translated by Belén Bas, memoirs of the infancy and youth of Joaquim Fest, author of influential biography of Hitler (1973) and for many years Editor of the Cultural Section of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. He recalls that only a few weeks after the Nazis seized power in Germany, officials of the education administration called his father, the Head of a school, asking him to give them his opinion of the government. His father declared his support of the Weimar Republic and his opposition to Nazism. When he arrived home, his wife reproached him for his inflexibility and saying it would only bring misfortune on his family. Sure enough, he was immediately relieved of his headmastership and prevented from working as a teacher, plunging the family into great economic hardship. Furthermore, neighbors and friends gave them the cold shoulder and the authorities intimidated and harassed them in many different ways. At the beginning of 1936, there was another heated argument in the family home, as a result of which the father called the older children together and explained the situation to them. At the end of his talk, the father, a practicing Catholic, dictated a phrase to them in Latin and asked them to write it down and to engrave it into their memories. “The phrase had helped him on many occasions and had avoided his making a number of bad decisions. And he had almost never been mistaken when he had followed his own judgment to the exclusion of all others”. He gave each of us a piece of paper and dictated. “Etiam si omnes, ego non!”. It was a verse from Matthew, he explained to us, at the scene on the Mount of Olives, Mt. 26,33 in which Peter exclaims “Even if all else should lose courage over thee, I will never lose mine”. Fest wrote his memoirs in answer to Günter Grass’ memoirs, Peeling the onion, in which he excused his adhesion to Nazism in his youth on the grounds that the majority had done the same.


25 There are some who would discover in Rousseau’s theory of the general will, which is one of the foundations of democracy, the seeds of totalitarianism: cf. J. L. Talmon, The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy, London, Secker&Warburg, 1952.

26 Cf. Jordi Agustí’s lecture “The evolutionary meaning of longevity”, given at the Juan March Foundation on 17th April 2012. An audio version can be heard at:


27 This syntagma “aristocracy of the masses” would in fact coincide with that egalitarian universalization of the aristocratic idea of rank – Roman dignitas – which J. Waldron proposes in Dignity, Rank and Rights, op. cit.: the high and noble position in the hierarchy which had before been reserved to the few, is now extended to all human beings. Referring to a previous article by the same author, M. Toscano proposes what he calls the “Waldron hypothesis” in “Human Dignity as High Moral Status”, Les ateliers de l’éthique/The Ethics Forum, vol. 6, num. 2, 2011, pp. 4-25.

28 I. Kant, Crítique of Practical Reason, op.cit., p. 193.

29 Cf. Micro-essay “Yo la adoro, pero (I adore her, but) ……. (elogio del chisme - in praise of gossip)” in my book Filosofía mundana (Worldly philosophy), Barcelona, Galaxia, 2016, pp. 281-283.

30 Antonio Machado, Juan de Mairena 1 & 2, Section VI, Madrid, Cátedra, 1986. The reflection is developed in Section LI: “We have now reached complete awareness of the essential dignity, the supreme aristocracy of man; and we think that no privilege of class will be sustainable in the future. Because if man, as we believe, following the popular belief, bears no greater worth than his worth as a man, the privilege of one social group over another is devoid of moral justification”. Among the social groups which deserve no privilege are those which are on one side of the border over those which are on the other.

31 Like any ideal, cosmopolitanism may also be the victim of corruption . K.A.Appiah points out in “El cosmopolitismo arraigado” (Deep-rooted cosmopolitanism), chap. 6 de La ética de la identidad,(The Ethics of identity) Katz, Madrid, 2007, trans. by L. MozCon, pp. 309 et seq., that cosmopolitanism is harmful when it loses epistemic humility and becomes a unifying force, intolerant of differences and an enemy of the local. Being equal does not mean being identical, because each one is equal in his difference and good cosmopolitanism aspires to a diverse world peopled by equals. Cf. by the same author, Cosmopolitismo (Cosmopolitanism), Madrid, Katz, 2007, trans. by L. Mosconi.