Remarks on the concept of human dignity

Lincoln Frias Nairo Lopes About the authors


The principle of human dignity acquired a central role in modern national constitutions and international treaties and is often used as a foundation for sentences on a variety of issues. Nonetheless, the present paper argues that its content is very imprecise, and thus limits the objectivity of the documents and sentences which employ this notion – a problem which is evident in processes dealing with distributional problems, like the judicial processes to obtain prescription drugs from the State. The first section presents two relevant distinctions: the hierarchical versus the egalitarian meaning of human dignity and the protective versus the substantial function of this notion. The next sections contain criticisms to the ambiguity of concept of dignity and the proposal of Luís Roberto Barroso (2013) on how to circumvent this problem. The fourth section deals with some problems in Barroso’s proposal and offers instead three definitions of human dignity: (a) one based on some intrinsic property, (b) another one based on external conditions, and (c) another one based on an acquired property (personal autonomy). The first definition is considered unsatisfactory given its vulnerability to arbitrariness and excessive use. Thus, the conclusion is that human dignity should be based on the last two definitions, that is, personal autonomy and the conditions required to develop and deploy it.

Human dignity; existential minimum; personal autonomy; fundamental rights; Constitutional law

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