Applying Dignity, Respect, Honor and Human Rights to a Multicultural, Pluralistic Universe

“Human dignity” is the foundation of the human rights discourse that evolved around the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In recent decades, the concept of human dignity has been vastly over-extended, gradually becoming a vague, nearly meaningless “catch-all” phrase. In the 21st century’s pluralistic and multicultural world, this development has played into two worrisome trends. One is the formulation of any cultural-specific identity-based claim as involving a human dignity-based human right; such over-extension of human dignity and human dignity-based rights breeds growing scepticism regarding the usefulness of the whole human rights discourse. The second trend is the erroneous portrayal of cultural specific honor-based claims as involving dignity-based human rights. Such misleading portrayal blurs the boundaries between the universalistically humanistic dignity-based human rights discourse, and culturally specific, often separatist and conservative honor-based mentalities.

Attempting to address these troubling trends, this paper defines a tightly knit human dignity, which marks the absolute value/ worth of the common denominator of humanness in all human beings. This human dignity gives rise to universalistic and absolute – yet minimal – fundamental human rights. It is conceptually distinguished from what I refer to as “respect”, which assigns tentative value/ worth to the uniqueness of each and every concrete, specific expression of human existence. In this conceptualization, respect is the basis of tentative, secondary human rights – including those that address many specific identity claims in a pluralistic, multicultural world. Whereas "human dignity-based rights" derive from and protect the very essence of humanness, "respect-based rights" protect and enhance exclusive personal choices that manifest an individual's uniqueness, including each person's self-expression in lieu of his or her multiple affiliations. Such affiliations are often related to race, gender, nationality, religion, ethnicity, sexuality and/ or culture. Respect-based rights thus refer to most issues arising from pluralism and multiculturalism. Both dignity and respect are carefully distinguished from the very different notion of honor, which marks tentative, comparative human value/ worth that is intertwined with esteem and prestige within a specific (typically conservative and separatist) normative cultural context. Honor-based claims do not necessarily constitute either dignity or respect-based human rights.

Such re-conceptualization yields a clear distinction between the absolute and universal fundamental dignity-based human rights, and the tentative, often cultural-specific respect-based rights. This allows to preserves the distinction between absolute, universal fundamental dignity-based human rights, and secondary, tentative, sometimes clashing respect-based rights. It highlights the difference between these two categories of human rights and any culturally-specific honor-based claims. These distinctions are important if we are to maintain the discourse of human rights and adjust it to a world which is ever more pluralistic and multicultural.