I was wrong

Matt Paprocki
4 min readMay 18, 2022


I’ve changed my views on human dignity. I no longer think it is a good thing. In fact, it’s dangerous.

Here’s why: the definition of dignity has changed. It’s being used to harm people.

The way dignity is used today is something like, “Every person is born with an inherent human dignity, bestowed from the creator, and deserving of respect.”

Nobody can disagree with that. Well, maybe I can.

Do I need to respect Vladimir Putin and the atrocities happening in Ukraine? What about Stalin and Mao? Despite killing tens of millions of people, did they still have human dignity?

I don’t think so.

But by our definition, their actions, however atrocious, cannot take away their intrinsic human dignity.

This bothers me. If human dignity cannot be taken away, it’s not a virtue. It’s a bland statement. It is meaningless.

It turns out, that was the point.

The term “human dignity” is a new creation. The word was almost never used until the 1940s, according to GoogleBooks.

The first time the term “human dignity” started gaining popularity was in a draft to the 1944 Irish constitution. It made an appeal to the idea of human dignity that became a basis for upholding human standards.

The reason? At the end of World War II, countries realized they had no constitutional justification to condemn the acts of Nazi Germany. So they needed a term they could get unanimous agreement on. That word became “human dignity.”

So the next year, France expands its constitutional draft to include the liberty and dignity of the human person as “supreme values and intangible goods.”

The rest is history. Dozens of other countries included human dignity as a constitutional protection. The term entered everyday usage.

And here lies the problem: To get agreement on human dignity, they needed to change the definition. That’s because the version used prior to 1944 came from an Italian Dominican friar named Thomas Aquinas.

One of the central points of Aquinas’ definition of human dignity was that it must be directed toward our final good, which is achieved only through our relationships with and for the good of others. In other words, work.

Aquinas said when we fail to direct ourselves to that final end, we lose our dignity.

To put this another way, dignity is not an inalienable human right: it’s a virtue. It’s a goal that must be constantly pursued.

It is because of Aquinas’ view we still have the phrase, “I was stripped of my dignity.” If we accept the post-1944 definition, the phrase makes no sense. Because nobody can be stripped of their dignity if it is part of being human. It can’t be taken away.

It’s like the current version of “liberal.” The word originally meant liberty. It now means the exact opposite.

So how does this distinction become dangerous?

If you can’t take away someone’s dignity, you can treat them however you want.

You can allow thousands of people on the streets of San Francisco to be homeless while pretending it is a humane decision.

You can take away people’s jobs, close down businesses and pay them off with welfare and other government funding.

You can tell people it’s equality of outcomes that matter, not equality of opportunities. You can tell them it’s the government’s job to fix the inequality.

When you tell people everyone has human dignity, then people are never responsible for stripping that dignity away.

The result is for the first time in modern human history, life expectancy for the average American has gone down.

The reason is not because of COVID-19, but thanks to “deaths of despair.” That term was coined by Princeton professor Anne Case, who was the first to discover the fastest-growing causes of death in the U.S. are drug overdoses, suicide and alcohol liver disease.

A death of despair is the exact opposite of the Aquinas definition of human dignity. It’s a response to having dignity stolen.

The good news is we can restore human dignity, and it’s done through work and jobs. What has created the most jobs in human history? The free market.

So we should ask ourselves: Does this program increase human dignity, or does it strip it away?

Define human dignity in that way, and it becomes one of the greatest powers for good we humans know.



Matt Paprocki

President @illinoispolicy the nation’s leading state-based think tank.