We all know what dignity looks like when it is taken from us. From job losses and income deprivation, to discrimination, systemic racism or oppression, throughout history there have been constant and countless instances of people being deprived, humiliated and dehumanised, their dignity refused.

The second world war – and the atrocities committed by the National Socialist regime in particular – represents a salient instance of dignity denied, of crimes against humanity. At its conclusion, in 1945, legal scholars, politicians and the wider public agreed that life without dignity was meaningless.

My doctoral research looks at the German quest, both before and after the conflict, to define dignity, in order to enshrine its protection in law. Tracing this task from German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s attempts at a universal definition, to the West German constitution drafted between 1948 and 1949, I have found that while a clear definition remains elusive, it is that very abstraction that ensures it is universal.

An inviolable attribute

On September 1, 1948, 65 members of the West German Parlamentarischer Rat (parliamentary council) convened in Bonn to draw up a constitution for the nascent democratic, federal state. The council wanted to draft an unwavering response to the atrocities Germany had committed.

Under Nazi law, human beings were excluded from community and thus dehumanised. Dignity, therefore, had to be firmly established in the new constitution. The law had to ensure that each person was positioned as a member of society and protected by society.

To do so, some argued that it first had to be defined. Others, including Theodor Heuss, the Free Democratic Party representative for West Germany and Berlin, disagreed. He advocated for dignity to be left as an “uninterpreted proposition”, purposefully abstract so as to be universal.

This, Heuss reasoned, would guarantee that the notion of dignity would be protected from political manoeuvring, yet still open to interpretation, according to different philosophical and religious backgrounds. Heuss considered defining dignity in this way to be the only proper refutation of the barbarism of National Socialism, a safeguard against ever again allowing the state to judge the value of human life.

Heuss’s argument prevailed. The Grundgesetz für die Bundesrepublik Deutschland (Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany) was adopted on May 8 1949. Article 1, which still has its distinctive validity today, reads:

Human dignity shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority. The German people therefore acknowledge inviolable and inalienable human rights as the basis of every community, of peace and of justice in the world.

A universal definition

One and a half centuries earlier, in his 1785 volume, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant had sought to democratise human dignity. His idea was that all human beings have an inner worth and should be valued simply because they are human. All should be treated as ends in themselves rather than simply as means to an end.

Moreover, Kant defined dignity by distinguishing it from those things that could be costed:

In the kingdom of ends everything has either a price or a dignity. What has a price can be replaced by something else as its equivalent; what on the other hand is raised above all price and therefore admits of no equivalent has a dignity.

Kant’s timeless formula did not, however, seem to fully anticipate what the second world war would go on to lay bare: the degree to which humans could deprive others of their dignity. It also stood at odds with the philosopher’s own espousal, for most of his career, of scientific racism and his ignorance of how such views precisely denied dignity to countless people.

So in retrospect, Heuss’s definition of human dignity proved wise. Kant’s framing of dignity may be concise, timeless, and universal, but his judgement of who is worthy of dignity – and who is not – was indeed marred by the ideologies of his own time.

Dignity today still appears as a visible horizon. Everything – politics, the rule of law, our societal compass, the way we each live our lives – is directed towards it, yet it remains difficult to reach.

Framing dignity by what it is not (indignity) or by what denies it (humiliation) runs the risk of our only ever thinking about it in terms of victimhood. Throughout history, though, there has also been this idea that, with dignity, comes something sublime that demands respect: a sense of awe.

This is of course most obvious in the way a sovereign’s dignity is traditionally hailed – if only in officialdom – with words such as “excellence”, “highness” and “majesty”.

The modern concept of democratic dignity might be seen as exactly this sublime status, formerly reserved for the nobility and now democratised. A universalised high social rank could have a persuasive force. It would not only affirm the moral worth of each individual, it would also answer the yearning for recognition – of honour and status – that everyone experiences.

Quite how to define the dignity of all people depends on each person’s unique interpretation of the world. The law, however, cannot equivocate on its status: as a legally recognised human characteristic, dignity must remain inviolable. It must be constantly recreated and protected from any bias.

Frederick Hauke is PhD candidate, University of Cambridge.

This article was first published on The Conversation.