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Of plants and people
Why do we care about dignity?

References to human dignity are littered throughout modern human rights and bioethics instruments, from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the European Convention on Human Rights (1950), to UNESCO's Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights (2005) and the latest version of the Declaration of Helsinki (2008). Dignity is both the background value of these texts, and the primary principle upon which they are constructed.

Despite this ubiquitous reliance on dignity, it remains a notoriously slippery concept; it can be either a positive and empowering value, or a negative and constraining one (Harmon, 2008). Here, I define 'values' as deeply held ideas or moral concepts about what is good and right—which are constitutive of the self—and what supports human flourishing and contributes both to personal and to social identity—which are the tenets of justice. In both cases, values are complex, overlapping and opaque, and therefore often hidden. I define 'principles' in much the same way, but with one subtle difference: values are more social, idealistic and of a higher order than principles, which are more legally grounded and instrumental.