Spirituality, Human Rights, and Human Worth

One of the challenges today is to find a vision of life that illumines and sustains the struggle to fashion a world in which personal integrity, human friendship, and social justice, are honoured and fostered. This, too, is the task of a contemporary spirituality: to heed the questions that arise from the depths of our human experience as personal, relational, and social beings; and to respond to this longing in a way that gives meaning to our lives.

A person’s spirituality may be understood as the basic guiding vision of that person’s life. It comprises the vision, values, and support system to which a person turns to discover or create meaning in his or her life, and to respond to the inevitable sorrows inherent in existence. The quest for meaning designates essentially the quest for identity and worth, for belonging and purpose. It is the quest gradually to gather our self into our hands, and give our lives to something worthwhile.

One of the developments in the contemporary era is the differentiation of spirituality from religion. An attendant factor is the search for a grounding of spirituality in some non-religious basis, which may at the same time draw upon insights and images from religious and other sources.

One possible foundation may lie in the conviction of the worth, value, or sacredness of the human person, and, indeed, of all life and being. This notion is one that can be shared in theory by people of diverse backgrounds and convictions, including those who adhere to a religious tradition. The United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights (1948), as well as the subsequent UN International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1969) and UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) all begin with an affirmation of the inherent dignity of all human beings. This Human Rights perspective is developed more philosophically by such authors as Charles Taylor and Michael Ignatieff, is given an explicitly religious foundation in Pacem in Terris by John XXIII, and is also exemplified in the Multiculturalism Act and Policy of Canada.

The Universal Declaration on Human Rights proclaims that recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all persons is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world. This recognition is to apply without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, or other status. This worth is inseparable from being human, and applicable to every and all human beings.

Michael Ignatieff states that the articulation of human rights gives legal meaning to deeply held values, such as dignity, equality, and respect, enables people to fashion their lives freely, and has a special task in protecting the freedom of the vulnerable. Such rights and corresponding responsibilities, he adds, derive their force in our conscience from the sense that we belong to one species and recognize ourselves in every single human being we meet.

Yet respect for human equality and human rights does not mean reducing everyone to a level of sameness, but honouring the expression of that humanness in its variety and difference. The function of human rights is to protect real men and women in all their history, language, and culture, in all their irreducible difference.

There is a progressive development, however, that involves first coming to recognize one’s own worth, extending that recognition in friendship and family bonds, and gradually and painstakingly extending it to strangers, with a particular concern for those who are most vulnerable. This latter idea is also reflected in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, whose preamble notes that children need special care and protection because of their vulnerability, especially those living in exceptionally difficult conditions.

The human rights tradition thus holds that each and every human being, in his or her shared humanity and unique personhood, has an inherent depth and dignity, which evokes the possibility and challenge to discover and unfold their identity freely from within, in dialogue with others and the larger society. This is the basis for affirming the fundamental rights of human beings which are to be universally respected.

An example of a spirituality of human worth is found in the postwar writings of Viktor Frankl, who concluded from his concentration camp experience that the dominant human drive is the quest for meaning. Yet even when the more ordinary paths of creative work or loving relationships are blocked, a person may still find a deeper meaning through a courageous response to inevitable suffering. If there is a meaning in life at all, he holds, then there must be a meaning in suffering, for suffering is an ineradicable part of every life, and an intense part of many lives. In this perspective, even when violated in terrible, unjust conditions, the dignity of a human beings remains. It lies deeper than all violation, may continue to be affirmed by the suffering person, and calls incessantly for acknowledgment and respect.

More recently, authors such as Wayne Muller and Sam Keen draw upon a variety of philosophical, psychological, and religious sources in order to fashion a spirituality that affirms an identity, worth, and purpose to human existence, deeper than all limitations and sufferings.

In this perspective, then, the foundation of an authentic spirituality is the intrinsic worth of the human person, possessed by every human person yet in a unique and irreplaceable way in each human person. This inherent value calls for recognition and respect in attitude and action, is the basis of human rights and responsibilities, yet remains despite all violations, and calls them to account.

The challenge for each person, in dialogue with others and the world around them, in the demands of work, the intimacy of friendship, and the wrestling with the sorrows of life, is to discover and live according to their own inherent worth and that of others. At the same time, it is not a question of a narrow, self-preoccupied spirituality, but calls for a response to the tasks of one’s concrete life-situation, to a compassionate concern for the most vulnerable members of society, to the struggle towards a more just society, and to a courageous response to the sufferings of life. Simply put, it is better for all of us if each one of us regards and treats every one of us as a being of intrinsic worth.


Frankl, Viktor. (1984). Man’s Search for Meaning. New York: Washington Square Press
Ignatieff, Michael. (2000). The Rights Revolution. Toronto: Anansi.
John XXIII. (1982). Pacem in Terris. New York: Paulist Press
Keen, Sam. (1994). Hymns to an Unknown God. New York: Bantam Books.
Muller, Wayne. (1993). Legacy of the Heart. New York: Fireside.
Taylor, Charles. (1994). Multiculturalism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

©Norman King, January 1, 2003
[An Abbreviated version of this paper appeared in The Activist, May-June, 2003]