The Price of Peace

Friday 21st September marks the international day of peace which is a day devoted to strengthening the ideals of peace amongst all nations and peoples. 2018 marks the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document which appeared just after the second world war and almost half a century of warfare. It is thus prudent to reflect on peace in relation to the universal declaration.

The opening line of the preamble to the UDHR attributes peace in the world to recognition of the inherent dignity of all humans. Now, for those without a background in philosophy, the recognition of dignity and its association with peace may appear as a platitude with no substance to it. But there are genuine reasons, reasons familiar to drafters of the UDHR such as Charles Malik, for affirming human dignity and connecting it with peace. What then is human dignity and how does its recognition foster peace?

Human Dignity

Humans are rational substances, i.e. they are the kinds of things that are rational. In being rational, humans have an intellect and will. As so constituted, human beings can determine ends for themselves and pursue those ends. To treat a human being as an instrument for the pursuit of one’s own ends is to treat him or her as less than human; and this is because when we use a human for one’s own ends we undermine that very capacity which is essential to their humanity.

No human then ought to be treated as a means to an end but only as an end in itself.

Now, something very significant follows from this, and it is that the only attitude that we ought to have to other human beings is one of love. This is because, to treat someone as an end requires willing their good for themselves and not subverting them to our own good. But to will the good of another is to love the other. Hence it follows that the only appropriate response to another human person is to love that person.


By stressing the recognition of human dignity in the first line of the preamble to the UDHR the authors have latched onto a very important feature of human nature and relations: if we do not treat other people with the dignity that they deserve, i.e. if we do not give to others the love that is their due, then we are maltreating our fellow humans. This maltreatment divides humans from each other and from it war and division emerge. Hence to avoid such division we must recognise the dignity of every human being.

Thus, peace flows from the recognition of human dignity; for when we genuinely recognise the dignity of another person, i.e. that he or she is to be treated as an end, an object of love, and not a means, an item for use, there is fostered unity between persons.

The price of peace then is the recognition of human dignity.

The Challenge of Peace

It is not always easy to recognise human dignity. In the world right now many human beings are not being treated as ends in themselves, as objects of love. Rather they are being treated as objects of use for the ends of others. We need only look at the high abortion rates in many parts of the western world where it is often looked upon as a right to pass over the dignity of a high number of our fellow humans. In countries where euthanasia is legal and widely practised fully mature humans are being treated as a means to others’ ends, hence their dignity is being overlooked. And there are of course all the other states of affairs which fail to recognise human dignity, e.g. torture, slavery, abuse, domestic violence etc.

All of these divide humans from each other and undermine peace in the world and amongst our fellow humans.

Aside from these cases there is a prevailing ideology in the world which historically stands contrary to human dignity and which indeed drives the aforementioned cases of lack of recognition of dignity. This ideology is one which stresses the importance of group identity over the dignity of the individual, so that so long as the identity of some privileged group is recognised/upheld/lauded etc, we have a just and equitable society. It is this stress on group identity, to the detriment of the dignity of the individual, which drives totalitarian regimes and abuses of humanity. The 20th Century is replete with examples where the individual was sacrificed for the good of the group; one need only look to the Nazi and communist regimes for particularly horrific examples of this. Effectively, the identity of the group, characterised by its particular ideology and dogmas, subsumes the identity of the individual so that the individual has no dignity or worth except for the value he or she has to the group. Nazism and communism are particularly extreme examples of this, but the philosophy which informs it is common to all social movements which hold that certain individuals do not matter, have no dignity, or have no rights simply because they are not part of or do not contribute to the privileged group.

The challenge of peace then is to avoid the constant temptation to put all our faith in an ideology which characterises the group, but to focus on the dignity of the human individual before us, and affirm that regardless of age, ability, disability, gender, sexual orientation etc, every human individual is a being worthy of love and whose dignity ought to be affirmed. When we do this we foster a relationship between humans which is the foundation of peace.

Dr Gaven Kerr

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  1. Pingback: Human Dignity and the Culture of Death | Iona Institute NI

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