Articoli su invito / Invited Articles

Un appello per la dignità

A plea for dignity

Alberto Peruzzi

Department of Literature and Philosophy, School of Humanities and Education, University of Florence



Questo articolo si richiama all'idea soggiacente alla Decent Work Agenda, cioè che si può ridurre la povertà nel mondo promuovendo condizioni di lavoro che rispettino la dignità dell'uomo. Viene sottolineata l'esigenza di rendere espliciti i principi etici che stanno alla base dell'impegno per la tutela dei diritti umani in ogni paese, al di là di ogni credenza religiosa o ideologia. Se l’intervento delle agenzie internazionali dev’essere coerente con tali principi (così come recepiti nella Dichiarazione Universale dei Diritti Umani, l'attuale modello di sviluppo economico non può essere conservato.

Parole chiave

diritti universali; povertà; etica; lavoro decente; dignità; sostenibilità.



This article refers to the idea underlying the Decent Work Agenda, i.e., that we can reduce poverty in the world by promoting work conditions that respect human dignity. It emphasises the need to clarify the ethical principles that form the basis of our commitment to protecting human rights in every country, beyond any religious belief or ideology. If the intervention of international agencies is to be consistent with such principles (as set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), the current model of economic development cannot be preserved.


universal rights; poverty; ethics; decent work; dignity; sustainability.

Decent work

The recent UNESCO conference in Florence, from 4 to 6 June, 2015, was organised by the UNESCO Chair on Lifelong Guidance and Counseling, in collaboration with the University of Florence. I wish to thank Annamaria Di Fabio for making possible a fruitful workshop focused on decent work, within which the present contribution was presented and discussed.

The conference was centred on the question: How can career and life designing intervention contribute to a fair and sustainable development and to the implementation of decent work over the world? This question has for its context the existence of poverty and the lack of decent work across vast areas of the Earth, including the developed countries. If poverty and decent work are intended in the spirit of Articles 6 and 7 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, see (UN General Assembly, 1966; Covenant’s Entry into force: 3 January, 1976), it’s suitable to recall that one of the main developed countries signed but not ratified the treaty and that no less than 26 states neither signed nor ratified it. In fact, the 9 pages text of the Covenant is followed by an incredibly telling sequence of Declarations and Reservations upon signature by singles States, pp. 78-106, tending to obstacle its applications through formal objections.

The Florence conference examined a range of possible answers. Behind all of them lies a sense of the urgency of the problem. How to reduce poverty and ensure the availability of decent work and in particular how to ensure that decent work for the few does not come at the cost of non-decent work for the many? The Decent Work Agenda of the International Labour Organization (ILO) rests on efforts to link both aspects of the problem.

Decent work was defined in 1999 by Juan Somavia, then ILO General Director, as “productive work in which rights are protected, which generates an adequate income with adequate social protection. It also means sufficient work in the sense that all should have access to income earning opportunities. It marks the high road to economic and social development, a road in which employment, income and social protection can be achieved without compromising workers’ rights and sound standards” (ILO, 1996-2015). Its basic premise is that promoting decent work will itself act to reduce poverty. This premise deserves to be articulated more clearly, since job creation and social dialogue, which are factors covered by of the ILO Agenda, can act reciprocally.

The urgent problem involves simultaneous consideration of many aspects: these broadly fall under four headings: economic, political, ecological and legal. The resulting taxonomy exhibits the variety of conceptual and practical facets of poverty and decent work. But as soon as we realise that one aspect collides with another, how much help can we really receive from it? The introduction of a multidimensional poverty index, together with a proper method of analysis, (Alkire et al., 2015), and its present use in some countries is an undeniably important reference point. However, emphasis on the “complexity” resulting from the interaction of these four kinds of aspects can be even counterproductive, for it hides that each of the four kinds of aspects involves ethical choices and it is in virtue of ethical principles that we consider the problem just cited as a problem, and one it is urgent to face.

Thus we should make explicit (1) the ethical principles which guide our attempts to solve it and (2) a clearer account of the goals to be aimed at. These guiding principles and goals are not to be confused, though it is usually taken for granted that they perfectly match. Which path would we follow? This is a recurrent ethical issue that concerns personal or collective responsibility for preserving or modifying the status quo in economy, policy, ecology and law, by taking into account that negligible or even non-detectable effects on some actors in short term can have detectable, and decisive, effects in the long run on all actors.

Designing routes which can provide an escape from the sea of extreme poverty affecting over a billion people is a task which requires some careful conceptual analysis. Many think that it is simply a “nuts and bolts” issue, not one involving philosophical consideration of the means to be used, and philosophical attention to the issue of what makes work “decent” or not. But in both cases we are involved in drawing a line of demarcation, and drawing such a distinction involves at least implicit appeal to principles whose analysis is in part the business of philosophers. As with any concept we commonly use, as soon as we realise that an exact and unambiguous characterisation is lacking, we tend to assume a definition and forget the reasons for it. Only hypocrisy can let a definition, through an international treatise, provide the meaning of what we have to understand before drawing the line in a more than conventional way. It is the set of reasons underlying a definition, not the definition as such, which ultimately counts.

Undoubtedly, knowledge is better than ignorance. Undoubtedly, distinction is better than confusion. Undoubtedly, there are many dimensions to be considered in order to characterise poverty. Undoubtedly, different kinds of intervention depend on which dimensions are assigned priority, which in turn can change from one country to another as a function of its specific economic and political situation. But the point is that these aspects rely on notions which convey a value-judgment, and any value-judgment calls for justification, and any justification calls for a moral argument, which in turn relies on ethical principles. Which ones to be considered as a guide, is a decisive issue. In fact, such a consideration (when present) remains generally implicit and supposed to be foggy enough to prevent any uniquely determined explicit form and as dubious as any other basic hypothesis.


On the one hand, if poverty is multifactorial, no approach focused on a single factor can be exhaustive, and any such approach risks consequences which run counter to the overall aim of poverty reduction. On the other hand, examination of an open-ended list of context-specific factors and their pairwise interaction is a recipe for delay for the proverbial month of Sundays. The ethical perspective does not so much stand above, as lie transversal to all these factors.  It may thus hold the key to overcoming the acknowledged difficulty posed by the recognition there are so many factors to be taken into account, rather than being seen as either so obvious that it can be ignored or as a complicating obstacle having to be dealt with over and over again in the investigation of any separate aspect of the problem.

A first observation is that there is a fundamental distinction between absolute and relative poverty.

Absolute poverty is a condition of biological deprivation, associated with the lack of minimum daily requirements quantity of food and drinking water and the lack of any protection from potential dangers of either natural or social origin.

Relative poverty is partially culture-dependent (“partially”, because there are ethological constraints to be taken into account). It results from the lack of resources required to maintain the “average standard of living”, which varies from one society and historical epoch to another. We see that well-being and wealth do not necessarily coincide as determinants of the quality of life.

The parameters usually associated with relative poverty are also sensitive to the kind of society in which persons live: e.g., unemployment, lack of or low level of education and lack of health care. History provides counterexamples to the idea that any of these is ipso facto a cause of poverty with respect to the standards of a given time or place.

Yet we cannot remain indifferent in front of the dramatic absolute poverty of vast areas of Asia and Africa, nor to the risk of its extension or shift to other areas.

In Europe, the call of intellectuals against such indifference is historically accompanied by an indictment of the responsibility of their own societies in the creation of conditions of poverty and underdevelopment, notably in the colonial era or though the slave trade. In short, the call feeds off a guilt trip. But the urge to expiation of guilt is of little help in fine-tune the pairing of models of global development with models for the development of local economies or how to act so as to reduce absolute poverty across the whole world. Often the outlook of the intellectuals just discloses an unvoiced need to see Europe as the heart of everything. Whereas the patterns of growth of emergent non-European nations clearly play a major part in driving the proliferating gap between regions and populations, and the increase of non-decent work.

The first and often the only answer of European governments is to provide a short term survival kit in the form of food, water and medical aid - much of which fails to reach its intended destination through inefficient distribution, maladministration and corruption. Even in the absence of such obstacles, the short term aid may exacerbate longer term problems, as those areas which depend more and more on “donations” from the rich countries tend to become trapped in absolute poverty, as far as international agencies will provide aids independently of a national policy oriented to social equality, education and political rights. To avoid any tendentious reading, it must be underlined that the insufficiency of this sort of help or the dangers of becoming structurally dependent on it do not alter the obvious fact that in emergencies it is indispensable.

The technical gap which in the past favoured colonial expansion has if anything increased and is not compensated by increased mobility and the diffusion of information through the internet. These developments are a double edged sword, as increased mobility can deprive poor countries of precious human resources whilst the web can be exploited to produce new pockets of poverty where the ability to take advantage of web-based resources is lacking. Sharing present end-products will ensure further dependence on future technology.

In front of the rising tide of refugees from war and famine, we feel the duty to save them while doing nothing to help change the conditions of the countries they have been forced to flee. We only help them just to survive, not to give them a chance to exit the poverty they now endure here rather than there. The reward for their long and dangerous (for many tens of thousands fatal) journey from absolute poverty is an immediate fall into extreme relative poverty. For some the only alternative to a further fall into absolute poverty is crime.

Medium and long term projects are clearly necessary. International agencies such as UNESCO are expected to do what single countries or groups of countries cannot or will not do. These necessary projects involve not some hitherto unknown recipe but rather breathing new life and energy into an old component of modernity: that “material” goods and well-being are provided through a further sort of goods – education and knowledge, which are also the prerequisites of any working democracy (Peruzzi, 2009).  With that recognition, ethics has already entered the scene.


It is a widespread opinion that ethics is to politics what theory is to practice and that most of the time what holds in principle does not hold in practice. The call to principles is seen as too simple, too abstract, too demanding and in need of too much time. But all well-motivated theory emerges from practical needs and all effective practice has an implicit rationale in principles which should be made explicit. This is exactly what ethics does in respect of the principles governing personal and collective decisions, in this case in particular decisions about actions needed to reduce poverty and in support of "decent" work.

If we omit this step of consideration of principles – which is a step into philosophy – all that remains is just the diffuse feeling it is right to take steps to help people living in poverty. Yet, all feelings equally belong to human nature. Systems of religious faith may provide, in the eyes of believers, supernaturally ordained choices of the “right” ones amongst these. Once this leap is supposed to elude human reason, the reasons for action it provides are as intuitive as those stemming from natural empathy. Thus, I am not suggesting depart from rationality as a balance to the idea that a treatise can define a value.

It is also standardly claimed that in the era of globalisation, ethics and politics have to face the challenge of systems complexity since it is impossible to confine any action to a specific target system on which its effects can be predicted or evaluated in an isolated way. But this invocation of complexity is also used to cloak reluctance and lack of will to provide more than survival kits whenever e.g. a food crisis occurs, typically after deadly delay.

Globalisation has many aspects but de facto, one dominates the others, namely the diffusion of a specific and increasing average global standard of living, as measured by ownership of goods and purchasing power and tied to profit-centred economic development which in turn needs to generate more and more consumers able to spend more in an accelerated economic cycle of growth. This may seem to act as a mighty force in reducing poverty. But the sort of worldwide advertising to which humans are presently exposed has an underlying theme: “If you lack this, you are poor. If you are poor, you can't be happy. Now you know”.

This theme de jure undermines the very principles justifying action against poverty and in favour of decent work across the world. For, if new demands are always being induced for goods and services of which people formerly had no idea they stood in need, relative poverty is a condition which must always be near at hand. For those who cannot have what they are constantly told that they need, only two options seem to remain. Either to gaze supinely at the tv screen, accepting the role of a (poor and unhappy) spectator of the happy life lived elsewhere or to tear down the law which they have come to see as obstructing their exit from poverty  Surely it should be clear that no basic principle of ethics can be oriented to the production of unhappiness or the incitement to crime.

For much of the 20th Century an alternative scenario leading to the removal of the causes of poverty seemed possible.  But it is now generally admitted its results were disastrous – though the failure of a Project based on the superposition of a theory of historical necessity and ethical principles could well have been anticipated.

So, which ethical principles should guide our strategy in attacking poverty?  It seems obvious the answer should begin with a consideration of human rights. Yet this already raises issues concerning relative poverty.  If there is to be respect for the diversity of cultures and values, in what sense can there be universality? Are there not simply different life-styles, none of which can be said to be the “right” or “best” one from some ethical Archimedean viewing point? In contrast to this stands Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which begins by stating that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” (UN General Assembly, 1948) – and dignity an intrinsic component in the notion of decent work.

But if the notion of human dignity varies with culture and if the notion of “rights” has to be consistent with a particular doctrine, be it political or religious, some of the articles in the Declaration become moot. In fact, not all countries with a seat at the UN Assembly (from 1948 to present) ratified the Declaration, not indeed in order to defend a form of relativism, rather, but rather to defend their own version of “universality”, one subordinate to the requirement of consistency with a specific religion. So the objection rooted in a charge of overdetermination ends with a position exposed to the same objection.

An opposite kind of objections focuses on the incompleteness of the Declaration and raises a different set of issues.

Objections of both kinds deserve a discussion which it is impossible enter into here. But the remarks so far already make it clear that if action against poverty has to safeguard dignity, such a relativity of values turns it into an unmanageable task while the adoption of a specific (in fact, religious) doctrine grounding the definition of dignity stops such action at the very start, until such time as that doctrine will become universally shared on Earth.

Long before the UDHR, a well-known (secular) principle was formulated: “All men are equal”. As a factual statement, this was and remains trivially false. It was clearly, although implicitly, an exhortation to make a value-judgment, from which a moral duty immediately follows. For, if all human beings are to be considered equal in their rights, but in fact are not equal, then we are committed to restore their rights and prevent further violations.

Were this task not already difficult enough, complications flow from considering what equality means: equality has always been open to more than one interpretation and this plurality might be seen as supporting the same sort of relativity as in the case of rights and dignity. Such an idea of equality, however, is not truly pluralistic, as one of the rights with respect to which all human beings are equal is the right to be different from others (to have a different life, to choose different work, etc.) without preventing the same right being exercised by them; and this right itself includes all the plurality that can be justified as universal.

Again, this is no novelty: it’s an idea which inspired the Enlightenment and was later used in the struggle against the social inequalities dramatically extended by industrialisation even as that struggle operated against the economic interests of the countries in which that idea was first expressed (we should remember this when faced with the charge of a “Western-orientation” or “Eurocentricity” in relation to the ethical principles underpinning our notion of what is “decent”).


Even though we cannot presume to remove the causes of poverty once and for all, we can at least weigh the effect of actions oriented to their prevention or diminution. Such action can take various forms. One is certainly that focused on decent work. Thus, finally, the conditions which define that notion have to be made explicit: they include

  • freedom (to accept or decline specific kinds of work),

  • equity (a fair income),

  • security (inclusive of sanitation),

  • dignity.

For the sake of brevity, the last notion is the only one I address on the present occasion. Dignity has two main components: inherent worth of the person and the right to respect, which were both emphasised by the Enlightenment in a secular form as inalienable traits of all human beings and were not confined to the dimension of work. As for respect, Kant’s perspective was indeed peculiar (Peruzzi, 2011): respect was for Kant the only feeling admitted in ethics and having as its primary object a (the) universal moral law rather than any specific person, though that law implies the dignity of each person:

Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end. (Kant, 1785/1993; quotation from p. 30 of the English translation).

Passing from the XVIIIth to the XXth century, the notion of dignity is explicitly mentioned in Article 22 of the UDHR but it is also alluded to in Article 12. Both deserves quotation (italics added), since they directly apply to the conditions of work and help us understand that if dignity is denied, not only the quality of work but also the overall quality of life is threatened:

Article 12. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

Article 22. Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.

This link between free self-realization and dignity would deserve comment, as it is not plain. Despite the elusive nature of the concept of dignity and the objections that have been raised against a formal ethics of duty such as Kant's, we ordinarily meet no difficulty in identifying violations of dignity and seeing they are violations of the “moral law”.

The point is that these violations also correspond to two ways in which work may not be decent. The first is humiliation, potentially inflicted by the mighty on the weak and by the rich on the poor. The second is instrumentalisation, any time a human being is treated as a mere tool, from slavery in the past to multiple forms of exploitation in the present. Both violations, though independent of each other, deny respect to people in need of a job in order to exit absolute or relative poverty. Both have as their consequence de-humanisation and degradation, occurring when one has no other choice but to accepting whatever conditions accompany a job.

Within the same Western culture which nurtured the worship of money,  there have been doctrines, both religious and secular, which esteemed the condition of poverty. There is not space enough here to discuss the meaning of such doctrines. It may be the Kingdom of heaven is open foremost of all to the Poor in Spirit but being Poor in Spirit does not necessarily imply material poverty. Even if it were so, it would not follow that we have a duty to preserve or increase poverty on Earth, rather than trying to eliminate or reduce the suffering associated with it.

To help make this reduction possible, the Decent Work Agenda assigns priority to ensuring conditions of work which safeguard the dignity of workers across the world. This aim has no chance of being achieved if the system of competition in the world economy remains as it is at present: we cannot forget how delocalisation both in manufacturing services and the extractive industries was favoured by the absence or very low levels of worker’s rights in less developed countries and how the short-term growth of their national economies within the global market was made possible by lack of workplace safety standards and thus by conditions of non-decent work.

To reduce the likelihood that this pattern recurs over and again, more intense international cooperation is necessary.  The hope embodied in the Decent Work Agenda also calls for a clear understanding that sustainable development implies radical changes to an economical and social model based on the myth of unbounded economic growth.

Rather, we should look for a world in which education helps children to realise the value of dignity, and to understand what respect for human dignity means for their self-image and the behaviour they are expected to have towards others. We should look for a world in which children are not trained to think they need to have in order to be, so that the more they have, the more respect they deserve. We should look for a world in which children are educated to acknowledge that the dignity of a human being is not defined by richness and that distance from poverty is not measured only by possessions. It will be a world less impoverished than the present one in more than the narrow economic sense.


Alkire, S., Ballon, P., Foster, J., Roche, J.M., Santos, M. E., & Seth, S. (2015). Multidimensional poverty measurement and analysis. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

ILO (1996-2015). Decent work agenda. Retrieved from

Kant, I. (1993). Grounding for the metaphysics of morals (J. Ellington, Trad.). New York: Hackett. (Edizione originale pubblicata nel 1785).

Peruzzi, A. (2009). Scienza per la democrazia. Pisa, Italia: ETS.

Peruzzi, A. (2011). Dialoghi della ragione impura (Vol. 3). Roma, Italia: Aracne.

UN General Assembly (1948). Universal Declaration of Human Rights, United Nations treaty series (Vol. 217 A III). New York: United Nations.

UN General Assembly (1966). International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, United Nations treaty series (Vol. 993, pp. 3-106). New York: United Nations.

Autore per la corrispondenza

A. Peruzzi. Tel. +390552756066 Indirizzo e-mail: Scuola di Studi Umanistici e della Formazione, via Laura 48, 50121 Firenze, Italy


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