Thursday, April 09, 2015

Making Sense of Human Dignity

 Charles White, “Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep,” 1956

“The roots of the cosmopolitanism I am defending are liberal: and they are responsive to liberalism’s insistence on human dignity. It has never been easy to say what this entails, and indeed, it seems to me that exploring what it might mean is liberalism’s historic project.”—Kwame Anthony Appiah, The Ethics of Identity (Princeton University Press, 2005): 267. 

Whether or not the notion that the international legal human rights system is grounded in and serves to affirm the inherent dignity of humans is a central feature of the system, it is surely at least a desideratum for a justification of the system that it can make sense of this notion given its prominence. [….] [T]he relevant notion of dignity can be understood to include two aspects. First, there is the idea that certain conditions of living are beneath the dignity of the sort of being that humans are. [….] Let us call this first aspect of dignity the well-being threshold aspect.

The second aspect of dignity is the interpersonal comparative aspect, the idea that treating people with dignity also requires a public affirmation of the basic equal status of all and, again, that if they are not treated in this way they suffer an injury or wrong. [….] The well-being threshold aspect of dignity concerns whether one is doing well enough for a being of the sort one is; it makes no reference to how one is treated vis-à-vis others. The interpersonal comparative aspect has to do with whether one is being treated as an inferior relative to other people. The point is that one’s dignity can be respected in the well-being threshold aspect and yet may be compromised in the interpersonal comparative aspect.”—Allen Buchanan, The Heart of Human Rights (Oxford University Press, 2013): 99-100.

Recommended Reading: 
  • Capps, Patrick. Human Dignity and the Foundations of International Law. Portland, OR: Hart Publishing, 2010.  
  • Daly, Erin. Dignity Rights: Courts, Constitutions, and the Worth of the Human Person. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013. 
  • Düwell, Marcus, et al., eds. The Cambridge Handbook of Human Dignity: Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014. 
  • Kateb, George. Human Dignity. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011. 
  • Luban, David J. “Human Rights Pragmatism and Human Dignity,” (December 28, 2013), forthcoming in Philosophical Foundations of Human Rights (Massimo Renzo, Rowan Cruft, and Matthew Liao, eds., OUP). At SSRN: 
  • McCrudden, Christopher, ed. Understanding Human Dignity. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2014.
  • Rosen, Michael. Dignity: Its History and Meaning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012.  
  • Waldron, Jeremy (et al.) Dignity, Rank and Rights (Berkeley Tanner Lectures, 2009). New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.


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