Dignity as an Expressive Norm: Neither Vacuous Nor a Panacea

Oxford Journal of Legal Studies, pp. 1–19, 2011

27 Pages Posted: 22 Apr 2011 Last revised: 28 Sep 2011

See all articles by Tarunabh Khaitan

Tarunabh Khaitan

University of Oxford - Faculty of Law; University of Melbourne - Law School; NYU Law School

Date Written: March 25, 2011


Proponents of dignity see it as a useful tool which solves the most important (if not all) of the practical and theoretical problems in human rights law. Arguing against this sympathetic position on the other side of the debate are the sceptics, who have raised troubling questions about dignity’s alleged indeterminacy, as well as about the illiberal role that it has allegedly played in certain contexts. In this paper, I argue that designing a defensible and useful conception of dignity which is distinguishable from other values such as equality and autonomy may be possible, but not without addressing some genuine infirmities that the critics have pointed out. If there is indeed such a conception of dignity, it is likely to be "expressive" in character. I therefore argue that the legal ideal of dignity is best understood as an expressive norm: whether an act disrespects someone’s dignity depends on the meaning that such act expresses, rather than its consequences or any other attribute of that act.

Keywords: dignity, expressivism

Suggested Citation

Khaitan, Tarunabh, Dignity as an Expressive Norm: Neither Vacuous Nor a Panacea (March 25, 2011). Oxford Journal of Legal Studies, pp. 1–19, 2011, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1813925

Tarunabh Khaitan (Contact Author)

University of Oxford - Faculty of Law ( email )

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University of Melbourne - Law School ( email )

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NYU Law School ( email )

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