The Right to Be Dignified, or the Dignity of Liberty

10 Pages Posted: 18 Nov 2011

See all articles by Jacob T. Levy

Jacob T. Levy

McGill University - Department of Political Science

Date Written: November 18, 2011


In his Shoen Lecture, Jeremy Waldron develops an understanding of rights as responsibilities. He connects this understanding to the idea of rights that are grounded in dignity, an idea that he has also explored in his Tanner Lectures and elsewhere. In this comment I mean to block the bridge Waldron intends to build between the concept of responsibility-rights and his conception of human dignity.

I begin with some thoughts about Waldron’s genealogy of dignity and rights. I think that Waldron’s account of dignity relies too much on the noble or aristocratic sense of that concept, in ways that ease the path toward his linkage of dignity with responsibility rights. In examining the somewhat-unfamiliar idea of responsibility-rights, Waldron looks around for what might lie beneath it, what might tie together the various examples of it. What he finds is the idea of dignity in a function. I suggest instead that what ties the examples together is power. The ideas are not wholly distinct; power — and the authority to exercise it legitimately — is often normatively tied to a function, for example through an office or professional role. And, as I will suggest, there is much in the genealogy of “dignity” to suggest a connection with office. That conception of dignity might be tied to responsibility-rights a way parallel to the one Waldron suggests here.

But if, with Waldron, we retain the sense of “dignity” that is connected to personal bearing, and in function as a human being, then I think the connection with responsibility-rights evaporates. The latter are responsibilities to exercise power or authority in particular ways, typically for the reasonable benefit of those over whom it is exercised, not extendible in Waldron’s fashion to a responsibility to be dignified or to refrain from acts that jeopardize one’s own dignity. As for personal dignity itself, it is best understood, to use Waldron’s words, as “the ground of rights” rather than “the content of certain rights.”

Keywords: rights, human rights, liberalism, dignity, history of political thought, office

Suggested Citation

Levy, Jacob T., The Right to Be Dignified, or the Dignity of Liberty (November 18, 2011). Arizona State Law Journal, Forthcoming, Available at SSRN:

Jacob T. Levy (Contact Author)

McGill University - Department of Political Science ( email )

Montreal, Quebec H3A 1G5

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