The Secret History of Constitutional Dignity

42 Pages Posted: 9 Oct 2012 Last revised: 24 Feb 2013

Date Written: October 9, 2012


In their 1937 constitution, the Irish gave human dignity foundational placement, as a religiously-inspired root concept connected (as in the later West German case of 1949) to the subordination of the otherwise sovereign democratic polity to God, and for many to the moral constraints of his natural law. This essay takes up this neglected but revealing fact. It is critical that dignity came to the world as part of the establishment of an alternative, religious constitutionalism; this newer constitutionalism crystallized precisely in the 1930s when it seemed to many as if secular liberalism had no future. To understand the original meaning of constitutional dignity, in summary, it is necessary to attend to the confusing years just before war and genocide, for it was a response to different circumstances. The most illuminating context for the move to constitutional dignity, it turns out, is not in the shocked conscience “after Auschwitz” but in political Catholicism before it, which remained its dominant framework for decades, when the Holocaust still did not figure in moral consciousness. Focusing on dignity's Irish constitutionalization shows why this matters.

Keywords: Ireland, human dignity

Suggested Citation

Moyn, Samuel, The Secret History of Constitutional Dignity (October 9, 2012). Available at SSRN: or

Samuel Moyn (Contact Author)

Yale University ( email )

MA 02138
United States
2128543009 (Phone)


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