The Role of Human Dignity in a World of Plural Values and Ethical Commitments
31 Netherlands Quarterly of Human Rights 403 (2013)
43 Pages Posted: 25 May 2014
Date Written: 2013
The concept of human dignity plays a central role in many legal and political theories. The concept also occupies a prominent place in numerous national and international legal documents as well as judicial decisions. Yet, it is not always clear what the concept means or entails. ‘Human dignity’ is one of those phrases that carries unspoken assumptions and connotations that can powerfully influence the discourse they permeate while escaping critical scrutiny. This article subjects the phrase to critical scrutiny to see which or what understanding (among many) is defensible and credible as a matter of legal and political practice. After examining some of the currently prominent approaches to dignity and finding them unsatisfactory, the article defines and defends an understanding of human dignity that develops from the bottom up rather than from the top down. Such a notion of dignity will necessarily be political in a sense that it develops through our works and conversations within and among traditions and systems. It emerges from an ‘overlapping consensus’ of various traditions and systems as to what it means to dignify humans or conversely to subject them to indignities. The article argues that only a notion of dignity developed and adopted in that manner will serve as a practical guide in a world of plural values and ethical commitments. The idea here is to establish human dignity as a norm within a global public enterprise which guides the actions of individuals and governmental entities both within and across communities. The article argues that the standards of human dignity developed here set limits to the sovereignty of States in that their violation (whether actual or anticipated) will be sufficient reason to authorise outside intervention, whether coercive or non-coercive.
Keywords: autonomy, Habermas, human dignity, human rights, incompleteness, Kant, overlapping consensus
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