Dignity plays a central role in current thinking about law and human rights, but there is sharp disagreement about its meaning. Combining conceptual precision with a broad historical background, Michael Rosen puts these controversies in context and offers a novel, constructive proposal.
Drawing on law, politics, religion, and culture, as well as philosophy, Rosen shows how modern conceptions of dignity inherit several distinct strands of meaning. This is why users of the word nowadays often talk past one another. The idea of dignity as the foundation for the universal entitlement to human rights represented the coming together after the Second World War of two extremely powerful traditions: Christian theology and Kantian philosophy. Not only is this idea of dignity as an “inner transcendental kernel” behind human rights problematic, Rosen argues, it has drawn attention away from a different, very important, sense of dignity: the right to be treated with dignity, that is, with proper respect.
At the heart of the argument stands the giant figure of Immanuel Kant. Challenging current orthodoxy, Rosen’s interpretation presents Kant as a philosopher whose ethical thought is governed, above all, by the requirement of showing respect toward a kernel of value that each of us carries, indestructibly, within ourselves. Finally, Rosen asks (and answers) a surprisingly puzzling question: why do we still have a duty to treat the dead with dignity if they will not benefit from our respect?
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About the Author
Michael Rosen is Professor of Government at Harvard University.
Read an Excerpt
Chapter Three: Duty to Humanity
To respect someone’s dignity requires that one treats them “with dignity” – that is, they must not be treated in ways that degrade, insult or express contempt. But it is not only living human beings whom we believe deserve to be treated with respect: we are required to dispose of human remains according to prescribed rituals. The precise content of such rituals varies widely – should corpses be buried, burned or left to be eaten by vultures? – but their existence and, as it seems, symbolic force, is strikingly general. At the end of the previous chapter I said that, in my opinion, the universally held belief that we have a duty to treat dead bodies with respect represents a deep puzzle for moral philosophy. Why it is a puzzle and how that puzzle should be resolved will be the subject of this chapter. To introduce it, I need to take a step back and ask an extremely general question about moral philosophy.
My starting point is the following question. If an action is good, must it be of benefit to someone? The thought that the answer to this must be “yes” will seem to many – perhaps most – people obvious. After all, if an action is not good for somebody – yourself or somebody else – how could you have a reason to do it? If we make the (important) qualification that the “somebody” in question should be “any morally valuable being” (and may include at least some animals) then the answer “yes” is assumed by utilitarians. All that matters for utilitarians is pleasure and pain and it is only certain beings that have that capacity. So an action that has no positive impact on pleasure and pain – whether immediately or indirectly – falls outside the scope of morality for the utilitarian.
The position I am describing corresponds to what Joseph Raz (in his book, The Morality of Freedom) calls “humanism”. Raz writes: To simplify discussion I will endorse right away the humanistic principle which claims that the explanation and justification of the goodness or badness of anything derives ultimately from its contribution, actual or possible, to human life and its quality.
This is a perfect illustration of the point about philosophy that I made in the Preface. To follow Raz, the humanistic principle does not need arguing for: it is something to “endorse right away” in order to “simplify discussion”. And, of course, some things do have to be taken for granted for discussion to get going at all. Yet, since Socrates at least, philosophers have seen it as the glory of their subject to place otherwise unquestioned assumptions under scrutiny. And humanism is, I shall argue, a case in point. (“Humanism” is not an ideal label, both because it is currently used in so many other senses and because many utilitarians give weight to the well-being of animals and humans equally. Since in other respects what I want to discuss is just what Raz describes, I shall use that word here. But please remember that this is a very specific sense of the word and that the beneficiaries in question may well include animals.)
Table of Contents
References and Abbreviations xix
1 "The Shibboleth of All Empty-Headed Moralists" 1
I Humbug? 1
II Cicero and After 11
III Kant 19
IV Grace and Dignity 31
V Dignity and Equality 38
VI Hierarchy 47
VII Respect for Rights and the Right to Respect 54
2 The Legislation of Dignity 63
I Dwarves with Dignity 63
II Germany 77
III The Kantian Background: The Formula of Humanity 80
IV Catholicism and the Grundgesetz 90
V Interpreting the Grundgesetz 100
VI Daschner and the Air Safety Law 104
VII Is There a Consistent Interpretation? 107
VIII Voluntarism 119
IX Conclusion 125
3 Duty to Humanity 129
I Humanism 129
II A Utilitarian Response 131
III Externalism 133
IV Non-Human Things May Be Intrinsically Good 135
V Duty 138
VI Kant 142
VII Duty without Platonism 156
What People are Saying About This
A thought-provoking book which combines reflections on a rather old philosophical and a quite new legal concept of rapidly increasing interest in a particularly stimulating way.
Dieter Grimm, Former Justice, Federal Constitutional Court of Germany, Humboldt University Berlin, and Yale Law School
Dignity: Its History and Meaning has all the virtues readers of Michael Rosen have come to expect: argumentative lucidity, fair-mindedness, and clarity of expression. It opens up a world of interesting and timely questions.
Martin Jay, University of California, Berkeley
Michael Rosen takes us on an extraordinary journey through the tangled ethical, religious, and legal roots of the concept of dignity, showing its association with the distinct ideas of status, intrinsic value, bearing, and respect. This book is a one-off, exhibiting Rosen's characteristic and unique blend of scholarly insight and analytic power, presented in superbly accessible style. It culminates in a persuasively authentic interpretation of Kant's moral philosophy. Anyone wishing to understand the contemporary concept of dignity, or its history, must read this book.
Jonathan Wolff, University College London