Dignity: Its History and Meaning

Dignity: Its History and Meaning

by Michael Rosen

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Overview

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.

“Penetrating and sprightly…Rosen rightly emphasizes the centrality of Catholicism in the modern history of human dignity. His command of the history is impressive…Rosen is a wonderful guide to the recent German constitutional thinking about human dignity…[Rosen] is in general an urbane and witty companion, achieving his aim of accessibly written philosophy.”
—Samuel Moyn, The Nation

“[An] elegant, interesting and lucid exploration of the concept of dignity...Drawing on classical, liberal and Catholic traditions, Rosen hopes to rehabilitate dignity to its rightful place near the centre of moral thought...Rosen's admirable book deserves wide attention from political theorists, jurisprudes and political philosophers.”
—Simon Blackburn, Times Higher Education

Dignity deserves to be widely read, not only for its intrinsic interest, but also as a corrective to the habit of discussing such topics in abstraction from their social context. Whether or not one agrees with Rosen's arguments, there can be no doubt he has widened our horizons.”
—Rae Langton, Times Literary Supplement

Editorial Reviews

3:AM Magazine

Rosen has shown dignity has some kind of a serious moral role, whilst at the same time showing that it can't justify as much as Catholics and Kantians want it to. It has a dramatic parasitical quality, so that it seems tangible and magnificent but also often foolhardy and empty. It is a value that appears powerful but often is less than it seems. Rosen's brilliant book gives us dignity's history and a cunningly disguised radical ending… Rosen's narrative illuminates a subject that as he notes himself has eluded serious analysis for too long.
— Richard Marshall

Publishers Weekly

Inspired by a conversation with a friend about the lack of philosophical discussion about dignity, Harvard professor Rosen looks at the different ways the word has been used throughout history. He begins with Cicero’s idea of the “honors and respectful treatment” accorded to people of a high social rank, continues with the Renaissance conception of worth or value applicable to everything created by God—humans, animals, and plants alike—and ends with Kant’s view of a strictly human value, independent of any divine authority, leading to modern times where dignity becomes the fundamental human right to be treated with respect. Rosen explores recent examples in Europe where dignity conflicts with other values, including a case upholding a ban on dwarf-tossing; a judgment against a political cartoon that ridiculed prominent politicians; and a trial against a police inspector who threatened a kidnapper to learn the victim’s location. In each case, the courts had to weigh the supposed loss of dignity against other considerations, such as the right to earn a living or be guaranteed protection from harm. He concludes by arguing that dignity as respect means people have a duty to treat corpses respectfully even though no one benefits. Rosen offers a thoughtful examination of the term’s multiple definitions and uses. (Mar.)

The Nation - Samuel Moyn

Penetrating and sprightly…Rosen rightly emphasizes the centrality of Catholicism in the modern history of human dignity. His command of the history is impressive…Rosen is a wonderful guide to the recent German constitutional thinking about human dignity…[Rosen] is in general an urbane and witty companion, achieving his aim of accessibly written philosophy.

New York Review of Books - Thomas Nagel

Stimulating and informative.

Times Literary Supplement - Rae Langton

Dignity deserves to be widely read, not only for its intrinsic interest, but also as a corrective to the habit of discussing such topics in abstraction from their social context. Whether or not one agrees with Rosen's arguments, there can be no doubt he has widened our horizons.

3:AM Magazine - Richard Marshall

Rosen has shown dignity has some kind of a serious moral role, whilst at the same time showing that it can't justify as much as Catholics and Kantians want it to. It has a dramatic parasitical quality, so that it seems tangible and magnificent but also often foolhardy and empty. It is a value that appears powerful but often is less than it seems. Rosen's brilliant book gives us dignity's history and a cunningly disguised radical ending… Rosen's narrative illuminates a subject that as he notes himself has eluded serious analysis for too long.

Choice - A. W. Klink

Rosen's lucid style and engaging examples make this book especially suitable for general readers and undergraduates; it engagingly conveys some of the most complicated issues of Kantian ethics in an accessible way. The book's use of concrete legal cases shows the real-world implications of the philosophical debates… Rosen has given readers a well-written, highly accessible, and deeply insightful look at the sources and use of an important and much debated concept.

Weekly Standard - Emily Wilkinson

Rosen's prose is delightful in its clarity, concision, fair-mindedness, and occasional playfulness—no negligible feat for a slim volume that takes on a hefty portion of the intellectually gobsmacking Kant. And in its affable, yet rigorous intelligence, the book recollects Harry Frankfurt's diminutive philosophical bestseller, On Bullshit… Perhaps the most winning aspect of Dignity is the case it makes in implicitly linking Kant and the philosophical history of dignity to contemporary legal cases, constitutions, and laws. Rosen contends quietly that philosophy still signifies in real ways in our world: shaping states, laws, and human attitudes. In an era when the study of the humanities is in decline, this is heartening stuff. More heartening still is Rosen's interest in reaching an audience beyond philosophy professors. His easy, conversational style and pointed avoidance of jargon invite the educated lay reader into a culturally relevant and interesting conversation. This is the sort of work that humanities professors need to undertake if they want their disciplines to survive.

Weekend Australian - Richard King

Beautifully written and argued...The concept of dignity is fundamental to many conventions on human rights, yet no one seems to have a firm idea of what it actually entails...One only need think of the different ideas of dignity employed in debates about euthanasia to see that the argument is far from resolved...Rosen does not claim to have resolved these conflicts but he does add something significant to the debate.

Times Higher Education - Simon Blackburn

[An] elegant, interesting and lucid exploration of the concept of dignity...Drawing on classical, liberal and Catholic traditions, Rosen hopes to rehabilitate dignity to its rightful place near the centre of moral thought...Rosen's admirable book deserves wide attention from political theorists, jurisprudes and political philosophers.

The Guardian - John Gallagher

In Dignity: Its History and Meaning, Michael Rosen employs philosophy and political theory to unpack this contested term. He opens with a lively history of the concept, sketching its development from Cicero to Kant and beyond...This short, rich work ends with Rosen musing on dignity, duty, and respect: where we deny human dignity to others, we risk losing our own humanity.

The Tablet - Charles Camosy

With this book Michael Rosen...adds a new voice to the defense of the concept of human dignity. Adapted from three lectures, his brief text has refreshingly accessible prose and a comfortable style, while at times giving very thorough accounts of complex ideas...The more general audience at which it is aimed will find Dignity engaging, challenging and stimulating...Rosen's book is an important one.

Dieter Grimm

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.

Jonathan Wolff

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.

Martin Jay

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.

Times Literary Supplement

Dignity deserves to be widely read, not only for its intrinsic interest, but also as a corrective to the habit of discussing such topics in abstraction from their social context. Whether or not one agrees with Rosen's arguments, there can be no doubt he has widened our horizons.
— Rae Langton

3: AM Magazine

Rosen has shown dignity has some kind of a serious moral role, whilst at the same time showing that it can't justify as much as Catholics and Kantians want it to. It has a dramatic parasitical quality, so that it seems tangible and magnificent but also often foolhardy and empty. It is a value that appears powerful but often is less than it seems. Rosen's brilliant book gives us dignity's history and a cunningly disguised radical ending… Rosen's narrative illuminates a subject that as he notes himself has eluded serious analysis for too long.
— Richard Marshall

Choice

Rosen's lucid style and engaging examples make this book especially suitable for general readers and undergraduates; it engagingly conveys some of the most complicated issues of Kantian ethics in an accessible way. The book's use of concrete legal cases shows the real-world implications of the philosophical debates… Rosen has given readers a well-written, highly accessible, and deeply insightful look at the sources and use of an important and much debated concept.
— A. W. Klink

Weekly Standard

Rosen's prose is delightful in its clarity, concision, fair-mindedness, and occasional playfulness—no negligible feat for a slim volume that takes on a hefty portion of the intellectually gobsmacking Kant. And in its affable, yet rigorous intelligence, the book recollects Harry Frankfurt's diminutive philosophical bestseller, On Bullshit… Perhaps the most winning aspect of Dignity is the case it makes in implicitly linking Kant and the philosophical history of dignity to contemporary legal cases, constitutions, and laws. Rosen contends quietly that philosophy still signifies in real ways in our world: shaping states, laws, and human attitudes. In an era when the study of the humanities is in decline, this is heartening stuff. More heartening still is Rosen's interest in reaching an audience beyond philosophy professors. His easy, conversational style and pointed avoidance of jargon invite the educated lay reader into a culturally relevant and interesting conversation. This is the sort of work that humanities professors need to undertake if they want their disciplines to survive.
— Emily Wilkinson

Weekend Australian

Beautifully written and argued...The concept of dignity is fundamental to many conventions on human rights, yet no one seems to have a firm idea of what it actually entails...One only need think of the different ideas of dignity employed in debates about euthanasia to see that the argument is far from resolved...Rosen does not claim to have resolved these conflicts but he does add something significant to the debate.
— Richard King

Times Higher Education

[An] elegant, interesting and lucid exploration of the concept of dignity...Drawing on classical, liberal and Catholic traditions, Rosen hopes to rehabilitate dignity to its rightful place near the centre of moral thought...Rosen's admirable book deserves wide attention from political theorists, jurisprudes and political philosophers.
— Simon Blackburn

The Guardian

In Dignity: Its History and Meaning, Michael Rosen employs philosophy and political theory to unpack this contested term. He opens with a lively history of the concept, sketching its development from Cicero to Kant and beyond...This short, rich work ends with Rosen musing on dignity, duty, and respect: where we deny human dignity to others, we risk losing our own humanity.
— John Gallagher

The Tablet

With this book Michael Rosen...adds a new voice to the defense of the concept of human dignity. Adapted from three lectures, his brief text has refreshingly accessible prose and a comfortable style, while at times giving very thorough accounts of complex ideas...The more general audience at which it is aimed will find Dignity engaging, challenging and stimulating...Rosen's book is an important one.
— Charles Camosy

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780674984059
Publisher: Harvard
Publication date: 05/14/2018
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 200
Sales rank: 1,216,982
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.40(h) x 0.70(d)

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.)

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