Dignity: Its History and Meaning

Dignity: Its History and Meaning

by Michael Rosen

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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 EducationDignity 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

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780674068780
Publisher: Harvard University Press
Publication date: 06/04/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 198
Sales rank: 946,640
File size: 175 KB

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

Contents Preface References and Abbreviations 1. “The Shibboleth of All Empty-Headed Moralists” 2. The Legislation of Dignity 3. Duty to Humanity Notes Index

What People are Saying About This

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.
Dieter Grimm, Former Justice, Federal Constitutional Court of Germany, Humboldt University Berlin, and Yale Law School

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.
Martin Jay, University of California, Berkeley

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.
Jonathan Wolff, University College London

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