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Thursday, August 28, 2008

Human "dignity" and relationships

My fellow "Mirror of Justice" blogger, and legal-ethics scholar, Rob Vischer, had an interesting post the other day about David Luban's new-ish book, Legal Ethics and Human Dignity.  In particular, Rob focused on this passage:

"I suspect that human dignity is not a metaphysical property of individual humans, but rather a property of relationships between humans -- between, so to speak, the dignifier and the dignified.  To put it another way, 'human dignity' designates a way of being human, not a property of being human."

Rob continued:

This reminded me of the following passage from Gaudium et spes:

"God did not create man as a solitary, for from the beginning 'male and female he created them.'  Their companionship produces the primary form of interpersonal communion.  For by his innermost nature man is a social being, and unless he relates himself to others he can neither live nor develop his potential."

For my own part, I was reminded by David's thoughts of two things:  Steven Pinker's recent essay, "The Stupidity of Dignity" and the concluding chapters of Nicholas Wolterstorff's latest book, "Justice:  Rights and Wrongs".

There's been plenty of commentary in the blogosphere about the Pinker essay, so I'll put that aside.  But Luban's focus on "relationships between humans" as the location (not the best word, I admit) for "human dignity" seems to connect interestingly with Wolterstorff's elaboration of his account of "human dignity adequate for grounding human rights".  (In his view, such an account is necessary and only a theistic account is possible.)  For Wolterstorff, the key is "bestowed worth" (think of "The Velveteen Rabbit"):  "What we need, for a theistic grounding of human rights", he writes," is some worth-imparting relation of human beings to God that does not in any way involve a reference to human capacities.  I will argue that being loved by God is such a relation; being loved by God gives a human being great worth."

Now, this is (obviously) not Luban's argument.  But is it like Luban's argument, in a way that might be instructive?  Any thoughts?

Posted by Rick Garnett on August 28, 2008 at 11:53 AM in Legal Theory | Permalink


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Incidentally, and for what it's worth, as to question of grounding dignity in either, roughly, "being" or "doing" (i.e., what or who one is, rather than what does) I prefer, with Robert Goodin, the former. Why? Here's one reason:

"If dignity is a matter of what one is rather than does, then someone with little free choice could still enjoy dignity or suffer indignities. A prisoner of war, although having few opportunities for autonomous action, can nevertheless carry himself [and deserves to be treated] with great dignity."

Thus, we respect people's choices, as Goodin also notes, because we respect people, not the other way around. And unlike, Luban, therefore, I prefer to see dignity as a (metaphysical) property of being human, or intrinsic to a proper sense of self or subjectivity, from which we can deduce or infer minimal desiderata for how people should be treated.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Aug 28, 2008 2:56:09 PM


It was to Kant, who it seems in his later writings no longer makes dignity wholly dependent on (or prior to the acceptance of) his conception of autonomy (I can look up the reference in either Kant or someone who writes on this if you'd like it a bit later).

All good wishes,

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Aug 28, 2008 2:38:14 PM

Thanks for the clarification on Luban, Patrick. I've not read as much of his latter work and none of his book (except a few short excerpts) though his earlier work struck me as clearly Kantian, though of course not as just taking on Kant. I'm not sure who the reference is to in the parenthetical section of the first section of your first comment- to Luban, or Kant.

Posted by: matt | Aug 28, 2008 2:17:15 PM

Drawing on some work by Avishai Margalit, Luban argues that

"Instead of beginning with a metaphysical theory of subjectivity, identifying subjectivity with human dignity, and using that to explain why humiliating people violates human dignity, I am proposing that we begin with the proposition that humiliating people denies their human dignity. We then explain what human dignity is by trying to isolate characteristic features of humiliation--in this case, treating a person's story and viewpoint as significant." (p. 72)

In short, and as he explains elsewhere, having human dignity on this account "means, roughly, having a story of one's own." This gets quite close to some things J. David Velleman has said about the notions of autonomy and dignity (in this intance, however, building explicitly on Kant).

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Aug 28, 2008 1:56:35 PM


Luban actually wants to distance himself from the Kantian conception of dignity (which, early on was dependent on the notion of moral autonomy, later, things are a bit different). We discussed this in several posts over at the Legal Ethics Forum not too long ago and Luban replied to some of the posts in the comments. Please see the following posts:



[I'm hoping to post something over at the Legal Ethics Forum (if not there, at Ratio Juris) on David's book in the near future.]

General comment: Pinker is concerned about the way the concept of dignity is employed by Catholics and others in bioethics while someone like Peter Singer is concerned for the consequences the notion has had for our treatment of nonhuman animals. Pinker is clearly no philosopher and his appreciation of the concept of dignity leaves much to be desired although he does raise important questions about the "work" the concept does for Catholics and others in bioethics. Singer, being a preference utilitarian, is naturally adverse to such a notion inasmuch as it is of Kantian provenance although some Kantian inspired philosophers in animal ethics/rights have extended a conception of dignity to apply to some non-human animals.

One thing seems clear and incontrovertible, it's hard to imagine the notion of human rights without the concept of dignity and the various formulations of human rights in international legal documents invariably rely on or refer to the centrality of human dignity, even if that notion is understood (justified or approached) a bit differently across secular and religious worldviews.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Aug 28, 2008 1:06:34 PM

I'd have to think about it more (and see more what both Luban and Wolterstorff mean) but off the top of my head it seems that the two ideas are quite different in that Luban's account is a basically Kantian one- dignity is something we have because of what we do and is connected to autonomy while in Wolterstorff's account it's something that comes from outside meaning that if it's important for ethics then ethics would be heteronomous, something that's inherent in theories like his but that's anathema to Kantian views (of the sort I think Lubin's is, if I recall his position correctly.)

Posted by: Matt | Aug 28, 2008 12:20:15 PM

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