Inherent Dignity, Contingent Dignity and Human Rights: Solving the Puzzle of the Protection of Dignity

Erkenntnis 82 (6):1321-1338 (2017)
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Dignity is often invoked as the basis of human rights. The precise relation between dignity and human rights remains objectionably obscure, however, and many appeals to dignity seem little more than hand-waving, as critics have pointed out. This vagueness is potentially damning for contemporary human rights accounts, as it calls into question whether dignity can truly serve as the foundation of human rights. In order to defend the view that human rights are grounded in human dignity, this paper presents a novel analysis of dignity that elucidates how human rights can be derived from dignity. Arguing that neither contingent nor inherent conceptions of dignity can, on their own, account for human rights, it develops a conceptualisation of dignity that combines inherent and contingent features in a coherent fashion. This, in turn, is shown to provide us with the means to explain how human rights are both grounded in and protective of dignity. Showing that the inherent features of dignity always generate a claim to the contingent features of dignity, the paper demonstrates that human rights derive directly from the inherent features of dignity, whilst what they protect are the contingent features of dignity. The paper closes with a discussion of the advantages of conceptualising dignity in the manner proposed, explicating the connection between dignity and nobility.



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