The mercurial concept of human dignity features in ethical, legal, and political discourse as a foundational commitment to human value or human status. The source of that value, or the nature of that status, are contested. The normative implications of the concept are also contested, and there are two partially, or even wholly, different deontic conceptions of human dignity implying virtue-based obligations on the one hand, and justice-based rights and principles on the other. Added to this, the different practical and philosophical presuppositions of law, ethics, and politics mean that definitive adjudication between different meanings is frustrated by disciplinary incommensurabilities.
What follows is an analysis of human dignity’s uses in law, ethics, and politics, and a critical description of the functions and tensions generated by human dignity within these fields. Crucial conceptual and methodological questions arise from the outset regarding whether human dignity can be reconstructed as one concept or must be treated as several concepts. It is argued here that a focal concept of human dignity can be reconstructed and that this concept provides the most illuminating perspective from which to view human dignity’s range of conceptions and uses.
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