A Political Conception of Dignity — in Connection with Human Rights

The idea of dignity irrupted in human rights international law and discourse with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). In this context, dignity could be seen as an ersatz for the language of natural rights, which is absent from the Universal Declaration. If human rights protect a pre-existent “inherent dignity,” as stated in the Preamble, then the role of this notion is foundational. However, other passages in the Universal Declaration suggest that dignity is not a foundational principle for human rights, but rather an idea constituted by the human rights themselves. For instance, economic, social and cultural rights are seen as indispensable for the “dignity and the free development of … personality” (Article 22). In this sense, dignity is an outcome of human rights, rather than their pre-existent foundational principle.

This duplicity of the concept of dignity raises problems for the two prevailing views today in the philosophy of human rights. On the one hand, the so-called “traditional view,” represented by people like James Griffin, looks at dignity in its foundational aspect only. Dignity, or “personhood,” is something that human beings possess and human rights arise from dignity and they may even be derived from dignity. On the other hand, the “political theory” of human rights, recently developed by people like Joseph Raz and Charles Beitz, asserts that human rights are “without foundations,” and, thus, it cannot make sense of the foundational aspect of dignity. Nevertheless, this political theory of human rights can easily accommodate the constitutive aspect of dignity.

In this paper I work within the political view and I leave the traditional view aside. I suggest that the political view has to accommodate the foundational conception of dignity because it is central in both human rights text law and discourse. Therefore, my main question is the following: is there a way to introduce a foundational idea of dignity in the political view, maintaining at the same time its constitutive aspect? In order to answer this question I reformulate the foundational aspect of dignity so that it can fit within the political conception. My twist here amounts to interpreting the foundational role of dignity not in ontological terms, but rather on a social and political key.