The goal of this paper is to sketch and defend a novel conception of dignity. I begin by offering three desiderata that a theory of dignity should be able to satisfy: it should be able to explain why all human beings are owed respect, and what kind of respect we are owed; it should be able to explain how acts such as torture damage dignity, and what kinds of harms this brings about; and finally, it should be able to explain why dignity is held to a higher degree by certain individuals. After demonstrating that the dominant, Kantian-inspired conception of dignity cannot fulfill these desiderata, I develop a novel conception of dignity that centers around the role of normative standards. Dignity, on this conception, involves being subject to, and then upholding, relevant normative standards; to violate someone’s dignity is to prevent them from upholding those standards. Importantly, these standards can have either a subjective or a communal source, which in turn explains both the agential and social harms that accompany dignity violations. I then draw on the idea of social dignity to explain human dignity. Unlike the dominant philosophical conception, I take human dignity to be a status that is conferred, rather than a status that is inherent.
KeywordsDignity Respect Shame
I would like to thank audiences at the University of Connecticut, Monash University, and the ‘Dignity, Respect, and Self-Respect' conference in Bologna for very helpful feedback. I am particularly grateful to an anonymous referee for this journal, whose insightful comments have undoubtedly improved this paper.
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