Between Dignity and Human Rights

Between Dignity and Human Rights

Books and Articles Discussed in this Essay:

Dignity: Its History and Meaning, by Michael Rosen (Harvard University Press, 2012)

A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, by Mary Ann Glendon (New York: Random House, 2001)

The Harm in Hate Speech, by Jeremy Waldron (Harvard University Press, 2012)

“The Concept of Human Dignity and the Realistic Utopia of Human Rights,” by Jürgen Habermas, Metaphilosophy, 41:4 (July 2010)

Public pronouncements on human rights by American officials and by nongovernmental rights advocates often include references to dignity. Yet the term does not appear in the fundamental texts that shaped the American commitment to rights—the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the post–Civil War amendments to the United States Constitution. Many of those using the word may not recognize that Europeans (and others, too) who speak of dignity often mean something that does not accord with the central value given to liberty in the traditional American approach to rights. Though liberty and dignity can be complementary values, there are circumstances in which they can come into conflict. Yet references to dignity have become prominent in American discussions of rights, perhaps because the term is used so frequently in other parts of the world. Another factor may be recognition that, in some important areas, commitment to the concept of dignity, as it is understood in Europe, provides greater protection for rights than is available in the United States.

The clearest and most forceful European assertion of the central place of dignity is to be found in the German Grundgesetz (Basic Law) of 1949, in effect, the country’s Constitution. Article I begins,

Human dignity is inviolable. To respect it and protect it is the duty of all state power.

The German people therefore acknowledge inviolable and inalienable human rights as the basis of every community, of peace and of justice in the world.

The Charter on Fundamental Rights of the European Union, which went into effect in December 2009 with the adoption of the Lisbon Treaty, essentially repeats this language in Article I: “Human dignity is inviolable. It must be respected and protected.”

As Michael Rosen points out in his recent book, Dignity: Its History and Meaning, the commitment to dignity has had immense importance in constitutional jurisprudence in Germany. “Article I of the Grundgesetz,” he notes, “has been invoked by the Bundesverfassungsgericht (Constitutional Court) in many different contexts: for instance, to reject the idea of life sentences with no possibility of release (the death penalty itself was never part of the law in the Federal Republic), to place limits on state surveillance of private residences, to block the proposed compulsory gathering of ...


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