Conceptions of Dignity in Moral and Legal Discourse

Henry, Leslie, Religious Studies - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Childress, James, Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia
Mohrmann, Margaret, Department of Pediatrics, University of Virginia
Mathewes, Charles, Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia
Schwartzman, Micah, School of Law, University of Virginia

During the last two centuries, the term dignity has gained widespread currency in legal, religious, literary, political, and ethical contexts. Dignity’s increasing presence in our lexicon, however, does not signal agreement about its meaning or usefulness. While some commentators claim that dignity is an essential ethical and legal norm, others are skeptical of dignity or against its use altogether. The critics challenge dignity’s advocates to demonstrate that dignity is neither redundant nor rhetorical; that it has a distinct—perhaps even unique—meaning; and that it should retain its importance as an ethical and legal norm despite its alleged susceptibility to political and religious appropriation.

This dissertation takes up that challenge. It begins by setting forth the range of critiques that have been leveled against the concept of dignity, illustrating each one with examples from religion, bioethics, American case law, and human rights. Then, to discern dignity’s various meanings and functions, the dissertation employs a three-part interdisciplinary methodology, which includes: (1) a historical examination of dignity’s evolving use in philosophical, religious, and political texts from Classical Antiquity to the Modern era; (2) a Wittgensteinian study of dignity’s invocation in nearly one thousand U.S. Supreme Court opinions; and (3) an inductive analysis of paradigmatic cases in which there is a collective intuition that dignity has been violated. Together, these three methodologies—and the central features of dignity that they elucidate—contribute to the development of a modest account of dignity, which is defended against the aforementioned critiques.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
dignity, law, ethics, religion, bioethics
All rights reserved (no additional license for public reuse)
Issued Date: