A Cathedral of Humanity: Dignity and the Sacred in Modern Social Ethics

Nicholas, Kyle, Religious Studies - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Mathewes, Charles, AS-Religious Studies (RELI), University of Virginia

This dissertation examines the prominence of human dignity in contemporary socio-ethical discourse. It addresses competing narratives of dignity triumphalism and dignity skepticism before proposing an alternative understanding of dignity as the sacralization of the person. Consistent with the tradition of social ethics, the dissertation then applies these conclusions to contemporary life, arguing that a particular rendering of liberal democracy is a potent political arrangement for promoting dignity. To begin Part 1, Chapter 1 builds on recent historical work and traces the historical development of dignity from Ancient Greece to contemporary international discourse. Chapter 2 explores dignity triumphalism, one prominent understanding of dignity today, which views dignity as a direct descendent of Christianity, antiquity, or religion in general. Chapter 3 elucidates dignity skepticism, a second prominent understanding of dignity today, which views dignity as a cover for reactionary or religious conservatism, a false universalism, or an incoherent moral concept. Transitioning to Part 2, Chapter 4 proposes an alternative conception of dignity that seeks to overcome the weaknesses of triumphalism and skepticism. Drawing on the work of sociologist Hans Joas, dignity is read as the contingent, non-teleological sacralization of the person since the 19th century. Chapter 5 then utilizes the work of political philosopher Judith Shklar to argue that the sacredness of the person entails political commitments that focus on refusing and combating fear and cruelty.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Human Dignity, Social Ethics, Liberal Democracy, Religion and Public Life, Sacred and Profane
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