The idea of human dignity, found in almost all legal and political cultures, now plays a very significant role in political and legal discourse. The concept occupies a prominent place in many national constitutions and international human rights conventions. Some constitutional and conventional laws in fact claim that the pursuit of dignity is (or should be) the central organizing principle of every government. Yet, it is not always clear what this seemingly central concept means or entails. Its popularity seems inversely related to its clarity. Dignity is often invoked in support of opposing positions on the same issue. Using an approach that the article refers to as dignity pragmatism, the author advances the argument that careful examination of the use of dignity in national constitutions and international human rights documents and their elaboration by the relevant tribunals shows that the idea of human dignity is often used in the context of defending the integrity of the person. Here integrity is defined as the condition of wholeness or completeness. The article details what the conditions for integrity are and how human dignity is invoked in its defense. On this account, dignity is an existential value. It is about personhood in its various dimensions – physical, psychological and social. When integrity as wholeness is threatened, existence itself is threatened. Viewed this way, indignity is the effacement of personhood.
A number of colleagues and friends made very helpful comments on earlier drafts of the article. Some sent detailed written comments, others raised questions and made suggestions at various symposia at which the paper was presented, and several conversations with many others have greatly helped me to clarify and sharpen the arguments in the article. I have had the big fortune of being a recipient of valuable help form a long list of people. I would especially like to thank Nicolas Almendars, Christoph Bezemek, Jörg Fedtke, Adam Feibelman, James Gordley, Ann Lipton, Steve Rattner, Michael W Reisman, Keith Werhan, and Robert Westley. I also want to acknowledge the extraordinary research assistance that Victoria McIntyre provided.
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