Dignity and Human Rights: A Reconceptualisation

Oxford Journal of Legal Studies 37 (4):862-885 (2017)
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Abstract
Human rights are often defined as entitlements that human beings possess just by virtue of their inherent dignity. This conceptual link between human rights and inherent dignity is as popular as it is unhelpful. It invites metaphysical disputes about what, exactly, endows human beings with inherent dignity, and distracts from the core function of human rights: placing constraints on powerful actors, especially states. In response to this difficulty, I reconceptualize the relationship between human rights and dignity in a way that maximally serves human rights’ purpose. I do so by distinguishing between ‘inherent dignity’ and ‘status dignity’, and by linking human rights to the latter, not the former. First, I argue that human rights articulate standards for respecting the status dignity of the subjects of sovereign authority, rather than the inherent dignity of human beings qua humans. Second, I suggest that not only individuals but also corporate agents possess status dignity. In particular, states that violate human rights lose their status dignity, thereby becoming liable to interference.
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Archival date: 2020-05-25
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