A Special Species

Human Dignity
George Kateb
Belknap/Harvard University Press, $ 22.95, 244 pp.

Most discussions of important moral and political issues, along with our everyday reflections on how others should be treated, occur against a background assumption of human dignity—for example, the idea that human beings have special standing shared by no other creatures on earth. In countless contexts—talking about what we must provide to all persons (health care?), what we must never do to anyone (torture?), how to handle end-of-life scenarios (assisted suicide?), what persons should be free to do (gay marriage?), and so on—we can’t get very far without running up against some claim about the dignity that each person possesses. Getting clear on what that notion involves, and what such claims are grounded on, is thus a hugely important task.

Faced with these questions, there are four main options. First, one might simply give up the idea that humans have any special status of the sort dignity connotes and carry on from there. Alternatively, one might argue that since any sane person recognizes the special dignity of all humans (even if they don’t in practice respect it), there’s nothing to be gained by exploring the theoretical foundations of the idea. Third, one might believe that human dignity can adequately be explained only through a theological account, rooted in our relationship to the divine. Last, one might defend human dignity through a secular account that offers various considerations but makes no appeal to God.

The first route,...

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About the Author

David McCabe teaches philosophy at Colgate University.