A Useless Concept?

Its History and Meaning
Michael Rosen
Havard University Press, $21.95, 200 pp.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights invokes it. So do the Geneva Conventions, the German constitution, and major U.S. Supreme Court cases. It is central to both the Kantian moral tradition and Catholic social thought. And along with cognate concepts, it’s the favored principle of a broad range of causes: for the prenatal child’s right to be born and the ailing geriatric’s right to be killed; for looser immigration laws and tighter labor laws; for the regulation of pornography, prostitution, and hate speech; and libertarian resistance to the same. No concept has been more central to human-rights thought and advocacy than dignity.

So, if there is any philosophical concept on which we need insight and clarity, this is it. Yet most contemporary thinkers only bring it up to put it down. For the philosopher Ruth Macklin, “dignity is a useless concept”; Steven Pinker calls it “squishy, subjective” and “stupid.” Most thinkers today can’t even be bothered to show it abuse. And most of its few favorable treatments are too academic to have much effect on public debates.

Into that unfortunate breach steps Harvard Professor of Government Michael Rosen. In Dignity: Its History and Meaning, Rosen delivers an engaging reflection on the pedigree, politics, and promise of our moral and legal culture’s go-to concept. Given the topic’s salience, Rosen aims...

To read the rest of this article please login or become a subscriber.

About the Author

Sherif Girgis is a philosophy PhD candidate at Princeton University and a JD candidate at Yale Law School. With Ryan T. Anderson and Robert P. George, he is the author of What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense.