Human dignity: a useful concept?

ERI Building - Room 149 (1st Floor)
Arts and Law, Lectures Talks and Workshops, Research, Students, Teaching
Monday 20th January 2014 (16:15-18:00)
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Dr Darragh Byrne (email:

Philosophy Society 2013-2014

Anne Phillips (London School of Economics)

Human Dignitity: a Useful Concept?


Human dignity has come to figure as an important reference point for human rights, and it is widely argued - in both legal and political theory -  that one cannot talk of human rights without relying in some way on a conception of human dignity. In other quarters, however, human dignity is subject to robust denunciations: it is regarded as a 'useless' concept, a 'stupid' concept, a nebulous or empty notion that is inappropriately deployed to block practices that fully agentic humans have agreed to. In this paper I make a third argument. I argue that the notion of human dignity is indeed problematic, because it draws on overly substantive accounts of 'the human' and what it is to live a fully human life. Though I share with the 'dignitarians' the view that there is more at stake in many issues than whether or not the individuals involved have freely agreed, I argue that  this can be adequately captured in the notion of equality. Dignity is often just another way of saying equality. When it isn't - when it edges into problematically substantive notions of what it is to be human - it edges into something we would do better to avoid.