A Universal Human Dignity: Its Nature, Ground and Limits
Watson, James David Ernest
Thesis or dissertation
University of Exeter
A universal human dignity, conceived as an inherent and inalienable value or worth in all human beings, which ought to be recognised, respected and protected by others, has become one of the most prominent and widely promoted interpretations of human dignity, especially in international human rights law. Yet, it is also one of the most difficult interpretations of human dignity to justify and ground. The fundamental problem rests on how one can justify bestowing an equal high worth to all human lives, whilst also attributing to all human life a worth that is superior to all non-human animal life. To avoid the speciesist charge it seems necessary to provide further reasons, over and above species membership, for why all humans have a unique worth and dignity. However, intrinsic capacities, such as autonomy, intelligence or language use, are too demanding for many humans (including foetuses or the severely cognitively disabled) to meet the required minimum standard, whilst also being obtainable by some non-human animals, regardless of where the level is set. This thesis offers a solution to this problem by turning instead to the significance of the relational ties between individuals or groups that transcend individual capacities and abilities, and consequently does not require that all individuals in the group need meet the minimum required capacity for full moral status. Rather, it is argued that a universal human dignity could be grounded in our social nature, the interconnectedness and interdependence of human life and the morally considerable relationships that can and do arise from it, especially in regards to our shared vulnerability and dependence, and our ability to engage in caring relationships. Care represents the antithesis to the dehumanizing effects of humiliation, and other degrading and dehumanizing acts, and as a relational concept, human dignity is often best realised through our caring relationships. The way that individuals and groups treat each other has a fundamental role in determining both an individual’s sense of self-worth and well-being, as well as their perceived public value and worth. Thus, whilst species membership is not in itself morally fundamental or basic, it often shapes the nature of our social and moral relations. These relational ties between humans, it is argued, distinguish us most clearly from other non-human animals and accord human relationships a special moral significance or dignity.
PhD in Philosophy