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Dignity: Its History and Meaning by Michael…
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Dignity: Its History and Meaning

by Michael Rosen

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In this short, thoughtful work, Michael Rosen attempts to show that 'dignity' is a philosophically coherent and useful concept. Rosen identifies several strands in dignity's historic and current meaning -- as social status; as inherent value; as behavior that is dignified; and as a constraint placed on behavior to ensure that it respects another person (whether as a duty to that person, or a duty by the actor). The author discusses German legal cases interpreting dignity as a fundamental right, and compares them to Kantian and Catholic theories. He concludes with an analysis on dignity as 'duty to humanity', offering a specific interpretation of Kant as a guide to what we should mean when we speak of dignity today.

The writing is admirably clear, good-humored, and free of cant. Rosen's touchstones here - Kant and Catholic ethics - are quite different from mine (Humean empiricism, utilitarians,and pragmatists), so as I read, I kept needing to suppress a tendency to say, incredulously, 'why would a person think that?' If you can follow Rosen's lead, and accept his foundational assumptions (which he articulates cleanly), he does an excellent job of explaining how a Kantian could work through any of several different conceptions of dignity. Because of where it's coming from, this is a different book than I hoped it would be; but it's a fine, intelligent read, and I'm grateful for it.

A few steps in Rosen's arguments still lost me. For example, he rejects the argument, made by philosopher Ruth Macklin and psychologist Steven Pinker, that dignity is just a muddier word for autonomy. To make his point, Rosen examines Catholic and Kantian arguments against suicide as a response to painful, debilitating disease. After noting that supporters of a right to suicide often speak of 'death with dignity', Rosen examines the alternate view: "[t]he Catechism of the Catholic Church makes it very clear that, on the Catholic view, human beings have no right to choose to end their own lives: '...We are obliged to accept life gratefully and preserve it for [God's] honor and the salvation of our souls. We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of.' Clearly, this is a substantive ethical dispute involving different senses of dignity," Rosen concludes, not an argument about autonomy. But it's not clear to me that this is true, judging from the text Rosen quotes. A Catholic who believes our lives belong to God might just as well view suicide as an autonomy issue, while insisting that the autonomy to continue or end our lives is God's. In fact, that appears to me to be exactly what the quoted passage of the catechism says. I'd like for Rosen to be right here - and I don't think it threatens the value of the rest of his analysis if he's not - but I don't see that he's really shown that, at least in Catholic ethics, dignity must be interpreted as something other than autonomy. In the scheme of Rosen's book, it's a minor point, and one that might fade on another re-reading. ( )
2 vote bezoar44 | Jan 6, 2013 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0674064437, Hardcover)

Dignity plays a central role in thinking about law and human rights, but there is sharp disagreement about its meaning. Combining conceptual precision with a broad historical background, Rosen puts these controversies in context and offers a novel, constructive proposal. He also answers a puzzling question: why treat the dead with dignity?

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:11:07 -0400)

Dignity plays a central role in thinking about law and human rights, but there is sharp disagreement about its meaning. Combining conceptual precision with a broad historical background, Rosen puts these controversies in context and offers a novel, constructive proposal. He also answers a puzzling question: why treat the dead with dignity?… (more)

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