Item Details

Conceptions of Dignity in Moral and Legal Discourse

Henry, Leslie
Thesis/Dissertation; Online
Henry, Leslie
Mohrmann, Margaret
Childress, James
Mathewes, Charles
Schwartzman, Micah
During the last two centuries, the term dignity has gained widespread currency in legal, religious, literary, political, and ethical contexts. Dignity’s increasing presence in our lexicon, however, does not signal agreement about its meaning or usefulness. While some commentators claim that dignity is an essential ethical and legal norm, others are skeptical of dignity or against its use altogether. The critics challenge dignity’s advocates to demonstrate that dignity is neither redundant nor rhetorical; that it has a distinct—perhaps even unique—meaning; and that it should retain its importance as an ethical and legal norm despite its alleged susceptibility to political and religious appropriation. This dissertation takes up that challenge. It begins by setting forth the range of critiques that have been leveled against the concept of dignity, illustrating each one with examples from religion, bioethics, American case law, and human rights. Then, to discern dignity’s various meanings and functions, the dissertation employs a three-part interdisciplinary methodology, which includes: (1) a historical examination of dignity’s evolving use in philosophical, religious, and political texts from Classical Antiquity to the Modern era; (2) a Wittgensteinian study of dignity’s invocation in nearly one thousand U.S. Supreme Court opinions; and (3) an inductive analysis of paradigmatic cases in which there is a collective intuition that dignity has been violated. Together, these three methodologies—and the central features of dignity that they elucidate—contribute to the development of a modest account of dignity, which is defended against the aforementioned critiques.
Date Received
University of Virginia, Department of Religious Studies, PHD (Doctor of Philosophy), 2015
Published Date
PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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