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Advanced Introduction to Human Dignity and Law

James R. May Erin Daly

This thought-provoking introduction provides an incisive overview of dignity law, a field of law emerging in every region of the globe that touches all significant aspects of the human experience. Through an examination of the burgeoning case law in this area, James R. May and Erin Daly reveal a strong overlapping consensus surrounding the meaning of human dignity as a legal right and a fundamental value of nations large and small, and how this global jurisprudence is redefining the relationship between individuals and the state.
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Dignity and human rights

James R. May Erin Daly


Dignity has become an elemental part of most international human rights instruments, including in conventions to protect children, indigenous people and to protect all peoples from torture and discrimination, among others and it is recognized in the regional human rights documents in Africa, Europe, and the Americas. In more than 160 constitutions around the world,1 it is found “sometimes as a right, sometimes as a value, sometimes in ways that make it hard to distinguish between the two.”2 Where it is not an actionable right – and in some places where it is – it has been read into the constitutional foundations by courts in countless decisions from all regions of the world in all legal and cultural traditions.3 And in the United States, it has recently been adopted by the American Bar Association – representing the nation’s 400,000 lawyers – as the foundation of a “just rule of law.”4

This chapter traces the evolution of dignity from its status as a philosophical notion to its integration in legal instruments at the international, regional, and national levels. Throughout this journey, it has kept much the same shape – namely, serving to distinguish humans from other animals and on the basis of the rationality that marks the species. On the other hand, there has been a monumental shift in dignity thinking from a mark of distinction for certain men to a universal and inherent trait, and with that, the integration of equality into the concept of dignity. The treatment of...

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