An emerging, overlapping consensus on the meaning of dignity under law
Despite having no specific universally agreed-upon definition, dignity has come to stand for the essential principle that every human being has equal and inherent worth that others are bound to respect. But what is dignity’s relationship to law? If it is intrinsic, it can’t be a right. If it’s a right, it can’t be all rights, or even connected to all rights. If it’s not connected to all rights, it can’t be a foundational value. And, yet, in current international, regional, and domestic law, it is all of these.
The recognition of human dignity has become central to the very notion of a “just rule of law,” as the American Bar Association has said. Dignity is now recognized as foundational in international and regional human rights instruments so much so that it is claimed to be an element of customary law, binding nations whether or not they accede to dignity-based treaties. And it is an indispensable element of constitutionalism throughout the world.
This chapter explores dignity’s rich and complex relationship with law.
The relationship between dignity and law is complex. Dignity stands outside of law, and yet is intrinsic to the very notion of rule of law. It limits and defines the boundaries of law (for instance, forbidding torture or unjustified group discrimination) while animating its outer contours: where there is no dignity, there is no law. Since the end of the Second World War, the constitutionalization of dignity has both fixed dignity’s meaning...
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