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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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The value of a life: intrinsic worth, agency, and autonomy

James R. May Erin Daly


The case law posits that humans are distinctively and intrinsically worthy. Whether they have more or less worth than other beings is of less importance than the recognition that they do have worth. Two corollaries follow. One, that worth means that every life has value, that none can be diminished or treated as if it doesn’t matter. To treat someone “as a person” is to treat them with the respect they are due as someone whose life matters. Two, that this worth derives from the human capacity for reason and rationality; this, in turn, gives humans the right to make choices but also imposes on them the obligation to make good choices at least insofar as other humans are concerned.

This chapter explores how courts around the world have protected the essential identity of every person through the right to dignity.

We start with the foundational documents of the modern age of dignity. As detailed in Chapter 1, the UN Charter associates dignity with the “worth of the human person” – that is, the simple idea that every human life matters. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ further proviso, that given human dignity, people “should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood”, imposes a certain morality on humans, obliging them to respect the dignity of each other.

The case law takes these conceptions of dignity seriously. Cases in this chapter consider the implications of the incipient premises articulated in the foundational international instruments...

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