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Dignity: Its History and Meaning Hardcover – Apr 19 2012


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 200 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (April 19 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674064437
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674064430
  • Product Dimensions: 19.6 x 13.4 x 1.9 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 318 g
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #230,001 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)


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Amazon.com: 3 reviews
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Great Overview June 8 2012
By David Walsh - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
This is a fine example of the best contemporary scholarship in political theory. It is informed by philosophical argument, yet Rosen does not limit himself to the analysis of concepts. He recognizes that they play a role in political life before anyone raises the question of their meaning and significance. Human dignity is one such centrally important notion. It may hover on the margin of American rights jurisprudence but it has been centrally embraced by the Catholic Church, the United Nations, the German Basic Law, and the constitutions of other states. At the same time it is a central philosophical notion in the thought of Immanuel Kant. Michael Rosen provides a succinct overview of these multiple contexts of relevance. He even includes the historical sources of the notion of human dignity, biblical, classical, medieval and modern. The contemporary application of human dignity, as the universal ground of worth for every human being, has been distilled from this rich background. Rosen is a fair and judicious guide. His real interest, however, as befits a political theorist, is to ask about the coherence of the idea. Can it bear the weight of a fundamental pivot on which our rights jurisprudence turns? Is dignity the source of rights? If it is, is there any sense in which dignity sets a limit to rights as such? Do we have a right to engage in activities that violate our notion of human dignity? Dwarf tossing contests are one such notorious case, but there are many others. Rosen is hesitant to express any hard and fast applications of dignity, but he struggles admirably with the need to preserve its core. The approach might be called non-foundational but that does not mean it is without foundations. They lie, rather, within our innermost response to one another. In the end these are the only foundations we have or need.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Not Supremely Dignified Jan. 7 2013
By Sevens - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
This book briefly deals with Dignity. It does identify four strands of it: (1) dependent on status [dignity of status], (2) gravitas [dignified behavior], (3) intrinsic (human) dignity. I didn't list the fourth one because I'm not at all convinced that it is actually a fourth one, despite claims to the contrary.

Much like the alleged fourth strand of dignity does not convince, Mr. Rosen postulates a distinction of "respect-as-observance" and "respect-as-respectfulness" that is of dubious quality.

While he includes an interesting (legal) case of dwarf throwing - can that be prohibited on grounds of dignity (as a matter of public order), even when the dwarf in questions consents to be thrown? - he doesn't thoroughly unfold and answer to it. As with a brief detour into free speech, one is left with superficially described - yet meaningful - conflicts: is the dignity of the individual dwarf to be protected when that individual doesn't want it to be protected (wants to be thrown)?; does the dwarf's consent ensure his dignity?; would overriding his consent violate his dignity?; does some idea of the dignity of the group of dwarves override the dignity that lies in the individual dwarf's choice?; how far does the dignity of the individual speaker demand that he be free to speak - to "insult" others - and how far does the dignity of the to be "insulted" person demand that the aspiring speaker remain silent?

Mr. Rosen takes a look at some of Kant's writing about the intrinsic worth of each person (ends in themselves; not necessarily law unto themselves) and briefly engages with choice-/autonomy-based interpretations of it, notably by Ms. Korsgaard. He disagrees with her (voluntarist) intepretation and supports one that relies more on duty; the duty to act with dignity, with respect to a relatively abstract concept of humanity's worth (noumenal). When he does that, he claims that it's an understanding distinct from Plato's idea of pursuing some ideal good that can not be obtained but merely be expressed respect for. Unfortunately, the book doesn't offer substantial material to build this distinction. In the end of his less than thorough contemplations, readers can learn (as an example showing the general principle) that he thinks the dead should be shown respect not necessarily because it promotes some tangible good (read: not because it makes people feel better, facilitates peace, strengthens adherence to moral behavior in general, is in any way evolutionarily beneficial) but because each living person owes it to himself to do so.

He writes: "My claim is that we can reasonably believe that we have a basic duty to respect the dignity of humanity without accepting either humanism (that everything that is good is good only because it benefits a human being) or Platonism (that there are timelessly valuable things toward which we must act with respect or reverence). [...]
Such duties are principally symbolic: they require us to act in ways that express respect. And I am not put off by the thought that it may well be that we are being asked to express respect when there is no one else there to become aware of the expression. Our duty to respect the dignity o humanity is - on this I agree with Kant - fundamentally a duty toward ourselves. By which I mean, not that we are benefited when we observe our duties, but that our duties are so deep a part of us that we could not be the people that we are without having them. In failing to respect the humanity of others we actually undermine humanity in ourselves. [...]
Suffering, to my mind, is bad, and love good, in themselves, not, as Kantianism implies, because of their relationship to something else." (p. 156 - 7) So it's deontology combined with utilitarianism/humanism, in uncertain consistence.

Now, who is this book for? I don't entirely know. (The limited insights into German law can be neglected; German law, which more overtly considers dignity as a guiding principle, is of interest, however. The laws on abortion, torture and shooting down highjacked passenger planes get a few pages.) It challenges one interpretation of Kant, and Kant is its main focus. There are mere glances at Cicero and Plato. Anyone who has read a number of philosophical works by Cicero and Plato (Socrates) is unlikely to considerably benefit from Mr. Rosen's book. Those who have read only fractions from these two are probably better adviced to read them instead of "Dignity". That leaves those who have had very little contact with writing on the subject. They may profit from Mr. Rosen's book, which is quite readable -- more so than my review (a circumstance for which I would like to apologize).

To anyone interested in the idea(s) of dignity, I would suggest reading Cicero:On Ends (Loeb Classical Library), and Cicero, Volume XXI. On Duties (De Officiis): De Officiis (Loeb Classical Library No. 30); Aristotle, XIX, Nicomachean Ethics (Loeb Classical Library); and then most of Plato's Socratic Dialogues. Anything that has to do with virtues (and expediency [that would also suggest reading about stoicism, beyond Cicero: Epictetus, for example]) has to do with dignity. That is because virtues have much to do with honor, which is interwoven with dignity.
Furthermore, I would recommend Passmore's The Perfectibility of Man; Welsh's What Is Honor?: A Question of Moral Imperatives; and By Jerome Neu - Sticks and Stones: The Philosophy of Insults (on insults).

Criticism is welcome.
2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
not fluffy Oct. 23 2012
By Paul Beckel - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
It's dangerous when ideas are elevated to such heights that we don't bother to understand them. Dignity is one of those things, I fear--so obvious I've never thought to ask what it means.

Rosen looks at dignity through some interesting lenses--from dwarf-tossing to satire to the Catholic Church's evolving view of women. He shows how, if we leave the concept mysterious and untouchable, it can be used to justify just about anything.

On the other hand, dignity is fundamental to law, society, the humanities, and the essence of being human. So rather than taking it for granted, and rather than dismissing it as indefinable, we should notice the various ways that it's being understood today.


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