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Dignity: Its History and Meaning [Hardcover]

Michael Rosen

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Book Description

April 19 2012

Dignity plays a central role in current thinking about law and human rights, but there is sharp disagreement about its meaning. Combining conceptual precision with a broad historical background, Michael Rosen puts these controversies in context and offers a novel, constructive proposal.

Drawing on law, politics, religion, and culture, as well as philosophy, Rosen shows how modern conceptions of dignity inherit several distinct strands of meaning. This is why users of the word nowadays often talk past one another. The idea of dignity as the foundation for the universal entitlement to human rights represented the coming together after the Second World War of two extremely powerful traditions: Christian theology and Kantian philosophy. Not only is this idea of dignity as an “inner transcendental kernel” behind human rights problematic, Rosen argues, it has drawn attention away from a different, very important, sense of dignity: the right to be treated with dignity, that is, with proper respect.

At the heart of the argument stands the giant figure of Immanuel Kant. Challenging current orthodoxy, Rosen’s interpretation presents Kant as a philosopher whose ethical thought is governed, above all, by the requirement of showing respect toward a kernel of value that each of us carries, indestructibly, within ourselves. Finally, Rosen asks (and answers) a surprisingly puzzling question: why do we still have a duty to treat the dead with dignity if they will not benefit from our respect?

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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: #172,331 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


Dignity: Its History and Meaning has all the virtues readers of Michael Rosen have come to expect: argumentative lucidity, fair-mindedness, and clarity of expression. It opens up a world of interesting and timely questions. (Martin Jay, University of California, Berkeley)

Michael Rosen takes us on an extraordinary journey through the tangled ethical, religious, and legal roots of the concept of dignity, showing its association with the distinct ideas of status, intrinsic value, bearing, and respect. This book is a one-off, exhibiting Rosen's characteristic and unique blend of scholarly insight and analytic power, presented in superbly accessible style. It culminates in a persuasively authentic interpretation of Kant's moral philosophy. Anyone wishing to understand the contemporary concept of dignity, or its history, must read this book. (Jonathan Wolff, University College London)

A thought-provoking book which combines reflections on a rather old philosophical and a quite new legal concept of rapidly increasing interest in a particularly stimulating way. (Dieter Grimm, Former Justice, Federal Constitutional Court of Germany, Humboldt University Berlin, and Yale Law School)

Rosen offers a thoughtful examination of the term's multiple definitions and uses. (Publishers Weekly 2011-12-31)

With this book Michael Rosen...adds a new voice to the defense of the concept of human dignity. Adapted from three lectures, his brief text has refreshingly accessible prose and a comfortable style, while at times giving very thorough accounts of complex ideas...The more general audience at which it is aimed will find Dignity engaging, challenging and stimulating...Rosen's book is an important one. (Charles Camosy The Tablet 2012-04-21)

In Dignity: Its History and Meaning, Michael Rosen employs philosophy and political theory to unpack this contested term. He opens with a lively history of the concept, sketching its development from Cicero to Kant and beyond...This short, rich work ends with Rosen musing on dignity, duty, and respect: where we deny human dignity to others, we risk losing our own humanity. (John Gallagher The Guardian 2012-03-25)

[An] elegant, interesting and lucid exploration of the concept of dignity...Drawing on classical, liberal and Catholic traditions, Rosen hopes to rehabilitate dignity to its rightful place near the centre of moral thought...Rosen's admirable book deserves wide attention from political theorists, jurisprudes and political philosophers. (Simon Blackburn Times Higher Education 2012-03-29)

Beautifully written and argued...The concept of dignity is fundamental to many conventions on human rights, yet no one seems to have a firm idea of what it actually entails...One only need think of the different ideas of dignity employed in debates about euthanasia to see that the argument is far from resolved...Rosen does not claim to have resolved these conflicts but he does add something significant to the debate. (Richard King Weekend Australian 2012-05-26)

Rosen's prose is delightful in its clarity, concision, fair-mindedness, and occasional playfulness—no negligible feat for a slim volume that takes on a hefty portion of the intellectually gobsmacking Kant. And in its affable, yet rigorous intelligence, the book recollects Harry Frankfurt's diminutive philosophical bestseller, On Bullshit… Perhaps the most winning aspect of Dignity is the case it makes in implicitly linking Kant and the philosophical history of dignity to contemporary legal cases, constitutions, and laws. Rosen contends quietly that philosophy still signifies in real ways in our world: shaping states, laws, and human attitudes. In an era when the study of the humanities is in decline, this is heartening stuff. More heartening still is Rosen's interest in reaching an audience beyond philosophy professors. His easy, conversational style and pointed avoidance of jargon invite the educated lay reader into a culturally relevant and interesting conversation. This is the sort of work that humanities professors need to undertake if they want their disciplines to survive. (Emily Wilkinson Weekly Standard 2012-07-30)

Rosen's lucid style and engaging examples make this book especially suitable for general readers and undergraduates; it engagingly conveys some of the most complicated issues of Kantian ethics in an accessible way. The book's use of concrete legal cases shows the real-world implications of the philosophical debates… Rosen has given readers a well-written, highly accessible, and deeply insightful look at the sources and use of an important and much debated concept. (A. W. Klink Choice 2012-08-01)

Rosen has shown dignity has some kind of a serious moral role, whilst at the same time showing that it can't justify as much as Catholics and Kantians want it to. It has a dramatic parasitical quality, so that it seems tangible and magnificent but also often foolhardy and empty. It is a value that appears powerful but often is less than it seems. Rosen's brilliant book gives us dignity's history and a cunningly disguised radical ending… Rosen's narrative illuminates a subject that as he notes himself has eluded serious analysis for too long. (Richard Marshall 3:AM Magazine)

Dignity deserves to be widely read, not only for its intrinsic interest, but also as a corrective to the habit of discussing such topics in abstraction from their social context. Whether or not one agrees with Rosen's arguments, there can be no doubt he has widened our horizons. (Rae Langton Times Literary Supplement 2012-08-31)

Stimulating and informative. (Thomas Nagel New York Review of Books 2012-12-06)

Penetrating and sprightly…Rosen rightly emphasizes the centrality of Catholicism in the modern history of human dignity. His command of the history is impressive…Rosen is a wonderful guide to the recent German constitutional thinking about human dignity…[Rosen] is in general an urbane and witty companion, achieving his aim of accessibly written philosophy. (Samuel Moyn The Nation 2013-10-15)

About the Author

Michael Rosen is Professor of Government at Harvard University.

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Amazon.com: 3.0 out of 5 stars  4 reviews
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Overview June 8 2012
By David Walsh - Published on Amazon.com
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
2.0 out of 5 stars Not Supremely Dignified Jan. 7 2013
By Sevens - Published on Amazon.com
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.
3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars 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.
0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Where's the Dignity in This? Aug. 30 2014
By Kenneth Edusei - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I have an undergrad in philosophy. I am doing a piece on dignity. I needed a book detailing the history of the word especially as it pertains to philosophy. This collection of words accomplished so little towards that goal. It barely touched on the philosophical history of the word. It barely delves into much. This collection of words is VERY short. I didn't know just how small it is! I believe my undergraduate thesis is lengthier than this book. This book does little to elaborate on dignity's historical/philosophical meaning. I didn't read beyond the first part. I needed the history of dignity and its meaning not the application term.

Altogether this was a waste of my twenty dollars. I've bought two other books, dignity: it's essential role in solving conflict and human dignity. If you're looking for dignity you're not going to find it here!

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