Human Dignity and Justice   /   Fall 2007   /    Bibliographic Review

Critical Texts on Justice and the Basis of Human Dignity

Amy Gilbert

Margaret Hamilton standing next to the navigation software that she and her MIT team produced for the Apollo Project (1969).

Justice is one of our most ancient ideas, one of our first ideals. It lies at the center of how we understand our relations with one another. Our ability to live in community, it seems, rests largely on the shoulders of justice and depends on the accuracy of her scales. Indeed, of the four classical virtues—prudence, justice, temperance, and courage—justice is the only one that requires us to carefully consider others in their full capacity as fellow human beings. This brings us to the idea of dignity. What is it about the fact that someone is our fellow human being that gives her dignity? And why does this dignity demand a certain kind of response from us? What is the scope of the response it demands?

The lists below attempt to trace key aspects of our thinking about what it is to have inherent dignity and what implications this has for how we are to give each his due, to cite one classic formulation of what it is to be just. The terrain of this question has obviously changed over time, perhaps most notably by the fact that what we now call “human dignity” was, for a large part of our history, based on the notion of the sacredness of human life. Whether our notions of dignity can withstand the secularization of our worldviews—and what impact this will have on what constitutes a coherent theory of justice—is one of the central questions of our times.

In addition, the atrocities of the twentieth century, along with the increasing globalization of our societies, have had a profound impact on our considerations of dignity and justice. This is evidenced by the advent and sweeping scale of the human rights movement, which has in many ways become the lingua franca of justice, and especially of international justice, of our day. But can human rights talk effect justice on the ground if it is not rooted in agreement, or at least substantive dialogue, about the basis of these rights and of the dignity they are meant to protect? Will human rights discourse eventually crumble if we fail to ground it in coherent theories of human worth?

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