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Adam Etinson: What’s So Special About Human Dignity

Lecture by Adam Etinson (St Andrews), organized by the Department of Ethics, Social and Political Philosophy

This article challenges two prominent ways of understanding the meaning and practical import of the concept of human dignity. These include (i) what we might call “gateway” understandings of human dignity: theories that take it to be a general indicator of moral status, or perhaps of one’s status as a rights-bearer. And they include (ii) broadly Kantian theories that understand concerns about human dignity to be, in essence, concerns about autonomy, capability, or the inviolability of persons.

The article argues that neither of these rich and diverse theoretical traditions fully captures the understanding of human dignity implicit in everyday moral discourse. So far as our common practical intuitions are concerned, human dignity is a substantive normative concept closely tied to concerns about the social harm of humiliation or degradation. The article concludes by highlighting some of the difficulties and limitations of understanding human dignity in this way.


Adam Etinson is a Lecturer in Philosophy in the School of Philosophical, Anthropological, and Film Studies at the University of St Andrews.

He works on a range of topics in moral and political philosophy. Much of his research is in the philosophy of human rights, but he also works on topics in social epistemology (such as the problem of ethnocentrism) and on the theoretical foundations of liberalism. He is currently working on a project on human dignity. Personal website

When & where?

Thursday, 2 March 2017, 3-5pm
Faculty of Philosophy, room Alpha

Last modified:17 September 2020 5.26 p.m.