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Düwell, Marcus, Braarvig, Jens, Brownsword, Roger, and Dietmar Mieth [Eds.]
The Cambridge Handbook of Human Dignity. Interdisciplinary Perspectives.
Cambridge u. a.: Cambridge University Press 2014. XXI, 608 S. Geb. £ 99,99. ISBN 978-0-521-19578-2.
This interdisciplinary handbook on human dignity grows out of a series of conferences on dignity in 2006-2007 initiated by the International Union of Academies and the European Science Founda-tion. In the introduction, the editors argue that the handbook seeks to open up for a more comprehensive, interdisciplinary understand-ing of the normative status and history of the concept of dignity and the principles of its applicability, which is much needed given that »human dignity forms the basis of many legal frameworks (international, regional and national), that it is deeply interwoven with various moral and religious traditions, and that it functions as a reference point for a number of contemporary social and political debates« (XIX–XX). The notion of dignity has indeed played a both crucial and controversial role in a wide range of debates since the middle of the 20 th century. Through the last ten years there has been as well an enormous increase in scholarly writings on human dig-nity both within various disciplines and in interdisciplinary discussions like this handbook, which appears merely a year after the publication of yet another huge interdisciplinary collection on Understanding Human Dignity published by Oxford University Press.
What particularly distinguishes this Cambridge handbook in comparison with other interdisciplinary volumes on dignity is the attempt to open up a global cross-cultural dialogue on dignity in order to explore how the concept of a shared equal inherent human dignity, which is a basic concept in modern human rights relate not only to earlier European traditions but also to non-Western conceptions of dignity and legal practices. The handbook thus broad-ens the scope of the discussion on dignity beyond the Western tradition, and it thereby seeks to »do justice to the universal ambition of the human dignity concept« (XXI). This is a very worthwhile aim, and by taking an important and fruitful first step in that direction, this handbook is a very valuable contribution to scholarship on dignity.
The handbook consists of 62 articles, and due to such over-whelming richness, I will not discuss them separately in detail, but primarily comment on a more general level. A leading issue throughout the book is the use of human dignity as a foundational concept in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The investigation of how the notion of dignity relates to human rights entails critical discussions of whether human dignity insofar it »is a concept with an underdetermined content but which could trump human rights, it could be a kind of Trojan horse in relation to the human rights regime« (XVIII). Both the legal perspectives and the philosophical, conceptual clarification of the notion of dignity are well accounted for in the two opening, long articles. The rest of the articles provide shorter (between 6 and 12 pages) introductions to a wide range of subjects, divided into seven parts.
Part I introduces prominent parts of the history of human dignity in the European history from Greek antiquity to the social-istic tradition of the 19th century. Though Ober’s article on »Meritocratic and civic dignity in Greco-Roman antiquity« is a strong investigation of the shift from the meritocratic dignity of the Homeric heroes to the civic dignity ensured by the laws and political culture in the Athenian democracy, it is, however, problematic that it almost ignores the Roman antiquity. It is unfortunate that the Roman Stoic transformation of the concept of dignity as we find it for instance in Cicero’s De Officiis is not introduced, because it has had a profound influence on Western thinking about dignity. There are thus many references in subsequent articles to Cicero’s stoic conception of dignity as formative for the understanding of dignity in for instance the early Renaissance humanism (86 f.), and as subject of a critical discussion by Nussbaum (243 f.) and as subject of an interesting comparison with the Confucian approach to dignity (181). It is valuable that the historic part includes an introduction to Luther’s conception of dignity, which is often ignored. Bayer’s insightful demonstration of the social-ethical significance of Luther’s critical engagement with Catholic views on dignity and Luther’s »limits on the powers of the church and clergy in the public sphere for the sake of a reasonable secularity in the realm of civil society« (105–106) is important also in the contemporary de-bate. The first historic part includes also an article on the Jewish tradition. It deals only with pre-modern Judaism, and it would have strengthened the book if it had included also – in the section on systematic approaches – an article on the very rich ressources in modern thinking about dignity in the Jewish tradition specifically in response to the Holocaust, e. g. Amery, Levi, Levinas (though the article on the phenomenological tradition deals with Levinas, it is as a representative of phenomenological thinking, and it does not address neither the issue of Judaism nor the issue of thinking about dignity after Holocaust).
Part II broadens this perspective beyond the European tradition by focusing on the Islamic, Hinduistic, Buddhistic tradition as well as Chinese Confucianism and Daoism. Each tradition is treated separately and much more work need to be done in future research to explore connections, similarities and differences between them. Part III consists of 17 articles on systematic conceptualizations of dignity. The editors explain this strong focus on the philosophical discussion as based on the assumption that »human dignity has a central role in the moral and philosophical self-interpretation of human beings, and that the central place of the concept in legal regulations is derived from this fact« (XXI). It is also a strength that they include both analytical and continental philosophical perspectives, and the articles on Ricœur and Levinas succeed well in showing the relevance of continental, phenomenological-hermeneutical thinking. It is also positive – and rare – to find Kierkegaard represented in this context, it is, however somewhat problematic that Hübenthal’s article due to its focus on the leap of faith in re-lation to Joas, does not show the rich ressources on dignity that is found in Kierkegaard’s existential thinking on humane and inhumane ways of relating to and seeing (or failing to see) other human beings, which is a major concern in Kierkegaard’s Works of Love.
Part IV focus on the legal implementation of dignity not only in a European context, but also in South American, South African, Chinese and Japanese law and the Indian constitution and the Islamic world. This part thus continues part II’s engagement with the question of dignity in a non-Western context now explored from a practical, legal perspective. The four articles in part V deals with dignity in conflicts and violence and part VI addresses various contexts of justice. The final part VII focus on biology and bioethics, which according to the editors, are where »the most significant debates about human dignity have been« (XVIII), which is particularly well shown in Düwell’s article.
The handbook is highly recommendable reading presenting broadly accessible up-to-date surveys of current research on a wide range of interdisciplinary and intercultural perspectives on dignity, providing both students and scholars with a wealth of valuable ressources.