The concept of human dignity plays a prominent role in many ethical discussions and legal documents. In contrast to its widely accepted relevance, however, comparatively little research has been done on a systematic analysis of the concept of human dignity. In consequence, discussions have often suffered from unspoken assumptions and a certain kind of disorientation, because important questions are left unanswered, or are not even raised: How should we conceive of the role of human dignity in morality? Can it be employed within any comprehensive theory of morality, or only within specific (e.g. rights-based) theories? What should we expect from an adequate conception of human dignity? Which considerations should guide us in determining the specific content of human dignity?
By asking for the relationship between human dignity and moral rights, the proposed research project attempts to provide a distinct and systematic perspective that helps to adress general questions as these in a focused way. It starts from two claims about the relationship between human dignity and moral rights: (1) The concept of human dignity should be conceptualized within a rights approach. (2) The concept of human dignity is a distinct and indispensable element of a rights approach. Both claims, and especially the first one, have often been taken for granted in what might be called the 'mainstream discourse' about human dignity. However, it has seldom been explicitly justified why we should conceptualize human dignity in this way. Furthermore, it has not been examined how exactly the relationship between human dignity and moral rights should be conceived of.
The proposed research project attempts to explicitly address these questions, with the overall aim of clarifying the concept of human dignity. It is argued that the perspective is of great relevance to the debate about human dignity for three reasons: Firstly, it helps to organize different conceptions of human dignity in a systematic way: human dignity has been conceived of as (i) separate from moral rights, (ii) substitutable with moral rights, (iii) presupposed by moral rights, or as (iv) being the justificatory basis of moral rights. Secondly, classifying different conceptions of human dignity in the proposed way directs the attention to general features of specific conceptions, and their respective motivations. Thirdly, this allows for a systematic discussion of the merits and shortcomings of specific conceptions of human dignity in a new and distinct way.