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Author provides insights on dignity

| Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Professor Christopher McCrudden of Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Ireland offered his insights on the difficult concept of human dignity to students and faculty on Tuesday.

McCrudden’s lecture centered on his book, “Understanding Human Dignity,” and took place at the Hesburgh Center for International Studies.

McCrudden said the subject of his book is difficult but regularly invoked in a variety of situations.

“There are relatively few uncontroversial things that could be said about human dignity,” McCrudden said. “The very least that could be said about it is that the concept of human dignity has never been so omnipresent in everyday speech. It is frequently referred to in political, oral and legal discourse. … The power of the concept is unquestionable.”

As pervasive as the concept of human dignity is, it can nevertheless be a point of contention, McCrudden said.

“As dignity has become more pervasive, in particular, in human and constitutional rights, it has begun to lose its ‘fatherhood and apple pie’ innocence,” McCrudden said. “The greater scrutiny that dignity has been receiving, though, has resulted in a deep-veined skepticism.”

McCrudden said the discussion of human dignity has immense academic and real-world impact and consequences, mainly in the sciences and in human rights.

“[There are] two areas [in which] the criticisms of dignity are particularly intense, not to say, vitriolic,” McCrudden said. “First, dignity is seen as placing limits on some developments in areas of scientific pursuit. … Critics of the use of human dignity in the life sciences see dignity as a conversation-stopper.”

There has also been pushback against the idea of human dignity by some people who stand for particular human rights, McCrudden said.

“Some see human dignity as undermining, for example, the American conceptions of freedom of speech, sometimes when it is being used to prohibit speech, namely hate speech,” he said. “Others, more numerous, I think, see human dignity as a Trojan horse for religiously-inspired attacks on various other aspects of liberalism, such as equality or justifying attacks on autonomy the power of choice.”

McCrudden said his book attempts to rationalize and discuss the place of human dignity, even in the areas of contention.

“The purpose of this book, despite its length, is not to be the last word on [this] subject. … That is not the point. That’s why the discussion should take the book as a launch pad to start over,” McCrudden said.

The lecture was sponsored by the Kellogg Institute for International Study.

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