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Dignity: The History of a Concept

Conference Description

"Human dignity" has become a bedrock concept in Western society - but what exactly do we mean by it? The English term 'dignity' is a derivation of the Latin dignitas, which was a Roman concept referring to a man's social influence, power, and reputation (moral or otherwise). Over time the term came to take on the more general idea of rank, merit, or a kind of poise or gravitas – connotations that persist to this day. However, the term has also been increasingly associated with the concept of inherent human worth. In this sense, "human dignity" is prima facie discontinuous with all historically older merit connotations of dignity. Human dignity, if it exists, and whatever else it may be, isn't something that must be earned or bequeathed. Instead, in some sense or other, at least to some degree, human dignity is inherent and unearned. Significant credit for this revolution in meaning undoubtedly goes to Kant's famous reformulation of his Categorical Imperative in terms of human dignity (Würde). But recently scholars have begun to appreciate that this moralized sense of unearned worth has much older origins, and correspondingly to rethink our contemporary understanding of human worth.

The presentations in this conference are on the cutting edge of this new research, and each will eventually appear in the forthcoming Oxford University Press volume, Dignity: History of a Concept.


Friday, March 21 2014 - University Center 363


 Coffee Reception

Session I (Remy Debes, Chair)

1:00-2:00pm "Homeric Heroes," Patrice Rankine (Professor of Classics and Dean for the Arts and Humanities, Hope College)
2:00-3:00pm "Dignity in Roman and Stoic Thought," Miriam Griffin (Emeritus Fellow, Faculty of Classics, Oxford University)



Session II (Somogy Varga, Chair)

3:30-4:30pm "In the Image of God? Human Dignity After the Fall," Bonnie Kent (Professor of Philosophy, University of California, Irvine)

"The Foundation of Liberal Rights," Stephen Darwall (Andrew Downey Orrick Professor of Philosophy, Yale University)


Saturday, March 22 2014 - Scates Hall 212

Session III

"Passionate Persons: Human Dignity Before Kant, Remy Debes (Associate Professor of Philosophy, University of Memphis)
11:00a-12:00pm "Ends in Themselves: Kant's Revolutionary Conception," Oliver Sensen (Associate Professor of Philosophy, Tulane University)


Lunch Break

Session IV

1:30-2:30pm "The Universalizing of Dignity," Mika LaVaque-Manty (Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Michigan)
2:30-3:30pm "Atrocity and Technology: Dignity Under Strain?" Laurence Thomas (Professor of Philosophy, Syracuse University)

Further Information

Remy Debes (Associate Professor of Philosophy, University of Memphis):

Conference Poster

Campus Map

dignity 2014

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