Dignity, law and language-games

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The aim of this paper is to provide a preliminary defence of the use of the concept of dignity in legal and ethical discourse. This will involve the application of three philosophical insights: (1) Ludwig Wittgenstein’s notion of language-games; (2) his related approach to understanding the meanings of words (sometimes summarised as ‘meaning is use’); and (3) Jeremy Waldron’s layered understanding of property wherein ‘property’ consists in an abstract concept fleshed out in numerous particular conceptions. These three insights will be applied, in the first place, to the concept of ‘dignity’, which is chosen here as a good example of a concept which is both vague and contested in legal and ethical discourse, but which can nevertheless be rendered workable by the application of the aforementioned insights. Later, the analysis will be extended briefly to some other troublesome concepts in order to demonstrate its general application. This paper is concerned primarily with formal, rather than substantive questions about dignity. Matters of content will be touched on only insofar as is necessary to illustrate and illuminate my argument about how we ought to approach (rather than answer) questions about dignity. It should be emphasised that because there is no intention of exploring substantive questions in any depth, the discussion here will not delve into the criticisms of ‘speciesism’ often levelled against the idea of ‘human dignity’. ‘Speciesist’ theories are those that claim that the status, value, or rights of human beings can be regarded as being higher than that of other animals, purely on the basis of their membership of the human species, and without justifying the distinction by pointing to any relevant capacity or characteristic possessed by all and only human beings. For a critical description of speciesism see, e.g., Singer [18] Chapter Three passim; for present purposes, the term ‘dignity’ will be used synonymously with ‘human dignity’, and concerns about speciesism will not be considered.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)107-122
Number of pages16
JournalInternational Journal for the Semiotics of Law
Issue number1
Early online date11 Jul 2011
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2012


  • dignity
  • language-games
  • bioethics
  • human rights
  • Ludwig Wittgenstein
  • Jeremy Waldron


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