Workshop on Dignity: Reporting from an Innovative Initiative Fund Event


The Edinburgh Legal Theory Research Group had the pleasure of hosting, with the kind sponsorship of the Global Justice Academy through its Innovative Initiative Fund, the Workshop on Dignity on 6 October 2016. The workshop had three speakers: Ioanna Tourkochoriti (National University of Ireland Galway), Colin Bird (University of Virginia), and Adam Etinson (St. Andrews).

This guest post by co-organisers, Lucas Miotto and Paul Burgess, discusses the presentations and debate that took place.

The workshop was well attended by both staff members and students. An interesting, and beneficial, feature of the audience, was that it reflected the interdisciplinary character of the topic; we had attendees coming from myriad fields, such as politics, human rights, international and constitutional law, as well as legal and moral philosophy. Discussion was very lively and, perhaps due to the diverse character of the audience, presenters received feedback and questions from several different angles.

Ioanna Tourkochoriti presenting Human Dignity: A Legal Value?

Ioanna Tourkochoriti presenting Human Dignity: A Legal Value?

The first presenter – Ioanna Tourkochoriti – gave a paper entitled Human Dignity: A Legal Value? She first outlined a historiography of the concept of dignity in order to show how multifaceted dignity is. She then claimed that the open-ended character of dignity is not, contrary to what some may think, a bad thing. By conferring dignity the status of a legal value, law-makers give courts the possibility of acting creatively; to use a multitude of understandings of the concept to solve particular legal cases. Ioanna, however, proposed some limitations as to how courts should use dignity in the justification of their decisions. She proposed that courts must interpret dignity in light of an egalitarian conception of the state. A dignity-based justification given by a court would be appropriate insofar as it doesn’t clash with those means proposed by the state to assure interpersonal respect.

The next presentation was given by Colin Bird. His paper, Punishment, Dignity and Violence, dealt with the relationship between violence, punishment and dignity in relation to two points: 1) how a criminal act undermines a person’s dignity; 2) how dignity could work as a constraint for the state’s use punishment and violence.

One of Colin’s goals was to offer an account of dignity that could plausibly explain these two points. He started with the first point by taking issue with expressive theories of punishment which hold that criminal acts undermines victim’s dignity in the following way: criminal acts express a falsehood, namely that the victim of a crime is not worthy of respect. According to these theories, punishment – and the use of violence against criminals – has the aim of conveying a condemnatory message that reasserts the worth of the victim of a crime. Colin claimed this sort of theory faced a dilemma, and should, therefore, be rejected. He then claimed, still in relation to the first point, that criminal acts undermine people’s dignity not because of what they convey, but rather because by performing a criminal act one treats the victim disrespectfully. Relatedly, the aim of punishment and the use of violence by the state doesn’t have to do with a message punishment and violence convey, but with what they actually do. Colin argued that punishment and the state’s use of violence vindicates dignity, and are justified whenever capable of doing so. In the rest of his presentation, Colin attempted to propose a concept of dignity that would make sense of both his claim that criminal acts undermine victims’ dignity in virtue of treating them disrespectfully and his claim that punishment and state’s violence vindicates dignity. Against traditional accounts of dignity, Colin didn’t see dignity as some sort of value that makes the person who possesses this value worthy of respect. Instead, Colin defended that dignity is the result of practices of respect. Someone has dignity if, and only if, treated with respect by a relevant community.  The discussion and questions around Colin’s thesis were made all the more interesting – for all parties – as one of the targets of Colin’s critique, Anthony Duff, attended the workshop. The exchange between the two provided a wonderful opportunity to hear, and engage with, the wider discussion.

Colin Bird presenting Punishment, Dignity and Violence

Colin Bird presenting Punishment, Dignity and Violence


The last paper presented was What’s so Special about Human Dignity?, by Adam Etinson. In the paper, Adam challenged various common conceptions of dignity according to which dignity should be either understood as an indicator of moral status, or as autonomy and inviolability of persons. He proposed a series of thought experiments in which, for instance, we wouldn’t be inclined to say that one’s dignity was violated regardless of one having one’s autonomy violated. He then slightly modified the thought experiments in such a way that we would be inclined to say that a violation of dignity occurred. Adam used the differences in the thought experiments to suggest a more precise understanding of dignity. According to him, violations of dignity occur solely when degrading treatment is involved. At the end of his talk, he proposed a preliminary way to understand degrading treatment and raised some difficulties that need to be further addressed.

It would be unfair not to acknowledge the great role attendees played in the Q&A of this workshop. It was fantastic to see participants from all levels of experience – ranging from undergraduates to retired senior professors – actively engaging in discussion not only with speakers but with one another through follow-up questions and interventions.

This was the second time the Global Justice Academy had sponsored an event taking place as part of the Edinburgh Legal Theory Research Group’s seminar series. As confirmed by the Workshop on Dignity, the partnership with the Global Justice Academy proved to be nothing less than auspicious. We cannot be happier and more grateful to the Global Justice Academy for sponsoring initiatives of graduate students, such as those organised by the Legal Theory Research Group.