Notre Dame Law Review
This paper, written for a symposium on the 50th anniversary of Dignitatis Humanae, the Catholic Church’s declaration on religious freedom, explores the conception of human dignity in international human rights law. I argue that, notwithstanding a surface consensus, no generally accepted conception of human dignity exists in contemporary human rights law. Radically different understandings compete against one another and prevent agreement on crucial issues. For example, the Catholic Church, the Russian Orthodox Church, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation favor objective understandings which, although they differ among themselves, all tie dignity to external factors beyond personal choice. By contrast, many secular human rights advocates favor subjective definitions that ground dignity in individual will. These conceptions clash, most notably in contemporary debates on traditional values resolutions and same-sex marriage. Similarly, individualist conceptions of dignity, familiar to most of us in the West, compete with corporate conceptions that emphasize the dignity of traditional religions — a clash that plays out in the context of the proselytism and the right to convert. Rather than try to forge agreement on a universal definition of dignity, I argue, we lawyers should commit to a more modest approach, one that accepts the reality of disagreement and finds a humane way to accommodate it.