Book Review: Düwell, Marcus, Jens Braarvig, Roger Brownsword, and Dietmar Mieth, eds. The Cambridge Handbook of Human Dignity: Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2014. 629 pp. Hardcover ISBN (hardback): 978-0-5211-9578-2.

Reviewed by Suzy Killmister

The concept of dignity, particularly as it relates to the philosophy and practice of human rights, is experiencing something of a renaissance in recent years. This renaissance has been coupled, however, with a certain anxiety as to dignity’s meaning, value, and utility in both international law and academic discourse.

This handbook is concerned less with resolving those anxieties and more with displaying them in all their glory. Weighing in at a hefty 629 pages, and with no fewer than 62 chapters, this volume certainly cannot be accused of oversimplification or lack of ambition.

The book promises to explore the concept of dignity from a range of different angles. The volume is divided into seven parts: Origins of the concept in European history; Beyond the scope of the European tradition; Systematic conceptualization; Legal implementation; Conflicts and violence; Contexts of justice; and Biology and bioethics. Alongside interdisciplinarity, the editors have sought to incorporate both historical and contemporary analysis; Western and non-Western perspectives; and purely theoretical as well as applied topics. The resulting product is something of a mixed bag.

The strength of the volume lies primarily in its breadth. The editors do an admirable job of canvassing a wide array of perspectives from around the globe, and covering every conceivable angle on dignity. This breadth makes two things very clear: first is the sheer diversity of ideas and values that get expressed under the banner of dignity; second is the overwhelming influence of Immanuel Kant. For all the variations in the concept of dignity, in both theory and practice, the most recurring theme was the idea of dignity as the feature of human beings that commands respect, and that underpins our rights. That said, I found most interest in the chapters that explored non-Kantian conceptions of dignity.

The weakness of the volume also lies primarily in its breadth. For my tastes, this book simply tries to do too much, sacrificing any hope of depth by including such a vast array of diverse topics. Most chapters run to fewer than ten pages, with some a meagre five, meaning that there was very little scope for contributing authors to go beyond the most basic outline of their chosen area. I felt this most keenly in the section of the volume devoted to non-Western traditions (perhaps because this was the section I was most eager to learn from). While I came away with some sense of the rich diversity of perspectives on offer, I also came away feeling that the section had barely scratched the surface.

Such brevity would have been less of a problem if the contributions to this volume had been more explicitly oriented towards providing an entry-point to a literature, with pointers towards resources for more in-depth study. Such overviews were provided in precious few chapters, however, with a significant proportion of authors opting instead to sketch their own positions, with very limited indication of where to go for further reading (Thomas Pogge’s chapter, for instance, only cites himself). Since the chapters weren’t long enough for authors to actually develop their own views in any real depth, this struck me as a missed opportunity.

Overall, I came away with the distinct impression that the volume would have benefited from a firmer editorial hand and a clearer purpose. Here are three tidbits to justify this impression. First, Mathias Klang’s chapter, “The Rise and Fall of Freedom of Online Expression,” though perfectly interesting in it’s own right, was entirely focused on the right to freedom of expression; it didn’t even purport to be drawing a connection to human dignity. Second, two of the chapters—“Dignity  only for humans? A controversy” and “Dignity only for humans? On the dignity and inherent value of non-human beings”—not only had almost identical titles, they were also on the very same topic, namely a Swiss constitutional amendment to extend dignity to non-human animals. While by all means a worthwhile subject, it is hard to see why a handbook would need to cover it twice. Finally, the editors saw fit to write not one, but two introductions to the volume. This latter feature in particular suggests to me that the project had become too unwieldy for a single handbook.

For someone looking to dip a toe in this fascinating topic, The Cambridge Handbook of Human Dignity provides some tantalizing glimpses of the richness and complexity of contemporary debates about dignity across a range of academic fields and applications. For someone actually working in this area, I’m afraid, the volume doesn’t have quite as much to offer.