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Dignity and Human Rights Education

Exploring Ultimate Worth in a Post-Secular World


Robert A. Bowie

This book addresses the question of human rights education in a world that is witnessing a resurgence of religion in public life, and a continuation of religion across much of the globe, long after secularization theories predicted its decline. Promoting a universal vision of human rights while acknowledging religious diversity is a challenge for schools. This book starts with the basic premise that human rights are grounded in a belief in the dignity and ultimate worth of the human person. Drawing on key philosophical and theological sources for understanding dignity, it builds a vision of human rights and religious education that seeks to square the impossible circle of universal human rights education in a religiously diverse world.

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Chapter 5: Cicero


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The term ‘dignity’ has origins in Indo-European language roots and those origins suggest the meaning ‘importance over others’ rather than something related to moral goodness. This origin signifies an ontological statement of superiority, rather than a moral statement (Miguel, 2002). It implies a position of importance that should be recognized, or honoured, by others.

The idea can be linked to the emergence of individualism found in the Stoic belief (in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE) that individuals were beings of reason that ought to be respected (Grant, 2007). Human beings were distinguished as superior to animals because of this feature. Greeks had the word αξια (the root of axion), meaning worth or deserving. This is related to the English term axiology, the theory of value. Here too, value may be attributed because of position or power, rather than any moral designation. A number of figures from the period of antiquity are referred to by contemporary scholars including Cicero (Miguel, Cancik and Sulmasy) and Aristotle (Miguel). In The Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle defines αξια as ‘a term of relation. It denotes having a claim to goods external to oneself’ (1123b18). This is Harris Rachham and Steven Watt’s translation (Aristotle, 1996), while the collection and translation The Complete Works of Aristotle (Aristotle, 1995) edited by Jonathan Barnes uses the word deserving. Aristotle does not consider all human beings to have this worth or deserving by virtue of their humanity and human beings...

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