Protecting Dignity: A Perspective from the Rule of the Clan

Lucas Grosman raises the interesting issue of the right to honor. While he flags the diminishment of that right relative to its protection in pre-modern socio-legal systems (I think of the antebellum south), he also notes that honor is explicitly protected in some European and Latin American constitutions, as well as in international human rights covenants (e.g., Article 12 of the UDHR).

For reasons I note below, I think such protections are important on principle. But it’s also worth highlighting what they generally aren’t, namely protections of collective or family honor. If someone subjects me to intentional infliction of emotional distress, even by citing my ancestry in a derogatory fashion, my cousin sitting comfortably at home can have no claim. For a right for individuals to be free from such harm that’s justified partly on collective terms, one could turn to India—a nation in many respects in the midst of the socio-legal transformations we’ve been discussing—for instance to the recent case of Arumugam Servai v. State of Tamil Nadu (2011). There, the Supreme Court condemns the use of derogatory language against scheduled castes not only because it harms the particular individuals subjected to the insult and because it leads people to fight (pace Beauharnais v. Illinois), but also because all “communities” should be treated with respect in a diverse society.

But thinking in explicitly individualist terms, protecting honor can be conceived as part of a more general protection of human dignity. And in my view, one of the reasons the concept of dignity ought to form the core of modern constitutionalism is that it secures on liberal terms one of the goods the rule of the clan provides so well. In this sense, the constitutional concept of human dignity is part of the intellectual and imaginative transformation Jan Marschelke and I have been discussing—a key to securing governments that protect liberal autonomy by looking back to concepts drawn from pre-modern forms of order.

Some weeks ago, I made a short video about the concept of human dignity in German constitutionalism, which I’ll include below with the hope that it’s relevant to this exchange with Lucas. I certainly had The Rule of the Clan in mind when I made it. Also, we’ve exchanged many words in this symposium—why not exchange some visuals?



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