How can we make sense of the claim that human dignity is the moral ground of human rights? And what does this assumption imply for our understanding of the interconnections and tensions between the moral and legal dimension of human rights? In this dissertation these questions will be addressed by distinguishing systematically between a concept of human rights as a specific kind of moral norms and a specific kind of legal norms.
The nature of human rights
This study defends a “hermeneutical” approach to our understanding of the “nature” of human rights: as moral norms, human rights are grounded in the necessary practical self-understanding of every human agent. In judicial practice, the concrete meaning of legal human rights-norms is interpreted in the light of the self-understanding of legal communities. What a moral and a legal understanding of human rights have in common is the assumption that they have a universal moral ground – human dignity.
Human dignity should be understood as a universal moral status that expresses the fundamental moral obligation to respect every human being as a holder of moral human rights. Human dignity so understood implies a criterion for specifying human rights and for putting them into a hierarchy, while at the same time it leaves significant room for their context-specific interpretation. To the extent that the legal human rights-practice claims to be morally committed to protecting human dignity, judicial interpretations of human rights should be guided by this understanding of human dignity.
Human dignity is not a value but a moral status. It is the core of a moral and legal understanding of human rights, and the decisive link between these understandings. Furthermore, it is the key to reconciling the claim to moral justifiability that is implied in a legal understanding of human rights with democratic self-determination. The interpretive openness of human dignity in law ought to be restricted by a core meaning of the concept that should not be up for debate.