Dignity is on the march. As illustrated by Justice Kennedy’s recent majority opinion in United States v. Windsor, the concept — once seen as exclusive to moral philosophy — has taken on increasing importance in the legal realm, particularly in the recognition of individual human rights. Jeremy Waldron's recent book, Dignity, Rank, and Rights, offers a profound and provocative take on dignity's newfound centrality to law. Waldron contends that dignity currently operates as a universal legal status that entails individual rights. He suggests that this development reflects the gradual democratization of aristocratic privilege — a kind of "leveling up" of humanity.
This Review disentangles and separately examines the two core accounts of dignity in Waldron's work. The first, which purports to identify the nature of contemporary legal dignity as a form of status, appears to be promising step toward better understanding the role dignity plays in law. The second, Waldron's historical account of dignity's development that offers up something like an origin story for our contemporary conceptions, is more troubling. Borrowing from feminist theory and queer theory, as well as from the equality projects to which they are allied, I contend that Waldron's narratives of extending aristocratic privilege threaten to entrench inequality and injustice while limiting the potential for marginalized groups to employ dignity as a deeply remedial legal tool. I urge Waldron to revisit dignity's expressive connection to human worth, which has proven central to dignity-based antidiscrimination and antisubordination projects.