"Where Did ‘Human Dignity’ Come from? Drafting the Preamble to the Irish Constitution"

Michigan Law Authors
Publish Date
American Journal of Legal History
Publication Type
Journal Article

This article addresses the correctness of Samuel Moyn’s contention that the inclusion of ‘dignity’ in the Irish Constitution of 1937 reflects a particularistic, sectarian and conservative Catholic viewpoint, rather than (as some other scholars do) seeing the inclusion of ‘dignity’ as the first tentative step towards the instantiation of a universalistic, liberal human rights ethic into the Irish Constitution. For Moyn, ‘dignity’s’ sectarian, political origins in Ireland add weight to his sceptical approach to human rights more generally, given the extent to which human dignity is now seen as underpinning the justification of human rights. In arguing against Moyn’s conclusions, the article provides a detailed re-examination, based on archival research, of the drafting of the Preamble to the Irish Constitution in which the term ‘dignity’ is located, situating it in the intellectual changes in political Catholicism and Irish nationalism at that time. In particular, the article examines for the first time to what extent insights can be gleaned from the contemporaneous translation of ‘dignity’ into the Irish language version of the Constitution, and the significance of the choice of ‘uaisleacht’ in the Irish text. Drawing from this, the article identifies the various different influences that appear to have contributed to the use and meaning of dignity in the Preamble, before returning to consider how far Moyn’s assessments are correct in light of the re-examination of the drafting history.

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