Human Dignity, Capital Punishment, and an African Moral Theory: Toward a New Philosophy of Human Rights

Journal of Human Rights 9 (1):81-99 (2010)
In this article I spell out a conception of dignity grounded in African moral thinking that provides a plausible philosophical foundation for human rights, focusing on the particular human right not to be executed by the state. I first demonstrate that the South African Constitutional Court’s sub-Saharan explanations of why the death penalty is degrading all counterintuitively entail that using deadly force against aggressors is degrading as well. Then, I draw on one major strand of Afro-communitarian thought to develop a novel conception of dignity as the view that what is special and inviolable about human nature is our capacity for harmonious relationships. I argue that a principle of respect for the dignity of such a capacity entails that the death penalty is an indignity but that deadly force in self- or other-defense need not be, and I contend that this African- inspired principle promises to do no worse than the more Western, Kantian principle of respect for autonomy at accounting for a broad range of human rights.
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