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A moral vision: human dignity in the eyes of the founders of sociology


  • This paper forms part of a wider study of the emerging significance of the idea and ideal of dignity within which observations made here will be rehearsed in greater detail, not only in terms of philosophy and sociology but also with regard to the competing discourses of modern public life. Within the confines of this discussion, the case of just one philosophical contribution is featured as having raised the stakes for any critical analysis of dignity.


The case argued in this paper is not that the concerns of the founders of sociology are uniformly and in every particular still our own (Runciman, 2008), but that the concepts and methods used to address just one of their concerns were both ground breaking and of enduring value (Shilling and Mellor, 2001, 2011, for example, make a similar claim). Such a concern focused on the kind of morality grounded in a capitalist social order and, by implication, how it might be theorized. This generated in the process the uniquely sociological operationalization of what had seemed hitherto a philosophical concept: human dignity, along with the freedom and autonomy that attend it. Certainly, the priorities differed in each of the contributions to this endeavour but, in coming at the problem from different standpoints, the concept of dignity came to appear more rounded, more substantive and more relevant to the human condition in all its historical specificity. Quite crucially, there is also in these sources from the classical period of sociology an intimation of method: both the way in which human dignity is to be ‘perceived’ within an inter-personal dialectic at a micro-level and, at a macro-level, how we can discern that dignity transcends artificial confinement by any one aspect of life (be it economic, political or cultural).1