Is there such a thing as collective dignity? Does it make sense to talk about the dignity of (some of such) entities as the human species as a whole, indigenous peoples, states, religious communities, women, baseball teams or green-eyed men who get up at 7:30? Can we even conceive of dignity as something that could be assigned to collectives? There is no easy answer to these questions, since both parts of the expression ‘collective dignity’ are problematic even before they are combined. Obviously, dignity is a heavily contested, multifaceted and ambiguous concept; moreover, there are different ways to understand the ‘collective’ character of ‘collective dignity’. Nevertheless, one finds a growing number of references to ‘collective dignity’ or ‘collective human dignity’ (for example, De Gaay Fortman 2011; Falk 2009: 58; Howard 1992: 84; International Law Association 2010: 40–3; Mann 2001: 34–6). However, most of them come without any effort to clarify the meaning of these terms. At the same time, the question of whether collective dignity can be warranted seems systematically relevant, at least in the context of certain branches of the human rights discourse. Let us just consider two rather obvious points. The first has to do with the discussion on ‘collective rights’: if one is of the opinion that collective human rights exist and if one, in addition, supposes that dignity is the normative basis or ‘source’ of human rights, it seems reasonable to ask whether collective human rights are also grounded in some form of collective dignity. The second point is related to one strategy of interpreting and vindicating dignity: if one argues that the normative basis of dignity is something like agency and if one, in addition, supposes that not only individuals but also collectives can be agents, it is again an obvious question whether collective dignity exists.
In what follows, I will first mention some of the most prominent uses of the term ‘collective dignity’ (2nd section) and then make some tentative remarks about the extent to which these uses are plausible (3rd section).