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Deconstructing Dignity

A Critique of the Right-to-Die Debate

The right-to-die debate has gone on for centuries, playing out most recently as a spectacle of protest surrounding figures such as Terry Schiavo. In Deconstructing Dignity, Scott Cutler Shershow offers a powerful new way of thinking about it philosophically. Focusing on the concepts of human dignity and the sanctity of life, he employs Derridean deconstruction to uncover self-contradictory and damaging assumptions that underlie both sides of the debate.

Shershow examines texts from Cicero’s De Officiis to Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals to court decisions and religious declarations. Through them he reveals how arguments both supporting and denying the right to die undermine their own unconditional concepts of human dignity and the sanctity of life with a hidden conditional logic, one often tied to practical economic concerns and the scarcity or unequal distribution of medical resources. He goes on to examine the exceptional case of self-sacrifice, closing with a vision of a society—one whose conditions we are far from meeting—in which the debate can finally be resolved. A sophisticated analysis of a heated topic, Deconstructing Dignity is also a masterful example of deconstructionist methods at work. 

216 pages | 1 halftone | 6 x 9 | © 2013

Literature and Literary Criticism: General Criticism and Critical Theory

Philosophy: Ethics, Philosophy of Society


“Although, as Shershow says at the outset, he ‘for the most part refrain[s] from taking sides,’ he offers many incisive criticisms of ethical arguments. His approach gives rise to many new insights, and bioethicists can certainly learn a lot from this book.”

Sigrid Sterckx | Times Higher Education

“Scott Cutler Shershow is engaged here in practical deconstruction of the highest order and most compelling kind. He argues, with terrific clarity, that the whole discourse we’ve inherited in the right-to-die debate has sought to divide reason between calculation and incalculability. This is the opposition that comes apart in Deconstructing Dignity. Through hyperacute readings from the tradition up to Ronald Dworkin and the contemporary debate, Shershow traces a fault line running beneath this whole discursive field. It’s thrilling to follow as he pries it apart, setting off innumerable tremblings and even earthquakes. This book does not just shift the debate; it turns it to face an utterly new, unknown direction, the only direction from which a future can come.”

Peggy Kamuf, coeditor of the Seminars of Jacques Derrida series

“In his moving final interview, Jacques Derrida worried that he and deconstruction itself would, upon his death, immediately begin to be forgotten by cultural memory and relegated to the archival dustbins of history. Scott Cutler Shershow’s rigorous deconstructive rereading of the right-to-die debate and the many competing philosophical, cultural, and legal discourses it has sponsored, demonstrates that, on the contrary, the legacy of Derridean deconstruction today continues to be inherited, extended, and reworked in the most urgent and creative forms imaginable. Deconstructing Dignity, like all of Shershow’s books, is a model of argumentative scrupulousness, critical vigilance, and circumspect erudition.”

Gerhard Richter, Brown University

Deconstructing Dignity is an excellent book. It is well conceived and wonderfully executed. It not only intervenes in this particular debate on the right to die but takes up important and long-standing concepts and problems in the history of philosophy and culture; it dismantles vapid truisms and opens onto the possibility of a thought of life—and death—that is not always already lost within life’s supposed dignity and sanctity.”

David E. Johnson, University at Buffalo, SUNY

Table of Contents

Preface: The Sacred Part
Chapter 1: Methodological Introduction: A Strategy and Protocol of Deconstruction
Chapter 2: Dignity and Sanctity
Chapter 3: Dignity and Sovereignty
Chapter 4: Human Dignity from Cicero to Kant
Chapter 5: The Right to Die: Mapping a Contemporary Debate
Chapter 6: Suicide and Sacrifice from Plato to Kant
Chapter 7: Sacrifice and the Right to Die
Chapter 8: A Debate Deconstructed
Works Cited

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