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        Guest Editors’ Introduction: Human Dignity and Business
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After a brief historical introduction, three interpretations of dignity in relation to management theory and business ethics are elaborated: Dignity as a general category, Human Dignity as Inherent and Universal, and Human Dignity as Earned and Contingent. Next, two literature reviews are presented under the headings of “Dignity and Business Research” and “Dignity and Business Ethics Research.” The latter discussion identifies three subcategories of business ethics research involving human dignity: the role of dignity as a cornerstone for paradigmatic shifts, the role of dignity as the ‘ultima ratio’ for the protection of human rights, and the role of dignity in organizing business practices. The article concludes with summaries of the three articles chosen for this special section.

The idea of dignity as underlying the intrinsic value on human life and liberty has been central to societal progress since the Middle Ages—as evidenced in the struggle against slavery and other forms of repression, the quest for democracy, the establishment of modern governance, and the 20th century development of an international human rights regime (Kateb, 2011; McCloskey, 2010). The elevated status that the idea of human dignity holds is reflected in the famous dictum of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) that “everything has either a price or a dignity. Whatever has a price can be replaced by something else as its equivalent; on the other hand, whatever is above all price, and therefore admits of no equivalent, has a dignity” (Kant, 1785: 4, 435). In other words, dignity represents a pillar of our moral and political heritage; so much so that even some economic historians argue that the attribution of human dignity was a key success factor of social and economic development in the West (McCloskey, 2010).

If dignity is so central to human life, to political progress, and to economic wealth creation, it is natural to wonder about its meaning and its historical development. Hodson (2001: 3) defines dignity “as the ability to establish a sense of self-worth and self-respect and to appreciate the respect of others.” Psychological research suggests that the source of self-worth cannot be quantified (Harter, 1983; Deci & Ryan, 1995). In line with Kant, it suggests that neither self-worth nor others’ appreciation can be priced. The “priceless” aspects of our humanity—including character, virtue, integrity (moral, physical, psychological), knowledge, wisdom, love, trust, and forgiveness—seem to flow from and contribute to human dignity (Hurka, 2010). Since these things cannot be priced, the notion of dignity eludes the fundamental logic of exchange that underlies market economics. It is therefore unsurprising that economic research, and by extension business research, have paid scant attention to the notion of dignity (Arnold, 2013; Arnold & Bowie, 2003; Pirson & Dierksmeier, 2014).

Scholars have identified three interpretations of human dignity across time (Meyer & Parent, 1992; Hodson, 2001; Pirson, 2016). The first interpretation follows Kant’s observation and views dignity as a category of non-market goods of all kinds including aesthetics, nature, compassion, forgiveness or institutions such as marriage or the Supreme Court (McCrudden, 2013a). The second interpretation concerns human dignity and views it as an essential attribute of human beings or human persons (inherent dignity). The third interpretation sees human dignity as an attribute that human beings earn through their actions (contingent dignity). On all three interpretations, the attribution of dignity is a normative claim.

The relevance of these three interpretations of dignity to management theory and business ethics might be described this way: dignity represents a general category for goods and behaviors that defy the exchange logic, rather than diminish when exchanged they grow (Pirson, 2016). Inherent human dignity is most salient when vulnerabilities (physical, psychological, social, economic) call for protection (in the persons of employees, managers, customers, suppliers, and other human stakeholders); while contingent dignity is most salient when the self-esteem or self-respect of persons in a business context need to be promoted.


Dignity as a general category

Dignity in this perspective represents all that possesses intrinsic value. As Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) argued, dignity is that which is valued based on “[…] something’s goodness on account of itself (cf. Rosen, 2012). Kant further developed this idea of dignity as intrinsic value suggesting that:

fidelity in promises and benevolence from basic principles (not from instinct) have an inner worth. Nature, as well as art, contains nothing that, lacking these, it could put in their place; for their worth does not consist in the effects arising from them, in the advantage and use they provide, but in dispositions, that is, in maxims of the will that in this way are ready to manifest themselves through actions, even if success does not favor them (Kant, 1785: 4, 435).

In that sense dignity is viewed as a category for all that is of intrinsic value and which cannot be replaced. That general category can be applied to persons but also to art or and to ecosystems or other unique elements of the environment. Cicero (106-43 BCE) writes in De Officiis about the dignity of public office and the desired traits of its keeper. For him, dignity is achieved by virtuous pursuit of character development attained through study and reflection (Cicero & Keyes, 1928). Francis Bacon (1561 - 1626) writes about the dignity of scientific learning, highlighting the intrinsic value of such activity (Rosen, 2012). Extending the category of dignity further, Rosen (2012) suggests that dignity has been accorded to certain forms of relationships such as marriage. Other scholars point out that institutions of various kinds have had dignity ascribed to them such as democracy, or monarchy (McCrudden, 2013b). McCrudden (2013a) argues that in the Judeo-Christian tradition anything that is a part of the creation was endowed with dignity including animals, nature, and innate objects such as air and water.

Legal scholars therefore suggest, that dignity represents a general principle of morality and law (Waldron & Dan-Cohen, 2012; Waldron, 2013). Waldron argues that dignity is a constructive idea, with a foundational and explicative function much like utility; complex yet foundational in a variety of ways (Waldron & Dan-Cohen, 2012: 82).

Human Dignity as Inherent and Universal

Throughout antiquity and the Middle Ages human nature has been considered dignified and special, yet fundamentally vulnerable. This vulnerability has been considered a shared and universal experience. Therefore, human beings and their special status among all things living required protection (Pirson, Dierksmeier, & Goodpaster, 2015).

In the earlier arguments, dignity was used to ascribe special value to human beings, emphasizing how human capabilities differ from those of other life forms. That special status was conferred in theory to all human beings. Stoic philosophers, for example, advocated a cosmopolitan humanism that involved a universal accordance of dignity (Forschner, 1981; 2011). Extending Stoic perspectives, early Christian theologians used biblical sources to argue that all human beings are created in the image of God (imago Dei) and therefore possess dignity (McCrudden, 2013a). Emanating from that understanding Thomas Aquinas arguably built the intellectual foundation for a Christian tradition that endorses human dignity as unconditionally encompassing all people, independent of their worldly status (Dierksmeier, 2011; Rosen, 2012). Accordingly, if all human beings are creatures of God and created in his image, they deserve to be treated with reverence. As a consequence, society and its organizations ought to be organized in support and defense of human dignity (Pirson, Dierksmeier, & Goodpaster, 2015). This argument was used successfully against slavery, for example during the times of the Spanish conquest of Latin America (Dierksmeier, 2011).

Rosen (2012) and Dierksmeier (2011) point out the role of the Renaissance philosopher Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494), who was able to develop an argument for human dignity independent of religious beliefs. In his influential book on the dignity of man (Oratio de hominis dignitate), he defends the unconditional dignity of every person, without the typical comparison to animals or God. Instead, he argues that dignity is the core of human life which emanates from the freedom of human beings. That freedom requires a fundamental self-definition of human existence. Whether humans want it or not, they are in charge of their own destiny, and that fact endows them with dignity (Dierksmeier, 2011). This argument was later developed further by existentialist philosophers, such as Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980). Existentialists argued that human beings must ultimately define for themselves who they want to be: existence precedes essence. That fundamental freedom, independent of whether a God exists or not, as a universal human feature dignifies humans unconditionally (Dierksmeier, 2011).

Rather than existential freedom though, others argue that the ability to be moral is the source of universal and unconditional dignity. It is suggested that human dignity is given because humans have the capacity to define their own ends, ideally but not always actually in the pursuit of a good—i.e. moral—life (Pirson & Dierksmeier, 2014). Such an argument is supported by Kant’s position that:

Morality is the condition under which a rational being can be an end in itself, since only through this is it possible to be a law-giving member in the kingdom of ends. Hence morality, and humanity insofar as it is capable of morality, is that which alone has dignity (Kant, 1785: 4, 435).

Consequently, the human capacity for moral agency should be viewed as the true source of the human being’s uniqueness and dignity. It is important to note that the universal capacity to be moral and not actual moral behavior is viewed as the basis for unconditional dignity. The source of conditional dignity rests in using the capacity to be moral in our decision making, i.e. acting in accordance with universalizable law (Kateb, 2011).

Human Dignity as Earned and Contingent

In contrast to the unconditional, universal ascription of dignity to all human beings, the second overarching notion of human dignity rests in the conditional aspect of earned respect. In that perspective dignity can be merited through the development of certain faculties (Hodson, 2001). Early Greek philosophers suggested that dignity is developed through a good education which leads to moral behavior. To achieve dignity, humans had to develop personally to improve their judgement and achieve practical wisdom. Such education did not have to be formal, but required the formation of character (Dierksmeier, 2011). According to Plato, citizens of the polis were ideally able to form their own opinions and defend them based on their deeply rooted values and convictions (Dierksmeier, 2011). Aristotle suggested that dignity is achieved by those that live up to the practical ideal of excellence (Nussbaum, 1998b).

According to this understanding, human dignity—while theoretically available to all—is attained only by a few (Waldron & Dan-Cohen, 2012). As Dierksmeier writes:

While the Stoics broadened the scope of the term [dignity] to include principally everyone, they agreed with Plato and Aristotle regarding its narrow factual application: dignity must be earned. Whereas dignity, as a potential, was considered to lie within human beings’ nature as such, its actualization was thought to depend on contingent subjective achievements (2015: 36).

Other philosophers agreed with the dichotomous nature of dignity as unconditional in principle and conditional in actuality. Kant, for example, suggested that people possessed absolute value and relative value. Relative value depended on their ability and willingness to conduct themselves in praiseworthy and ethical manners (Kateb, 2011). Dierksmeier (2011) writes that

Kant argued that every human being has dignity (Würde) in his or her ability to be moral. However, he also noted that only those who do, in fact, lead moral lives deserve the praise of personal ethical value (Wert) (2015: 38).

This distinction between unconditional, universal dignity and conditional, earned dignity is relevant to management in that the former needs to be protected and the latter needs to be promoted (Pirson & Dierksmeier, 2014).


Dignity has been a central topic in philosophy and ethics, but Bolton (2007) suggests that it has also been a central topic in the history of the social sciences. A possible devaluation of dignity has been a major concern in sociology. Many sociologists have studied the sources of such a devaluation. Marx focused on alienation (Marx, 1906). Durkheim contemplated anomie (normlessness) as the result of economic efficiency (Marks, 1974). Weber was concerned about excessive bureaucratic rationality (Weber & Andreski, 1983).

In psychology, William James (McDermott, 1977), Carl Rogers (1995), Erich Fromm (2000; 2001), Abraham Maslow (1954), and Martin Seligman (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000) embraced human dignity to distance themselves from the behaviorist model of human action. In contemporary economics, human dignity—beyond wealth or utility concerns—has gained increasing visibility due to the works of Amartya Sen (2001; 2002) and Martha Nussbaum (1998a; 2007). Finally, in management, Mary Parker Follet (Schilling, 2000), Chester Barnard (Mele, 2009), Elton Mayo (1933; 1946), Frederik Herzberg (1976; 1993), and others have been concerned with the humanization of work and building more humane organizations.

Psychology has inspired an increasing amount of work in management-related fields, resulting in a better understanding of the roles of self-esteem, autonomy, meaningful work, justice and well-being (Cameron, Dutton, & Quinn, 2003; Luthans, 2002). However, this is only a recent trend and is mostly prevalent in the areas of organizational behavior and business ethics. Philosopher Thomas Donaldson and management scholar James Walsh argue in their article “Toward a Theory of Business” that current theories of the firm and other neoclassical theories drive a lot of management research but they were never supposed to inform questions about how to improve social welfare. Donaldson and Walsh (2015) draw on Amartya Sen’s proposition for two types of economic sense: “one includes the achievement of a good society, the other narrowly concerns itself with business profits and rewards” (Sen, 1993: 52). They argue that we need more research towards the former, but that most of management research is dedicated to the latter notion which is largely indifferent to the notion of dignity. In line with this view, Walsh, Weber, and Margolis (2003) note a sizeable deficit in management research concerning social outcomes.

Management science (Taylor, 1914) fundamentally ignores inherent dignity and universality since it instrumentalizes human beings as quasi-machines. Henry Ford’s famous question, “Why is it that every time I ask for a pair of hands, they come with a brain attached?” (Hamel, 2000) illustrates what Haslam means by mechanistic dehumanization. While scientific management’s legacy has been expounded on elsewhere (Khurana, 2009), we note that this legacy is visible in operations management, operations research, information systems, as well as strategic management, organizational behavior, and marketing, especially when people are viewed as human capital or human resources.

Following Haslam (2006), management theory rarely focuses on human flourishing as the ultimate goal of organizing or what Sen referred to as “capability development.” When human resource scholars entertain the idea of learning and development, they are usually more concerned with improving technical knowledge in order to increase effectiveness and efficiency than with morals, character, or overall human development, which would lead to human flourishing (Hersey & Blanchard, 1993; Huselid, Jackson, & Schuler, 1997; Wexley & Latham, 2001).

Theories of efficiency and effectiveness gained traction in the history of business scholarship because they contributed to resolving relevant societal problems. They led to higher productivity and the output of necessary goods. But in clinging to its economic heritage, management research often neglected ethical concerns, and gradually removed social embeddedness and concerns for the future in favor of a cost-benefit analysis that heavily weights the present (Chichilnisky, 1996; Walsh, Weber, & Margolis, 2003; Solow, 1985). Thus its economic heritage is often blamed for a poor theoretical fit between management theory and current social challenges (Ghoshal, 2005; Anderson, 1998; Aguinis & Pierce, 2008; Mintzberg, Simons, & Basu, 2002).

Mele (2003; 2009) argues that the underlying problem of the economics paradigm (with or without a utilitarian supplement) is its neglect of the ethical and social dimensions of human dignity. Similarly, Nida-Rümelin argues that utilitarianism has flaws that eventually led to a kind of amorality in management theory:

Despite their liberal, universalist and rationalist origins, utilitarian principles can, in fact, be used to justify morally repugnant practices, e.g., maximizing the total sum of happiness efficiently can include the instrumentalization of one person for the sake of one or several others. Under certain conditions even slavery can be justified by utilitarian principles (2009: 10).

Sen (1999) and Nussbaum (2003) add that utilitarianism fosters the instrumentalizing of human beings because it lacks a notion of unalienable individual rights. Furthermore, the perspective of homo economicus arguably subsumes the importance of social relationships to the utility maximization of tangible goods (Henrich et al., 2001). Such influences allowed management scholars to ignore the “civilatory” notion of human dignity (Rosenthal, 2014). In her book From Slavery to Scientific Management, historian Caitlin Rosenthal suggests that slavery influenced many practices and thought processes used in scientific management as well as in more modern forms of management (e.g, the language of “human resources”). The neglect of the ethical underpinnings of business management (like human dignity) seems to have survived throughout the twentieth century. Management scholars and economists Michael Jensen and William Meckling (1994) drew attention to this neglect when they stated that “we all have a price”:

Like it or not, individuals are willing to sacrifice a little of almost anything we care to name, even reputation or morality, for a sufficiently large quantity of other desired things; and these things do not have to be money or even material goods (1994: 10).

The contrast with Immanuel Kant, as noted earlier, could hardly be more dramatic. 1


While management research has arguably neglected the notion of dignity, business ethics research has consistently focused on it. The concept of dignity plays a role in informing a vast area of business ethics research, yet mostly as a background concept. In a search of articles published in Business Ethics Quarterly, we found no contributions with dignity in the title, yet more than 180 using the word dignity to inform and support its arguments. There were three types of arguments that the idea of dignity informed: Foundational arguments supporting a different normative paradigm of business practice (Bowie, 1998; Kueng, 1997), Phillips and Margolis (1999); articles that draw on the notion of human rights and the protection of human dignity (Hollander, 1995; Arnold & Bowie, 2003; Arnold & Bowie, 2007; Logsdon & Wood, 2002; Kobrin, 2009); and finally articles that argued for the promotion of human dignity, mostly in the realm of virtue development (Moore, 2005; Schudt, 2000). We outline these three areas of business ethics research below.

Dignity as intellectual cornerstone for paradigmatic shifts

Several articles provide novel paradigmatic perspectives rooted in the notion of dignity. Hans Küng (1997) proposes a global ethos that can help navigate the uncharted waters of globalization. He argues that all significant religious and spiritual traditions in the world share a common background. One of the shared principles he calls the principle of humanity which attributes dignity to all human beings. Along with the shared principle of the golden rule he argues that there is enough common ground for a global ethos that can inform globalization and economic relationships.

A similarly broad perspective is provided by Norman Bowie in his article “A Kantian Theory of Capitalism” (1998). Bowie’s arguments for a reconceptualization of “capitalism” draws heavily on the Kantian distinction between dignity and price. Dignity, its protection and promotion, escape the traditional economic view of human relations. Bowie argues that an economic system that values human dignity can provide for market relationships as well respectful human interaction. He states, “We can purchase the gasoline and still treat the person selling it with respect and dignity. Human beings ought to be respected because human beings have dignity” (Bowie, 1998: 40). Dignity and the respect for it therefore similarly represent a cornerstone of an alternative view of economic relationships.

Joshua Margolis (1998) proposes the advancement of dignity along with honesty as candidates for central aims of business ethics research. In his argument for a new approach to business ethics he suggests that the current aims of business ethics as constraining economic actors may be misguided. He urges business ethics to engage with a psychological pragmatism that advances human dignity through economic activities. He is aware that such an approach is rather unsettling to the traditional business ethics community, but he challenges business ethics researchers to face the shortcomings of an approach based solely on boundaries and constraints. With a similar argument Robert Philipps and Joshua Margolis (1999) propose a new ethics of organizations.

Dignity as the ‘ultima ratio’ for the protection of human rights

In a number of pieces authors use dignity as the foundation for human rights protection. Research on dignity violations and remedies are most prevalent in the context of employee and supplier relationships, even though other stakeholders are subject to dignity violations by corporations. John McCall (2001) argues that dignity is a foundation for basic human rights and explores how employees’ human rights can be protected. He argues that a strong participation in decision making processes is critical for dignity and rights to be protected and that there needs to be a trade-off between property rights of shareholders and employee rights to co-determine corporate decisions.

Edwin P. Hollander (1995) uses dignity as foundational to the idea that leaders and followers require moral concerns to make their relationship work. He states: “abuse of power runs counter to the idea of mutual dependency in a shared enterprise, and the value of maintaining personal dignity” (Hollander, 1995: 48). Hollander argues for relationships of authority to be based on the respect of mutual dignity and he identifies responsibilities for leaders and followers.

Similarly LaRue Tone Hosmer (1994) argues that the dignity of human beings requires morality and virtuous action. In his piece “Why Be Moral?” he cites a philosopher who answers: “Because it was dishonest, below the dignity of a man, and opposite to virtue, the highest perfection of human nature, to do otherwise” (Hosmer, 1994: 191). He continues his argument by stating that to live up to their human dignity, managers need to be moral—have to be concerned about the distribution of benefits—because only then can they build trust with their stakeholders.

Laura Hartman, Bill Shaw, and Rodney Stevenson (2003) use the notion of dignity to inform their argument for global labor standards. They draw on the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and focus on the problems of “sweatshops.” Similarly, Denis Arnold and Norman Bowie (2003; 2007), using a Kantian perspective, argue that multinational enterprises have duties to protect human dignity in their offshore facilities including: to ensure that local labor laws are followed, to refrain from coercion, to meet minimum safety standards, and to provide a living wage.

Stephen Kobrin (2009) extends the argument for a public responsibility to protect human dignity to transnational organizations. Drawing on the universality of human rights which flow from the “inherent dignity” and “equal and inalienable rights” of all members of the human family (United Nations General Assembly, 1998 [1948]), he suggests that at this point in time private entities have become so large that our legal framework needs to attach public responsibilities to transnational organizations. Very similar arguments are advanced by Jeanne Logsdon and Donna Wood (2002), Douglas Cassel (2001), and Florian Wettstein (2012).

Dignity as potential aim of organizing practice

As Margolis suggested, dignity advancement could serve as an organizational goal. The promotion and advancement of dignity arguably requires a distinctive organizational culture (Margolis, 2001). Margolis states that responsibility cannot be assigned but must be lived. When organizations focus on “creating responsible agents, and not simply on assigning responsibility, […] human dignity [is] at center stage and requires that the organizational context of responsibility be taken seriously.” Such responsibility is a learning process and a number of other authors suggest that virtue ethics might be able to support a culture that aims to advance dignity (Schudt, 2000).

While there is a recent trend to reconnect dignity and business (Kostera & Pirson, 2016; Donaldson & Walsh, 2015; Lucas, Kang, & Li, 2013; Pirson, Dierksmeier, & Goodpaster, 2015; de Colle et al., 2016; Stephens & Kanov, 2016) there remain many opportunities to engage more directly with the conceptual foundations of dignity and its relevance for business ethics research.


Our call for submissions invited potential contributors to actively reconnect management research with the humanities, the social sciences, and scholarship in management. Submissions could connect management research with philosophy, political science, legal studies, religious studies, economics, sociology, or psychology. While the above list was merely suggestive and clearly non-exhaustive, the editors were looking for submissions that could help shape the conceptual or theoretical discussion of management as both instrumental and ethical.

We received a number of manuscripts that covered a wide range of perspectives on the relationship between dignity and business. We have selected three submissions that provide insight into the relevance and potential of human dignity for management research. In the first article, “Hierarchies and Dignity: A Confucian Communitarian Approach,” authors Jessica A. Kennedy, Tae Wan Kim, and Alan Strudler (2016) explore the apparent contradiction between human dignity and the pervasiveness of hierarchy in business organizations. In their analysis they invoke an ancient ethical tradition that still informs much of current global organizational practice: the Confucian communitarian approach. They discuss the conflict between high-ranking individuals’ authority and low-ranking individuals’ dignity. Then, they ask whether there is any justification that reconcile hierarchical authority with the dignity of workers. Drawing upon Confucianism, they offer a potentially controversial, communitarian justification for hierarchical authority. The authors suggest that workers can justifiably accept hierarchical authority when it enables conditions essential to a good life for themselves and other involved parties. From their perspective, the Confucian communitarian perspective shows that promoting the good life or well-being of workers is an important condition for protecting their dignity.

The second article, “Human Dignity and The Dignity of Work: Insights from Catholic Social Teaching” invokes another influential ethical tradition, Catholic Social Teaching. The authors Alejo José G. Sison, Ignacio Ferrero, Gregorio Guitián (2016) reflect on human dignity in general as well as the dignity of work in particular. They make the case that Catholic Social Teaching (CST) informs the practice of a significant part of the global population and has influenced the intellectual conversation well beyond the official number of adherents to Catholicism. Their article begins with an explanation of CST and its relevance for secular audiences. The authors then identify the main features of human dignity based on the notion of imago Dei in CST. They further present an analysis of the dignity of work in CST from which two normative principles are derived: the precedence of duties over rights and the priority of the subjective dimension of work over the objective dimension. In their concluding remarks they discuss the relevance of CST principles for the “right to work” and the “rights of workers.”

Finally, in the last contribution “Stakeholder Capability Enhancement as a Path to Promote Human Dignity and Cooperative Advantage,” Michelle Westermann-Behaylo, Harry van Buren, and Shawn Berman (2016) explore how the concept of dignity can inform engagement not only with workers but with all stakeholders. In their article, the authors explore a stakeholder capability approach and argue that stakeholder capability enhancement is a path toward the promotion of human dignity. In addition they argue that this perspective may be a way to promote “cooperative” as well as “competitive” advantage. The authors build on Martha Nussbaum’s human capability approach to human development and argue that dignity is foundational in this normative context. The core of their article develops a model that integrates stakeholder management with the human capability approach to detail the cooperative advantage that accrues to business and its stakeholders. They also suggest that stakeholder capability enhancement as a central enterprise strategy can lead to gains in social wellbeing and dignity. The article explores the risks and boundary conditions firms face when seeking to profit from stakeholder capability tradeoffs. In explaining their model, the authors explore the normative implications of human capabilities to human dignity. Implications for future research are offered.

As special section editors, we wish to thank all the authors who responded to our call for submissions on this important topic. We thank the many anonymous reviewers for their support and excellent guidance. We hope that you as the readers will be stimulated by this renewed scholarly attention to dignity in management and in business ethics.


1. [E]verything has either a price or a dignity. Whatever has a price can be replaced by something else as its equivalent; on the other hand, whatever is above all price, and therefore admits of no equivalent, has a dignity. (Kant, 1785: 435) (Kant, 1785: 4, 435)


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