Ideas have consequences, which we can see in the history of ethics in the West and how those have played out in law. Largely from the time of Plato through approximately Aquinas, philosophers thought moral principles and virtues were objectively real and universally valid (a view known as realism). Moreover, these morals were universals, qualities that in themselves are one thing, yet they can be present in many instances. Thus, philosophers commonly call a universal a one-in-many. As such, each instance of a quality, such as dignity, has as its essence dignity itself.
However, this view began to change with Ockham, who denied universals and instead embraced nominalism. Since then, the history of Western ethics has been largely a nominalist story. Nominalism has major consequences for ethics in general, and dignity in particular. According to nominalism, everything is particular, such that any two things do not literally share the numerically identical qualities. This means that dignity itself is not something all humans have in common, and, arguably, it does not have an essence. Instead, we could say there are many dignities. What then makes all those examples of dignity? It may be just the word we use for them, which fits with the literal meaning of nominalism as being in name only.
Nevertheless, if there really are essences to dignity and other morals, then there could be a fact of the matter of what kind of thing they are. That is because an essence would be an immaterial entity that defines the kind of thing something is, and it serves as a boundary such that it cannot be something else. However, without essences, there is no ‘deeper fact’ to what something really is, as Daniel Dennett realizes (1990, 208, 300). In that case, it seems what something is would be ‘up to us’.
Now, if nominalism cannot preserve essences, then it seems dignity simply would be our construct. Ethical as well as legal theorists have made many attempts to explain how that construction takes place, including, for instance, by our interpretations; what we count as giving our lives meaningfulness and value; or other means. Indeed, I will try to show that this has happened.
To accomplish this, first, I will survey the views of realism and nominalism. Second, I will show how the history of ethics shifted to nominalism after Ockham's influence.