Dignity, liberty, equality: A fundamental rights triangle of constitutionalism


What is the relationship among fundamental rights to equality, to liberty, and to dignity? In several political and legal contexts, developments in equality law tend to be stalled by reference to dignity and have traditionally been limited based on an understanding that equality collides with liberty – as in the ideological opposition between socialism and capitalist liberalism, as in most balancing theories, and as in philosophical concepts of rights that trump one another. In addition, all three fundamental rights have been conceptualized in rather ambivalent ways, with some dominant as well as some relatively silenced philosophical (including religious) interpretations. Equality, liberty, and, particularly ambivalent, dignity carry burdens that serve as entry points for rather problematic ways of interpreting these notions. Dignity is either defined as an abstract principle or narrowed down to a right against extreme abuse, and it has been charged with moralistic ideology. Liberty and equality have mostly been set on a collision course, balanced against each other, with ideological baggage of their own. Observations in comparative constitutionalism reveal that, in some jurisdictions, dignity tends to become a black box, while equality tends to be limited by using dignity and liberty tends to trump the other two. Such studies, however, also provide inspiration for a new approach to all three fundamental rights. I propose here that we rethink their histories as well as current developments. I suggest a triangle of fundamental rights as a more appropriate metaphor to understand the complexity of cases that arise in the area and to better decide them. Dignity, equality, and liberty are, then, the corners of a triangle rather than the ends of a scale or the top and sides of a pyramid, and thus inspire a more holistic understanding of what fundamental rights are about.