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Immanuel Kant

Kant’s Theory of Human Dignity

Matt McManus explains why people have absolute worth.

“What is related to general human inclinations and needs has a market price ; that which, even without presupposing such a need, conforms with a certain taste has a fancy price ; but that which constitutes the condition under which alone something can be an end in itself has not merely a relative value, that is, a price, but an inner value, that is, dignity … Morality, and humanity insofar as it is capable of morality, is that which alone has dignity.”
(Groundwork to the Metaphysics of Morals)

While there remains no consensus on what dignity is, by far the most important and famous conception of it remains the classical liberal account developed by Immanuel Kant. The fame is well deserved, even if Kant’s articulation of his conception of dignity is occasionally quite confusing.

Part of the difficulty in giving an account of Kant’s idea of dignity is that he gives different formulations of it. Moreover, it is not always clear what theoretical role dignity is intended to play in his wider system. At points, Kant seems to argue that dignity flows from and is thus conceptually subordinate to autonomy, which he takes to be the central feature giving humans moral value. At other points, Kant gives dignity a more central place. Indeed, on some interpretations of his work it would almost seem to warrant pride of place in his moral system.

After discussing his theory of dignity and how he derives it, I will discuss some of the challenges to it, then briefly mention how my own conception of dignity contrasts with Kant’s.

Categorically Dignified Humanity

Kant’s most famous formulation of dignity is cited at the beginning of this article: human dignity is a status which places the life of human beings above all price. As a rhetorical statement, this is about as good as Kant gets, and it remains a deeply moving formulation. However, by itself this formulation tells us little about Kant’s thinking aside from the priceless worth he ascribes to human life. To understand why he ascribes us this value, we need to dig deeper into the Groundwork to the Metaphysics of Morals (1785).

In this seminal work Kant developed a complex argument to the effect that from the standpoint of practical reason all human beings possess free will, and are therefore able to will their own ends (that is, aims or goals). Other things, including non-human animals, do not possess this capacity. Unlike humans, who are capable of free will because we have reason, all other things are governed entirely by causality, and therefore operate entirely according to laws of physical cause and effect. Kant notes that on occasion human beings are prone to the bad faith belief that we are also simply material objects governed by causality (cf Sartre). But Kant thinks this is a metaphysical illusion which is refuted by our practical reason, which affirms our sense of ourselves as rational beings capable of willing our own ends. The belief that we are simply the product of our material environment is similarly to be rejected.

Indeed, Kant believes that the capacity to will our own ends is the central reason we’re not just material objects in a value-free universe. Here Kant is making the radical and innovative argument that the autonomy of the individual is the enabling condition of moral philosophy. This might seem like a curious feature at first glance. If it’s true that autonomy and freedom are the enabling conditions of morality, how can we claim that morality has any substantive objective content? If morality is derived from human freedom, wouldn’t all individuals simply be free to will their own ends as they saw fit, and so morality becomes entirely subjective?

This position certainly becomes prominent in the writings of later thinkers, particularly in the existential tradition. But Kant is unwilling to take this step. Autonomy of the self and freedom of the will do not themselves leave us free to pursue any ends we prefer. Rather, recognizing our freedom to pursue chosen ends is simply the first step in recognizing the rational form, substance, and end of morality to which we’re duty-bound to conform. Our capacity to will our own ends is central to Kant’s broader argument that practical reason demands that we submit our will to a regulative law he calls the categorical imperative. This imperative tells us to direct our actions in conformity with universal moral law.

Kant gives a few formulations of the categorical imperative in the Groundwork. The first is that human beings must always act in such a way that we could accept the maxim by which we order our action as a universal law. Kant refers to this as the formula for ‘a universal law of nature’. It means, an action is moral only if you think it would be right for everybody else to act on the same principle in similar circumstances.

As well as being probably the best-known formulation of the categorical imperative, this is also the most controversial. It’s obvious that Kant considers it exceptionally important to his moral philosophy. However, it’s not clear what relation this formulation of the categorical imperative has to Kant’s account of dignity. The clearest link is that if this truly is a universal moral law, it demonstrates the human capacity to will ends that are objectively moral. This places us above other animals, who, being purely subject to deterministic causality, cannot be said to act on any universalizable moral imperatives.

The core insight is perhaps that dignity is related to autonomy and freedom from causality – an insight which is perhaps better captured by the second formulation. This says that individuals must always act in such a way that we treat ourselves, and other people, not just as a means, but always as an end in itself. It is our status as the only beings with the capacity to will towards moral ends we ourselves have rationally chosen that makes human beings, since we thereby embody or encapsulate something of intrinsic value (in other words, an ‘end-in-itself’): the capacity to will or create goodness. Because we are capable of, in effect, bringing moral value into the world, we cannot be treated merely as means to an end, since it is in some respects the duty of man to value intrinsically valuable ends, and without us, there would be no value. This is what gives human beings a dignity that places human life above all price. Price can be measured and affiliated with an object, but the dignity of human beings cannot be measured in this manner. It is absolute. This is also centrally related to our autonomy and freedom to choose, because treating ourselves or other human beings merely as means to ends overrides our or their capacity to choose, and therefore the ability to will moral ends. It is, in effect, to treat a human being as a thing in the world rather than as an autonomous person who can will their own ends. For Kant this is a failure in our moral duty, and betrays both our dignity and the dignity of the one we diminish.

Man, Nature & Society

As I indicated earlier, for Kant, being moral reasoners (and so ends in ourselves) makes us different from and to some degree outside of and above the world around us. Other animals, for instance, act only from instinct. This point is nicely emphasized by J.B Schneewind, who draws our attention to the links Kant makes between our free will and our overall capacity to be moral:

“The power of choice enables us to decide between the call of desire and that of morality… It would… [enable] us to choose even where the alternatives are indifferent; in other cases its choices would be determined by the relative strengths of desires and passions. The will itself is neither free nor unfree. As pure practical reason, it provides us permanently with the option of acting solely on the reason which its own legislative activity gives us [ie, morality]. The power of choice, which enables us to opt for morality or against it, is a free power. Because we can choose, we never have to accede to desires which, though certainly part of ourselves, are caused in us by our encounters with the world outside us.”
(The Invention of Autonomy, 1997)

It’s true that at points Kant seems to think our capacity to choose to will the moral law sets us above anything else in nature except other rational beings. There is no sense for Kant in which nature or any non-human animals enjoy anything approaching a dignity ‘beyond price’. As he puts it in his Lectures on Ethics (1760-c.1794): “But so far as animals are concerned, we have no direct duties. Animals… are there merely as means to an end. That end is man.” Here Kant could be justifiably attacked from, say, an environmentalist perspective, for elevating human beings at the expense of nature. However, here Kant is firmly in the classical liberal tradition in his approach to the natural world.

Although his later works, especially the Critique of Judgement (1790), develop a formidable approach to interpreting nature’s beauty and purpose, Kant is committed to the idea that natural objects are appropriable for the ends determined for them by man and God. This is not simply some crude speciesism on Kant’s part: he does not simply assert that we are different from the rest of nature because we alone are free to choose, and therefore to enjoy a dignity which sets us apart from the world. Rather, our moral value stems precisely from our capacity to set moral ends for ourselves. It is the ability to create moral value that’s valuable, not the fact that we belong to a particular species.

As well as being in contrast to modern panspecies notions, Kant’s account of dignity is also firmly in opposition to accounts of it given by John Locke, Adam Smith, and others, who associate dignity with institutional office and rank. He would also be opposed to attempts by modern thinkers, such as New Zealand professor of law and philosophy Jeremy Waldron, to conceive of dignity as a status ascribed by individuals or institutions as a social gesture. Kant wants us to treat each individual as having dignity as an end in themselves regardless of any such external conditions. Kant would probably say that Waldron’s conception ascribes too much influence to the external world. It would also risk being affiliated with inegalitarian ideals if manipulated maliciously. For Kant, the only way to properly and securely understand dignity is as belonging to everyone, low and high, from birth to death as an a priori fact, that is, as an aspect of human existence intrinsic to humans regardless of their circumstances.

Our moral imperatives are to be organized around this fact. Perhaps most importantly for our purposes, states and social institutions are to be organized in a manner that respects our intrinsic dignity and its egalitarian connotations. The third formulation of the categorical imperative comes in handy here: “every rational being must so act as if he were through his maxim always a lawmaking member in the universal kingdom of ends.’’ Kant believes that society should come to work around the idea of individuals as ends in themselves, in which free individuals will (that is, make) moral laws in tandem with one another. In later works it becomes clearer just how such a society would look very different from the autocratic Prussian state he lived in, and indeed, would look very different from our own.

Criticisms of Kant’s Conception of Dignity

Kant’s conception of dignity has been very influential, even impacting the decisions of major judiciaries, such as Germany’s. It is also tremendously powerful, especially in its egalitarian dimensions. However, it is far from perfect. Here I will briefly develop some criticisms of the Kantian concept, and indicate some of my own ideas about how dignity should be conceived.

First, the Kantian conception of human dignity appears insensitive to socio-historical and other empirical contexts. I would argue that important features of his conception can be saved from this limitation, but only at the expense of dropping some of Kant’s more esoteric philosophical commitments.

I highlighted that one of the (apparently) defining features of Kant’s conception of dignity is his insistence that it is in no way dependent on external features of the world, but instead is an intrinsic characteristic of the human subject. This powerful idea finds expression in the frequent characterization of dignity in international legal documents as inalienable or intrinsic to all human beings. But the philosophical justification for this strong position on dignity is not as powerful as its rhetoric. Kant’s justification is centrally related to the occasionally ambiguous links he draws between dignity, freedom, and the capacity to bring moral value into the world. For instance, there is a sense in which Kant cannot accept that external features of the world, such as social contexts, can have an impact on the dignity of human beings because this would undermine his deep commitment to the idea that all human beings are absolutely free regardless of the contingent features of their life. Also, if social contexts affect human freedom, this would suggest that our dignity as lawgivers who will their own ends can be not just disrespected but actually limited or overridden, in a totalitarian regime, for instance. This is unacceptable for Kant, both because it limits the dignity of human beings as free law-givers, and because it might limit our capacity to hold each individual fully accountable for their actions.

There is a sense in which Kant is too radically transcendental about human freedom. He seems to simply assert that all individuals possess the capacity to will their own ends regardless of the details of their lives, and that is that. Such a monolithically transcendental view, while inspiring in some respects, simply seems unrealistic after a point. Some people are surely not free to will any meaningful ends for themselves at all, consider slaves for instance. Moreover, there is a paradoxical sense in which the radicalness of Kant’s transcendental commitments might blunt the critical edge of his philosophy. If it is true that all individuals possess dignity simply as a brute fact, one might question why society and powerful institutions need to be rearranged to establish a freer society. If we simply are free and dignified agents, and that is that, there can be no sense in which change could either increase or diminish that freedom or dignity. But this would be a remarkable position to hold. It makes little sense to say that a slave toiling in the fields of eighteenth century Virginia (contemporary with Kant) could not be made more fundamentally free to lead a dignified life by the elimination of slavery. Even in the Europe of Kant’s time it would seem deeply odd to claim that individuals would not be made freer by the elimination of aristocratic political and economic privileges. And the examples multiply.

Indeed, Kant does not seem to fully believe the extreme position himself. His later works in political and legal philosophy are replete with calls for reform, and for the transformation of both the state and society along lines that would better treat human beings as ends in themselves. As pointed out by Canadian professor Arthur Ripstein, Kant’s legal and political philosophy has a radical edge to it that’s occasionally underappreciated. For instance, Kant argues that for the state to claim sovereign authority over citizens it must maintain the rightful conditions for their exercise of their freedom as dignified ends in themselves. This implies a responsibility to maintain and deepen a host of liberal institutions that would have seemed radically progressive at the time, and engage in a cosmopolitan politics that seems idealistic even to this day. To the extent that states fail to establish these conditions, they cede the moral right to sovereign authority over their citizens.

To my mind, the more realistic and contextually sensitive dimension of Kant’s thought demonstrates how one should go about reconceiving his conception of dignity. I agree with him that there is a fundamental link between human free choice and human dignity. However, I think we must also follow his (somewhat constricted) insight that freedom can be either inhibited or amplified by the socio-historical contexts people inhabit. This means that it is possible for the dignity of human beings to also be limited or amplified by their contexts. So we must try to make individuals more capable of agency, in order to amplify the dignity they enjoy as authors of their own lives. Indeed, taking human dignity seriously means organizing social and political contexts to amplify human agency to the greatest extent possible. In this respect we still have a very long way to go. Many states still engage in practices that directly or indirectly limit the dignity of individuals. Large changes are needed.

© Matt McManus 2022

Matt McManus is about to start as lecturer at the University of Michigan. His books include A Critical Legal Examination of Liberalism and Liberal Rights.

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