A Theory of Human Dignity, #1–Introduction.

By Robert Hanna

Prüfung,” by Edith Breckwoldt (2004)



I. Introduction

II. Refuting the Dignity-Skeptic and Debunking a Dignity-Debunking Argument

III. The Metaphysics of Human Dignity

IV. Nonideal Dignitarian Moral Theory

V. Some Hard Cases For Broadly Kantian Nonideal Dignitarian Moral Theory

VI. Enacting Human Dignity and The Mind-Body Politic

VII. Conclusion


This installment contains section I.

But you can also read or download a .pdf of the complete text of this essay HERE.


A Theory of Human Dignity

In the realm of ends everything has either a price or a dignity (Würde). What has a price can be replaced by something else as its equivalent; what on the other hand is raised above all price and therefore admits of no equivalent has dignity. What is related to general human inclinations and needs has a market price; that which, even without presupposing a need, conforms with a certain taste, that is, with a delight in the mere purposeless play of our mental powers, has an affective price (Affectionpreis); but that which constitutes the condition under which alone something can be an end in itself has not merely a relative worth, that is, a price, but an inner worth, that is, dignity. Now, morality is the condition under which alone a rational being can be an end in itself, since only through this is it possible to be a lawgiving memer in the realm of ends. Hence morality, and humanity insofar as it is capable of morality, is that which alone has dignity. (GMM 4: 434–435)

I. Introduction

Perhaps you’ve been wondering why you should (still) be wearing a mask, social-distancing, isolating or sheltering, and taking other reasonable precautions during the 2020–2021 COVID-19 pandemic, even though it’s annoying, depressing, inconvenient, stale, flat, and/or unprofitable to do these things, and even though there’s now a vaccine available. The principal reason for doing these things — leaving aside either narrow self-interest or publicly-oriented utilitarian calculations — is that it’s morally required by sufficient respect for everyone’s human dignity. It’s morally wrong to fail to do those things and thereby to put other people and/or yourself at significant risk of contracting and spreading the deadly disease, principally because you’re thereby violating their human dignity and yours.

But does human dignity really exist? If so, then what is its nature and how is that nature grounded, what are its essential moral implications, how do we know them, and how can this dignitarian knowledge be applied in real-world political contexts? No questions could be more important for humanity. Therefore, it’s a rational human imperative to provide a clear, distinct, consistent, complete, and true — or at least philosophically intelligible, defensible and plausible — theory of human dignity. That’s my highly ambitious primary aim in this long-ish essay.[i] My secondary aim, which is also pretty ambitious, is to do for radically enlightened dignitarian social and political theory what John Rawls’s Theory of Justice did for liberal contractarian social and political theory.

By way of a preview, here are capsulized versions of the answers I’ll give to those questions.

First, human dignity really exists because (i) no one, not even a dignity-skeptic, could give their actual or possible rational consent to being treated either as a mere means to someone’s ends (i.e., their desires or goals) or as a mere thing, and (ii) its being absolutely impermissible to treat any people (including oneself) either as a mere means or as a mere thing is an essential property of human dignity.

Second, human dignity is the absolute, non-denumerably infinite, intrinsic, and objective value of human real persons as ends-in-themselves, and human real personhood is metaphysically grounded in an essentially embodied, unified set of innate cognitive, emotional, and practical capacities present in all and only those human animals possessing the essentially embodied neurobiological basis of those capacities.

Third, the essential moral implications of human dignity are an hierarchically-ordered set of (either absolutely or ceteris paribus) universal moral principles specifying ways of always treating all human real persons with sufficient respect for their human dignity, the essence of which is the absolutely universal obligation never to treat any human real person (including oneself) as a mere means or as a mere thing, in a thoroughly nonideal natural and social world.

Fourth, human dignity and its essential moral implications are known by a multifaceted systematic method that includes (i) essentially reliable a priori moral intuitions of basic principles supplemented by logical rationality and reasoning, (ii) fairly reliable cognitive and practical constructive knowledge of non-basic principles under those basic principles, (iii) considered moral judgments in real-world contexts and in thought-experiments by way of applying and further specifying those basic and non-basic principles, and (iv) empathetic intersubjective moral phenomenology.

Fifth and finally, this dignitarian knowledge can be applied in real-world sociopolitical contexts only by enacting human dignity: that is, only by means of designing, creating, and sustaining all and only specifically dignitarian social institutions that Michelle Maiese and I have called constructive, enabling social institutions.[ii]

It should be already obvious that the theory of human dignity I’m presenting and defending here is Kantian in philosophical inspiration. But although I’ll sometimes refer to Kant’s writings, this theory of human dignity is neither intended to be an interpretation of Kant’s writings, nor in any way restricted by the requirement to remain consistent with or defend any of Kant’s own doctrines (for example, his alleged noumenal realism, hatred of emotions, moral formalism and rigorism, political liberalism, etc.) or his personal prejudices (for example, his alleged racism, sexism, xenophobia, etc.). Thus the theory of human dignity I’m presenting and defending is Kantian, but not so damned Kantian. This is a spin on Josiah Royce’s pithy definition of idealism: ‘‘the world and the heavens, and the stars are all real, but not so damned real.”[iii] In other words, the theory of human dignity that I’m presenting and defending involves a creative use of some Kantian ideas that are also independently defensible, and it diverges from either Kant’s own writings or orthodox Kantianism whenever that’s required by attentiveness to manifest reality and/or critical reflection. In view of the social-institutional facts I’ve called the Kant wars, one element of which is a widespread anti-Kantian bias in contemporary philosophy,[iv] it’s (unfortunately) necessary to make this point explicitly. And in order to emphasize that point, I’ll call it the broadly Kantian theory of human dignity.

Moreover, it should also be already obvious that the broadly Kantian theory of human dignity is realistic and natural, but also non-naturalistic and not socially constructed, in the sense that the concept of human dignity that it proposes is not only grounded in facts that are manifestly real and inherently belong to the natural world, but also neither reducible to, nor replaceable by, nor strictly determined by, any purely material or physical, mechanical, or socially conventional/relativistic concepts or facts. Or in other words, I’m saying that the broadly Kantian concept of human dignity that I’m presenting and defending is fully resistant to dignity-skepticism and dignity-debunking arguments. Correspondingly, I’ll start off in section II by refuting dignity-skepticism and by debunking an interesting and sophisticated dignity-debunking argument, lay out the gravamen of the broadly Kantian theory of human dignity in sections III to VI, with special attention paid to grappling with some hard cases in section V (including: abortion and infanticide; post-persons; non-human animals and their associate membership in The Realm of Ends; treating people merely as means; and permissible uses of force and civil disobedience), and then briefly conclude in section VII.


[i] In view of that aim and the essay’s length, I’ll make no attempt to do a critical survey of the recent and contemporary philosophical literature on human dignity. But the footnotes for Adam Etinson’s recent article, “What’s So Special About Human Dignity?” Philosophy and Public Affairs 48 (2020): 353–381, are useful in this regard. And for historical analyses of the concept of dignity, see R. Debes (ed.), Dignity: A History (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2017); and also R. Debes, “Dignity is Delicate,” Aeon (17 September 2018), available online at URL = <https://aeon.co/essays/human-dignity-is-an-ideal-with-remarkably-shallow-roots>.

[ii] See M. Maiese and R. Hanna, The Mind-Body Politic (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), esp. chs. 1–3, and 6–7.

[iii] J. Royce, The Letters of Josiah Royce (Chicago, IL: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1970), p. 217.

[iv] See R. Hanna, “The Kant Wars and The Three Faces of Kant,” Contemporary Studies in Kantian Philosophy 5 (2020): 73–94, available online at URL = <https://www.cckp.space/single-post/2020/06/15/CSKP5-2020-The-Kant-Wars-and-The-Three-Faces-of-Kant>.


For convenience, I refer to Kant’s works infratextually in parentheses. The references include both an abbreviation of the English title and the corresponding volume and page numbers in the standard “Akademie” edition of Kant’s works: Kants gesammelte Schriften, edited by the Königlich Preussischen (now Deutschen) Akademie der Wissenschaften (Berlin: G. Reimer [now de Gruyter], 1902-). I generally follow the standard English translations, but have occasionally modified them where appropriate. For references to the first Critique, I follow the common practice of giving page numbers from the A (1781) and B (1787) German editions only. Here’s a list of the relevant abbreviations and English translations:

CPR Critique of Pure Reason. Trans. P. Guyer and A. Wood. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1997.

CPrR Critique of Practical Reason. Trans. M. Gregor. In Immanuel Kant: Practical Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1996. Pp. 139–271.

GMM Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Trans. M. Gregor. In Immanuel Kant: Practical Philosophy. Pp. 43–108.

IUH “Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Aim.” Trans. A. Wood. In Immanuel Kant: Anthropology, History, and Eduction. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007. Pp. 107–120.

LE Immanuel Kant: Lectures on Ethics. Trans. P. Heath. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1997.

MM Metaphysics of Morals. Trans. M. Gregor. In Immanuel Kant: Practical Philosophy. Pp. 365–603.

Rel Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason. Trans. A. Wood and G. Di Giovanni. In Immanuel Kant: Religion and Rational Theology. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1996. Pp. 57–215.

RTL “On a Supposed Right to Lie from Philanthropy.” Trans. M. Gregor. In Immanuel Kant: Practical Philosophy. Pp. 611–615.


Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Monday 1 February 2021

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Mr Nemo

Mr Nemo

Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.