A Theory of Human Dignity, #2–Refuting the Dignity-Skeptic and Debunking a Dignity-Debunking Argument.

By Robert Hanna



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 II.

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


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

The dignity-skeptic is anyone who, for any reason whatsoever, denies the real existence of human dignity. But if one asked the dignity-skeptic the following question,

“Would you or could you rationally consent to being summarily beheaded merely because of your skin pigmentation, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, ability or disability, religious beliefs, or political beliefs?, yes or no, please give reasons for your answer, and please reply in all sincerity,”

then if the dignity-skeptic complied with those requests, they would obviously answer “of course not!” But any reason sincerely provided by the dignity-skeptic that’s sufficient to explain why not, would be necessarily equivalent to appealing to the skeptic’s own human dignity, since it would necessarily involve the absolute impermissibility of themselves being treated by someone as mere means for any purportedly sufficient reason that singles them out only as a mere token of some identity-type, thus reducing themselves to being a mere thing under that type. And 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. Therefore, the dignity-skeptic’s answer would entail or presuppose the real existence of human dignity in at least themselves. So the dignity-skeptic’s answer is self-refuting.

Now let’s move on to consider another challenge to realistic, non-naturalistic, non-social-constructionist theories of human dignity. A characteristic feature of moral and/or political philosophizing since Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil and Genealogy of Morals, that’s also prominently featured in the moral and/or political writings of Michel Foucault, John Mackie, and Bernard Williams,[i] is the use of what are nowadays called debunking arguments. A debunking argument radically deflates the apparent content and normative value of a prima facie concept C by showing how C is actually reducible to or replaceable by a naturalistic and/or socially-constructed concept C*. But the common error of such arguments is that they systematically beg the question or stack the deck against their targets (i) by simply assuming without argument the truth of scientific naturalism and/or cultural relativism, and (ii) by strategically uncharitably adopting an idiotic or strawman version of C and then attacking only that version. Clear and indeed notorious cases of both errors can be found, for example, in the debunking arguments against theism deployed by “The Four Horsemen of New Atheism” — Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett.[ii]

In a recent article, Adam Etinson works out an interesting and sophisticated debunking argument against realistic, non-naturalistic, non-social-constructionist theories of human dignity, and claims that

[i]f we put abstract theory aside for a moment, and look instead at our concrete (“applied”) judgments about what human dignity practically requires, and when it is violated or most at stake, we see that it is preoccupied …. with social status — with “honoring” a person, as opposed to humiliating or degrading them.[iii]

More precisely, however, he claims that

[h]uman dignity, on this picture, is only one species of dignity, having to do with our basic status as equals in society, whatever other position(s) we may hold. And the kind of humiliations or degradations it prohibits are, accordingly, those which attack, or otherwise ill befit, this basic rank.[iv]

One mistake made by Etinson is to postulate that every theory of human dignity holds “that human dignity must belong to all human beings,”[v] which, although it looks perfectly acceptable on the face of it, actually places a strategically uncharitable idiotic/strawman condition on theories of human dignity. This is because it covertly and stipulatively rules out any theory that focuses on the metaphysics of persons, and distinguishes between human persons and human animals per se. But the human person vs. human animal distinction is a standard distinction in, say, recent and contemporary moral and metaphysical arguments and theories about abortion and infanticide, euthanasia, etc. See, for example, sub-section V.1 below. Hence it’s strategically uncharitable to saddle realistic, non-naturalistic, non-social-constructionist theories of human dignity with a view that simply overlooks or overrides that standard distinction.

Another and more serious mistake made by Etinson is to argue from (i) the thesis that human dignity is the same as all human beings having some social status or another, in relation to which they can be humiliated or degraded, to (ii) human dignity is the same as social equality, i.e., that there is some one social status that everyone has, in relation to which they can be humiliated or degraded. For the step from (i) to (ii) is obviously a quantifier shift fallacy that involves arguing from claims of the form “for every X there’s some Y or another had by X” to the claims of the form “there’s some one Y such that every X has it.” For example, supposing it’s true that everybody loves someone or another, it’s a quantifier shift fallacy to conclude that there’s some one person that everybody loves. More specifically, Etinson’s claim (i) about human dignity as universal human honor or social status in relation to which we can be humiliated or degraded, is perfectly consistent with rigidly hierarchical/unequal societies with many different types of honor or social status, and doesn’t entail equality at all. So it’s a mistake to think that honor or social status, as the relevant debunking concept C*, could be an acceptable reductive or replacement concept of human dignity for contemporary societies that are, at least by intention or putatively, non-hierarchical/egalitarian societies.

Another perhaps slightly less serious mistake that Etinson makes is during the course of his interesting and sophisticated argument from various considered moral/legal judgments on a range of actual or thought-experimental cases, which plausibly show that not every morally/legally impermissible act against someone (for example, ordinary vandalism, ordinary theft, or even “ordinary” murder in the sense of being killed by a mugger during a robbery when you attempt to fight back), is an act that carries the further implication or higher-order judgment that this so-judged immoral treatment is specifically “a violation of that person’s human dignity,” or specifically “a crime against humanity” (for example, vandalism or theft with specifically racist intent, or being shot in the head as a form of execution with specifically racist intent). From this, Etinson concludes that not every morally/legally impermissible act against people is also a violation of their human dignity: that is, human dignity is more special — i.e., has more limited scope — than morality as a whole.[vi] But this is a non sequitur. The key to seeing the logical invalidity here is to recognize that what’s at issue, morally speaking, in all these cases is not merely heeding or violating human dignity per se, but also and above all heeding or violating sufficient respect for human dignity. Then we can see that there’s an important difference between

(i) treatment that manifests insufficient respect for human dignity by falling short of or violating what’s required by the moral principles that specify the rules of sufficient respect for it (for example, ordinary theft, ordinary vandalism, ordinary murder etc.) and

(ii) treatment that manifests insufficient respect for human dignity by being a targetted violation of a person’s human dignity as such (for example, slavery, murder with specifically racist intent, torture, rape, etc.). So in every case of immoral treatment, there’s a violation of sufficient respect for human dignity, even though our considered (ii)-type judgments draw explicit attention to targetted violations. In sub-sub-section V.3.2 below, I’ll call the victim’s experience of these targetted violations degradation.

All things considered, however, the most important mistake that Etinson makes is that his thesis that human dignity is the same as honor or social status in relation to which we can be degraded or humiliated has failed to acknowledge two kinds of counterexamples which show that clear violations of human dignity can occur outside any social framework whatsoever, hence also outside any social framework involving (egalitarian or inegalitarian) honor or social status. First, there are “Robinson Crusoe and man Friday”-type two-person examples in which someone does something immoral to someone else with specifically racist intent, but they’re the only people on a remote island or on Mars (or wherever), hence there’s no social framework in place. Now, supposing that a debunker responds by claiming that two people are minimally sufficient for a social framework, then second, there are one-person examples in which a single person alone on a remote island or on Mars (or wherever) directly violates their own human dignity by mutilating or seriously injuring themselves (say, by cutting off their own hand, or smashing their own head against a rock), or by committing suicide, with the specifically racist intent of expressing their own racial self-hatred. More generally, it’s self-evident from the second kind of counterexamples that the realistic, non-naturalistic, non-social-constructionist concept of human dignity cannot be reduced to or replaced by a socially-constructed concept, and that Etinson’s interesting and sophisticated debunking argument is thereby debunked in the broad sense of that term that means shown to be false or unsound.


[i] See, e.g., F. Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, trans. W. Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 1966); F. Nietzsche, “The Genealogy of Morals,” in F. Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo, trans. W. Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 1967), pp. 13–163; M. Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the New Prison, trans. A. Sheridan (New York: Vintage, 1975); M. Foucault, The Order of Things (New York: Vintage, 1973), ch. 9; J.L. Mackie, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1977); and B. Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (London: Fontana, 1985), ch. 10.

[ii] See, e.g., Wikipedia, “New Atheism” (2020), available online at URL = <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Atheism>.

[iii] A. Etinson, “What’s So Special About Human Dignity?,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 48 (2020): 353–381, at p. 365.

[iv] Ibid., p. 372.

[v] Ibid., p. 355.

[vi] Ibid., pp. 357–362.


Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Monday 15 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.