A Theory of Human Dignity, #6–How Nonideal Can a World Be?

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

III.1 What Human Dignity Is

III.2 Real Persons and Minded Animals

III.3 A Metaphysical Definition of Real Personhood

IV. Nonideal Dignitarian Moral Theory

IV.0 How Nonideal Can a World Be?

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 IV.0.

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


IV. Nonideal Dignitarian Moral Theory

A conflict of duties would be a relation between them in which one of them would cancel the other (wholly or in part)…. But since duty and obligation are concepts that express the objective practical necessity of certain actions and two rules opposed to each other cannot be necessary at the same time, if it is a duty to act in accordance with one rule, to act in accordance with the opposite rule is not a duty but even contrary to duty; so a collision of duties and obligations is inconceivable. However, a subject may have, in a rule he prescribes to himself, two grounds of obligation, one or the other of which is not sufficient to put him under obligation, so that one of them is not a duty. (MM 6: 224)

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.[i]

That an act qua fulfilling a promise, or qua effecting a just distribution of good, or qua returning services rendered, or qua promoting the virtue or insight of the agent, is prima facie right, is self-evident; not in the sense that it is evident from the beginning of our lives, or as soon as we attend to the proposition for the first time, but in the sense that when we heave reached sufficient mental maturity and have given sufficient reflection to the proposition it is evident without any need of proof, or evidence beyond itself. It is self-evident just as a mathematical axiom, or the validity of a form of inference, is evident. The moral order expressed in these propositions is just as much a part of the fundamental nature of the universe (and, we may add, of any possible universe in which there are moral agents at all) as the spatial or numerical structure expressed in the axioms of geometry or arithmetic. In our confidence that these propositions are true there is involved the same trust in our reason that is involved in our confidence in mathematics; and we should have no justification for trusting it in the latter sphere and distrusting it in the former.[ii]

Hide what you have to hide

And tell what you have to tell

You’ll see your problems multiplied

If you continually decide

To faithfully pursue

The policy of truth[iii]

IV.0 How Nonideal Can a World Be?

According to the broadly Kantian theory of human dignity, 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. Moreover, human dignity and its essential moral and political 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. Strictly and narrowly speaking, in recent and contemporary Anglo-American professional academic philosophy, “nonideal theory” is political theorizing under the assumption that compliance to principles of justice is inherently not strict. But there is a broader and deeper sense of “nonideal theory” that is ethical theorizing under the assumption that compliance to moral principles is inherently not strict. It is this broader and deeper sense that I am particularly interested in. More precisely, in this section I want to work out the basics of broadly Kantian nonideal dignitarian moral theory.

Sadly, there are nonideal worlds, and then there are nonideal worlds. How nonideal can they be? A moral contradiction, or moral dilemma, may be defined as a situation S in which a person P, given her moral principles, ought to choose or do some act A in S and also ought to choose or do some act B in S, such that P’s choosing or doing A entails her choosing or doing not-B in S and also P’s choosing or doing B entails her choosing or doing not-A in S. Sartre’s famous case of the boy and his mother is of course one example:

The boy was faced with the choice of leaving for England and joining the Free French Forces — that is, leaving his mother behind — or remaining with his mother and helping her carry on…. Who could help him choose? … Who can decide a priori? Nobody. No book of ethics can tell him. The Kantian ethics says, “Never treat any person as a means but as an end.” Very well, if I stay with my mother, I’ll treat her as an end and not as a means; but by virtue of this very fact, I’m running the risk of treating the people around me who are fighting, as means; and conversely, if I go to join those who are fighting, I’ll be treating them as an end, and, by doing that, I run the risk of treating my mother as a means. If values are vague, and if they are always too broad for the concrete and specific case that we are considering, the only thing left is to trust our instincts. That’s what this young man tried to do; and when I saw him, he said, “In the end, feeling is what counts. I ought to choose whatever pushes me in one direction…” But how is the value of that feeling determined? What gives his feeling for his mother value? Precisely the fact that he remained with her.[iv]

But here’s an even more poignant, real-world, and, for me, close-to-home example, involving a Kantian philosopher I knew and studied philosophy with. Other things being equal, you ought to preserve rational human life; and other things being equal, you also ought to prevent the suffering of other real persons if you can, especially the suffering of those you love most; and then your suffering sibling, parent, or life-partner lucidly asks you to assist in his or her suicide:

The story was brief, tragic and haunting. A brilliant philosophy professor, Stephan Körner, had been found dead with his wife Edith, an NHS pioneer who had just been diagnosed as having terminal cancer. Instead of being divided by disease the couple chose to be united in death, taking a lethal overdose and breathing their last in each other’s arms at their Bristol home.[v]

Moral contradictions or moral dilemmas in the sense I have just spelled out can originally derive from one or more moral principles. Sartre’s case is a two-principle case, as is the Stephan and Edith Körner case. In Sophie’s Choice, by contrast, Sophie is originally committed to a single moral principle which says that she ought to protect both of her children; yet the deeply unlucky context of action also brings it about that under her original moral principle Sophie is also committed to a sub-principle of selecting one of her children to be killed by the Nazis, since otherwise both children will be killed by them. In any case, I will call any nonideal world in which moral contradictions or dilemmas — whether derived from one or many moral principles — do in fact occur, and also occur with alarming frequency, a thoroughly nonideal world. Our actual natural and social world, it seems clear, is a thoroughly nonideal world. Thoroughly nonideal worlds, then, are those intentional-act-worlds in which not only is it the case that compliance to moral principles is inherently not strict, but also moral dilemmas all-too-frequently happen.

Consider now a “human, all-too-human” real person of good will, living in our thoroughly nonideal natural and social world. When, as is almost inevitable in this world, her principles come into real conflict with one another in some morally unlucky situation, then this human real person of good will must wholeheartedly choose the lesser of several evils in that context of action, and also take complete responsibility, with no excuses, for something over which she had no control whatsoever — namely, the brute contingent fact of conflicting principles in that act-context. That brute contingent fact is also the morally tragic fact that every one of her choices in that situation will involve a violation of at least one of her principles. There is no way out. She must wholeheartedly choose, and then bravely and stoically take an awful hit.

This is what I call The Kant-Sartre Insight.[vi] In turn, I want to use The Kant-Sartre Insight as a rational-intuitive guide, or philosophical pole-star, to working out the basics of broadly Kantian nonideal dignitarian moral theory. In so doing, I’ll develop a new interpretation and conservative extension of the highly influential and equally notorious ethical theory laid out by Kant in the Groundwork, the Critique of Practical Reason, the Metaphysics of Morals, and Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason. Borrowing a famous phrase from Emerson, I call this new interpretation and conservative extension The No-Foolish-Consistency Interpretation. If I’m correct, The No-Foolish Consistency Interpretation provides a unified solution to three classical problems in Kant’s and Kantian ethics:

(i) the problem of universalizability, or the apparent epistemic indeterminacy of tests for the generalizability and consistency of moral principles,[vii]

(ii) the problem of rigorism, or the apparent over-strictness, apparent overgeneralization, and apparent overly-extended strictly universal scope, of moral principles,[viii] and above all,

(iii) the problem of moral dilemmas, or the apparent inconsistency between equally legitimate absolutely universal moral principles.[ix]

In solving the third of these problems, in accordance with broadly Kantian nonideal dignitarian moral theory, we’ll find that Kant himself was clearly and even scandalously mistaken about the semantic structure and normative implications of a Kantian theory of moral principles, and also that W.D. Ross[x] was much closer to the truth about these matters, although still not quite adequate to the phenomena. Ross stood on the shoulders of Kant, and saw a little further than Kant did. My hope is that by standing, Cirque du Soleil-wise, on the shoulders of these two giants of Kantian ethics, and by resolutely focusing my sights on broadly Kantian nonideal dignitarian moral theory, I’ll be able to see just a little further than either of them did.


[i] R.W. Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” in S.E. Whicher (ed.), Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1957), pp. 147–168, at 153.

[ii] W.D. Ross, The Right and the Good (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2002/1930), pp. 29–30.

[iii] D. Gahan, M. Gore, and A. Fletcher, aka Depeche Mode, “Policy of Truth,” Violator (1990).

[iv] J.-P. Sartre, “Existentialism is a Humanism,” trans. B. Frechtman, in S. Cahn and P. Markie (eds.), Ethics: History, Theory, and Contemporary Issues (3rd edn., New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2006), pp. 396–402, at 400.

[v] A. Ahuja, “An Organized Death,” London Times (4 September 2000).

[vi] See also S. Baiasu, Kant and Sartre: Re-Discovering Critical Ethics (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

[vii] See, e.g., O. O’Neill, “Consistency in Action,” in Cahn and Markie (eds.), Ethics: History, Theory, and Contemporary Issues, pp. 541–558.

[viii] See, e.g., C. Korsgaard, “The Right to Lie: Kant on Dealing with Evil,” in C. Korsgaard, Creating the Kingdom of Ends (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1996), pp. 133–158.The flip side of the rigorism problem is that what Kant variously calls “meritorious duties,” “imperfect duties,” or “duties of virtue” do not seem to be strict or universal enough. One might call this the under-rigorism problem. In sub-section IV.2 below, I’ll offer a solution to the rigorism problem that is also intended to handle the under-rigorism problem.

[ix] See, e.g., T. Hill, “Moral Dilemmas, Gaps, and Residues,” in T. Hill, Human Welfare and Moral Worth: Kantian Perspectives (Oxford: Clarendon/Oxford University Press, 2002), essay 12, pp. 362–402; and H.E. Mason (ed.), Moral Dilemmas and Moral Theory (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1996).

[x] See Ross, The Right and the Good.


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Mr Nemo

Mr Nemo


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