By Robert Hanna
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Dignity, Not Identity
In a cogent and compelling opinion piece in the New York Times, “There Is No Dignity in This Kind of America,” Jamelle Bouie writes:
Outside of certain select phrases (“the dignity of labor”), we don’t talk much about dignity in American politics, despite the fact that the demands of many groups for dignity and respect in public life have been a driving force in American history since the beginning. To that point, one of the great theorists of dignity and democracy in the United States was none other than Frederick Douglass, whose experience in bondage gave him a lifelong preoccupation with the ways that dignity is either cultivated or denied. Douglass observed “that although dignity seems to be woven into human nature, it is also something one possesses to the degree that one is conscious of having it,” the historian Nicholas Knowles Bromell writes in [The Powers of Dignity: The Black Political Philosophy of Frederick Douglass (Bromell, 2021)] “and one’s own consciousness of having it depends in part on making others conscious of it. Others’ recognition of it then flows back and confirms one’s belief in having it, but conversely their refusal to recognize it has the opposite effect of weakening one’s confidence in one’s own dignity.” It is easy to see how this relates to chattel slavery, a totalizing system in which enslaved Black Americans struggled to assert their dignity and self-respect in the face of a political, social and economic order that sought to rob them of both. But Douglass explored this idea in other contexts as well. Writing after the Civil War on women’s suffrage, Douglass asked his readers to see the “plain” fact that “women themselves are divested of a large measure of their natural dignity by their exclusion from and participation in Government.” To “deny woman her vote,” Douglass continued, “is to abridge her natural and social power, and to deprive her of a certain measure of respect.” A woman, he concluded, “loses in her own estimation by her enforced exclusion from the elective franchise just as slaves doubted their own fitness for freedom, from the fact of being looked down upon as fit only for slaves.”…. “A democracy,” Douglass’s work suggests, “is a polity that prizes human dignity,” Bromell writes. “It comes into existence when a group of persons agrees to acknowledge each other’s dignity, both informally, through mutually respectful comportment, and formally, through the establishment of political rights.” …. The denial of dignity to one segment of the political community, then, threatens the dignity of all. This was true for Douglass and his time — it inspired his support for women’s suffrage and his opposition to the Chinese Exclusion Act — and it is true for us and ours as well. To deny equal respect and dignity to any part of the citizenry is to place the entire country on the road to tiered citizenship and limited rights, to liberty for some and hierarchy for the rest. (Bouie, 2023)
I completely and heartily agree with Bouie, Bromell, and especially Douglass; and I also think that many other NYT readers who read Bouie’s piece will completely and heartily agree with it too. Yet at the same time, a great many people, not only in the contemporary USA, but also everywhere else in the contemporary world, including most of the NYT readers who will completely and heartily agree with Bouie’s piece, are deeply and even tragically confused about the difference between the moral and political doctrine of identitarianism, and the moral and political doctrine of dignitarianism.
Nevertheless, before we get to the sharp and indeed categorical distinction between identitarianism and dignitarianism, we need to ask the prior question: what is human dignity? It’s crucial to ask this question, because, as careful readers of the quotations from Bouie, Bromell, and Douglass displayed above will have already noticed, none of them actually defines human dignity.
According to my broadly Kantian theory of human dignity (Hanna, 2018a, 2018b,2021), 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 grounded in a unified set of innate cognitive, emotional, and practical capacities present in all and only human animals possessing the essentially embodied neurobiological basis of those capacities. These capacities are (i) consciousness, (i.e., subjective experience), (ii)self-consciousness (i.e., consciousness of one’s own consciousness, or second-order consciousness), (iii) caring (i.e., desiring, emoting, or feeling), (iv) sensible cognition (i.e., sense-perceiving, remembering, or imagining), (v) intellectual cognition (i.e., conceptualizing, believing, judging, or inferring), (vi) volition (i.e., deciding, choosing, or willing), and (vii) free agency (i.e., free will and practical agency). These seven capacities jointly constitute rational human mindedness. Some human animals are born permanently lacking the essentially embodied neurobiological basis of rational human mindedness, or have suffered its permanent destruction by accident, disease, or violent mishap, and therefore some human animals do not have human dignity because they are not human real persons. So not necessarily all human animals are real persons. Conversely, not necessarily all real persons are human: it’s really possible for there to be real persons belonging to other animal species, whether on the Earth or other planets. If so, then they’ll have dignity too.
Nevertheless and in any case, you’re a real person, and so am I. And so is every other living organism that’s capable of fully understanding those words, feeling their normative force, and then choosing and acting under the guidance of that normative force. Neither logically possible or conceivable non-animal persons, disembodied persons, or divine persons, nor actual artificial persons (personae) or actual collective persons, created by human convention, are real persons in this sense. For human real persons, like all real persons, are essentially embodied minds (Hanna and Maiese, 2009; Hanna, 2011). In turn, the essential embodiment thesis has two logically distinct parts: (i) the necessary embodiment of conscious minds like ours in a living organism (the necessity thesis), and (ii) the complete neurobiological embodiment of conscious minds like ours in all the vital systems, vital organs, and vital processes of our living bodies (the completeness thesis). The necessity thesis says that necessarily, conscious minds like ours are alive. Negatively formulated, it says that conscious minds like ours cannot be dead, disembodied, or machines. By contrast, the completeness thesis says that conscious minds like ours are fully spread out into our living organismic bodies, necessarily including the brain, but also necessarily not restricted to the brain. In view of the essential embodiment thesis, specifically human real persons are real persons who are necessarily and completely, human animals, hence we’re “human, all-too-human.”
To say that human real persons have dignity is to say that they’re absolutely, nondenumerably infinitely, intrinsically, and objectively valuable ends-in-themselves. What, more precisely, do I mean by saying that? Objective values are whatever anyone can care about, that is, whatever anyone can aim her emotions (i.e., desires, feelings, or passions) at. Otherwise put, objective values are what Kant called “ends” (Zwecke). In turn, “absolute” means “unconditionally necessary.” So to say that human real persons are absolutely, nondenumerably infinitely, intrinsically, objectively valuable ends-in-themselves, or that they have dignity, is to say that their value as ends-in-themelves is not only an unconditionally necessary, internal feature of the kind of manifestly real being they are, but also the very highest kind of value.
Now many things are intrinsically objectively valuable, or ends-in-themselves — for example, pleasant bodily or sensory experiences, vivid emotional experiences, beautiful natural objects and environments, fine craftsmanship, skillfully-played sports, good science, good philosophy, good works of art, and any job well done. To say that human real persons are absolutely, nondenumerably infinitely, intrinsically, objectively valuable ends-in-themselves — i.e., that they have dignity — however, is to say that each of us has a moral value that is a transfinite cardinal quantity in relation to all denumerable or countable, economic, or otherwise instrumental kinds of value, for example psychological pleasure or preference-satisfaction. It seems clear that however we measure such things, whether in terms of market value or monetary price, degrees of psychological pleasure, degrees of preference-satisfaction, or comparative rankings of such things, nevertheless every actual or possible economic or otherwise instrumental value is expressible as some rational number quantity or another, including denumerably infinite rational number quantities. Then, by essentially the same method that Georg Cantor used to show the existence of transfinite numbers (Cantor, 1891, 2019) at least in principle, we can create a vertical and denumerably infinite list of every actual or possible economic or otherwise instrumental value, then draw a diagonal across it, and discover another value that’s categorically higher than any economic or otherwise instrumental value. So this value is the prime example of what — following Cantor’s alternative term for transfinite numbers, transcendental numbers — I’ve called transcendental normativity (Hanna, 2015a). Correspondingly, it’s what I’ll call transcendental value, by which I mean either a single transcendental value or else a unified system of several distinct but essentially complementary or interlocking transcendental values. Kant called the unified system of all transcendental values the highest good. The dignity of human real persons has transcendental value in that sense: thus each human real person, by virtue of their dignity, has transcendental value, and their human dignity also inherently belongs to the unified system of all transcendental values, aka the highest good.
Even though each individual human real person has transcendental value — a value that’s categorically higher than any economic or otherwise instrumental value and thereby irreducible to any economic or otherwise instrumental value — nevertheless the value of groups of human real persons can still be calculated from the cardinality of the membership of the group, just as there is an arithmetic of transfinite cardinal numbers. The dignitarian transcendental value of N>1 human real persons is N times greater than the dignitarian transcendental value of one human real person. That’s why it’s twice as good to save the lives of two human real persons as it is to save the life of one human real person, and twice as bad for two human real persons to die as it is for one human real person to die, and so on. This special kind of transfinite/transcendental value-calculability is true of groups of human real persons, and yet the dignity of each individual human real person has a value that’s categorically higher than any economic or instrumental value and thereby irreducible to any economic or otherwise instrumental value, which is to say that it’s a transcendental value, and that it belongs to the highest good. The highest good in this sense is in each and every one of us; and that’s the one and only sense in which we’re all morally and politically equal. But apart from that broadly Kantian dignitarian sense of equality, as Harry Frankfurt has compellingly argued (Frankfurt, 2015), egalitarianism more generally is a misguided and mistaken moral and political ideal. What’s strictly and universally morally and politically obligatory is to treat every human real person with sufficient respect for their human dignity, which will sometimes necessarily involve strict equality of treatment across sets of individual human real persons, but not always or necessarily.
Treating a human real person with sufficient respect for their human dignity, in turn, has three individually necessary, individually insufficient, and jointly sufficient conditions: (i) a human real person is treated with sufficient respect only if they are not treated either as a mere means or as mere thing, for example, in the way that Nazis treated people, like a piece of garbage or offal, (ii) a human real person is treated with sufficient respect only if they are treated in such a way that they can give their explicit and/or implicit rational consent to that treatment (Hanna and Kazim, 2021: section 10), and (iii) a human real person is treated with sufficient respect only if they are treated with kindness — that is, with benevolent attention to their true human needs (Maiese and Hanna, 2019: ch. 3). These are mutually logically distinct and individually necessary, but still individually insufficient conditions for sufficient respect for human dignity. For, despite what may appear at first glance, they’re not necessarily equivalent, for two reasons.
First, it’s at least minimally really possible for a human real person to give their explicit or implicit rational consent to being treated either as a mere means or as a mere thing. Indeed, it’s at least minimally really possible that a human real person could explicitly or implicitly rationally consent even to becoming someone else’s slave or to being killed by that other person — as an extreme form of self-abasement, self-punishment, self-sacrifice, or sexual self-expression. One real-world example is the notorious “German cannibals” case in 2002 (BBC News, 2002). I do hold, however, that the German cannibals’ explicit rational consent also violates their implicit rational consent (Hanna and Kazim, 2021: section 10). But the more general point I am making here is that in all such cases, someone, of their own free will, disrespects themselves and therefore is choosing and acting impermissibly.
Second, even if a human real person is not being treated as a mere means or as a mere thing, and can also give their explicit or implicit rational consent to some proposed mode of treatment, nevertheless she might still be treated without kindness. For example, someone who is living in extreme poverty might receive just enough food aid not to starve, and just enough health care aid not to die from preventable causes, but also not enough aid to be well-fed, healthy, self-supporting, or able to engage in any creative, meaningful, useful, or productive activities. Then they’re being oppressed (Hanna, 2018c: sections 18–20), by being condemned to a life of constant neediness and suffering.
The upshot, then, is that a human real person is being treated with sufficient respect for their human dignity if and only if (i) they’re not being treated either as a mere means or as a mere thing, (ii) they can give their explicit and/or implicit rational consent to that treatment, and (iii) they’re being treated with kindness. In other words, no meaningful act-intention should ever be chosen or acted upon which entails that human real persons are treated either as mere means or as mere things, without their explicit or implicit rational consent, or with cruelty. To treat a human real person without sufficient respect for their human dignity, and thus either as a mere means or as a mere thing, without their explicit and/or implicit rational consent, or with cruelty, is to harm them by violating their dignity. Therefore, it’s strictly morally impermissible to harm human real persons by violating their dignity; and for the very same reasons, it’s also strictly morally obligatory, to prevent or reduce dignity-violating harms to human real persons. These moral principles are also commonly known as “the negative duty not to harm” and “the positive duty to prevent harm.” Equivalently, a human real person is treated with sufficient respect for their human dignity if and only if they’re provided with freedom from oppression.
One direct consequence of this conception of human dignity, which overlaps significantly with early Karl Marx’s political theory, as formulated, for example, in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 (Marx, 1961; see also Fromm, 1961), is that human real persons are not commodities of any kind. Therefore, any person or social institution or system that commodifies human real persons, undermines and violates their human dignity. Another direct consequence of this conception of human dignity, is that human real persons do not have to do anything in order to have dignity, nor can they lose their human dignity by acting badly. Human dignity is neither an achievement nor a reward for good conduct: on the contrary, it’s a constitutive endowment of their human real personhood. And another direct consequence of this conception of human dignity is that it is not a general requirement of any human real person’s having dignity that they self-consciously recognize that they themselves have dignity, nor is it a general requirement of our acknowledging others as having dignity that we self-consciously recognize that they have dignity. This is for two reasons.
First, the mental act or state of recognizing oneself or another real person as having dignity is not originally or primarily an act or state of self-conscious, or reflective, report, belief, or judgment. On the contrary, it’s originally and primarily an act or state of pre-reflectively conscious emotional perception, or what Michelle Maiese and I have called affective framing (Hanna and Maiese, 2009: section 5.3; Maiese, 2011).More precisely, on this view, emotional perception consists in an essentially embodied, conscious, feeling, desiring, passionate intentional agent’s representing the world via her desire-based readiness to choose or act intentionally, and, in the midst of that readiness, being disposed to have feelings about the world, or others, or herself, in certain specific ways; and the mental content of such acts or states of emotional perception is essentially non-conceptual (Hanna, 2015b: ch. 2). These same points are also very effectively conveyed by Ludwig Wittgenstein in the Philosophical Investigations, without any technical terminology:
“I believe that he is suffering.” –Do I also believe that he isn’t an automaton? It would go against the grain to use the word in both connexions. (Or is it like this: I believe that he is suffering, but am certain that he is not an automaton? Nonsense!) Suppose I say of a friend: “He isn’t an automaton.” –What information is conveyed by this, and to whom would it be information? To a human being who meets him in ordinary circumstances? What information could it give him? (At the very most that this man always behaves like a human being, and not occasionally like a machine.) “I believe that he is not an automaton,” just like that, so far makes no sense. My attitude towards him is an attitude towards a soul. I am not of the opinion that he has a soul. (Wittgenstein, 1953: p. 178e)
Second, the concept of human dignity is a characteristically moral-metaphysical concept that’s knowable or known only by rational reflection, moral intuition, and philosophical analysis. It would be paradoxical in the extreme if, for example, someone’s falling deeply in love and regarding another real person as inherently lovable required reflectively knowing the moral-metaphysical analysis of the concept of love, either partially or completely. On the contrary, obviously, romantic people normally affectively frame other people as inherently deeply lovable, and thereby fall deeply in love with them, without requiring any reflective or analytical grasp whatsoever of the concepts under which they themselves or the objects of their pre-reflectively conscious emotional perception fall. So too, it would be paradoxical in the extreme if, for example, someone’s either being worthy of respect for their human dignity, or someone’s respecting another human real person, required reflectively knowing the moral-metaphysical analysis of the concept of human dignity, either partially or completely. On the contrary, people normally affectively frame themselves and others as having dignity in a pre-reflective and non-self-consciously conscious way, and without requiring any reflective or analytical grasp whatsoever of the concepts under which they themselves or the objects of their pre-reflectively conscious emotional perception fall.
Now, finally, we’re in a position to discuss the distinction between identitariarism and dignitarianism.
Identitarianism is the following four-part view. First, people are defined primarily in terms of their falling under a certain social group-type and/or their social group-allegiance (e.g., race, ethnicity, gender, sexual preference, national origin or citizenship, language, economic class, social roles of all kinds, social institutions of all kinds especially including religions, etc., etc.). Second, special moral virtues and special positive moral value, or goodness, are attributed to all members of that social group and to that social group itself, call it the We. Third, special moral vices and special negative moral disvalue, or badness, are attributed to members of certain other social groups and to those groups themselves, who are then collectively intensely distrusted, or even excoriated-and-vilified, as the Other. And fourth, the creation of this Other also leads to intense or even obsessive fears that We will be corrupted, infiltrated, and miscegenated by the Other culture, members of which are then perceived to exist both covertly inside (as carriers of disease, or impurities) and also overtly outside (as invasive threats surrounding the We) Our culture.
Identitarianism is sharply opposed to dignitarianism, especially the broadly Kantian version of it that I’ve presented and defended (Hanna, 2018a, 2018b, 2021), which has three parts. First, everyone, everywhere, has dignity, simply by virtue of their being human real persons. Second, dignity is a fundamental, irreducible, and therefore primitively given feature of human real persons that cannot either be reduced or erased by any bad actions or bad habits of character, or increased or sanctified by any good actions or good habits of character. And third, everyone, everywhere ought to treat themselves and everyone else with sufficient respect for their dignity. It directly follows from this that, properly speaking, no one can either lose their own dignity, earn their own dignity, or regain their own dignity; but at the same time, it’s certainly true that anyone can either fail to treat themselves with sufficient respect for their own dignity or succeed in doing so.
Now, if identitarianism is true, then dignitarianism is false; and if dignitarianism is true, then identitarianism is false. More specifically, from a dignitarian point of view, the basic problems with identitarianism are (i) its cultural relativism, (ii) its tribalism, and, correspondingly, its (iii) anti-cosmopolitanism, which are diametrically opposed to the (i*) universalism, (ii*) global, non-sectarian outlook, and, correspondingly, the (iii*) cosmopolitanism of dignitarianism. Moreover, while fully acknowledging the emotional attraction and psychological power of identitarian thinking — manifesting itself, for example, as intense pride or even passionate love directed at the We, and intense distrust or even visceral hatred directed at the Other — dignitarians also believe that the only morally and politically legitimate use of the concept of “identity” in the identitarian sense is that it tells us, blow-by-blow, how those who seek to oppress people, use group-identity specifically in order to create for themselves classes of Others, to whom they attribute special moral vices, moral badness, or even the outright denial of their real human personhood, aka, “dehumanization,” in order to rationalize their fear-driven morally bad and evil treatment of those Others, whether perceived to exist covertly inside or overtly outside the We-culture. So the only morally and politically legitimate use of the concept of “identity” in the identitarian sense is as a critical tool.
But on the other hand, for members of that oppressed culture, now experienced from the inside as a We-culture of its own, the oppressed We, to attribute special moral virtues or moral value to themselves or their culture, just because of their being-oppressed, aka just because of their victimhood, is actually to “internalize the oppressor” (Freire, 1970) and mistakenly, even tragically, to define themselves in terms of the very features that their oppressors used for the attribution of morally negative characteristics in order to rationalize their morally bad and evil treatment of that oppressed group, perceived and treated as the Other.
In short, from a moral and political point of view, we should always and only be fundamentally concerned with dignity, not identity.
[i] This is a broadly Kantian dignitarian generalization of what Frankfurt calls “the doctrine of sufficiency”: see (Frankfurt, 2015: p. 7).
(BBC News, 2002). BBC News. “Man Held for German ‘Cannibal Killing’” (12 December 2002). Available online at URL = <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/2569095.stm>.
(Bouie, 2023). Bouie, J. “There Is No Dignity in This Kind of America.” New York Times. 10 February. Available online at URL = <https://www.nytimes.com/2023/02/10/opinion/trump-desantis-transgender-rights.html>.
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