Frederick Douglass, Kant, and Human Dignity.

Mr Nemo
10 min readFeb 27, 2023

By Robert Hanna

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Frederick Douglass, Kant, and Human Dignity

Recently I wrote and shared an essay, “Dignity, Not Identity” (Hanna, 2023a), in response to an opinion piece in the New York Times by Jamelle Bouie (Bouie, 2023), in which some important texts from Nick Bromell’s The Powers of Dignity: The Black Political Philosophy of Frederick Douglas (Bromell, 2021), and from the writings of Frederick Douglass, were approvingly quoted. Bromell then contacted me by e-mail, and generously sent me a .pdf copy of chapter 2 of his book, in which he spells out the two basic ideas of Douglass’s theory of human dignity:

The first is that our exercise of our distinctive human powers not only expresses our humanity but also produces self-respect, or what Douglass now calls “natural dignity.” This is why he asserts that “our natural powers are the foundation” of our rights: we have rights because we have a human worth, or dignity, that we feel deserves informal acknowledgment and formal protection. Douglass’s second idea is … that our consciousness of our powers and rights depends, in some measure, on others conveying to us, through acts of respectful acknowledgment, that they, too, are conscious of and recognize our powers and rights. (As Douglass observed in an 1870 speech delivered in Washington, DC: “You know all men derive their impressions of their abilities and possibilities in some measure from the opinions of those who stand about them.”) Thus, while our rights derive from our innate powers, and to that degree are inherent in our very humanity, they also rest in the hands of others, who may or may not allow us to become conscious of our powers, achieve our dignity, and exercise our rights. (Bromell, 2021: p. 43)

I completely agree with Douglass that dignity is grounded in our innate capacities, aka innate faculties, aka innate powers. That’s basically a Kantian idea. Correspondingly, according to my broadly Kantian view, the unified set of those innate capacities, essentially embodied in a suitably complex living organism, is the human person (Hanna, 2018a: chs. 6–7). And the human person has dignity, i.e., absolute, non-denumerably infinite, objective, irreducible, priceless value or worth, strictly by virtue of possessing those innate capacities. Why? — Because it’s only by means of that unified set of capacities that any sort of consciousness or subjective experience of any sort of value, any sort of recognition of any sort of value, any sort of self-consciousness of one’s own value, any sort of free action for the sake of any sort of value, and any sort of creative production of any sort of value, can ever occur. These innate capacities are natural, and human persons are natural, therefore human dignity is natural: no appeal to God or anything non-natural is required. At the same time, however, human dignity is a transfinite value, just as the set of real numbers has transfinite cardinality. So dignity according to this conception is no more “weird” or “mystical” or “unscientific” than Zermelo-Fraenkel set theory plus the axiom of choice (ZFC) is “weird” or “mystical” or “unscientific.” Just as ZFC is the foundation of all modern mathematics, so too human dignity is the foundation of all human morality.

Nevertheless, there are two facts about human dignity that are extremely difficult to wrap one’s head around.

First, having human dignity doesn’t actually require either our own self- consciousness of it, or its recognition by others, although in fact we’re actually morally transformed (this is what Kant, in Religion within the Bounds of Mere Reason, calls the ethical “revolution of the heart” or “revolution of the will,” and as Bromell points out, Douglass calls it “the sense of dignity”), when we do indeed become self-conscious of it and others do indeed recognize it.

Second, and this is perhaps what’s hardest to wrap one’s head around, is the fact that just as having a virtuous character and doing good things doesn’t increase or establish one’s human dignity, so too having a vicious character and doing bad things doesn’t lessen or remove one’s dignity. Indeed, even Kant nods and sometimes messes up on this one, for example, remarking in some places that people who allow themselves to be enslaved, or even voluntarily enslave themselves, have lost or forfeited their dignity. And Bromell’s chapter shows that Douglass occasionally nods and messes up on this point too:

What is that shared morality? Douglass’s answer, as we shall now see, is that our moral powers, which are inherent in our very humanness, express the moral laws of the universe and establish “the laws of [our] own being.” Those laws demand that we respect others and affirm their dignity if they give us signs of it. If we disobey those laws, we forfeit our own claim to human status; we degrade ourselves. (Bromell, 2021: p. 45, boldfacing added)

But that’s a huge mistake. Kant and Douglass alike have temporarily confused (i) possessing human dignity and (ii) acting according to the moral principles that flow from that human dignity, thereby having sufficient respect for everyone’s dignity. We’re all almost always failing to choose and act in ways that sufficiently respect everyone’s dignity, including our own, sometimes simply falling short of sufficient respect (a negative mode of moral badness that Augustine called the “privation of good”) and sometimes outright violating people’s dignity, for example, enslaving others, murder, rape, torture, and so-on (positive moral badness, i.e., evil).

Relatedly, twenty or so years ago I read an interview in the New York Times with a lawyer who defended people on death row, and she brilliantly remarked that everyone is always (non-denumerably infinitely — that’s my addition) better than the worst thing they’ve ever done, which I interpreted as a very dignitarian insight. So, even the worst person among us, provided that their capacities haven’t been irreparably damaged or destroyed by accident or disease, especially including insanity, is capable of doing good things. Indeed, sometimes very great sinners have become saints, and as Dostoevsky brilliantly pointed out through all the “sinner-saints” in his novels (Raskolnikov et al.), there’s a deep psychological and moral connection between those two apparently radically different ways of being “human, all-too-human.” This has to be right, in order to give an adequate explanation of why people are responsible for the good and bad things they do. If bad people lost their dignity, then a fortiori, their unified set of innate capacities would have gone down or have been lost, hence they couldn’t act freely, hence they couldn’t be responsible for the good and bad things they do, since freedom is a necessary condition of moral responsibility (Hanna, 2018b).

As Bromell describes it, Douglass’s two-part conception of human dignity seems perfectly coherent and consistent to me, in relation to a broadly Kantian (even if not strictly Kant’s own) conception, if we distinguish carefully between (i) the metaphysics of human dignity (which Kant also called “the metaphysics of morals”) and (ii) the radical politics of human dignity, which includes a program for (iia) becoming authentically self-conscious of one’s own human dignity and inspiring that self-consciousness in others who are currently blind to their own dignity, (iib) inspiring or provoking in people the recognition of everyone else’s human dignity, especially inspiring or provoking those who are currently blind to the human dignity of people belonging to some or another oppressed group, and (iic) non-violently changing the social-institutional structure of the larger, oppressive society so that it incorporates the moral principles flowing from the metaphysical fact of human dignity. I think of Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr as two of the great geniuses of the radical politics of human dignity. And of course Mahatma Gandhi would be another. Sadly, however, Kant had little or nothing to say about the radical politics of human dignity — except for some esoteric radical texts buried in the middle of Religion within the Bounds of Mere Reason — mainly because he was seriously tempted by racist and neo-Hobbesian liberal political thinking himself, and didn’t even begin to sort out those errors until the 1790s, i.e., the last decade of his life (Kleingeld, 2012: ch. 4; Hanna, 2017, 2018c).

I’ve often asked myself, what would a radical politics of human dignity look like in a contemporary 21st century context? And the general answer I’ve come up with is this:

1. It would have to be broadly Kantian, universalist, non-sectarian, and cosmopolitan.

2. It would also have a necessary “spiritual” component of creative self-realization in the existential sense.

3. It would be radically opposed to any form of social organization based on coercion and authoritarianism.

4. It would be radically opposed to any other form of dignity-violating oppression.

5. It would have to be non-identitarian.

6. It would also be wholeheartedly committed to designing and implementing constructive, enabling social institutions that satisfy people’s true human needs.

My first attempt at working all this out this was a book called Kant, Agnosticism, & Anarchism, in 2018 (Hanna, 2018d). And the second was a co-authored book, The Mind-Body Politic, in 2019 (Maiese and Hanna, 2019). I’ve also worked out a step-by-step moral argument for gun abolitionism, but haven’t published that yet, because mainstream journals and other venues seem to be afraid to touch it (Hanna, 2023b). Still, Oxford University Press did let me publish an earlier version on their blog in 2015 (Hanna, 2015). And corresponding to those two pieces on gun abolitionism, I’ve shared a co-authored digital mural, “Guns Я Us” (Hanna and Paans, 2023). Also, framed more synoptically, I’ve shared my attempt to answer and update Marx’s and Engels’s Communist Manifesto — an essay called “WTFU: The Manifesto of the Nobodies” (Hanna, 2022). And there are two co-authored articles from 2021 and 2022: “Thought-Shapers” (Hanna and Paans, 2021) and “Creative Piety and Neo-Utopianism” (Hanna and Paans, 2022). Finally, also with my co-authors and a few others, I’m organizing an ongoing radical dignitarian project called “The Shape of Lives To Come,” aka SLTC (Maiese et al., 2023).

Nevertheless, as a figuratively card-carrying nemo, no-name, or nobody, I feel keenly how very difficult it is to get adequate funding or publicity for radical dignitarian projects like SLTC in a contemporary context. One basic problem is that identitarianism rules the contemporary world on either side of the Left-Right divide, and, no matter how hard well-intentioned organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America — of which I’m literally a card-carrying, dues-paying member — try to fuse them together, the brute fact is that identitarianism is incoherent and inconsistent with dignitarianism (Hanna, 2023a). But the other basic problem is personality. If only I were a charismatic activist like Douglass, MLK, or Gandhi. Sadly, however, the level of my charismatic activist propensities is far closer to Kant’s — which is to say, zero, or even less than zero — than to those of the great geniuses of the radical politics of human dignity. It’s one thing to have world-changing ideas and wholehearted convictions, but it’s altogether another actually to be able to take them to the streets, actually transform the lives of others, and actually change the world for the better or even the best.

REFERENCES

(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>.

(Bromell, 2021). Bromell, N. The Powers of Dignity: The Black Political Philosophy of Frederick Douglass. Durham NC: Duke Univ. Press. Available online at URL = <https://archive.org/details/powersofdignity00brom/page/n5/mode/2up?view=theater&ui=embed&wrapper=false>.

(Hanna, 2015). Hanna, R. “A world with persons but without guns or the death penalty.” Oxford University Press Blog. 29 November. Available online at URL = <http://blog.oup.com/2015/11/world-without-guns/>.

(Hanna, 2017). Hanna, R. “Exiting the State and Debunking the State of Nature,” Con-Textos Kantianos 5: 167–189. Available online at URL = <https://www.con-textoskantianos.net/index.php/revista/article/view/228>.

(Hanna, 2018a). Hanna, R. Deep Freedom and Real Persons: A Study in Metaphysics. THE RATIONAL HUMAN CONDITION, Vol. 2. New York: Nova Science. Available online in preview HERE.

(Hanna, 2018b). Hanna, R. Kantian Ethics and Human Existence: A Study in Moral Philosophy. THE RATIONAL HUMAN CONDITION, Vol. 3. New York: Nova Science. Available online in preview HERE.

(Hanna, 2018c). Hanna, R. “Kant and Cosmopolitanism Reconsidered.” Critique. Available online in preview HERE.

(Hanna, 2018d). Hanna, R., Kant, Agnosticism, and Anarchism: A Theological-Political Treatise. THE RATIONAL HUMAN CONDITION, Vol. 4. New York: Nova Science. Available online in preview HERE.

(Hanna, 2022). Hanna, R. “WTFU: The Manifesto of The Nobodies.” Unpublished MS. Available online at URL = <https://www.academia.edu/93043230/WTFU_The_Manifesto_of_The_Nobodies_December_2022_version_>.

(Hanna, 2023a). Hanna, R. “Dignity, Not Identity.” Unpublished MS. Available online at URL = <https://www.academia.edu/96684801/Dignity_Not_Identity_February_2023_version_>.

(Hanna, 2023b). Hanna, R. “Gun Crazy: A Moral Argument For Gun Abolitionism.” Unpublished MS. Available online at URL = <https://www.academia.edu/61516955/Gun_Crazy_A_Moral_Argument_For_Gun_Abolitionism_January_2023_version_>.

(Hanna and Paans, 2021). Hanna, R. and Paans, O. “Thought-Shapers.” Cosmos & History 17, 1: 1–72. Available online at URL = <http://cosmosandhistory.org/index.php/journal/article/view/923>.

(Hanna and Paans, 2022). Hanna, R. and Paans, O. “Creative Piety and Neo-Utopianism: Cultivating Our Global Garden.” Cosmos and History 18, 1: 1–82. Available online at URL = <https://cosmosandhistory.org/index.php/journal/article/view/1017>.

(Hanna and Paans, 2023). Hanna, R. and Paans, O. “Guns Я Us: A Thought-Shaper.” Digital Mural. Available online at URL = <https://www.academia.edu/61590562/Guns_%D0%AF_Us_A_Thought_Shaper_Co_authored_with_Otto_Paans_January_2023_version_>.

(Kleingeld, 2012). Kleingeld, P. Kant and Cosmopolitanism. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

(Maiese and Hanna, 2019). Maiese, M. and Hanna, R. The Mind-Body Politic. London: Palgrave Macmillan. Available online in preview HERE.

(Maiese et al., 2023). Maiese, M. et al. “The Shape of Lives to Come.” Frontiers in Psychology Research Topics. Available online at URL = <https://www.frontiersin.org/research-topics/25439/the-shape-of-lives-to-come>.

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Mr Nemo

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