On The Deeper Source of The Fragility of Human Dignity.

Mr Nemo
8 min readSep 27, 2018

An edgy essay by Z

Recently I read a very interesting piece posted on Aeon, “Dignity is Delicate,” by Remy Debes, about the concept of human dignity and contemporary politics.

Debes compellingly argues for the claim that although the essentially Kantian concept of human dignity has emerged since WW II as a moral and political rallying-point for oppressed people, moral universalists, and moral cosmopolitans, it remains profoundly fragile — that is, human dignity remains

(i) widely ideologically contested as a concept, as flowing historically from the much-criticized and much-vilified Enlightenment,

and far more scandalously and even near-satanically (in the case of, for example, genocide),

(ii) factually much-violated in actual moral and political practice.

To be as clear and distinct as possible, here is what I mean by the essentially Kantian concept of human dignity or Würde.

All human persons have dignity.

Human persons are metaphysically defined as such by their being biologically human and also possessing a set of innate capacities for consciousness or subjective experience, affect or emotion and desire, aka caring, cognition (perception, memory, judgment, imagination, etc.), free will, and rationality — that is, being sensitive to and guided by reasons and/or principles.

Correspondingly, human dignity is the absolute, nondenumerably infinitely, intrinsic, objective value of human persons, by virtue of their personhood-defining set of innate capacities.

Human personhood, and therefore human dignity, both begin in the third trimester of normal human fetal development, with the emergence of consciousness and caring, provided that this strong counterfactual is also true of that human animal:

necessarily, if this conscious, caring human animal’s life-process were to continue in essentially the same way without accident or intervention, then, other things being equal, it would become a human animal that possesses and actualizes all of the capacities jointly constitutive of human personhood.

In turn, human dignity and human personhood can be lost only under the following conditions:

(i) with the destruction of the capacities for consciousness and caring, or

(ii) with the destruction of the life-process leading from consciousness and caring to the actualization of the other capacities jointly constitutive of human personhood, or

(iii) with the destruction of any or all of the capacities jointly constitutive of human personhood other than consciousness and caring.

There are going to be hard cases under conditions (i) and (iii) when human personhood and human dignity are lost in one of these ways, yet a human animal continues to exist, for example: anencephaly; severe brain damage of various kinds, perhaps also leading to a permanent vegetative state; permanent insanity; the final stages of Alzheimer’s; and so-on.

Correspondingly, it is also possible for us to extend, by means of contingent social agreement, various kinds of conventional moral protection to these human animals, whether it be temporary or permanent: let’s call that “associate membership in the Realm of Ends.”

In any case, all conscious, caring animals, whether human or non-human, have intrinsic moral value simply by virtue of their possessing the capacities of consciousness and caring, and they are therefore worthy of our serious moral concern at the very least, from our standpoint as fully actualized persons.

Nevertheless, only persons have dignity.

Moreover, it’s plausibly arguable that some non-human animals are also persons, and therefore also possess dignity: so not necessarily all animals with dignity are human.

But for the rest of this little essay, I’ll concentrate on specifically human persons and specifically human dignity.

Objective values are whatever anyone can care about, that is, whatever anyone can aim her desire-based emotions at.

Otherwise put, objective values are what Kant called “ends” (Zwecke).

In turn, “absolute” means “unconditionally necessary.”

So to say that human persons have dignity, is to say that their value as ends is an unconditionally necessary, internal feature of the kind of being they are.

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 persons are absolutely, nondenumerably infinitely, intrinsically, objectively valuable, or that they have dignity, however, is to say that each of us has a moral value that is like a transfinite cardinal quantity in relation to all denumerable or countable, economic kinds of value.

In accordance with this mathematical analogy, our moral value as human persons thus transcends every denumerable value quantity, and therefore every economic value quantity, yet remains fully in the natural world.

As human persons, we are essentially in and of the natural world, but we are not “merely material” or “merely physical.”

Nor are we in any way commodities, which of course enables the Kantian concept of human dignity to overlap significantly with early Marx’s political theory, as formulated, for example, in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844.

Any social institution or system that commodifies us, violates our human dignity.

Again, the absolute, nondenumerably infinite, intrinsic, objective value of human persons is the highest possible kind of intrinsic objective value, sovereign over, or transcendent to, all other kinds; and the moral value of human persons cannot be provided either with an equivalent or anything greater in terms of any denumerable, economic value, commodity, or price.

Thus human persons do not have a price, or a market value; human persons are not commodities; the value of human persons is not merely instrumental; and more generally, human persons cannot permissibly be merely used, abused, used up, or destroyed at will, and then thrown or flushed away.

In turn, human dignity is adequately recognized by the moral attitudes and/or emotions of empathy and respect.

Then human oppression is any violation of sufficient empathy and/or respect for human dignity.

Finally, human persons do not have to do anything in order to have human 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 is an innate endowment.

Now my one substantive worry about Debes’s otherwise excellent article is that it doesn’t attempt to isolate the deeper source of the fragility of human dignity — apart, of course, from pointing up our “human, all too human” tendencies to regard other people as mere means or mere things, and also freely do morally impermissible things to them, by actually treating them as mere means or things, for whatever reason, usually sheer love of cruelty or other less flagrant forms of selfishness: but that’s simply a permanent feature of the human condition, alas.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that the deeper source of the fragility of human dignity is what I’ll call identitarian morality-&-politics, whether left-liberal or right-fascist.

Identitarian morality-&-politics, in general, says that the members of a certain designated group, the Us-group, possess special moral value and virtues merely by falling under the designated Us-group type, and that this group must always be morally and politically set apart from other groups and in particular from at least one different group, the Them-group, the members of which are substantially less morally valuable, or even nothing but human offal or vermin, again merely by falling under the designated Them-group type.

Simply because identitarian morality-&-politics entails a systematic moral and political discrimination between Us and Them, thus idolizing Us and correspondingly demonizing or even de-humanizing Them, and is thereby inherently particularist, it is fundamentally incompatible with dignitarian morality-&-politics, which is inherently universalist.

I think it’s self-evidently obvious how the identitarian morality-&-politics of right-fascists is morally and politically misguided — expressing itself, for example, as nativism, racism, sexism, sexual discrimination, xenophobia, etc., etc. — and fundamentally incompatible with dignitarian morality-&-politics, hence morally and politically reprehensible.

But I think it’s not widely recognized that the identitarian morality-&-politics of left-liberals is equally fundamentally incompatible with dignitarian morality-&-politics, and therefore equally morally and politically reprehensible.

To be sure, recent critiques of identity-liberalism, political correctness, “diversity-&-inclusion”-style multiculturalism, and hyper-liberalism, have picked out many of the rationally unjustified and immoral symptoms, both outside the professional academy and inside it.

See, for example, these three edgy essays–

“An Object of Contempt: Rorty Against the Unpatriotic Academy and the Coming Double Oppression of Loyalty Oaths”

“Canon Wars, Round 2: The Multi-Culti Critique of Western Philosophy”

“Multi-Culti is Anti-Kanti”

But, at a deeper level, what seems to be almost impossibly difficult for left-liberal identitarians to grasp is that the very same thing that makes them so obsessively and self-congratulatingly concerned with celebrating their favored group-identities, also makes them exceptionally moralistic, sanctimonious, intolerant, and even downright coercively wicked — to take only two recent examples, celebrating doxxing and sucker-punching neo-Nazis — towards any other individuals or groups that don’t agree with them or don’t belong to their designated “woke” virtue-signalling cohort.

Indeed, as almost impossibly difficult as it seems to be for left-liberal identitarians to wrap their minds and hearts around it, the following thesis is a direct consequence of dignitarian ethics and politics:

as despicable, immoral, and reprehensible as they are, neo-Nazis are human persons and possess human dignity too.

Now, for ‘neo-Nazis’, substitute any label that names any group of people vilified by left-liberal identitarians, and the dignitarian thesis remains true under every substitution-instance.

Hence left-liberal identitarians are every bit as morally and politically wrong-hearted and wrong-headed as right-fascist identitarians: they’re both equally moral and political tribalists, and they’re both equally enemies of the concept and moral-political practices of human dignity.

And, to put it bluntly, this means that until left-liberal identitarians fully grasp and internalize the fundamental distinction and incompatibility between

(i) identitarian particularist idolatry, and

(ii) empathetic respect for innate, universal human dignity,

then human dignity will remain profoundly fragile, and we’re all morally and politically fucked.


Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Thursday 27 September 2018

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Mr Nemo

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