Working Toward a Complete Theory of Moral Dignitarianism: A Reply to Hanna on Putin and the Student Protests.

Mr Nemo
11 min readJun 10, 2024

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By Robert Abele

(Davies and Abawi, 2024)

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Working Toward a Complete Theory of Moral Dignitarianism: A Reply to Hanna on Putin and the Student Protests

On June 2, 2024, Robert Hanna penned an article entitled “How to Apply Dignitarian Thinking to the Gaza War and Gaza Campus Protests” (Hanna, 2024a). Prior to that, on May 26, he wrote “Defending Kant from His Friends and Enemies” (Hanna, 2024b). There is much to commend in each article, such as his thorough definitions of both moral and political dignitarianism, and his truncated defense of Weak Transcendental Idealism, all of which is not only well articulated, but in my view essentially correct and on target. I agree with his positions here.

However, in each article, Hanna makes several assertions that are dubious at best, due to what he overlooks in order to establish his theses in each. I am going to reply to both of these articles, because although he may not have intended it, I believe they are interrelated in that the earlier article sets the foundation for the latter one. This is done by his using his conceptions of “moral dignitarianism” and “political dignitarianism” by the same definitions in each article. Rather than quote the entire definition in each case, I’ll simply use those elements of definition that are most appropriate for my concerns here.

“Moral dignitarianism” he defines as the belief that “every rational human animal possesses dignity” (his emphasis), that everyone ought everywhere to “treat everyone as persons,” and “respect their dignity, no matter what merely prudential reasons there are to do otherwise.”

“Political dignitarianism” is defined as the rejection of “all social institutions based on coercion and authoritarianism,” and that obliges resisting, devolving, and/or transforming all such social institutions.” Finally, respect is to be extended to all persons regardless of their “race, sex, ethnicity,” etc.

These very definitions underscore the high degree of urgent moral concerns on the part of the student protestors concerning Israel’s genocide of the Palestinian people. It does not seem to occur to Hanna that these are imperative, urgent and immediate concerns, and that much like the Categorical Imperative itself, it is of utmost importance that the moral principles involved be upheld. In the case of Israel’s attacks on Gaza, the immorality directly impacts student lives and concerns, as I will show in what follows. If this is correct, then depreciating the protests because they do not fit Hanna’s long-term moral interests, itself becomes a morally questionable position, since one then gets to reduce actions that objectively have more moral weight to something less important, something that Kant himself never did.

In the first article at issue, Hanna combines his two dignitarian definitions to name Vladimir Putin “one of the contemporary world’s most immoral politicians” by his “killing innocent people” and engaging in “aggressive war.” Overall, Hanna is taken aback by Putin’s claim that Kant is “one of the greatest thinkers of both his time and ours,” and holding Kant as a model both for Russian and the world’s thinking. The occasion for this was the celebration of Kant’s birth in Konigsberg earlier this year, at which Putin was invited to speak.

For Hanna, this was all too much, and indicated “a stunning display of political hypocrisy and ideological opportunism.” However, not only is this thesis never demonstrated in the body of the article, but he overlooks a great deal of evidence that would undermine and even disprove his thesis.

First of all, the rubric Hanna uses to judge Putin as so grossly immoral is that he killed innocent people and engaged in aggressive war while holding Kant as a model for his thinking. By this rubric alone, if he is going to condemn Putin, he must be consistent and condemn U.S. leaders and even German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who has followed the lead of the U.S. in engaging in far more aggressive wars and killing far more innocent people than Putin has in Ukraine. No such balance is even attempted in his article.

Second, it is important to note that Scholz was not just condemning Putin for referencing Kant as his ideal. He was in addition making the point that Kant was part of the German culture and history. That is why Scholz accused Putin of “poaching” Kant (Scholz’s term). But if we use Hanna’s rubric, then Scholz stands equally condemned as Putin for killing innocent lives and engaging in aggression, not the least of which is in regard to his own people. For instance, his support of the U.S. blowing up the Nordstream pipeline, and the extreme existential burden he has placed on his own citizens by forcing them to pay outrageous costs for their energy needs, as well as their employment concerns. As a result of Scholz’s behavior, Germany is now in the process of full deindustrialization, directly impacting the value of innocent lives. In addition, Scholz has supported long-distance strikes on Russian cities by Ukraine, which certainly qualifies as an aggression against many innocent people. How can a political leader who does such things make any claim to Kant, let alone be thought in any way to be a better representative of Kant than Putin?

Hanna might reply that his point was that Putin is the one who hypocritically (or inconsistently) claimed Kant as an ideal, not Scholz or anyone else. My reply is that if Putin cannot claim Kant to be an ideal given his immorality of invading Ukraine, then Kant cannot be used as anyone’s ideal, least of all those who are intimately involved on either side of the Ukraine fiasco, starting with the U.S.-sponsored coup of the democratically elected government of Ukraine in 2014.

There are two takeaways from this.

First, consistency requires universal application. If Hanna is going to condemn Putin for using Kant, he must also condemn Scholz. Otherwise, he is simply plugging an ideology and not an objective moral viewpoint.

Second, why is it not possible that both leaders can claim Kant as their own ideal philosopher? If Hanna wants to throw stones at Putin, he’s missing all the other glass houses all around him.

It is this skewed notion of justice that sets the conditions for his second article, which attempts to diminish the moral importance of the student protests across college campuses in the U.S. over Israel’s genocide of Palestinians. Interestingly, Hanna tips the balance in his favor from the start by refusing to call Israel’s actions a “genocide,” but rather “a tragedy.” In fact, the only mention of the term “genocide” is in his quotation of a news summary regarding student protests. But by no rational definition is Israel’s overwhelming violence against the Palestinians not a genocide, and thus not a high moral priority. Least of all can one legitimately diminish it by calling it measure just a “tragedy,” as Hanna does.

He further attempts to reduce the importance of the student protests by asserting that there are “greater moral and political[ly] important” important issues to protest than genocide. His examples are climate change, guns and violence, and neoliberal corporate capitalism.

Although he does agree with the students’ right to protest, he belittles its importance several times in his article. But here is what he is missing.

First, he makes the regular Western mistake of conflating antisemitism with anti-Israel, when he opines that the cause of the student protests are identity politics, wokeism, and antisemitism. If he were to separate anti-Israel from antisemitism, he opinion would have more plausibility. As it is, he makes it worse by ignoring what the students themselves have said is their reason for protesting Israel’s actions in Gaza. There have been a multitude of interviews conducted by both mainstream and alternative media, and in every single instance of which I am aware, the students were quite articulate and quite explicit regarding the intentions, and not a single student said a single thing about identity politics or about being woke. Rather, they spoke about the genocide itself, Israel’s actions in relation to their colleges’ investments in the military industrial complex, and the Biden administration’s full-throated political and military support of Israel’s actions. If such issues are not inherently pressing moral concerns, then what is the measurement of “important” issues that Hanna wants to use to reduce the importance of student protests? It is an effort to depreciate the importance of protesting genocide and military investment of the institutions that are charging them exorbitant tuition by trying to compare their concerns for immediate issues of justice with Hanna’s long-term moral issues such as climate change.

Further, he makes another typically Western commentator mistake: he equalizes the violence of Hamas’s October 7 attack with Israel’s asymmetrical response by making the blanket statement that “they are both wrong.” The issue is not the general condemnation of violence, but the degree to which such violence is perpetrated. That, in my view, is a far better measure of the depth of moral depravity than trying to equalize all violence, or by trying to draw up a list of “more important” topics to protest (the measure I refer to here is parallel to the old comparison of the “white lie” with “a real lie). If someone attacks me, they are wrong, but if I pummel them to a pulp in response, am I not more morally culpable for my actions than the original attacker?

At any rate, Hanna proffers no evidence to support his position regarding why students are protesting. He seems to just surmise what motivates them, and draws his conclusions from there. But if I am right in what I have just stated above, then there is evidence to be had regarding student intentions, and it is nowhere near what Hanna surmises it to be. If I might add my own experience in the college classroom, my students are, almost to a person, done with identity politics and wokeism. They are looking for something else, and I am offering them my own version of Kantian dignitarianism as an option. So far it has met with mostly success of having most students either adopting it or considering it with open minds as a way of ethically analyzing the issues of the day, not the least of which is the genocide now occurring in the Middle East.

On the contrary, the second form of Kant’s Categorical Imperative directly states that respect for the dignity of the individual qua human is paramount in ethics. What could be a greater violation of the Categorical Imperative than the most blatant disrespect for the rights of persons by genocidal intent? This is direct and immediate as an ethical concern, and thus indeed primary moral issue to protest against.

If one wants to analyze critical and universal ethical issues, and one doesn’t like to discuss an ongoing genocide as a primary moral issue, then one need only look at the massive crimes against humanity the U.S. commits on a daily basis, including creating the conditions for a coup d’etat of the democratically elected President of Ukraine in 2014, or the invasion of Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia, and Afghanistan and the millions of casualties of innocent lives as a direct consequence. How many millions of deaths is our own government responsible for as opposed to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine? By their own words, this is part of what our students are protesting today. This goes part and parcel with Israel’s genocide of Palestinians, which would be impossible were it not for U.S. military support.

I conclude from this consideration of Hanna’s articles that his conclusions about Putin’s immorality and the misplaced immediacy and appropriateness of student protests has been influenced more by the Western ideological narrative than by factual considerations or objective dignitarian concerns. In my view, a real dignitarian would unequivocally support the moral primacy of protests against a gross violation of human dignity, wherever it occurs. And genocide is the greatest of all disrespectful actions one group can show to another, no matter what you think about climate change or gun nuts.

Lest one is tempted to conclude that my analysis here is a series of red herring fallacies — after all, Hanna only condemned Putin because Putin has used Kant as a philosophical role model, and he did not condemn student protests but only advocated that they protest “more important issues” — I hasten to add that my comments here are intended to be a first foray into how these issue all link together into an overall pattern of an anti-dignitarian set of practices by our own government, both in Ukraine, in Israel’s genocide in Gaza, in climate change, and most importantly in neo-liberalism. It is this last point that is the lynchpin of it all, and it is the U.S. that is the main agent provocateur because it is the only country that publicly embraces and practices neoliberalism as its foreign policy doctrine. Therein lies another agreement I have with Hanna: the importance of this morally perverted doctrine in politics. My point here has been to encourage thinkers in the “dignitarian tradition” to widen their views to not only neoliberalism as the underlying moral and political theme, but to agree in practice that when there is an immediate existential threat to any person or set of persons, it is morally imperative that it be singled out and dealt with, with the assumption of its likely neoliberal foundations perhaps assumed and dealt with over time. Additionally, it is important to free ourselves of our parochial concerns, and this means to understand that Putin is not the “most immoral” actor in the world of politics today, as was stated, nor are students at all off the mark in seeing the moral primacy of their protests over the Gaza slaughter. Rather, they are in essence a response to the U.S. position, upheld and supported by the students’ own colleges and universities, of neoliberalism, which holds coups and military invasions to extend its doctrines. Genocide is a clear part of that overall pattern, and it must be protested “loudly,” as Hanna admits.

REFERENCES

(Davies and Abawi, 2024). Davies, D. and Abawi, Z. “As Campus Protests Escalate Surrounding the Israel-Gaza war, Ontario’s Bill 166 is Not the Answer.” The Conversation. 25 April. Available online at URL = <https://theconversation.com/as-campus-protests-escalate-surrounding-the-israel-gaza-war-ontarios-bill-166-is-not-the-answer-228258>.

(Hanna, 2024a). Hanna, R. “How To Apply Dignitarian Thinking to The Gaza War and Gaza Campus Protests.” Against Professional Philosophy. 2 June. Available online at URL =

<https://againstprofphil.org/2024/06/02/how-to-apply-dignitarian-thinking-to-the-gaza-war-and-gaza-campus-protests/>.

(Hanna, 2024b). Hanna, R. “Defending Kant From His Friends and His Enemies.” Against Professional Philosophy. 26 May. Available online at URL = <https://againstprofphil.org/2024/05/26/defending-kant-from-his-friends-and-his-enemies/>.

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Mr Nemo

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