Human Dignity and Justice   /   Fall 2007   /    Essays

The Elusive Nature of Human Dignity

Jeffrie G. Murphy

Engraving of Immanuel Kant (1791). Via Wikimedia Commons.

A mad animal
Man’s a mad animal
I’m a thousand years old and in my time
I’ve helped to commit a million murders
The earth is spread
The earth is spread thick
with squashed human guts
We few survivors
We few survivors
walk over a quaking bog of corpses
always under our feet
every step we take
rotted bones ashes matted hair
under our feet
broken teeth skulls split open
A mad animal
I’m a mad animal

—Peter Weiss, Marat/Sade11xPeter Weiss, Marat/Sade, trans. Geoffrey Skelton and Adrian Mitchell (Prospect Heights: Waveland, 2002) 32–3.

There seem to be two basic choices about how best to conceptualize morality and its claims on us. One possibility is to think of it as essentially a matter of consequences—the promotion of the best possible balance of good over bad consequences—and the other is to think of it in terms of certain fundamental and perhaps even absolute principles. Utilitarianism is the best-known version of the consequential approach—a moral theory that sets “the greatest good for the greatest number” as the basic principle of morality and characterizes good as pleasure or happiness.

There are many problems with this vision of morality, of course. For one, it builds the idea of moral good around pleasure or happiness, and many of us think that there are more important things in life than these hedonic states—perhaps even sympathizing a bit with Friedrich Nietzsche’s claim that utilitarianism is a shallow philosophy that would appeal only to pigs and English shopkeepers.

Even if one does not have these elitist and aesthetic objections to utilitarianism, however, it may strike some as leaving out the central values of rights and justice—an omission that would, so the classic objection goes, allow utilitarianism to justify making slaves of a minority or punishing the innocent if the greatest good for the greatest number would be served thereby. Utilitarianism actually can make a place for rights and justice, but the place will not be central or basic. Rights and justice will be derivative values—established only if called for by rules that themselves promote utility. Rights established by such rules might—indeed probably would—rule out slavery and punishing the innocent in most real-world cases. However, those who see this as the right result might understandably think that the result is reached for the wrong reason. The wrongness of treating individuals in this way, they would argue, does not depend on a determination that others—the majority—would be rendered insecure if social rules that allowed slavery or punishing the innocent were adopted. Is not avoiding such treatment simply wrong in principle, wrong in itself—something we owe to every particular individual regardless of the projected social consequences of making such treatment a general practice?

Finally, utilitarianism simply does not seem very inspiring—not the sort of value that could easily motivate a call to arms. As the philosopher Margaret MacDonald once observed, who would endure blood, toil, tears, and sweat for the sake of a little extra comfort?

If utilitarianism does not appeal—or does not appeal deeply enough to be the basic value—what might be tried as an alternative? What might capture the idea that some ways of treating human beings are intrinsically wrong and not merely instrumentally wrong? The most well-known alternative is a theory of justice grounded in the idea of basic human rights, rights that it is wrong in principle to violate. And how does this grounding work? According to Immanuel Kant, the most prominent philosophical defender of such a view, rights and justice must be based on the value of human dignity—the moral specialness of persons that makes them precious and perhaps even sacred, earning for them a kind of respect that is not available to any other sentient creature. On this view slavery, for example, will be rejected as a direct affront to the human dignity of each individual who is a slave—rejected as absolutely unacceptable from the moral point of view before any consideration of its impact on the general welfare has been taken.

This appeal certainly does not lack inspirational value, since the call to defend human dignity and rights can get the blood stirring in a way that appeals to a net gain in social utility cannot. Unfortunately, however, inspirational value alone is not sufficient; for inspiration will last only so long as the values on which it is based cannot be defeated by a variety of skeptical doubts—and doubts aplenty can be directed at the very idea of human dignity.

There are, of course, doubts of a deeply philosophical nature that can be raised against any attempt to establish human dignity on the basis of highly controversial metaphysical claims. Kant, for example, seemed to think that such dignity is grounded in human autonomy—an attribute of persons that he sometimes conceptualized as a radical freedom of the will, as “noumenal freedom,” whereby rationality exercises a kind of contra-causal influence on human actions. Of course, anyone who knows even a little bit about metaphysical determinism will realize that demonstrating the existence of this kind of freedom—or even finding a satisfactory way to analyze coherently the concept of such freedom—may be impossible.

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