If the Formula of Humanity (FH) is to serve as the core normative principle of Kantian ethics, then we need to examine the best arguments for believing that we are normatively bound to follow that principle. Why ought I to do what the FH says that I ought to do? This is the same as asking: why ought I to believe that humans and other rational creatures have status dignity?
This is the same question since the FH implies, or requires, that humans have, or should be regarded as having, status dignity. (Note that from now on, except where it is ambiguous, ‘dignity’ should be taken as shorthand for ‘status dignity’ in this chapter). One response to this question is to argue that in some suitably independent sense humans just have dignity, just as they (usually anyway) have two lungs and one heart, and that is why we ought to regard them as having it. Another response is to say that humans have dignity because of something we do, think or hold. And yet another response is to say that humans have dignity because our own reason says, from a practical point of view, that we must regard them as having it when we think and act. We shall attempt to pursue this last response here.
The outline of this chapter is as follows. First, we shall examine the contrast between moral realism and moral constructivism and look at different variants of each view. Next, I shall argue that a ‘not all the way down’ moral constructivist view seems to have advantages over both moral realist and ‘all the way down’ constructivist views. This makes a ‘not all the way down’ moral constructivist view a more appealing option than the alternatives, provided that we can offer a good argument for it. I then proceed to offer such an argument which purports to show that the FH is a principle of our own practical reason. The FH, on this view, is both a principle that we are rationally compelled to follow and one that we can regard as self-imposed as it derives from our own rational nature. Finally, we shall consider and respond to some objections to this view.
A useful way to approach the issue of how to justify the FH is to look at Kant’s metaethics and examine whether Kant is a moral constructivist or a moral realist. This is useful since, as will become clear below, if Kant is a moral realist then the sorts of arguments that he would need to make to ground the claim that humans have dignity are different to those he would need to make if he were a moral constructivist. Thus working out which (if any) of these views Kant in fact endorses, and which view a Kantian has most reason to endorse, will help us to lay the foundations for offering the right sorts of justifications and arguments for the FH.
The interpretation of Kant as a moral constructivist, inspired in particular by the work of John Rawls,1 has been dominant in much of the recent secondary literature on Kant in English. Prominent defenders of such a view include Jürgen Habermas, Barbara Herman, Thomas Hill, Christine Korsgaard, Onora O’Neill, John Rawls and Andrews Reath. However, this interpretation has lately come under sustained philosophical attack by the defenders of a moral realist interpretation of Kant. Prominent defenders of such a view include Karl Ameriks, Paul Guyer, Patrick Kain, Rae Langton, Robert Stern and Allen Wood. This raises two questions. First, was Kant a moral constructivist or a moral realist? Second, which of these views is the best Kantian view and why? Even though we are most interested in answering the second question here, an excellent way of doing that will be to start by examining the first question as this will reveal the relevant arguments and issues.
However, there are at least three main problems we face in answering this first question. First, this debate is posed in terms of a taxonomic structure which is foreign to Kant, and which seems to presuppose the claim, which Kant would arguably reject, that metaethical questions can and should be bracketed from normative ones. Related to this worry is confusion over whether constructivism is a metaethical view at all, or whether it is really a first-order moral view, or somehow both at once. Second, that taxonomic structure is itself contested and imprecise. For this reason, an unqualified assertion that Kant defends either realism or constructivism will not advance the debate. Third, it is not difficult to find either constructivistsounding or realist-sounding passages in Kant’s work. For this reason, simple duelling by quotation will probably not resolve the issues. We need, therefore, to think about the philosophical merits of both options. However, despite these difficulties, the question of whether Kant is a realist or a constructivist is worth further investigating since there are important issues at stake here. There are obvious problems with debates about taxonomic classification when the conceptual taxonomy is itself in question. This problem is one that plagues recent discussions about the conceptual relationship between realism and constructivism. Kantian realists tend to claim that Kantian
constructivists are thoroughgoing anti-realists.8 However, while some Kantian constructivists accept this tag,9 many others do not. Richard Galvin makes a similar point by noting that some versions of constructivism claim to be agnostic and others to be atheistic about realism. For example, O’Neill argues that Kantian constructivism can be read as bracketing the whole question of moral realism. It is therefore, on O’Neill’s view, agnostic about moral realism. Korsgaard, in contrast, argues that constructivism is ‘compatible’ with both realism and expressivism. From the practical standpoint realism is true, but true only in a constructivist procedural (as opposed to substantive) sense. From the theoretical standpoint expressivism is true, because from the impartial spectator’s view moral utterances look like the mere expression of attitudes. Ronald Milo argues that constructivism14 cannot be a form of robust or radical realism which treats moral principles as causal hypotheses required to explain our experience of the world. Milo instead conceives of moral truths as truths about an ideal social order and not truths about an actual natural or non-natural order of things. What Milo calls weak forms of moral realism are premised on this understanding of moral principles and this leads him to claim that some versions of constructivism, Kant’s explicitly included, ‘might be considered weak [as opposed to robust] forms of moral realism’. Drawing this together we can see that constructivism has been read as rejecting realism, bracketing realism and as a specific form of realism, namely procedural or weak realism.
The precise nature of the relationship between constructivism and realism clearly needs further clarification.
We shall start this process by examining Geoffrey Sayre-McCord’s influential account of moral realism. On this account, moral realism endorses just two theses. One, that moral claims ‘when literally construed, are literally true or false (cognitivism)’. Two, that some moral claims are ‘literally true’ (success theory). These two theses are denied, says Sayre-McCord, by instrumentalists and error theorists respectively. Instrumentalists (or non-cognitivists) reject the cognitivism of the first thesis. Moral claims, they argue, are mere instruments used either to issue commands or to express attitudes. They are not beliefs and not the sorts of claims that can be true or false. Error theorists reject only the second thesis. In order for moral claims to be true, they argue, objectively prescriptive entities would have to exist. But we have no reason, given the presence of widespread disagreement about moral matters, to believe that such metaphysically strange entities exist and, consequently, to think that any moral claims are literally true.
However, Kant is clearly neither a non-cognitivist nor an error theorist. Kant, for example, would surely agree that it is true that it would be morally wrong to lie for purely self-interested reasons. If, as Sayre-McCord argues, the non-cognitivist and the error-theorist are the only two opponents of the moral realist, and Kant is neither one of these, then it follows that Kant is a moral realist in this specific sense of the term. But this is only a weak sense of moral realism since it amounts to nothing more than a claim about the truth of some moral judgments. In addition, we can also take moral realism (or strong moral realism) to involve an ontological claim about what makes those judgments true: namely, the existence of an ‘independent moral order’ to which our true moral judgments correctly correspond. Of course, everything here depends upon the claim about independence. What is independent from what and in what way is it independent? Rather than try to offer a general answer to these questions, we shall concentrate below on two specific forms of independence, namely that between value and practical reason and that between the content and authority of rational constraints and mental acts of willing. Let us now turn to moral constructivism which is more difficult to state since there are many different forms of moral constructivism. One way to state the view is to say that moral constructivists take moral judgments to be true in virtue of laws, principles or procedures that we actually construct, would ideally construct or can regard ourselves as constructing, out of principles of practical reason, agreements, commitments or intuitions that we actually have or make, or would ideally have or make if we were fully rational.
To put this in simpler and more familiar Kantian terms, constructivists think that there is a rational procedure out of which we can construct valid maxims or good ends. Whichever self-given maxims or ends pass this rational procedure are valid or have value conferred on them. This implies that the procedure, or in Kant’s case practical reason, contains, implies or grounds a conception of value, namely of the value or goodness of what comes out of, is commanded by, or passes the procedure. In terms of the FH we can say that the self-adopted ends of rational agents that are compatible with treating everyone with dignity have an objective goodness conferred on them by that adoption and that the FH itself includes a conception of the absolute worth or status dignity of rational agents.
Constructivist views can vary in an important way since some versions are relativistic and some are not. If we take it that, for example, the cultural practices implicit in our concrete form of life construct a binding law defining what is right for us, then a moral judgment will be true in virtue of it being the case that it correctly represents what our cultural practices construct as right for us.19 Such views will be relativistic since they depend on an actual and therefore contingent (individual or collective) act of will, unless it can be shown that all persons (perhaps necessarily) already agree with, or are already committed to, the law or procedure in question. Other versions of constructivism aim to defend a non-relativistic view by grounding their position, not in actual acts of willing, but in hypothetical, ideal or fully rational acts of willing. These sorts of views are potentially nonrelativistic since they are independent of any actual acts of willing, and instead depend only on what, for example, all rational persons could in principle agree to or would agree to if they were fully rational, regardless of whether or not they actually agree to it. We can define the former view as ‘all the way down’ constructivism and the latter view as ‘not all the way down’ constructivism. The former view is constructivist ‘all the way down’ because either the content, the authority or both the content and authority of the procedure is constructed through an actual (individual or collective) act of sheer willing, agreeing or intending. One can be constructivist ‘all the way down’ about the content alone or the authority alone or both the content and the authority. In the first case the content of the law, what the law says, is constructed through an actual act of willing, whereas the law’s authority over you is simply given.
In the second case the content of the law is simply ‘laid out’ (to use Rawls’s phrase) and only the law’s authority over you is constructed through an act of willing to be bound by that law. In the third case both the content of the law and the law’s authority over you are constructed through an actual act of willing. It should be clear that no Kantian could accept an ‘all the way down’ constructivist view about the content of the law, since that would make the content of moral law itself relative to contingent acts of will. However, as we shall see a number of prominent Kantians, including Rawls and Korsgaard, have defended an ‘all the way down’ constructivism about the authority of the moral law. In contrast, a ‘not all the way down’ constructivist thinks that neither the content nor the authority of the law is dependent on any actual act of willing on behalf of those bound by that law. The law and its rational authority over you are simply ‘laid out’.
What, then, is the relationship between constructivism and realism? Since both ‘all the way down’ and ‘not all the way down’ constructivists are committed to the claim that some moral judgments are true (although they give different accounts of this), they both defend a cognitivist success theory. Thus both types of constructivists are moral realists in the weak sense of the term. Constructivism is therefore neither incompatible with nor agnostic about weak moral realism, since it implies weak moral realism. Constructivism is, however, incompatible with, or at least agnostic about, some versions of strong moral realism. This incompatibility is obvious in the case of the ‘all the way down’ constructivist. This is because the advocate of such a view claims that the content or authority of the law is dependent on an actual act of willing, whereas her strong moral realist counterpart denies this. This incompatibility or agnosticism is less obvious, however, in the case of the ‘not all the way down’ constructivist. This is because the advocate of such a view and her strong realist counterpart both claim that the content of the moral law and its authority is independent of any actual act of willing by those bound by that law. Nonetheless, we can still draw out a significant difference between these two views by turning to a separate and distinct independence claim that focuses on the relationship between reason and value.
The ‘not all the way down’ constructivist starts with an account of the rational authority of a procedure or principle and then gives an account of goodness in terms of what passes or is implied by that procedure, principle or norm. In terms of the Kantian view defended here, that principle is the FH. This Kantian view holds that the FH, and its implied conception of value, is a principle of practical reason itself. The FH implies or constitutes a conception of value because it commands us to regard all rational agents as having dignity or an absolute worth that trumps all lesser goods, and to regard other ends as objectively good (such as self-perfection and the self-given permissible ends of others). The content and authority of the FH is simply set out by practical reason. This is something that we can discover through rational reflection, argument and debate. We can discover this principle in this way since we are not trying to access an independent moral reality, but rather to access the standards internal to practical reason itself, and the way to access those standards is through reasoned reflection, argument and debate. However, the authority of the FH is not based on an account of the value or dignity of rational agents which can be given independently of, and prior to, setting out the rational requirements of practical reason itself. To ground the FH on this view we need to first show through rational reflection that the FH is a principle of practical reason itself, and then show how dignity follows from this.
The contrasting strong realist view starts with a realist account of the good, that is, an account of the good that is independent of both the requirements of practical reason itself and any acts of willing, valuing and so on. The realist then defends the rational authority of any procedure or principle, such as the FH, on the grounds that it is a fitting or proper response to that value. This does not, of course, require the Kantian realist to have a conception of dignity that makes absolutely no reference to practical reason. Rather, the Kantian realist is one who holds that the dignity of rational agents is independent of the nature of practical reason itself, but not independent of the presence of rational agents. For Kantian realists, it is the prior fact that rational agents have dignity which grounds the rational requirement to respect them (and not vice versa as on the ‘not all the way down’ constructivist view). To ground the FH on this view we need, then, to first show that rational agents have dignity independently of and prior to the demands of practical reason itself and anything we do or think (actually or hypothetically), and then show how the FH follows from that. Note that unless otherwise stated any subsequent use of the term ‘realist’ should be taken to refer to this specific Kantian strong moral realist view.
This makes it clear that, in the context of trying to justify or ground the FH, it matters which of these views the Kantian should endorse, since which view one endorses here will influence the sort of argumentative strategies that one should pursue. In the case of the Kantian ‘all the way down’ constructivist about the authority of the law, that strategy is to try to show that we necessarily commit ourselves to the authority of either the FH or the dignity of all rational agents. In the case of the Kantian ‘not all the way down’ constructivist, that strategy is to try to show that the rational requirements of practical reason itself include the FH, and then derive dignity from that. In the case of the Kantian strong moral realist, that strategy is to try to show, independently of the requirements of practical reason and our actual commitments, that people have dignity, and then derive the FH from that. But which of these views should we endorse and why?
Kantian Realism vs. Kantian Constructivism
There are four main worries that Kantian constructivists tend to have with Kantian realism. We shall call these respectively the autonomy, dogmatic, epistemological and ontological worries. The autonomy argument (or worry) is that realism seems to be incompatible with Kant’s foundational focus on self-legislation and autonomy. We find support for this line of argument in Kant’s claim that if ‘the will seeks the law that is to determine it anywhere else than in the fitness of its maxims for its own giving of universal law – consequently if, in going beyond itself, it seeks this law in a property of any of its objects – heteronomy always results’. Moral realism seems to be committed to the claim that the will should be determined by a property of an object of the will, namely the absolute value or dignity of persons. Moral realism is thereby committed to heteronomy as the basis of the moral law, and Kant thinks that ‘heteronomy of the will’ is the source of ‘all spurious principles of morality’. This seems to imply that morality itself must be autonomous in the sense that its basic principles are not dependent on any pre-existing property of any object.
The autonomy worry about moral realism leads, in turn, to three further worries. First, the dogmatic worry that realists make unjustified dogmatic assertions about the existence of values in the world. Second, the epistemological worry that realists cannot know what they claim to know about what values exist in the world. Third, the ontological worry that realists are committed to the existence of strange normative entities in the world. Are these accusations correct?
To make the dogmatism worry with realism more concrete, consider Paul Guyer’s discussion of whether Kant thinks (as the constructivist claims) that we should start ‘our moral reasoning from an abstract conception of pure practical reason’ or (as Guyer’s realist claims) from ‘an immediate recognition of the dignity of autonomy’. Guyer favours the latter approach and thinks that for Kant it is the immediate recognition of the dignity of freedom or autonomy that is ‘the immediately evident and irreducibly normative starting point of morality’. But what basis do we have for thinking that what is immediately evident to at least some people, but certainly not all people, is a good basis for knowing whether or not people really have dignity? It might, for example, seem immediately evident to the Nazi that Jews are subhuman and lack dignity, but that doesn’t make it so. Similarly, while it might seem immediately evident to Guyer and other Kantian realists that humans have (Kantian) status dignity, that doesn’t make it so. We surely deserve more evidence than the seemingly dogmatic assertion of some before we commit ourselves to something of such great importance. But, it seems, the Kantian realist cannot and does not offer anything more. This is related to the epistemological worry: how can the Kantian realist know about this independent moral realm? How can our intuitions or rational reflections provide access to what values are out there in the world? This is also related to the ontological worry: how can we fit the existence of ontologically strange normative entities into our best description of what exists in the world?
There have been several realist responses to the autonomy argument. One response which the Kantian realist might make is to argue that when Kant rules out spurious principles of morality, he explicitly rules out only certain types of principles. Namely, principles based on empirical incentives, such as self-interest or sympathy, those based on the rational grounds of an ‘ontological conception of perfection’, and those based on a theological conception which ‘derives morality from a divine, all-perfect will’. This does not seem to explicitly rule out all forms of moral realism. Further, the realist might argue, in response to the epistemological and ontological worries, that Kant not only does not rule out moral realism, he seems to premise his argument for the categorical imperative on it. This is because Kant argues that if there are unconditionally binding laws then ‘objective ends’ must exist, since these alone (unlike subjective ends) can ground formal (as opposed to material) practical principles which are ‘valid and necessary for all rational beings’. On Kant’s account these objective ends are existent persons with dignity whose ‘absolute’ or ‘incomparable’ worth ‘marks them out as an end in itself’ and, presumably, we have some justifiable means (although it is unclear what these means are) of coming to know this. Does this mean that Kant, committed as he is to the existence of unconditionally valuable objective ends, not only can but must be a realist?
I shall now develop a constructivist response to this important question in the next three sections of the paper. But before doing that we need to consider what motivates the move towards constructivism in the first place. What motivates it is the prospect of getting moral objectivity and grounding the FH without having to appeal to an external substantive moral reality. This is an appealing prospect since it would allow the account (as will be argued below) to avoid the autonomy, dogmatic, epistemological and ontological worries. This is a significant advantage. But first we need to look more closely at the different versions of constructivism.
We shall start our investigation of Kantian constructivism with Rawls’s highly influential account. Rawls illustrates Kant’s distinctive method of ethics by contrasting it with rational intuitionism, the ‘distinctive thesis’ of which is that ‘first principles … are regarded as true or false in virtue of a moral order of value that is prior to and independent of our conceptions of person and society, and of the public social role of moral doctrines’.
Rational intuitionism is a form of moral realism which involves an intellectual receptivity to a pre-existing order of values which ground moral first principles or laws. These intuitively grasped values are substantive external values that our faculty of reason is able to ‘see’ or ‘grasp’ somehow, not values internal to practical reason itself.
Kantian constructivism as a method of ethics, as Rawls understands it, starts with a conception of persons as free and equal and the social role of justice as allowing a community of persons to justify their shared institutions and basic structures to each other in ways that are acceptable to all. These conceptions are essential elements in ‘a reasonable procedure of construction, the outcome of which determines the content of the first principles of justice’. However, while Rawls argues that the first principles of justice are constructed out of this reasonable procedure, the reasonable procedure itself is not constructed. The procedure is ‘simply laid out’. This means that Rawls is not an ‘all the way down’ constructivist about the content of the procedure. Though the procedure is simply laid out, it does have a more fundamental ‘basis; and this basis is the conception of free and equal persons as reasonable and rational, a conception that is mirrored in the process’. This along with ‘the conception of a society of such persons … constitutes the basis of Kant’s constructivism’.
But where do these conceptions come from and why are they binding on us? These conceptions are not simply laid out but are rather ‘elicited from our moral experience’. They are ‘animated’ in us. Rawls, by the time of Political Liberalism, comes to understand these conceptions as based in a hermeneutic identity claim.
The basis of the procedure is our conception of persons as free and equal, a conception that is rooted and animated in the political and ethical life of our community. Here ‘our community’ refers to modern pluralistic democratic states. The procedure is binding on us because our actual but contingent pre-existing commitment to being able to justify our shared institutions to one another commits us to this procedure. Rawls is thus (in this text) an ‘all the way down’ constructivist about the authority (but not the content) of the procedure itself.
But Rawls’s approach of grounding the constructivist procedure in contingent ethical traditions or commitments means that the threat of relativism inevitably looms large. Such a contingent foundation cannot necessarily underwrite morality’s claim, as Kant understands it, to be able to command categorically and universally.47 But what could necessarily ground a universal moral procedure or principle? This question raises the more general worry that constructivism (in at least its ‘all the way down’ forms) needs to be grounded in the contingency of either a thick form of life or arbitrary choice, and because of this contingency it cannot ground a properly universal or categorical moral theory.
Habermas tries to avoid this problem by not basing his moral claims on contingent ethical conceptions of persons. Instead Habermas appeals to the ‘form and perspectival structure of unimpaired, intersubjective socialisation’ implicit in the ‘shared presuppositions … [of ] communicative forms of life’. Habermas then argues that we can construct, in a non-circular manner, moral duties and rights out of the ‘argumentative duties and rights’ implicit in all communicative forms of life. Socialisation into a communicative form of life is, on this account, supposed to ground a universalistic dialogical procedure (‘universal’ in that it applies to all communicative beings whatever their contingent ethical orientations), which is open to all and free of any coercion and deception whatsoever, from which we can construct concrete moral rights and duties.
There are two obvious worries that we might have with this sort of approach. The first worry is that it looks as if moral realist assumptions about the worth of persons are simply smuggled into the initial procedural setup, since why else must the procedure be open to all persons and be free from all coercion and deception? This looks like it smuggles in moral realism without admitting it. If that is right then it is not only disingenuous, but it has no advantage over moral realist alternatives. The second worry is that the procedure looks ungrounded in the sense of not being based on any substantive grounding value. Both Wood and Phillip Pettit state this challenge (though not directed at Habermas) in terms of the Euthyphro problem.50 Is a norm valid because it passes the procedure or does it pass the procedure because it is valid? The former constructivistlooking option makes the procedure look unmotivated and ungrounded.
The latter realist-looking option makes the procedure look redundant since some prior value, such as civility (for Pettit) or rational nature (for Wood), is doing the foundational normative work. To dispel the worry that their view is either ungrounded or grounded in unacknowledged realist underpinnings, Kantian constructivists need to account for objective ends and the dignity of persons in constructivist terms. How can this be done?
First, what does Kant mean by objective ends? On Kant’s account, merely subjective ends have ‘a worth [only] for us’ as an ‘effect of our action’. These ends are merely subjective because it is ‘only their mere relation to a specifically constituted faculty of desire [i.e. our own, which]
gives them their worth’.
A subjective end is an end only of value to me (or at least, is not necessarily valuable for all rational beings) as a result of my desire for or commitment to that end. An objective end, in contrast, is an end that is valuable for all rational agents. Kant is committed to the existence of two classes of objective ends: those with unconditional and absolute worth (i.e. status dignity) and those with non-absolute worth. Objective ends with non-absolute worth can have that worth contingently (such as the self-given permissible ends of rational agents) or non-contingently (such as the ends of self-perfection and the happiness of others).
Objective ends with non-absolute worth cannot, however, ground the most basic principle of morality (i.e. the FH) since such a principle is one that commands unconditionally. This means that to ground such a principle Kant requires an existent objective end that also has absolute and unconditional worth (i.e. status dignity) as an end in itself. This worth is unconditional because there is no condition under which it does not have its value, and it is absolute because no other considerations can ever override it. And Kant thinks that only persons have this sort of value. This requires that we always act in accordance with this value by making the worth of persons the limiting condition of the worth of any other end we adopt and by acting in ways that the worth of persons positively demands of us.
Persons have this normative status or value in virtue of being the sort of beings they are, that is, beings who possess the rational moral capacities which make them capable of autonomy. But why think that possessing certain rational capacities entitles you to the normative status associated with being an end in itself with absolute worth and dignity?
Realists and constructivists tend to pursue two different argumentative tracks in response to this question. Strong realists tend to claim that this value is simply a ‘jewel’ in the metaphysical landscape of the universe (Langton), a ‘fundamental moral norm’ which we find ‘compelling’ but of which no conclusive deduction can be given (Guyer), or a foundational value commitment which cannot itself be conclusively justified (Wood). We have already seen above how this realist move has serious dogmatic, epistemological and ontological concerns, especially in the light of disagreement about what is immediately compelling.59 In contrast, constructivists tend to focus on autonomy, self-legislation, value conferral, and rationality. The realist worry with the constructivist approach is that it cannot really defend Kant’s clear commitment to the dignity of persons. Can it? Perhaps Kant’s own argument for the value of humanity in Groundwork 4:427–29 can resolve these issues.
There Kant argues that what he calls ‘material ’ or ‘subjective’ ends can only have a relative worth. Such ends can only be the ‘ground of hypothetical imperatives’. Kant then asks us to suppose that ‘there was something the existence of which in itself has an absolute worth,’ and that something ‘as an end in itself could be a ground of determinate laws’. Kant then claims that ‘in it, and in it alone, would lie the ground of a possible categorical imperative, that is, of a practical law’. This looks like it commits Kant to the claim that only if we can give an account of the absolute worth of an end in itself independently of our account of a categorical imperative or practical law can we ground the rational authority of that imperative or law. We shall call (following Oliver Sensen) the reading of Kant in which he is committed to this claim the ‘standard’ reading.
This standard reading is endorsed by both self avowed ‘all the way down’ constructivists about the content of the law, such as Korsgaard, and self-avowed strong realists, such as Wood. There is a strong and a weak response to the standard reading of Kant. The strong response says that this is a misreading of Kant. The weak response says that even if this is not a misreading of this passage, the arguments used to defend this view do not succeed and, fortunately, such arguments are not required by the Kantian. Sensen defends the strong response against the standard view. He argues that ‘Kant does not ground the requirement to respect others on any value at all. Rather, one should respect others because it is commanded by the categorical imperative [which for Sensen means the Formula of Universal Law]’. But we shall not engage here in detailed textual exegesis to defend the strong claim for two reasons.
First, since this has already been done by Sensen and others. Second, since our main focus here is not on interpreting Kant’s view but on developing the best Kantian view. For this reason, we shall instead focus here on the weaker claim. I will defend this weaker claim by arguing in the next section that treating persons as the bearers of absolute worth is an obligation implied by the requirement of practical reason to will rationally.
To see why the arguments used in favour of the standard reading fail we shall briefly consider Korsgaard’s well-known reconstruction of Kant’s argument for the value of humanity. This argument starts with the uncontroversial claim that we must take our own ends to be good or worth choosing (otherwise why would we choose them?), and tries to show that this commits us to the controversial claim that all rational agents have unconditional worth. To this end Korsgaard argues from the conditional worth of our own ends, to our rational choice as the source and condition of the worth of those ends, to our own unconditional worth as rational agents, and from there to the unconditional worth of all rational agents.
This account is an ‘all the way down’ constructivist view about at least the authority of the absolute worth of humanity, since this worth results from something we do, namely confer value on ourselves and our ends through rational choosing. This argument has been strongly and widely criticised in an extensive literature. We shall focus here on what are arguably the two strongest objections to the plausibility of this type of regress argument.
First, as Rae Langton argues, even if Korsgaard’s argument works, it follows on her account that persons have absolute worth because they confer that value upon themselves. But that means, contra Korsgaard’s claim, that this worth cannot be an unconditional worth. It cannot be because it has a condition on its goodness. A person must do something to have that value. But as Kant notes, ‘the worth of any object to be acquired by our action is always conditional’. Korsgaard can respond that persons necessarily confer value on themselves since as agents they necessarily value their own ends. But even a condition that is always met, only seems to ground a conditional worth and not a worth that has its value without condition (as Kant thinks morality requires). In any case, it looks as if this condition is not in fact always met. Consider the case of a depressed person who has given up valuing herself and her ends. Such a person does not confer unconditional value on herself. This implies that, on Korsgaard’s account, she no longer has dignity. And that means that we no longer have reason to respect her. Since Kant would surely want to reject this conclusion, we should be wary of attributing such an argument to him. Further, since this conclusion does not seem intuitively appealing, we have independent reasons for being wary of it.
A second and more important worry is that Korsgaard’s inferences from the conditional worth of our ends, to our own unconditional worth, and from there to the unconditional worth of all rational agents, do not follow. This is because, as William Fitzpatrick argues, there is nothing in the commitment to taking our ends to be good which necessarily commits us to taking ourselves to be the source and condition of that goodness. This is because there are many other ways to account for the fact that we must as agents take our ends to be good, other than to assume that we take ourselves to be the source and condition of that value and thereby to be unconditionally valuable. For example, a realist account of value can do the same job of accounting for the goodness of our ends, without committing us to thinking of ourselves as the source and condition of that value and thereby unconditionally valuable. Further, even if we take our rational choice to be the source of, and the condition for, the goodness of our own ends, it does not follow that this commits us to taking other rational agents to be unconditionally valuable for us, since their rational choice is not the source of the goodness of our ends. An egoist might grant that his ends are valuable because he chooses them and that he himself is unconditionally valuable.
But this does not commit him to holding that everyone else must think as highly of him as he thinks of himself or that he must think as highly of everyone else as they think of themselves.
These worries give us good reasons to think that regress arguments which, as forms of ‘all the way down’ constructivism about the authority of the law, aim to provide a direct defence of the value of humanity are unlikely to be successful. This in turn gives us good reasons to give up on the standard reading, or at least to investigate the weak response to this reading by pursuing a ‘not all the way down’ constructivist alternative. Korsgaard reads Kant in 4:428–429 as going from a subjective principle, that we represent ourselves as an end in itself, to the objective principle that we are each an end in itself because we all think of ourselves in this way. But we can instead read this passage as saying that we have this subjective principle because of our awareness of the ‘rational ground’ for having it. This rational ground is that practical reason itself (as we shall see) demands that each rational agent think of all rational agents as ends in themselves. The presence of this rational ground makes this principle an objective principle.
This alternative approach better coheres with Kant’s analysis in Groundwork III. There Kant appeals, not to the value of freedom, but to the categorical imperative as the constitutive law of a free will in order to ground the categorical imperative. This alternative approach also better coheres with Kant’s account of autonomy (which we shall return to in Chapter 5) as the ‘ground of the dignity of human nature and of every rational nature’. Autonomy cannot be a preceding value which grounds the otherwise ungrounded categorical imperative. This is because to be autonomous in Kant’s sense is, among other things, to be bound by and to act in accordance with the categorical imperative for its own sake when choosing how to act. And to appeal to autonomy, which cannot be stated independently of the moral law, in order to ground the moral law is viciously circular.
Practical Rationality, the Formula of Humanity and Human Dignity
There are two general types of Kantian constructivist arguments that seek to ground the dignity of persons: ones that start with morally loaded starting points and ones that do not. The former start with thick morally loaded starting points and then derive further moral implications from that (such as Thomas Hill), whereas the latter start with more formal and supposedly morally neutral starting points and then derive further moral implications from that (such as Onora O’Neill). The problem with the first approach, as we have seen above, is that its morally loaded starting point seems unjustified, ungrounded and perhaps arbitrary. And realists may worry that such morally loaded starting points amount to an unacknowledged attempt to smuggle in moral realist values for free. The second approach can avoid these charges, which makes it the preferable option on these grounds. For this reason, it is the option that we shall pursue here.
The main worry with this option is whether it can really make good on its promise to deliver so much from so little. The below argument is an attempt to show that it can. Although this approach starts from a morally neutral starting point, it does not start from a normatively neutral starting point. We shall not attempt here to derive a normative ‘ought’ from a descriptive ‘is’. Rather, we shall attempt to derive the ‘ought’ of morality (and the FH in particular) from the ‘ought’ of practical rationality.
In order to develop this approach, we shall draw on some (but not other) elements from the work of O’Neill and Korsgaard. Korsgaard claims that on realist accounts we start with reasons based on a preceding order of value and define rationality as being responsive to those reasons. On constructivist accounts we instead start with a conception of practical rationality which states the standards or conditions that must be met for something to count as a reason. As O’Neill argues, we need standards of practical rationality, of what is to count as reason-giving, in order for the process of giving and receiving reasons to get going in the first place. This thought is (arguably) implicit in Kant’s claim that: ‘the concept of good and evil must not be determined before the moral law (of which, as it would seem, this concept would have to be made the basis) but only (as we have done here) after it and by means of it’. Here Kant can be read as saying that his approach is to start with the rational (and morality) and develop an account of the good after and by means of it (rather than vice versa). However, O’Neill’s approach differs importantly from the approach developed here, since O’Neill focuses on the Formula of Universal Law (FUL) as a requirement of human rationality, whereas I shall instead focus on the FH as a requirement of practical rationality. This alternative focus is both important and essential given the claim, defended in Chapter 1, that the FUL and the FH are not equivalent formulations. Since they are not equivalent, we shall need to show how the FH, independently of the FUL, is a requirement of practical rationality.
What, then, are the standards or requirements of practical rationality itself? And how could the FH be part of those requirements?
Practical rationality is a faculty of laws or principles. A principle of practical reason itself is a principle that ‘hold[s] for every rational being as such,’ and this means that it must be based on ‘grounds that are valid for every rational being as such’. What could those grounds be? There is only one thing that all rational beings (in the practical sense) necessarily have in common, and thus only one thing which can provide grounds for a principle (or principles) which is (or are) valid for or justifiable to every rational being. That one thing is their possession of rational capacities which ensures that they are (or can be) capable of being moved to action by consideration of rational principles about what they have reason to do, since this is what makes them rational beings (in the practical sense) in the first place. Any grounds other than rational capacities, such as feelings of sympathy or the capacity to suffer, will lack the requisite universality since not all rational beings will necessarily have these features and so a principle grounded in them cannot be valid for all rational beings as such.
But a principle could not possibly be valid for all rational beings as such if it is one that fails to treat always and firstly all rational beings as what they are – that is, beings with rational capacities. What does this mean? To treat someone always and firstly as a rational being is always to treat their capacity for rationality as having lexical priority over other aspects of who they are and to be valuable in its own right. It must be a principle that always does this, since otherwise it would sometimes treat them as what they are not, and that can’t be valid for all rational beings as such. It must be a principle that treats them firstly as rational beings, since otherwise it would sometimes prioritise first something besides their rational capacities, but that can’t necessarily be valid for all rational beings as such since not every rational being may have that extra something (whatever it is). And if we are required to prioritise always and firstly some aspect of ourselves and others then that is the same as saying, that thing (in this case, the rational capacities in ourselves and others) is valuable in its own right, since we always have reason to treat it or to regard it in appropriately positive or prioritising ways. One objection to this argument is as follows. Suppose you are, for example, a criminal or a shopkeeper. Must I treat you firstly and always as what you are, that is, as a criminal or a shopkeeper? It seems not. It doesn’t seem wrong, for example, to treat the criminal firstly as an honest man (even if he’s not) or to treat the shopkeeper firstly as a friend. So why must I always and firstly treat a rational being as a rational being? The difference is that being a shopkeeper or a criminal is not the most basic and essential feature of who that person is, whereas being a rational being is. While we have multiple roles and identities, such as being shopkeepers or criminals, which we often can and do change, what underlies these various roles and identities and constitutes who we are as persons at the most basic and essential level is our rational capacities. And it cannot be justified to us to give up being treated at the most basic and essential level as rational beings with rational capacities, because justification (or validity) necessarily appeals to precisely this feature about us (i.e. to our rational abilities to see the reasons why something is justified). This explains why it may be valid or justifiable to treat a shopkeeper as a friend or a criminal as an honest man, but it cannot be valid or justifiable to you to fail to treat you firstly and always as a rational being.
But only the FH necessarily meet this requirement. This is because the FH is the only principle that tells us always and firstly to treat rational beings as rational beings. It says this because the way always and firstly to treat rational beings as rational beings is not to use them as mere means while also treating them as ends in themselves. This is because (as we shall see in a moment) to treat someone as an end in herself and not as a mere means just is to treat her firstly and always as if she is the sort of being who can direct herself on the basis of reasons and set her own ends. Other principles might sometimes, or even often, treat rational beings firstly as rational beings. But no other principle necessarily treats them always in this way since no other principle makes it a direct principle always to treat them in this way. Since practical reason itself requires that we treat rational beings always and firstly as rational beings, and thereby act on principles valid for all rational beings as such, and since only acting as the FH requires necessarily treats all rational beings in this way, it follows that the FH is a principle of practical reason itself.
Why does the FH necessarily require that we always and firstly treat rational beings as rational beings? To use a person as a mere means is to fail to treat her firstly as a rational being by effectively bypassing her rational agency. For example, when you use violence against me to get your way you do not treat me firstly as a rational being by treating me as someone who freely directs himself on the basis of reasons and whose unforced consent must therefore be sought if we are to cooperate together. Instead you treat me firstly more like a thing, like a machine that needs to be kicked to operate properly, than a rational being who must be dealt with on the basis of reasons. To fail to treat a person as an end in itself is to fail to treat her firstly as a rational being by failing to treat her rational capacities as valuable in their own right. For example, if I make it my end not to develop and cultivate my own rational capacities or not to assist others to develop and exercise their rational capacities, then I am treating myself and others as if our rational capacities are not valuable in their own right. And since the FH requires that we always treat others in this way, it requires as a matter of principle that we firstly and always treat ourselves and others as rational beings. This is, of course, only a very brief outline of how the FH works, but it will suffice for our purposes in this chapter, since the details of this account will be presented in Chapter 3. Because all rational beings (including ourselves) must always and firstly be treated as rational beings, that is, must be treated in accordance with the FH, it follows that rational beings are objective ends that limit what choices we can make and what ends we can adopt.
The reason for this is that compatibility with the FH (and so always putting dignity first) is a test that all our subjective ends and projects must first pass through if they are to be justified. This means that all rational beings have the normative status of limiting all our choices, and so rationally limiting what can count as good or what we can have reason to do, and the appropriate attitude towards the bearer of that moral status is respect.
As Kant explains: ‘rational beings are called persons because their [rational] nature already marks them out as an end in itself, that is, as something that may not be used merely as a means, and hence so far limits all choice (and is an object of respect)’. Further, this also means that to have this normative status just is to have dignity, that is, an unconditional and absolute worth. It is an absolute worth because it encapsulates a worth that absolutely limits the worth of all other goods and ends. And it is an unconditional worth because there is no condition under which that worth is not present. You don’t have to do anything to have that status or worth, such as confer value on yourself. And you can’t lose that status by willing badly. Rather you simply have to be something, namely a rational being (or person) with the capacity for rationality and morality. Even if the use of your rational capacities is only conditionally good (dependent on their proper use), your possession of rational capacities per se remains unconditionally good.
A prospective reason must meet relevant rational standards of universality to even count as a (normative) reason. The relevant standard of universality (technically, universality) is that one’s actions are universally compatible with treating all persons with status dignity as specified by the FH. (As noted in Chapter 1, this is a different sort of universality than the universality used by the FLN and FUL). For example, your incentive to use me as a slave to enrich yourself is not a reason to use me in this way, since it involves using me as a mere means. In this case, you may have an incentive or a desire to use me as a slave but that does not, no matter what you think, actually provide you with a reason to use me as a slave. Another way of spelling out this claim is to say that you have at best a motivating reason, but not a normative or justifying reason, to use me as a slave.
This implies that all rational beings share the normative status of having an in-principle power of veto over what counts as a reason. As Kant notes, the ‘verdict’ of reason ‘is always simply the agreement of free citizens, of whom each one must be permitted to express, without let or hindrance, his objections or even his veto’. We don’t have a right to veto anything, but only those proposals which use us as a mere means or fail to also treat us as ends in ourselves. In this way, it is a rational requirement that we take all beings with the right sort of rational capacities to be equal co-authorities over what can count as a reason for us. Therefore, practical reason itself includes both a conception of the good (i.e. of the status dignity of rational beings) and limits what can count as good (i.e. sets relevant standards of universality that reasons must meet).
Kant goes on to explain that the: principle of humanity … as an end in itself [i.e. the FH] … is not borrowed from experience; first because of its universality … ; second because in it humanity is represented … as an objective end that, whatever ends we may have, ought as law to constitute the supreme limiting condition of all subjective ends, so that the principle must arise from pure reason.
The FH is a principle which arises from pure reason, that is, from the norms of practical rationality itself. That is why it is an a priori principle that is not borrowed from experience. Insofar as we are in fact rational beings who are capable of acting on the basis of reasons, we are bound by the standards of rationality internal to practical reason itself. But, as Kant notes, morality might still turn out to be a ‘phantom’ if we aren’t in fact rational beings. This is a legitimate concern given the lengths to which Kant goes to show that we might be mistaken to think that we ever act purely for the sake of moral reasons alone, rather than secretly for the sake of self-interested reasons. If we never act purely for the sake of moral reasons alone that might be because we are incapable of doing so.
Kant tries to counter this worry in two ways. First, in Section III of the Groundwork where he argues that we must presuppose that we are free ‘in a practical respect’, and since morality is the law of a free will, we must presuppose that we can act for the sake of morality. Second, in the Critique of Practical Reason where he famously reverses his argument, and instead argues that it is a fact of reason that we are subject to moral demands, and thus we must be capable of acting on those demands, which in turn makes us free.
Drawing on (without exactly replicating) these arguments, we can argue as follows. From the practical point of view of the agent we are inevitably faced with the necessity of deliberating and deciding how to act. To decide not to decide or not to deliberate is still to decide. When we deliberate about what to do we take into considerations the reasons we have for acting one way or the other. But from the practical point of view of the deliberating and deciding agent we must presuppose that we can (at least sometimes) act on the basis of our deliberations about what we have reason to do, otherwise deliberating and deciding would make no sense. And thus, from the practical point of view that we adopt when we deliberate about what to do, we must presuppose that we are rational beings who can at least sometimes act on the basis of considerations about what we have reason (including moral reasons) to do. But as rational beings we are rationally bound by the standards internal to practical reason itself. And if the above argument is sound, those rational standards include the FH. Of course, whether we really are rational beings in this sense may be an illusion or unknowable from the theoretical point of view, but that doesn’t undermine the normative necessity of the FH from within the practical point of view of the deliberating agent. And that is all morality, and thus the FH, needs in order to be normatively binding on us as deliberating agents.
Constructivist Responses to Realist Objections
Having thus far defended a Kantian version of ‘not all the way down’ constructivism, we shall consider in this section whether the objections that Kantian realists typically raise against constructivists apply to this view. We shall focus initially on Allen Wood’s prominent defence of a moral realist interpretation of Kant. Wood’s core claim is that constructivism amounts to a form of moral voluntarism. But since Kant rejects moral voluntarism, Wood argues, he cannot be a moral constructivist. Wood argues that the ‘content of the [moral] law is not a creation of my will, or the outcome of any constructive procedures on my part. The law of autonomy is objectively valid for rational volition because it is based on an objective end – the dignity of rational nature as an end in itself’. This leads Wood to claim that ‘any principle that gets its validity from a subjective act of ours – no matter what “procedure” is followed in performing this act – is still only subjectively valid’. If Wood is right then this would be a serious philosophical worry since it would undermine the universality of morality that many find appealing about Kantian views.
Wood’s criticism of constructivism seems to apply to ‘all the way down’ constructivist views. It certainly does apply to ‘all the way down’ constructivist views about the content of the moral law. Clearly Kant doesn’t think that the content of the moral law is up to anything we do, since that would mean that the Categorical Imperative (in whatever form) could be different for each person. This would collapse into an uninteresting individual moral relativism that Kantians (and many others) would not find appealing. Wood’s criticism also applies to ‘all the way down’ constructivist views about the authority of the moral law, unless defenders of such a view can show that that authority is necessarily granted. As we have seen above, Korsgaard presents an argument that tries to show this. However, echoing Langton, Fitzpatrick and others, I argued that this argument fails.
But Wood’s criticism does not apply to the ‘not all the way down’ constructivist view defended here. This is because, on this view, the content of the moral law, in this case the FH, is not up to anything we do. Instead that content is implicit in the standards and requirements internal to practical reason itself. The authority of the moral law on this view is also not dependent on anything we do. To be bound by the FH we don’t have to do anything. Instead we have only to be something, namely a rational being. So even though Wood is correct to say that Kant does, and Kantians should, reject moral voluntarism, it does not follow from this that Kant didn’t, and that Kantians shouldn’t, endorse a ‘not all the way down’ constructivist view. Indeed, we have seen good reasons above why Kantians should in fact endorse such a view.
But perhaps we are still missing the realist challenge? Patrick Kain, Robert Stern, and Wood all think that Kant’s legislator/author distinction might be decisive in favour of the realist and against the constructivist (at least as an interpretation of Kant). On this Kant writes: ‘One who commands (imperans) through a law is the lawgiver (legislator). He is the author (autor) of the obligation in accordance with the law, but not always the author of the law. In the latter case the law would be a positive (contingent) and chosen [willkülrich] law’. The legislator is the author of the obligation to act in accordance with the law, whereas the author is the author of the law itself. A law which has an author is a positive law.
But, Kain argues, constructivists turn the moral law itself into a positive law since they conceive of its basis as a particular act of willing (Willkür) on the part of particular agents. This leads Kain to argue that ‘the moral law cannot be a positive law, cannot be something we, or anyone else, including God, could make, since it can have no author (in the strict sense) but, rather, must be grounded “in the nature of things”, specifically in the nature of practical reason or the rational will’.
The central assumption of this line of critique is that constructivism bases its fundamental account of normativity on contingent choice (Willkür) and not on practical reason itself (Wille). This critique does not, however, apply to the ‘not all the way down’ constructivism defended here. The adoption of justifiable ends, actions and projects is indeed the adoption of a positive law since their basis is a contingent act of willing (Willkür). But the FH itself is not a positive law. Its basis is in practical reason itself (Wille) and not in contingent acts of willing (Willkür). What we self-legislate are ends, actions and projects under the guidance of the moral law (i.e. FH), and not the moral law itself. We can only ‘regard’ ourselves as the legislator of the moral law since the moral law is part of our nature or constitution as rational self-legislating beings.
But where does this leave the idea of self-legislation in Kantian ethics? Kant says that an agent is ‘subject only to laws given by himself but still universal’. However, this does not mean that each agent gives himself the meta-law that he is subject only to laws given by himself but still universal, in the same way that he gives himself universal laws (i.e. law-like justifiable actions or ends). Justifiable actions and ends derive from acts of Willkür that are universal (in the universality2 sense), but the law that actions and ends must be universal (in the universality2 sense) arises from one’s will (Wille) or practical reason itself. But none of this decisively favours either the realist or the ‘not all the way down’ constructivist. This is because we can say that it is either the nature of rational beings or the constitution of rational self-legislating agents which marks them out as ends in themselves. This shows us that realist-sounding talk about the moral law being grounded in ‘rational nature’ can mean more or less the same thing as constructivist-sounding procedural talk about the rational ‘constitution’ of self-legislating agents.
Karl Ameriks pursues a similar line of thought and argues that since Kant thinks that the moral law holds for all rational beings, it cannot be anything that we humans contingently will that makes the moral law binding on us. This is because it is very hard to see why what we humans happen to will should be binding on all rational beings, including a being with a divine will. This pushes Ameriks in the direction of moral realism, but nothing in accepting this point commits us to rejecting ‘not all the way down’ constructivism. This is because such a constructivist view has no difficulties in accounting for Kant’s claim that the moral law holds for all rational beings. Kant makes this claim because a practically rational being is a self-legislating being, and a self-legislating being is bound by the constitution of such a being, namely by the moral law in the form of the FH.
A different sort of realist worry is that the Kantian constructivist account makes the choice of permissible ends utterly arbitrary. This worry arises because on the constructivist account our ends aren’t good before we choose them (as they are on the realist account), since our choice confers value on our ends after we choose them. But if our ends aren’t good before we choose them, then isn’t our choice of ends utterly arbitrary? But it is wrong to think that just because our choice of ends is not guided by the prior goodness of those ends that our choices are utterly arbitrary. Rather, to import a term from Harry Frankfurt, we choose permissible ends and projects because we care about them. And we care about them because: we think they form part of our conception of the good or happiness; they are linked to other things that we care about; we have a history or tie to them which we want to maintain; it fits with who we think we are or want to be; and so on.
But we don’t (or don’t need to) care about them because we discover that independently of our caring about them they harbour some metaphysical property of goodness which guides our choice of them.
We can further clarify this view by asking whether the Kantian ‘not all the way down’ constructivist view defended here is what Langton calls a ‘projectivist’ or a ‘detectivist’ view about value. On Langton’s account the ‘projectivist’ about value ‘endorses the biconditional “something is good just in case it is an object of rational choice”, [by] giving “priority” (however we spell that out) to the right-hand side of the biconditional,’ that is, to something being good because it is the object of rational choice. A ‘detectivist’ gives ‘priority’ to the left-hand side, that is, to something being rational to choose because it is good. The Kantian ‘not all the way down’ constructivism defended here is projectivist about the objective worth of ends that result from the exercise of rational agency through the free adopting of permissible ends, since the objective worth of these ends is the result of our choosing them. And the view is detectivist about the absolute worth or dignity of rational agency itself and of the non-absolute worth of other ends directly required by morality (such as self-perfection and the happiness of others), since the worth of these ends is not the result of our choosing them. These ends all have objective worth since we have reason to promote or respect them independently of our inclinations. But only status dignity has an absolute worth that trumps all other worth.
While this view is detectivist about the status dignity of persons, since this worth does not depend on it being the object of our rational choice or Willkür, the dignity of persons on this view is still not a realist metaphysical value that we detect in the world. Rather it is a value that we detect is internal to practical reason itself, and which we can regard as self-legislated by our own Wille. In this way, we can think of practical reason itself as projecting the value of dignity onto us. It is because this foundational relationship between practical reason itself and dignity is one of projection, rather than detection (as it is on realist views), that this view amounts to a version of constructivism and not realism. And it is because this projection does not derive from any contingent choice or act of ours (as it does on ‘all the way down’ views), but from the nature of practical reason itself, that this view is a ‘not all the way down’ version of constructivism.
It should now be clear that this view avoids the four problems identified with Kantian realist approaches to grounding dignity. First, in terms of the autonomy argument, this view avoids collapsing into heteronomy since it avoids basing the FH and dignity on any object external to the will. Second, it avoids the dogmatic worry, since the value of dignity is not merely asserted or assumed to be immediately evident. Instead an argument from a morally neutral rational starting point was given. Third, it avoids the epistemological worry since we don’t have to worry about how through reflection or intuition we can grasp an independent moral reality. Instead we use rational argument, debate and reflection to get at the standards internal to our own practical reason itself. Fourth, it avoids the ontological worry, since we don’t need to explain how the value of dignity can be part of the world. Instead dignity is projected onto us and into the world via our own practical reason, whether or not that dignity also exists in the world independently of the internal standards of our own practical reason.
This last point is important since it allows this view to avoid Galvin’s charge that the autonomy argument necessarily commits the constructivist to adopting an atheistic rather than agnostic view about strong moral realism. Why is avoiding this charge important? If the constructivist is forced to be atheistic about strong moral realism, by being committed to the claim that there really are no values in the realist sense in the world, then this makes the constructivist look as dogmatic as the realist. It does this since now the constructivist appears to be making claims about how the world really is that she looks as unequipped as the realist to make or to know about. But the constructivist can avoid this problem by adopting (as we shall do here) an agnostic view about strong moral realism from a theoretical point of view. This is because even if one accepts the autonomy argument, one can still be agnostic about the existence of an external moral order that is prior to the moral law, by also holding that the existence (or not) of such an order is irrelevant to morality for all practical purposes. We can hold this because the internal requirements of practical reason (including the FH) that normatively bind the moral agent deliberating about what to do, neither depends upon nor are incompatible with the existence of a realist order of value that precedes that law. Whether or not such a realist order of value really exists from a theoretical point of view is simply irrelevant from a practical point of view. By endorsing this agnostic view, the Kantian ‘all the way down’ constructivist can effectively avoid the charge of dogmatism that threatens the atheistic view.
On the ‘not all the way down’ constructivist view defended here we really do have dignity for all practical purposes, even though we only have that value because it is commanded by our own reason that we treat persons in a certain way. Whether or not humans really have dignity from a theoretical perspective independently of the commands of our own practical reason, and whether our best scientific or metaphysical accounts of the universe will include a description of dignity, is irrelevant to the practical claim about what we have reason to do as deliberating agents. And we really do have reason to practically regard humans as having dignity.
Is Dignity Really a Value?
One final issue that we need to address here is the question of whether dignity is a value at all. As discussed in the Introduction, this question arises out of debate about whether Kantian dignity fits the traditional paradigm where dignity is a rank and not a value, or the modern paradigm where dignity is an inner value and not a rank. Oliver Sensen bases his argument for the claim that for Kant dignity is a rank and not a value primarily on an analysis of Kant’s account of value. He argues that for Kant value is not a metaphysical property inherent in things, but rather something that reason tells or commands us to do. While, as should be clear by now, I am in broad agreement with Sensen’s claims about the relationship between value and reason, I don’t agree that this commits us to saying that dignity is not a value. This is because we are still able to say on this view that dignity has a value because it is commanded by reason. Reason commands that we obey the FH, and the FH bestows (or projects) a certain rank or moral status on all rational agents, namely that of having firstly and always to be treated as rational beings and so never used as mere means and always treated as ends in themselves. And we can spell out the worth of that status or elevated rank in value terms: if you have that elevated rank then we must treat you as having an absolute, incomparable worth that trumps the worth of all lesser ends, such as happiness. In other words, you must ‘be valued [my italics] at the same time’ as an end in itself.
The more important issue is not whether dignity is a value or rank, since as we have seen it can be both, but whether dignity comes first and grounds a rational requirement to respect the moral status of persons, or whether a command of reason comes first and grounds the moral status of persons as the bearers of dignity. And on this more important issue Sensen and I agree that reason comes first and grounds the status or value of persons, and not vice versa as on realist accounts. A similar view is also defended by Allison.
He writes: ‘it is not that being human or having a rational nature has an independent value, which is the source of an obligation to treat beings with these qualities with respect; it is rather that the categorical imperative bestows this value upon them by enjoining us to treat such beings with respect, which turns out to mean not using them merely as means to one’s own ends’.
However, Sensen does have one further argument to counter the view defended here that dignity is also a value. In responding to papers by Heiner Klemme and Jochen Bojanowski, Sensen rejects the equation (which is also made here) of ‘has absolute value’ and ‘exists as an end in itself’ on the grounds that ‘one cannot make the substitution’ since Kant says ‘only a good will has absolute worth’. But if only a good will has absolute worth, then how can dignity also have an absolute worth? More troubling, since a good will is something that very few (if any) of us actually have, how can we both say that we have absolute worth only if we are one of the rare few who have a good will and that we all have absolute worth since we all (including the worst criminal) have status dignity?
There seems to be no pain free interpretive solution to this problem. Taking Sensen’s route and rejecting the claim that dignity has an absolute worth has the cost of trying to square this claim with Kant’s seemingly explicit claims that dignity does have an absolute worth. Taking the route favored here and accepting the claim that dignity has an absolute worth has the cost of trying to square this with the claim that only a good will has an absolute worth. One way to try to resolve this problem is to equate having status dignity with having a good will, but there are very good reasons against this option as we shall see in Chapter 4. Briefly, those reasons are that it would mean that none of us have status dignity since none of us seem to have a good will. There may, in fact, be no perfect interpretive solution to this problem. It may simply have been inconsistent of Kant to make both claims and no interpretive spin can make that inconsistency go away.
In any case, putting the interpretive question to one side, there is a simple conceptual solution to this problem that is open to us and which we shall adopt here. And that solution is to equate a good will, not with status dignity, but with fully perfected achievement dignity. A good will is a will that has fully realised its achievement dignity. But to be an end in yourself and have an absolute worth you only need to have status dignity, and you can have status dignity without having achievement dignity. While only a good will has fully perfected achievement dignity, the will of every rational being (including the worst criminal) has status dignity. This solution, however, raises important questions, which we shall examine in Chapters 4 and 5 respectively, about the conditions that need to be met in order to have status and achievement dignity.
The Kantian view defended in this chapter is a ‘not all the way down’ constructivist view about the FH. On this view, unlike on an ‘all the way down’ constructivist view, neither the content of the FH (as opposed to the content of our permissible ends and projects) nor the authority of the FH itself depends on any actual act of willing. For the moral law to be binding on us we don’t have to do something. We simply have to be something, namely beings capable of acting autonomously on the basis of reasons. And as rational beings we are bound by the FH because it is a constitutive norm or principle of practical rationality itself. This allows this view to avoid the difficulties with grounding the unconditional universality of morality that ‘all the way down’ constructivist views face. This view remains, however, a constructivist view and not a strong realist view because it is not based on an independent conception of value which precedes and grounds the FH. Rather it is based on the constructivist claim that practical reason itself constitutes a conception of objective value, namely of the status dignity (or absolute worth) of rational beings and the worth of their permissible ends.
This value is projected onto us by our own reason for all practical purposes. This allows this view to avoid the autonomy, dogmatic, epistemological and ontological worries that strong realist views face.
But these arguments only help to set the foundations for a substantive moral view based on the FH. More work is needed to complete this view and to defend it against a number of important further worries. First, we need to see how the FH might work as a moral principle for deciding what to do and to ascertain whether this principle generates false-positives and false-negatives. Second, we need to see who is covered by the FH. This is another way of asking the question: who counts as a rational being? Third, we need to outline the different requirements for having status and achievement dignity respectively. We shall seek to undertake these three tasks in the next three chapters »
– Formosa, P. (2017). Grounding Dignity: A Constructivist Foundation for the Formula of Humanity. In Kantian Ethics, Dignity and Perfection (pp. 37-71). Cambridge University Press.
« In Chapter 3 it became clear that in order to use the Formula of Humanity (FH) we need to know who has status dignity. This is essential since only beings with status dignity must always be treated as ends in themselves and never as mere means. Further, we have status dignity because it is a command of our own reason that we treat rational beings in accordance with the FH and thereby treat them in respect-worthy and loving ways. But how do we determine who has status dignity? Whom must we treat in accordance with the FH? To answer these questions, we shall first look at the textual evidence, primarily from Kant’s Groundwork, which shows that Kant explicitly endorses the view that it is our possession of rational capacities for morality that determines whether or not we have status dignity.
However, Kant’s view requires further theoretical development since he doesn’t explicitly explore different interpretations of what it means to have a capacity. In light of this lacuna we need to ask which is the best Kantian conception of dignity. To answer this question, we first need to systematise the alternative options by developing a conceptual taxonomy consisting of thirteen different Kantian conceptions of who has dignity. This allows us to assess more easily which of these alternative conceptions constitutes
the best Kantian conception of status dignity. Drawing on this taxonomy, I shall argue that the Rational (Moral) Capacities (Future-Potentiality) View is the most philosophically plausible Kantian conception of who has dignity.
Further, this view also seems to be the view that Kant endorses implicitly.
According to this view, you have status dignity only if you have the potential now or in the future to exercise moral capacities by acting respectfully towards yourself and others because of the dignity that we each possess.
Finally, we shall address potential false-positive cases that might arise for this view on the grounds that the FH seems to say nothing about our treatment of those humans who lack dignity. To deal with this worry, I shall argue that this view does not imply that we have no moral duties or legal obligations to humans who lack dignity.
Kant on Dignity: The Textual Evidence
For example, it is only from experience that we can know that human beings but not cockroaches are rational beings, since it obviously can’t be inferred from pure reason itself or known a priori that members of one particular species on Planet Earth
but not another have rational capacities. That is simply not the sort of thing that we can know from reason alone. We therefore need a principle of application which determines who counts as a rational being for the purposes of the FH. But principles of application are, for Kant, always dependent on experience. To determine who has dignity in practice, then, we need a principle of application which is dependent on experience and which determines who is to count as a rational being as such. Does Kant
give such a principle in subsequent passages?
After introducing the Formula of Autonomy (FA) and the Formula of the Realm of Ends (FRE), Kant writes that ‘that which constitutes the condition under which alone something can be an end in itself’ has ‘an inner worth, that is, dignity’.4 What is this condition?
This important passage tells us that it is both morality and humanity insofar as it is capable of morality that has dignity. We are also told that morality is the ‘condition under which’ a rational being can be an end in itself and thereby have dignity. This seems to provide the principle of application that we were looking for. On this view, beings have dignity if and only if they have a capacity for morality, or have a ‘humanity’ (that is, rational capacities) in them that is capable of morality. And whether this or that
particular being has a humanity or rational capacities in him or her capable of morality cannot, of course, be known a priori. If it can be known at all, it can only be known based on experience.
ll, it can only be known based on experience.
However, later in the same paragraph Kant goes on to say that whereas skills and diligence have a market price and wit and humour a fancy price, ‘fidelity in promises and benevolence from basic principles (not from instinct) have an inner worth’. This inner worth arises not from the ‘effects’ of such actions, but from the underlying ‘dispositions’ or ‘maxims of the will’ which manifest themselves through such actions. The ‘worth of such a cast of mind’, or disposition, is ‘cognized as dignity’.6 Here we seem to have another principle of application. On this second view, beings have dignity if and only if they have a morally good disposition.
At this point there are a number of interpretive difficulties to resolve.
First, how do these two tests work and, second, are these two tests equivalent? And if the two tests are not equivalent, are they compatible or incompatible? The meaning of the first test depends on what we understand by a capacity for morality. The term Kant uses here for capacity, ‘fähig’, has the same ambiguity as the English word ‘capacity’ in that it can mean either a potentiality (a term which is itself ambiguous) or an accomplishment.
For example, when I say that I have the ‘capacity to speak Finnish’, that could mean either that I have (unlike a dog) the potential to speak Finnish if I applied myself to learning the language or that I (unlike a non-Finnish speaker) can alreadyspeak Finnish. If we understand the capacity for morality as a potentiality, then it is clear that the two tests are different. This is because having a morally good disposition, which is an accomplishment achieved by adopting as your most basic character-defining value commitment the preference for morality over self-love, is not the same thing as having a mere potentiality for morality. If the two tests are not equivalent, then we need some way of choosing between them or resolving any tension between them. However, if we understand the capacity for morality as an accomplishment, then the two tests could be equivalent. This is because having a morally good disposition is (at least more or less) the same thing as having a fully developed capacity for morality in the accomplishment sense.
If the tests are equivalent, then there is no tension between them. While this option clearly has some appeal given that it eliminates any tension between the two tests, it also has a serious and arguably fatal drawback. This drawback is that, when combined with Kant’s plausible views on radical evil, it follows that all (or almost all) humans lack dignity and therefore that all (or almost all) humans may be used (in principle) as mere means.
Why are Kant’s views on radical evil plausible? For Kant, to be radically evil is to lack a good disposition, and thereby to be corrupted at the very root of your character, by being disposed at least sometimes to favour selfinterest and other values over morality. Most (if not all) of us are clearly radically evil in this sense, since we are disposed at some price point to allow other interests to trump our interest in morality. But if we have to have a good disposition (and so be disposed never to value anything above morality no matter the cost) simply in order to have dignity, then since no (or almost no) human has a good disposition, it follows that no (or almost no) human has dignity. This is a very serious drawback on two grounds.
First on interpretive grounds, since it is incompatible with Kant’s explicit view that all (or at least almost all) humans do in fact have dignity. Second on philosophical grounds, since it implies that imperfect moral beings such as ourselves lack dignity, which in turn renders the FH completely useless as a moral principle for us. The FH would then be a principle for moral saints alone and not a principle for morally frail and vulnerable beings such as ourselves.
Given that understanding the two tests as equivalent by interpreting ‘capacity’ as an accomplishment is unappealing, we are pushed back to the first option of understanding them as two different tests by interpreting ‘capacity’ as a potentiality. To make this option viable we need, however, a way of resolving the tension between these two tests. The way we shall do that here is to hold that there is in fact no tension since Kant is using (without making this explicit) the same word ‘dignity’ for two different types of dignity: status dignity and achievement dignity. It should not be surprising that we can once again find these two distinct types of dignity in Kant’s work, since they have often been employed in discussions of dignity both before and after Kant. As Oliver Sensen explains, for Kant and others who defend the traditional paradigm of dignity there are: two stages of dignity … On this account everyone has an initial dignity in having certain capacities (e.g., reason, freedom). But only if one makes a proper use of one’s capacities does one fully realize one’s initial dignity … [Both stages, however, are] referred to with the [same] term
To briefly recap this distinction which we outlined in earlier chapters, status dignity refers to the respect-worthy status of a person him- or herself.
Status dignity is not a matter of degree (one either has it or one does not) and it is often a permanent (or at least a stable long-term) property of a person. In contrast, achievement dignity refers to the respect-worthy status of a person’s beings and doings. Achievement dignity is a matter of degree (one can have more or less of it) and it is not usually a permanent or stable property since it can come and go and change degree. Recall that we employed this distinction in Chapter 2 to link having status dignity with being an end in itself and to link fully realised achievement dignity with having a good will.
We should understand Kant’s two tests as corresponding to particular conceptions of these two types of dignity. First, we have status dignity, and thus we must be treated as ends in ourselves and never as mere means, if we have a capacity for morality in the potentiality sense. Second, we have fully realised achievement dignity if (roughly) we actually have a morally good disposition or a capacity for morality in the accomplishment sense. Clearly, one can only have some degree of achievement dignity if one also has status dignity, but one can have status dignity without possessing much or even any achievement dignity. For example, I lower my degree of achievement dignity when I tell a lie or degradingly disavow my own worth merely to gain the favour of others, but even so I still retain my full and equal status dignity. This explains why everyone can have equal status dignity, including
the worst criminal, even though few (if any) of us, due to our radical evil, have full achievement dignity.
This interpretation allows us to make philosophical sense of both tests, since each test provides a distinct conception of a different type of dignity.
This distinction allows us to deal with the following philosophical objection (based on a worry raised by Richard Dean):13 how can there be equal dignity in an unrealised capacity compared to a fully realised one? But the claim here is not that there is equal dignity, but rather that there are different types of dignity at stake here – status and achievement dignity respectively. There is dignity in a cast of mind or disposition that always puts morality first. But there is also dignity of a different sort in being someone who can regard him- or herself as lawgiving in relation to the moral law. Someone with a fully realised capacity for morality does indeed have a higher degree of achievement dignity than someone who does not, but they both have an equal status dignity.
This explains why status dignity, unlike achievement dignity, does not come in degrees. We either have to treat you always as an end in yourself and never as a mere means or we do not. This is not a matter of degree. Status dignity does not come in degrees because it is a status that you either have or you do not have. You are either a member of the realm of ends or you are not, just as you are either a member of the local boating club or you are not. Everyone who has status dignity has the exact same moral standing.
In contrast, achievement dignity comes in degrees because achievements in general come in degrees. One can be more or less accomplished in regards to morality, just as one can be more or less accomplished in regards to playing the flute. In what follows in this chapter we shall focus on status dignity since it is this type of dignity that determines who we must apply the FH to and determining this is our primary concern here. We shall return to a discussion of achievement dignity in Chapter 5.
But is this proposed interpretation compatible with the remaining relevant passages in the Groundwork? In the next important relevant passage, Kant writes: for nothing can have a worth other than that which the law determines for it. But the lawgiving itself, which determines all worth, must for that very reason have a dignity, that is, an unconditional, incomparable worth; and the word respect [Achtung] alone provides a becoming expression for the estimate of it that a rational being must give. Autonomy is therefore the ground of the dignity of human nature [menschlichen] and of every rational nature [vernüntfigen Natur].
This passage says that dignity is associated with our lawgiving status in relation to the moral law, that respect is the appropriate attitude to have towards a being with dignity, and that autonomy is the ground of the status dignity of every rational nature. Since this last claim has not been explored here yet, it is worth commenting on.
How can autonomy be the ground of dignity? I will argue in Chapter 5 that we need to differentiate between ‘autonomy of the will’ (Wille), which is a property of the will of every rational being, and ‘autonomous willing’ (Willkür), which is something that only those rational beings who govern themselves in accordance with the moral law do. This distinction between two concepts of autonomy neatly maps on to the above distinction between two types of dignity. Autonomy of the will, as a capacity for morality that every rational being has, is the ground of status dignity.
Whereas autonomous willing is, as we shall see in Chapter 5, a key component of achievement dignity. The links between autonomy and dignity are therefore clear on this interpretation and this adds further weight to it.
Next in a slightly later passage, Kant repeats the claim that it is our being able to regard ourselves as lawgivers of the universal moral law that marks us out as ends in ourselves, before calling dignity a ‘prerogative’ that all persons have ‘over all merely natural beings’, such as animals and other beings that lack dignity. Following this, in noting that morality commands categorically and that it can conflict with the pursuit of happiness, Kant says that: And just in this lies the paradox that the mere dignity of humanity as rational nature, without any other end or advantage to be attained by it – hence respect for a mere idea – is yet to serve as an inflexible precept of the will, and that it is just in this independence of maxims from all such incentives that their sublimity consist, and the worthiness of every rational subject to be a lawgiving member in the kingdom of ends; for otherwise he would have to be represented only as subject to the natural law of his needs.
The basis of our dignity, then, lies in our worthiness to be a lawgiving member of the realm of ends, rather than in our being accomplished members of it. This worthiness in turn is based in the fact that we are not merely subject to the ‘natural law’ of our needs, since we are capable of acting (even if we in fact don’t) out of respect for the mere idea of a being subject to self-given moral norms. It is because we are capable of acting morally by being able to act out of sheer respect for the idea of ourselves and others as self-governing rational beings that we have a worthiness, or status dignity which grants us a place in the realm (or kingdom) of ends. So read, this passage further reinforces this interpretation.
The next relevant passage points to the same ambiguity discussed above between the two concepts of dignity. There Kant writes:
although in thinking of subjection to the law, yet at the same time we thereby respect a certain sublimity and dignity in the person who fulfils all his duties.
For there is indeed no sublimity in him insofar as he is subject to the moral law, but there certainly is insofar as he is at the same time lawgiving with respect to it and only for that reason subordinated to it. Later in the same paragraph Kant continues: Our own will insofar as it would act only under the condition of a possible giving of universal law through its maxims – this will possible for us in idea – is the proper object of respect; and the dignity of humanity consists just in this capacity to give universal law [die Würde der Menschheit besteht eben in dieser Fähigkeit], though with the condition of also being itself subject to
this very lawgiving.
These two passages, in a single paragraph, might easily be read as being in tension with one another. The first cites the dignity of the ‘person who fulfils all his duties’. This is equivalent to the claim that the person with a good disposition has dignity. We have interpreted this above as a claim about fully realised achievement dignity and not status dignity. The second passage refers to a will that is possible for us in idea that is the proper object of respect, and that our dignity consists in our capacity or potential to have such a will. The implication is clearly that it is not in fact having a will that always acts under this law, but the fact that such a will is possible for us in idea that grounds our dignity. This is equivalent to the claim that the person with a capacity for morality in the potentiality sense is the bearer of status dignity and deserves to be an object of respect. It is this potential for morality that is the proper object of respect and grounds our status dignity. This further helps to confirm the claim that we should read ‘capacity’ [Fähigkeit] in this context as a potentiality and not as an accomplishment.
Outside of these passages from the Groundwork, are there any other particularly relevant passages? There is one important passage in the Critique of Practical Reason where Kant writes: A human being [Mensch] is indeed unholy enough but the humanity [Menschheit] in his person must be holy to him. In the whole of creation everything one wants and over which one has any power can also be used merely as a means; a human being alone, and with him every rational creature, is an end in itself [nur der Mensch und mit ihm jedes vernüntfige Geschöpf ist Zweck an sich selbst]: by virtue of the autonomy of his freedom he is the subject of the moral law, which is holy.
This status, he says, ‘rests on their personality, by which alone they are ends in themselves’. He continues: ‘This idea of personality, awakening respect by setting before our eyes the sublimity of our nature (its vocation) while at the same time showing us the lack of accord of our conduct with respect to it and thus striking down self-conceit, is natural even to the most common human reason and is easily observed’. These passages also support the interpretation outlined here. Kant makes it clear that it is an idea of what we could be, our moral vocation as rational beings, and our subjection to the moral law that grounds our ends in ourselves status and our status dignity, and not our achievement dignity or accomplishments in living up to that ideal. Indeed, as Kant makes clear (foreshadowing his later account of radical evil), we do very badly in living up to that ideal and so this cannot be the basis of our status dignity. Further, Kant is clear here that it is our personality, our capacity to act for the sake of the moral law, and not our sheer humanity(when understood as a merely prudential capacity to set any ends whatsoever) that grounds our dignity. This is another way of repeating
Kant’s claim that it is not our humanity per se, but our humanity insofar as it is capable of morality, that is the basis of our dignity. This same point is also implied by Kant’s repeated claims about the dignity of morality and the lack of any claims about the dignity of prudence.
Against this reading, a single passage from The Metaphysics of Morals is usually employed to defend the alternative interpretive claim that Kant thinks that it is our possession of prudential rather than moral capacities that grounds our status dignity. In this much-quoted passage, Kant says that ‘the capacity to set oneself an end – any end whatsoever – is what characterizes humanity’. This might be read as saying that to have humanity and status dignity one only needs prudential reason, that is, the ability to
form a conception of the good and to adopt ends which implement that conception. However, to read this passage in this way is to take it out of context. In this section of the text Kant’s specific focus is not on the basis of dignity, but on our wide ethical duty to promote our natural perfection (and not merely our moral perfection) through promoting our ‘capacity to realize all sorts of possible ends’. His focus in this section is on the duty to promote our ability to pursue any ends set by reason, and not just the cultivation of our ability to act morally, as part of our duty of selfperfection. We have already looked at the basis of this claim in Chapter 3 in the discussion of the end of self-perfection. Elsewhere in the same text in a passage that, unlike the previously quoted passage, does seem to be directly relevant to the question of who has status dignity, Kant defines a person’s ‘humanity’ as ‘his personality independent of physical attributes (homo noumenon)’. This linking of humanity with personality and moral rationality, rather than with prudential rationality, fits much better, as we have seen above, with the totality of the textual evidence from the Groundwork and elsewhere.
A Taxonomy of Kantian Conceptions of Status Dignity
In the previous section, we examined the textual evidence in support of the interpretive claim that, for Kant, only those humans with a capacity in the potentiality (rather than accomplishment) sense for morality have status dignity. In this section, we shall consider some alternative interpretations of who has dignity on independent philosophical grounds, rather than simply on interpretative or textual grounds. There are numerous competing views on what is needed to have dignity or to be an end in itself
for Kant.26 Most views focus on the possession of various rational capacities or the proper use of those rational capacities. For example, Christine Korsgaard and Allen Wood focus on our rational power to set any ends whatsoever as the basis of our humanity; Jens Timmermann claims that
it is only ‘successful autonomous legislation in moral action’ that grounds our dignity; Dean claims that dignity or being an end in itself requires a good disposition; Henry Allison claims that dignity requires ‘the capacity to recognize and obey the categorical imperative’; and still others, as we shall see below, focus on pragmatic decisions, transcendental freedom and the possession of biological seeds.
To deal with this array of views in an efficient way, we need to develop a conceptual taxonomy of the different views and note representative examples of each type. After doing this, I shall then argue that my preferred Kantian conception of dignity is, overall, better than the alternatives. However, this will involve extrapolating from Kant’s texts, since Kant doesn’t (and many contemporary Kantians don’t) differentiate explicitly between different senses of the term ‘capacity’. If the arguments in this section succeed, then Kantians should endorse this substantive Kantian conception of status dignity based on its philosophical merits. These arguments also add further support to the textual evidence given in the previous section. This is because one important basis for choosing between alternative textually plausible interpretations is the principle of charity. This principle tells us
to select the most philosophically plausible interpretation and, if my arguments in this section are convincing, the Kantian conception that I defend here is the most philosophically plausible.
Two previous attempts to introduce a conceptual taxonomy covering the range of different Kantian views on this issue have been made by Patrick Kain and Allison. Kain’s taxonomy involves three groups: inclusive views, which hold that all humans have dignity (or moral status); restrictive views, which hold that only some have dignity; and pragmatic views, which hold that it is up to us to decide who has dignity. Kain, who opts for an inclusive view, cites Otfried Höffe, Reinhard Brandt, Ludwig Siep and Volker Gerhardt as supporters of the inclusive interpretation; Tom Regan and Allen Wood as supporters of the restrictive interpretation; and Christine Korsgaard, Tamar Schapiro and Onora O’Neill as supporters of the pragmatic view.31 While Kain’s taxonomy is useful, it lacks the nuance needed to account for the fact that inclusivity comes in degrees and that trade-offs are made between degrees of inclusivity and justificatory force. Allison’s taxonomy also involves three groups. Those who hold that: (1) minimally rational agents have dignity; (2) agents with a good will have dignity; and (3) agents with a capacity for morality have dignity. Allison attributes the first view to Korsgaard and Wood, the second view to Dean and Timmermann, and defends the third view himself.32 While Allison’s taxonomy is also useful, it fails to account for non-capacities views and it also fails to differentiate between the different accomplishment and potentiality senses of the term ‘capacity’. To overcome these limitations, I shall introduce the above figure which summarises the range of possible Kantian positions on what is required for having dignity.
In Figure 4.1 the views are divided at the highest level between Capacities Views and Non-Capacities Views. The former group of views are united in claiming that our status dignity rests on our having certain capacities, whereas the latter group of views are united in the denial of this key claim.
Capacities Views differ in regards to two key issues. The first issue arises because there can be disagreement about which capacity or capacities are needed for having dignity. While non-Kantian views might hold that it is, for example, a capacity to suffer or have desires that matters, all Kantian capacities views (since this is partly what makes them Kantian views) endorse some version of a Rational Capacities View. According to Rational Capacities Views, only beings with the relevant rational capacities have dignity.
The relevant rational capacities might be instrumental, prudential or moral reasoning capacities, or some combination of these. For the sake of simplicity, I assume that each rational power includes any that comes before it (i.e. prudential rationality includes instrumental rationality, and moral rationality includes both prudential and instrumental rationality).
As the complexity of these rational powers increases, these views become progressively less inclusive.
The second issue on which Capacities Views differ arises because there are at least the following three ways to interpret what it is to have a capacity.
According to these three views, one has the relevant capacity if and only if: (1) Accomplishment view: one has already properly exercised that capacity in its fully developed form. (2) Present-potentiality view: one could here and now, barring specific exempting circumstances, exercise that capacity at (at least) a basic level. (3) Future-potentiality view: one could now, or could likely in the future after the right development, exercise that capacity at (at least) a basic level.
For example, a native Finnish speaker has the capacity to speak Finnish in the accomplishment sense. Someone who knows a reasonable amount of Finnish but in fact never or rarely speaks Finnish has, unlike someone who knows no Finnish, the capacity to speak Finnish in the present-potentiality sense. Finally, a reasonably intelligent adult who knows no Finnish but has just enrolled in a Finnish language course has, unlike a dog or a cockroach, the capacity to speak Finnish in the future-potentiality sense. These views become progressively more inclusive in scope as the broadness of the interpretation of a capacity increases. Since there are three options for each of the two issues, in combination we have a total of nine different Rational
However, although there are numerous authors who defend some version of the prudential or moral capacities views, including Allison, Dean, Thomas Hill, Samuel Kerstein, Korsgaard and Wood, in many of these cases there is no clear differentiation between the different senses of the term ‘capacity’. This makes it hard in all cases to map these authors onto specific views. For example, while Allison clearly defends a moral capacities view and rejects an accomplishment reading of moral capacities, this
leaves it unclear whether he endorses View 6 or View 9. For this reason, when discussing these various views, we shall often focus on the arguments rather than on specific authors who defend them.
The Non-Capacities Views cannot be neatly divided up in this way since, unlike Capacities Views, there are not just one or two issues over which there is disagreement. What ties these views together is their opposition to Capacities Views. That is, they each reject the claim that it is something that we can or could individually do or be that grounds our individual status dignity. While there are a number of possible options here, I shall focus on the following four views since they cover the range of plausible alternatives well: Pragmatic View, Membership of the Species View, Biological Germ View and the Transcendental Kernel View.
These views are ordered such that each view is less metaphysically modest than the previous one. Whereas the Pragmatic View is very metaphysically modest, the Transcendental Kernel View requires a complicated and very controversial metaphysics, with the other two views slotting in between these two extremes.
But how can we assess which of these views provides the most philosophically plausible Kantian conception of dignity? The way we shall seek to answer that question here is to focus on how well each view handles the tension between justificatory force and inclusivity. This tension is often noted in accounts of dignity, which makes it an appropriate focus for us here. This tension arises because dignity is often understood to be something that all humans and only humans have, including the neediest and most vulnerable (in the narrow sense). However, it is difficult to see what plausible justificatory story could be given for this degree of inclusivity. If we point to some feature or features about humans to justify this claim, such as their possession of various capacities and powers, then we face the problem that not all (and in some cases not only) humans will have that feature. This makes it seem that only a more limited (or a broader) inclusivity can be justified. To complicate matters further, inclusivity itself comes in degrees and, as we shall see below, more inclusivity is not always to be regarded as a good thing. What we are after, then, is a conception of dignity that is inclusive to the right degree, while retaining as strong a justificatory story as possible. We shall keep this goal in focus in assessing the philosophical plausibility of the following views.
But before doing that it is worth addressing a concern with the entire focus of this chapter on finding the best principle of application to determine who has dignity. For example, Oliver Sensen rejects the claim that we should have or seek any such principle. Sensen, in his discussion of the application of Kantian morality to marginal cases, argues that the moral law is a ‘direct command of one’s own reason’, which is ‘akin to an innate principle’ that is not gained ‘because one experiences [the presence of ] a valuable being’. As noted in Chapter 2, Sensen’s approach on this point is endorsed here. But Sensen then uses this to argue that this approach: has important consequences for marginal cases: One would not first have to find out whether the other possesses the relevant feature in question (e.g., the capacity to set ends, or freedom) in order to be bound to respect them.
Rather one should first adopt this attitude, and then normal human adults as well as marginal cases (even lower animals and the environment) will benefit from that attitude.
But we can maintain a stable attitude to respect rational beings even while discriminating between beings who clearly are and are clearly not rational beings.
This means that we still need some way to understand why we are required by our own reason to have an attitude of respect for human beings but not for lumps of concrete or blades of grass. Either there is something about the object in question that makes it a fitting subject for the attitude of respect or there is nothing at all about it. In the former case, we need to spell out what that something is. This is where the principle of application we are seeking here is needed. In the latter case, it seems it is simply
up to us to decide who is the subject of that attitude since there is nothing at all about the object that makes it a fitting subject for the attitude of respect. This case would then become a version of the Pragmatic View which we shall explore below. Either way, we still need some way (even if it is through sheer decision) to work out (or to decide) to whom we owe (or grant) respect and to whom we don’t. In other words, we still need a principle of application to determine who has status dignity and who does
not. We shall now seek to defend such a principle.
Kant is clear that all and only rational beings have dignity. But which are the relevant rational capacities needed to count as a rational being for the purposes of the FH? To answer that question we shall need to differentiate between instrumental, prudential and moral rational capacities views. All forms of rational agency involve the ability to reason and to act on the basis of that reasoning. Instrumental rationality is the capacity to act on instrumental reasons about the best means to an end. Prudential rationality is the capacity to form a conception of the good or happiness and to act on prudential reasons about what will promote or realise that conception.
Moral rationality (in this context) is the capacity to act on the basis of moral reasons about what respecting and positively valuing the dignity of rational beings requires. A being with only instrumental rationality can only reason out the best means to her ends. She cannot reason about the worth of her ends. A being with instrumental as well as prudential rationality can reason about the prudential worth of her particular ends and can formulate a plan about when and how she wants her particular ends to be satisfied
in the context of her overall conception of the good. A being with moral rationality is capable both of assessing the moral permissibility of pursuing her happiness and of acting for the sake of moral reasons alone. This means that she is able to act morally irrespective of whether or not doing so is compatible with or required by her conception of the good.
Are instrumental, prudential or moral capacities needed to have dignity?
For Kant, there is dignity in our lawgiving status, but not in our servitude. However, a being with only instrumental rationality is stuck in servitude to her ends. She is a servant to her ends because she cannot rationally question or revise them and because they are set for her by her emotions, desires, social and historical context and the like. And there is no dignity in such servitude. In contrast, a being with instrumental and prudential rationality has the capacity to set ends, as well as means, and is able to assess the worth of her ends rationally. However, there is one end that she cannot rationally assess. That end is her meta-end of pursuing her own happiness or conception of the good, since she lacks a non-prudential normative standpoint from which to assess and critically reflect on the worth of her own happiness. She is therefore a servant to her own happiness, which simply determines what she does. But there is no dignity in such servitude. However, a being with instrumental, prudential and moral rationality can, in contrast, be fully self-determining as she can act for the sake of reason itself and its laws which she can regard as self-given. Such an agent is not in servitude either to the whims of her current desires and emotions or to her metainterest in her own happiness, since all these ends are subject to a law or moral ideal that her own reason gives to her and that derives from her rational nature. For such an agent nothing is immune from rational critique, including morality itself. It is her awe-inspiring freedom from servitude, or her autonomy, in the form of her capacity to allow no ends or means to remain immune from rational critique, which demands our respect. In other words, it is her moral capacities that ground her status dignity.
This argument shows us that the moral capacity view has the best Kantian justificatory story of the three rational capacities views considered here. This view is also, as we saw in the last section, the one that Kant endorses.
However, we need to assess these three views not merely in terms of their justificatory force, but also in terms of their inclusivity. To do that we shall need to combine each of these three views with each of the three interpretations of a capacity. This gives us nine distinct capacities views (see Figure 4.1). Of these views, we shall examine the three instrumental rationality views (Views 1, 4 and 7) only very briefly, since these views have no explicit Kantian advocates in the literature and, as we have seen above, the
least convincing justificatory story. This leaves us with six plausible views that will be our main focus. I have already argued that Kant’s own view is a moral capacities potentiality view (that is, either View 8 or View 9). In any case, Kant’s own view might not be the best Kantian view, which is what we are seeking here.
Views 1, 2 and 3: Rational Capacities (Accomplishment) Views
According to the accomplishment interpretation of a capacity, one has the relevant rational capacity if and only if one has fully developed that capacity. On these views, a person has dignity if and only if she has fully developed her rational capacities and is always disposed to act in an instrumentally (View 1), prudentially (View 2), or morally (View 3) rational way. Of these three views only the last (View 3) has been explicitly defended before and it will therefore be our focus here. On this view, defended by Richard Dean among others, one has dignity only if one has fully developed and actualised one’s capacity for morality by adopting a good disposition or by developing a good will. I have already argued against this view earlier on textual and philosophical grounds. To recap briefly, the philosophical concern is that no one (or almost no one) has a good disposition, and therefore no one (or almost no one) has status dignity. But what makes dignity an appealing moral concept is that it is supposed to be something that (at least almost) everyone has, from the hardened scoundrel to the moral saint, and this is something that cannot be made sense of on this view. These inclusivity worries also apply, perhaps to a slightly lesser extent, to both the instrumental (View 1) and prudential (View 2) versions of the accomplishment interpretation of a capacity. This is because most people are no more (or not substantially more) disposed to be perfectly instrumentally or prudentially rational than they are to be perfectly morally rational. Humans are rationally imperfect creatures in all three senses. This makes these views unappealing on inclusivity grounds.
Views 4, 5 and 6: Rational Capacities (Present-Potentiality) Views
According to the present-potentiality interpretation of a capacity, a person has dignity if and only if she could here and now actually act for the sake of at least instrumental (View 4), prudential (View 5), or moral (View 6) reasons alone, barring certain exempting circumstances, even if she doesn’t in fact always or ever do so. For example, I have the capacity in this sense to play Beethoven’s Für Elise on the piano if I can in fact play that piece tolerably well here and now, provided that I am not asleep, temporarily have broken hands or no access to a piano. These exempting circumstances are those that would prevent someone who has the capacity from being able to exercise that capacity if she so chooses. Applied to our rational capacities, exempting circumstances include not being subject to overpowering emotions (‘affects’) and overpowering desires (‘passions’). There are epistemological difficulties, however, in determining whether an unexercised rational capacity really exists or not. If I never choose to play Für Elise or anything else on the piano, how can I know for sure that I really could play it if I chose to?
There are four clear categories of cases in regards to who gets included and excluded on this view. First, there are those persons who clearly have the required rational capacities because we know that they at least sometimes actually act for the sake of reasons alone. Second, there are those persons about whom we have good grounds for thinking that they could actually act for the sake of reasons alone here and now, even if in fact they never do (for all we know). Third, there are those persons who constitute borderline cases in which we lack strong grounds for thinking that they either can or cannot actually act for the sake of reasons alone here and now. Fourth, there are those persons about which we have strong grounds for thinking that they cannot actually act for the sake of reasons alone here and now. On the present-potentiality interpretation of a capacity it follows that members of the first two categories have status dignity, that members of the fourth do not have dignity, and that it is unknown whether or not
the members of the third have dignity.
On all three versions of this view (Views 4, 5 and 6) it follows that all humans for significant portions of their lives and some other humans at all points in their lives will lack status dignity by belonging to the fourth category. For example, all newborns, infants and young children (up to some unspecified age) will lack dignity on this view, as will many cognitively impaired adults and patients in Persistent Vegetative States (PVS), among many other examples. This implication is explicitly acknowledged by Kerstein who defends a version of View 6.42 Kerstein also acknowledges that a theory that has the implication that, for example, all newborns and infants lack dignity and can therefore be used in principle as mere means, is a theory that ‘many would fine unacceptable’. I share this concern. If it is possible to find a view that does not have this implication, then that is all else being equal a better view. We shall seek to defend such a view in the next section.
While less exclusive than accomplishment views, the present potentiality views still seem to exclude far too many, including all
newborns, infants and young children. Indeed, if (as seems likely) the complex moral development required to will ends for the sake of the moral law alone means that moral capacities aren’t first exercised until an age much closer to adulthood than infancy,44 then this view would imply that for most (if not all) of our childhood we lack status dignity. This is a troubling implication and one that we should try to avoid if we can.
Since instrumental rationality in particular, and prudential rationality to a lesser extent, seem to emerge developmentally before moral rationality, Views 4 and 5 are relatively less exclusive than View 6, but they still exclude significant (if lesser) amounts of our childhood. Can we get a more inclusive view than this? We can if we move to a future-potentiality view.
Views 7, 8 and 9: Rational Capacities (Future-Potentiality) Views
The future-potentiality views include an expanded focus beyond what one has done and could do now, to include what one could do in the future.
One has the relevant rational capacity in this sense if one could now or in the future, following the right development, support, training and effort, actually exercise that capacity, even if one can’t exercise that capacity now and may never be able to do so since one may fail to get the right support or training at the right times or fail to make the required effort. It is in this sense that, for example, (almost) any human child but no dog has the capacity to speak Finnish. According to future-potentiality views (Views
7, 8 and 9), it is our possession of a latent or realised capacity, exercised or not, to be rationally self-directing that determines whether or not we have status dignity. Or to reuse Kant’s terms, it is the idea of what we could become, given our latent powers, that grounds our dignity. This present and forward-looking focus allows future-potentiality views, unlike presentpotentiality views, to include the intuitively important cases of newborns, infants and young children. This extra inclusivity in such core cases gives
us a strong reason, all else being equal, to prefer such views over their less
But, first, which version of this view is best: the instrumental (View 7), prudential (View 8) or moral (View 9) version? As we have seen earlier, on philosophical and textual grounds we have strong justificatory reasons for preferring the moral version over the prudential version and both of these views over the instrumental version. Should we revise this preference on the grounds of inclusivity? No, since there is unlikely to be any significant difference between these three views in terms of inclusivity. If one has the present or future potential to step back from one’s current desires and emotions and act after deliberation on the basis of instrumental reasons, then one is likely to have the present or future potential to act on the basis of prudential and moral reasons as well. These three views generally coincide in terms of inclusivity because the power to act on the basis of all sorts of reasons tends to come as a single unified bundle.
However, although these three views generally coincide in terms of inclusivity, they don’t necessarily coincide. One case that draws out the difference between these views is that of psychopaths. For our purposes (whether or not this is true of real-world human psychopaths), we shall understand psychopaths to be agents who are capable of instrumental and prudential rationality but not moral rationality. So understood, psychopaths count as having dignity on the instrumental (View 7) and prudential (View 8) views, but not on the moral (View 9) view. Does the extra inclusivity of the former two views give us good reasons to prefer one of them over the moral view?
Given that the moral responsibility of psychopaths is often questioned, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to question their possession of dignity as well. If that questioning seems plausible, then the slightly less inclusive moral version (View 9) has an advantage over its more inclusive alternatives, since it correctly holds that psychopaths lack dignity. In any case, unlike the exclusion of all newborns, infants and young children, the exclusion or inclusion of psychopaths hardly seems to be a core case upon which a conception of status dignity should stand or fall.
Therefore, since on grounds of inclusivity we have no strong reasons to prefer any of the three future-potentiality views, whereas on grounds of justificatory force we have good reasons to prefer the moral capacities version, it follows by elimination that the moral capacities version
(View 9) is, provisionally, the best Kantian conception of dignity. But does this view hold up to further scrutiny? To assess this issue we shall examine, in the next section, three extra reasons in support of this view and respond to a number of objections to it.
More Arguments in Favour of the Rational (Moral) Capacities (Future-Potentiality) View
View 9 has been shown above, on grounds of justificatory force and inclusivity, to be the best Kantian Capacities View. We shall now consider in this section three further reasons for preferring this conception of dignity before considering three objections to this view. In the next section, we shall see why this view is also better than Non-Capacities Views.
Firstly, View 9 is the view that Kant at least implicitly endorses. We have already seen that Kant explicitlyendorses a moral capacities view and rejects the accomplishment interpretation of a capacity. This leaves him with two options: the present-potentiality (View 6) and future-potentiality (View 9) versions of a moral capacities view. Although Kant doesn’t explicitly state
which of these two interpretations he prefers, in order to see which interpretation he is implicitly committed to we can look to his views about the dignity of newborns, infants and young children. In terms of his philosophy of right, Kant is explicit that a child (including a newborn) is a person, has innate rights to be cared for by his or her parents, and cannot be treated as a thing that is ‘made’ or as property.49 He also argues that parents have a duty to educate and develop their children both pragmatically and morally. This dual focus on respecting the rights of newborns and on helping them to realise their rational potentials fits most easily with the future-potentiality approach. In terms of his moral philosophy, Kant is less explicit about the moral status of newborns and young children, although he certainly says nothing to indicate that he thinks that they lack dignity.
Further implicit textual support can be found in Kant’s account of the ‘predisposition to personality’ as the ‘susceptibility for respect for the moral law as of itself a sufficient incentive to the power of choice’. This ‘susceptibility’ [Empfänglichkeit] to morality seems to refer to an undeveloped potentiality that needs to be cultivated, and this once again points towards a future potentiality view. The fact that Kant is implicitly committed to this view doesn’t, of course, make it the best Kantian view, but it can add to our confidence in it.
Secondly, this view is the only one able, or it is at least the one best placed, to make sense of the full range of Kantian duties that follow from practically acknowledging someone’s dignity and absolute worth. As outlined in Chapter 3, our direct moral duties revolve around respecting and promoting the rational capacities in ourselves and others. This includes not using others as mere means by obtaining their possible consent when required and by not expressing disrespect for others, as well as by making
it our end to promote the ends and rational development of ourselves and others. This dual focus implies that it is not only respecting present exercises of rational agency that matters for morality, but also promoting the development of the latent potential for rational agency in ourselves and others. This dual present and future focused orientation of our moral duties can only (or at least can best) be made sense of by the future-potentiality interpretation.
Thirdly, this view is able to further strengthen the overall justificatory force of the Kantian conception of dignity by providing a clear rationale for its account of who does and does not have dignity. On this conception, all and only those persons with the present or future potential to act on the basis of moral reasons have the moral status of possessing dignity, since only they have present or latent moral capacities that can be either not properly respected and misused or not properly promoted and developed.
However, there are at least three important worries which might be pressed against this view. These worries attack the view from both sides, with one worry being that the view is still too exclusive and the other two worries are that it is rather too inclusive. If these worries are serious enough, then they may give us reasons either for endorsing some other view as the best Kantian conception of dignity or even for rejecting the entire Kantian approach to dignity in any of its forms. However, I shall now argue that these worries are not serious enough to warrant either option, given the overall strengths of this view.
First, to the worry that this view is not inclusive enough in regards to humans. Can this view really include at least most humans? This view excludes all humans who lack the capacity for moral rationality in the future-potentiality sense. But since we are dealing here with a potentiality that may or may not develop in the future, how do we deal with the inevitable epistemological uncertainties involved in determining who has such a capacity? Are those that we are unsure about excluded? We should deal with such cases by being very generous in our assumptions about what others could become with the proper development. We should do that for the following moral reasons. Treating someone who doesn’t have dignity as if they did have dignity does not usually lead us to act immorally, whereas treating someone who does have dignity as if they didn’t have dignity will always make us act immorally. So, given the very large moral costs of incorrectly assuming the absence of dignity and thereby wrongfully disrespecting a rational being; and the negligible (if any) moral costs of wrongly assuming the presence of dignity in most (but not in all) cases and thereby treating respectfully a being who we are not rationally required to treat in that way; it follows that we are morally required to adopt, in practice, a very generous understanding of who has this rational capacity (except where the
moral costs of doing so are high).
In general, unless there is no reasonable doubt whatsoever that a human lacks rational capacities in the future-potentiality sense, we should assume the presence of dignity, provided that there is no significant moral cost to doing so. And there often will be such doubt since we are dealing with a potentiality claim about what a being could be capable of in the future after proper assistance and development. This is a moral and not a pragmatic caution, since it is based on the very high moral costs of treating a being with a capacity for morality as if they do not have dignity when in fact they do have it, and the usually negligible (if any) moral costs of the converse.
One might object to this by claiming that a moral cost of assuming that someone has dignity when in fact they don’t have it is that it may result in us spending resources on them in the futile hope of developing their rational capacities. This wastes resources that might have been used on rational beings who do in fact have dignity. However, this objection carries no weight, because the imperfect and wide nature of duties to aid other rational beings means that we are not morally required to optimise the use of our resources or to prioritise aiding rational beings over non-rational beings in all cases. Nonetheless, there is at least one important type of case in which assuming the presence of dignity when it may not be present can have significant moral costs, and that is in regard to the dignity of embryos and fetuses. We shall turn to these cases in a moment.
But sometimes there is no reasonable doubt whatsoever that a human lacks rational capacities in the future-potentiality sense. There are two such core cases. First, there are those humans about whom we are more or less certain that, even on the most generous assumptions, they completely lack, and have always lacked, the potential to develop rational capacities. For example, anencephalic infants and some cases of severe cognitive impairment seem to belong in this category. Second, there are those humans about whom we are certain that they will never again, even on the most generous assumptions, have even the potential to develop or exercise rational capacities, even though they may once have had rational capacities. For example, most PVS patients and some cases of very advanced dementia might belong in this category. A broader view that could capture both of these two groups of cases would be a more inclusive view, but would it be a better view all things considered?
A modified version of View 9, which we shall call View 9∗, could include the second category of cases but not the first. According to this modified View 9∗, one has a rational capacity if one has ever had a rational capacity in the future-potentiality sense, even if one does not now have it and will never have it again in the future. This modified version is a future, present and backward looking view. However, while this modified view increases inclusivity, it does so at the significant cost of harming its justificatory story. It does so since it is difficult to see how we could, for example, use a PVS patient as a mere means or fail to treat her as an end-in-herself. This is because she has no rational capacities that we could express disrespect for, misuse or fail to promote and develop. The FH tells us not to misuse the rational capacities in others, but in such cases there are no rational capacities in them in whatever sense that could be misused.
This gives us reasons, then, to prefer the non-modified version (View 9) over the modified backward-looking version (View 9∗) on the grounds that the latter view’s small increase in inclusivity comes at the significant cost of undermining its justificatory story. A similar point also applies to the first category of the excluded (i.e. those who have never had and never will have rational capacities). Our direct moral duties are structured around responding with respect and love to the awe-inspiring rational capacities in ourselves and others. But it makes no sense to structure our interactions with others along these lines when there are no rational capacities present in them that can be exercised or developed either now or in the future.
This suggests that dignity is the wrong moral category for thinking about our moral duties to such humans and that trying to include such cases as part of our Kantian conception of dignity is to make a moral category error.
However, this does not mean, for example, that we can’t have moral and legal duties not to harm humans who lack dignity (as we shall see in section 7). It only means that it is a mistake to think of those duties in terms of our respecting their non-existent dignity.
The second worry with this view is not that it is too exclusive, but rather that it is too inclusive. There are two versions this worry might take. The first version of the worry challenges the earlier claim that it is better for a view to include as having dignity the core cases of newborns, infants and young children. The worry here is that, whatever we think about the moral status of newborns, infants and small children, it is a mistake to think of them as having dignity. After all, when looking at a drooling infant trying to crawl along the floor with a soiled nappy, ‘dignity’ might not be the first word that springs to mind. Further, if we think that newborns, infants and young children have the same dignity as adults, then this seems to imply that we should treat newborns, infants and young children like adults. But to treat them like adults would be a clear moral mistake.
However, this worry rests on a confusion. The claim here is not that newborns, infants and young children have the same degree of achievement dignity that (some) adults tend to have, since they clearly don’t. Rather the claim is that they have the same status dignity as adults and so are deserving of equal moral concern. However, as noted in Chapter 3, this does not mean that the FH says that we should treat newborns and the like in the same way as we treat adults. This is because, as noted in Chapter 3, newborns,
infants and young children fail the FH’s competency condition since they cannot give morally authorising actual consent. This means that we need to focus on what the child would consent to if he or she could consent to anything, while attempting to retain a comparatively open future for the child. The way that the FH requires that we treat competent adults, who can give morally authorising actual consent, is clearly different.
The second and more important version of the worry about the over inclusiveness of this view arises when we take the future-potentiality component of the view seriously. We can do this by thinking about cases of in utero human zygotes, blastocysts, embryos, fetuses and even unwanted frozen human embryos resulting from IVF. Is the future-potentiality view necessarily committed to the claim that all human zygotes, blastocysts, embryos and fetuses have dignity? I shall argue below that this Kantian
conception of dignity is not necessarily committed to this claim. It is not necessarily committed to this claim because whether or not one holds that these entities have status dignity depends on one’s position on a number of further substantive claims about what constitutes having potential which are independent of the core theory defended here. Since these claims are independent of the core theory defended here, and since (as we shall see) it is reasonable to hold different views about these independent claims, the
core Kantian theory of dignity defended here does not necessarily commit one to any particular position in these controversial cases. We shall therefore, for strategic reasons, remain neutral about these controversial cases here. This is a good outcome since it allows the core theory to remain as open as possible and thereby maximise its potential audience. This strategy is also consistent with trying to develop a version of Kantian ethics that is as intuitively appealing as possible.
What this Kantian theory is necessarily committed to is that if an entity, whether a child, adult, blastocyst, embryo or fetus, has the capacity for morality in the future-potentiality sense, then it has status dignity. But in the case of all in utero zygotes, blastocysts and embryos, and all frozen (or in vitro) embryos, as well as at least some early term in utero fetuses, it may be unclear whether or not the entity in question really has the potential to develop rational capacities. This is because many (perhaps even a majority) of zygotes, blastocysts, embryos and some early term fetuses will not and cannot result in viable pregnancies and therefore can never in fact develop rational capacities. However, in the absence of strong evidence about which of these entities will (or can) result in viable pregnancies, the epistemological argument developed earlier about how to deal with uncertainty might seem to kick in and compel us on moral grounds to assume the presence of dignity in all such cases. But this argument does not kick in, since this argument only forces that assumption on us in cases where the moral costs of making that assumption are non-existent or negligible.
And the moral costs are not non-existent or negligible in these cases. This is because, as Bertha Manninen argues, assuming that frozen embryos have dignity when they don’t could impact on important medical research that might improve the lives of living moral agents, and assuming that in utero embryos and early-term fetuses have dignity when they don’t might impact on the abortion rights of women. And both of these are very heavy moral costs. So we are not compelled on moral grounds to assume the presence of dignity in these cases in the light of our uncertainty.
In any case, there are two key claims about when the presence of the potential for moral and rational capacities actually begins to exist that need to be decided before we can determine who has dignity, even when we know that if a pregnancy were to continue or an embryo was implanted, then a healthy newborn would result. The first of these claims is about the moment at which that potentiality begins to exist. The second of these claims is about the role that environmental conditions play in determining whether that potentiality really exists or not. We shall now look at these two claims in turn.
In regards to the first claim, Manninen convincingly argues that it is not uncontroversial to pinpoint the emergence of the potential for moral capacities to any specific biological moment, such as the emergence of a zygote, blastocyst, embryo or fetus with certain characteristics such as brain waves or sentience. For example, does the potential for moral capacities exist before a brain capable of sentience exists? This sort of question shows us that different views might reasonably be held about the exact point at which
that potential, and thus status dignity, first emerges. Since it is reasonable to hold different positions on any further claim about when exactly the potential for moral capacities (and thus status dignity) first emerges, we shall not take a stand here either way on such claims for the strategic reasons noted above, beyond holding that such potential (and thus status dignity) certainly exists at least by the time a human is a newborn.
In regards to the second claim, one might hold that in utero embryos or fetuses have the potential to develop moral and rational capacities (and thus have status dignity) only if they have a mother willing to carry them to term. (A similar and less controversial claim is often made about extracorporeal embryos lacking dignity on the grounds that ‘outside of the womb’ they have ‘no … potential’ to become persons). If this claim is accepted, then it would create a distinction between the potentiality to develop rational capacities (and thus the dignity) of fetuses who have mothers who are willing to carry them to term and fetuses who do not. This distinction, according to Elizabeth Harman, appeals to the common intuition that there is a moral significance to the life of an early fetus whose parents are committed to raising it that is absent in the life of an early fetus whose mother does not want it and aborts it.
Of course, one might also reject this distinction or not share this intuition, but it does seem reasonable to hold differing views here. Since it seems reasonable to hold different positions on this further claim about whether or not the potential of in utero embryos or fetuses to develop moral capacities (and thus have dignity) depends on the presence of a willing mother, we shall once again not take a stand here either way on this claim for the strategic reasons noted above. We can, however, while remaining neutral in regards to this further claim, still maintain that the status dignity of newborns is not dependent on the willingness of their mothers to look after them. This is because the potential of newborns to develop rational capacities is not dependent on their mother’s will (e.g. the state or someone else can look after them) in the same way that an in utero fetus is dependent on it (since no one else can look after it). This means that, wherever we stand on this further claim, we can still hold the view that at least by the time humans are newborns they have status dignity.
Finally, it is important to note that whatever view one takes on when and under what conditions the potentiality to develop moral capacities, and thus have status dignity, first emerges, it remains a separate question whether or not this makes abortion morally and legally permissible. As Judith Jarvis Thomson famously argues, even if the personhood or dignity of the fetus is granted, it doesn’t follow from this that the fetus in question has coercive rights over another person’s body. In particular, if pregnancy is conceived of as the aiding of a fetus and abortion as the refusal to provide that aid, then even if the dignity of the fetus is granted, it would not follow that the fetus’s mother could be coerced into aiding the fetus. This is because (for Kantians at least) duties to aid others are imperfect and therefore cannot be used as a basis for overriding a woman’s autonomy.
Drawing on Thomson’s work, several Kantians have made arguments along these lines, including Lara Denis and Manninen.59 Again, we need not endorse or reject such arguments here, since it suffices to show how one might reasonably both endorse the dignity of at least some fetuses (depending on one’s views about when the potential for morality first emerges) and still hold that abortion is morally permissible in at least some cases. For the strategic reasons noted above, we shall once again remain neutral on
this issue. In any case, settling the morality of abortion is a separate issue from the question of the legal right to (or justice of ) abortion, given the strong demarcation that Kant makes between ethics and justice. Even if abortion turns out to be immoral (in some or all cases), Kantians can still endorse a legal right to have an abortion, just as Kantians can (and do) endorse a legal right to do other immoral things, such as to be rude or fail to be sufficiently beneficent to others.
While this principled refusal to take a stand here on these further controversial claims might seem frustrating to some readers, as noted above this refusal is strategic and justified in this context. It is strategic in this context as it leaves the theory open to as broad an audience as possible. It is justified in this context since to resolve these issues requires taking stands on further substantive issues that go beyond the core moral theory and its conception of human dignity which is our focus here. Since it is reasonable to take different positions on these further substantive issues in a way that is compatible with the same underlying core moral theory, we need not and should not for strategic reasons take a stand on them here.
Whether or not this conception of dignity ends up being too inclusive depends both on further issues beyond the scope of the theory itself and on one’s wider views about what counts as being too inclusive. For example, does including some fetuses as having dignity count as being too inclusive, too exclusive, or the right degree of inclusivity? By maintaining a theoretical openness in regards to these further issues here, we can allow the same underlying theory to be taken in different directions by different authors. In the context of defending the underlying core theory, rather than deciding what to say about controversial applied cases, this openness is a clear strength. This theoretical openness also means that we have no clear inclusivity reasons for rejecting the Rational (Moral) Capacities (FuturePotentiality) View. Therefore, given its many benefits, this view remains the best Kantian conception of dignity. But we still need to examine whether
Non-Capacities Views can offer a superior alternative.
We shall examine four Non-Capacities Views here, with the metaphysical modesty of each view decreasing in the order in which we examine them.
According to the Pragmatic View, it is not something about us, but rather the pragmatic decisions of others to treat us as if we had dignity that ultimately determines whether or not we have status dignity. The strong version of this view says that it is completely our deciding to recognise others as having dignity that does all the work in determining who has dignity.
This view suffers from the problem that it becomes completely arbitrary who has dignity and who doesn’t, because it is simply a matter of pure decision who gets included or excluded. This strong version, since it is based in pure decision, completely lacks any plausible justificatory story about who has dignity, and also has the potential risk (depending on our decisions) of being very exclusive. This makes it an unappealing view.
A weaker version of this view holds that it is not only one’s capacities that determine if one has dignity but, at least in marginal cases, also our pragmatic decisions to include or exclude. Christine Korsgaard seems to defend a view along these lines. She argues that what she calls ‘moral status’, but which for our purposes we can take to be equivalent to status dignity, is not a ‘metaphysically precise’ concept. Dignity is like the age at which you can vote. We simply decide, since there is no pre-decision fact of the matter, that you can vote, for example, at eighteen years and not seventeen years and forty-three days. But having dignity, which is a moral status, is very different to having a political right to vote. These differences might make us wary about the worth of drawing an analogy between the two cases.
In any case, a story about inclusion and exclusion that ultimately rests on sheer decision clearly offers an inferior justificatory story to one grounded in moral reasons. We have already seen above that there is indeed some imprecision about who has status dignity in marginal cases. But that imprecision seems to be more epistemological than metaphysical (or ontological), and it is better (in justificatory terms) to deal with that imprecision on principled moral grounds rather than arbitrary pragmatic grounds. We examined above how a future-potentiality view can deal with this epistemological uncertainty on moral grounds by focusing on the moral costs of wrongly assuming the absence of a potential to develop rational capacities.
This makes it superior to the Pragmatic View on justificatory grounds. In terms of inclusivity, whether or not the Pragmatic View is inferior or superior is impossible to tell beforehand, since how inclusive or exclusive the view is will depend entirely on what we happen to decide. And we might decide to be very inclusive, but, then again, we might decide to be very exclusive. From this it follows that, overall, the Pragmatic View is inferior to the best Rational Capacities View on the grounds that it has an inferior justificatory story and, in terms of inclusivity, it has no clear positives and it may have very large negatives if we end up making restrictive decisions.
View 11: Membership of the Species View
According to this view, all members of the human species have dignity simply because they are members of the human species. One thing that might be said in favour of this view is that Kant might have implicitly endorsed it. Why think that? First, because Kant uses the seemingly species-specific term ‘humanity’ in stating the FH. But we have already seen that ‘humanity’ in the FH is shorthand for rational capacities or a rational nature and so it is not in fact a species-specific term at all. Second, because Kant never claims that any humans lack dignity and this might seem to imply that Kant must have thought that it is sheer membership of
the human species that grounds dignity. But against this, while it is true that Kant does not explicitly talk about some humans as lacking in dignity, it is also true that Kant does not explicitly consider marginal cases at all, such as the severely cognitively impaired. This silence is understandable given that such issues were simply not on the philosophical radar in Kant’s day. However, we cannot read into Kant’s silence his endorsement of the view that every single human, no matter what, has status dignity, since
this seems to be incompatible with much else that Kant does say, such as that it is the possession of a rational nature and not sheer membership in a certain biological species that determines who has dignity. Indeed, Kant’s silence on such cases might instead be due to his thinking that it is obvious that such humans lack dignity.
In any case, on independent philosophical grounds we have very good reasons for rejecting this view. This is because the cost of this view’s increased inclusivity is to undermine fatally its wider justificatory story.
It does so since speciesism, prioritising members of our own species just because they are members of our own species, seems to be morally equivalent to racism or sexism, and this does not provide a good basis for developing a plausible Kantian conception of dignity. One response to this worry is to liken treating one’s own species preferentially, not to racism or sexism, but to patriotism or to favouring one’s own family. But while Kant agrees that, at least in regards to duties to promote the happiness of others, we can prioritise those who are near and dear (including ourselves), this in no way lowers or degrades the equal and absolute moral status of others in the way that speciesism requires. Thus speciesism can’t provide a plausible justificatory basis for a Kantian conception of dignity, and so we can safely reject this view here.
View 12: Biological Germ View
According to the Biological Germ View, it is not (unlike the previous view) our sheer membership of the human species, but rather something that each and every member of the human species has which determines whether we individually have dignity. That something is our possession of certain biological seeds, germs and predispositions. Patrick Kain defends such a view. Kain, drawing on ‘Kant’s biological and psychological theories’, argues that for Kant each member of a species from the moment of ‘his or her procreation’ inherits a species-specific set of biological ‘predispositions’ (Anlagen) and ‘germs’ or ‘seeds’ (Keime). The germs and predispositions that a biological species is said to have are ‘formulated in the light of the features and capacities that are characteristic of its normal, mature members’. The predisposition that is the ‘basis’ of what Kain calls our ‘moral status’ (and we are calling status dignity) is the ‘predispositions to personality’, that is, the predispositions to rational capacities for morality.
The Biological Germ View clearly has some similarities to the Rational
(Moral) Capacities (Future-Potentiality) View. Both views focus on moral capacities and on potential. But rather than understand capacities functionally at an individual level in terms of what an individual person can (or could) do or be, Kain instead understands capacities non-functionally at a species level in terms of the presence of certain biological ‘seeds’ in that species. Of course, we can recognise that to do or be something, such as to have rational capacities, you need to have certain underlying biological equipment (as far as we know), such as a complex brain. But on Kain’s view it is the presence of this underlying seed itself, rather than what that seed actually makes us individually capable of doing, that does all the normative work in determining who has dignity. This results in a very different justificatory story and a different degree of inclusivity. On Rational Capacities Views, you have dignity because you individually can or could be the sort of being who can direct yourself on the basis of reasons of the relevant sort.
On the Biological Germ View, it is your possession of a biological seed or predisposition itself that determines whether or not you have dignity, even if having that seed doesn’t and can’t manifest itself in anything you could do or be.
The difference here can be seen in terms of inclusivity. Kain’s Kant thinks that every member of a species gets the exact same set of biological seeds and predispositions through a process of ensoulment at the moment of procreation. This means that every member of the human species has the exact same predisposition for personality, including (for example) an anencephalic infant missing most of his brain. (It also means that all embryos have dignity from ‘procreation’ for Kain). This explains why this view
counts as a Non-Capacities View, since it holds that dignity is independent of what you individually could do or be (as is clear in the case of the anencephalic infant), although it is not independent of what a normal and mature member of your species could do or be (since this defines what biological seeds each individual has). But why should my normative status depend, not on what I can or could do, but what others in my species can do, even if I myself could never do those things since, for example, I am missing most of my brain?
But how do we know that each and every human (including anencephalic infants) do in fact have the exact same set of seeds and predispositions? Is this something we can test? If it is something that we can test, then the anencephalic infant, for example, might lack it after all. If it is not something that we can test, then the claim seems empty (at least as part of a biological theory). And why should what a ‘normal and mature’ member of the species can do, define what my biological ‘seeds’ can do? Further, is this talk of seeds and ‘ensoulment’ at the moment of procreation consistent with our current best science? No, as Kain readily concedes. He
writes that ‘Kant’s defence of universal human moral status [as Kain understands it] has been shown to depend … upon the details of his biological, psychological, metaphysical, and ethical theories, many of which are open to serious question and some of which have been clearly falsified’. Since some of these views have been clearly falsified, relying on Kant’s outdated biological theories of seeds, germs and metaphysical ensoulment is not a viable basis for a contemporary understanding of dignity. Once again, the
cost of this view’s increased inclusivity is to undermine a plausible justificatory basis for a conception of dignity, and so we can safely reject this view here as well.
View 13: Transcendental Kernel View
According to the Transcendental Kernel View, what determines whether or not we have dignity is, for Kant, our possession of what Michael Rosen calls an ‘inner transcendental kernel’ or a ‘timeless object’ that finds its ‘embodiment’ in individuals and belongs in the ‘order of things’ to the ‘noumenal realm’ or ‘intelligible world’. Rosen notes that most modern Kantians shy away from his metaphysical ‘Platonist’ interpretation of Kant, but nonetheless Rosen thinks that it is the correct interpretation.74 More generally,
Rosen’s reading belongs to the ‘two-worlds’ interpretation of transcendental idealism, as opposed to the ‘two-standpoints’ interpretation. On the former interpretation there is a timeless object or kernel somehow underlying or connected to our empirical everyday self, and it is our ‘possession’ of this unknowable object (or this object’s possession of the empirical ‘us’) that grounds our dignity. On the latter two-standpoints interpretation, our ‘noumenal self’ is just another name for a standpoint that we take up when we engage in practical deliberation. On this latter interpretation, our dignity consists in our capacity to engage in practical deliberation and to act on the basis of reasons. The two-standpoints interpretation therefore collapses into a Rational Capacities View and so needs no further investigation here.
But does the two-worlds interpretation lead to a Capacities or a NonCapacities view? On Rosen’s reading it is unclear. He says that ‘human beings, in virtue of their capacity for free action, are members of a “noumenal” realm beyond the empirical world of appearances’ [my emphasis].
One way we can read this is as saying that it is because of something we appear to be able to do, such as to engage in free action, that we are members of the noumenal realm and have dignity. So read, this view seems to amount to a Capacities View and some humans, namely those who appear to lack the capacity for free action (such as anencephalic infants), will fail to have dignity. This view would be no different in terms of inclusivity to the Capacities Views examined above, but it would be an inferior view in terms of its justificatory force due to its reliance on very controversial metaphysical claims about a distinct order of timeless things.
Alternatively, we can read this view as a Non-Capacity View by holding that the apparent rational capacities of humans in the ‘world of appearances’ is completely independent of whether or not a timeless object somehow exists in them that has a capacity for free action. So read, a person has dignity if they have an inner transcendental kernel within them, and whether or not they have one of those neither depends on nor shows up in what rational capacities they do or do not in fact appear to have. This view might seem to gain benefits by being more inclusive since it can include all humans, even those who appear to be without any rational capacities whatsoever (such as anencephalic infants). However, this gain comes at the very significant cost of making its justificatory story dependent on the existence of a distinct order of timeless things.
Further, even this apparent advantage (assuming it is an advantage) in terms of inclusivity does not really eventuate. The reason for this becomes clear when we ask: how can we know that all humans and not all cockroaches or all lumps of concrete have dignity? What we can’t do to answer this question is to point to the presence or to the absence of the appearance of rational capacities in the being in question. This is because to make this a Non-Capacities View it must be committed to holding that the existence of a timeless kernel is completely independent of the appearance of rational capacities. The appearance of a capacity for free action in some humans but in no lumps of concrete is therefore irrelevant for determining which of these entities has dignity. So despite appearances, for all we know perhaps all cockroaches and all lumps of concrete, but no humans, have one of these timeless kernels in them. As such, what this view really implies about who gets excluded or included from the realm of dignity seems completely unknowable. But a view that tells us nothing knowable about who has status dignity and that requires an arguably metaphysically implausible justificatory story is not appealing on either inclusivity or justificatory grounds.
Moral Duties to Humans Who Lack Dignity
None of the Non-Capacities Views examined here are overall better than the Rational (Moral) Capacities (Future-Potentiality) View defended above.
This latter view thus remains the candidate for both the best interpretation of Kant and the best Kantian conception of status dignity. But to defend this view further we still need to deal with the question of what this view implies about our treatment of those humans who lack dignity.
Recall, the excluded on this view are those humans who can never develop in the future or exercise in the present rational capacities for morality. Are there any moral requirements or moral limitations in how we may treat humans who lack dignity? If there are none, then this view might seem to lead to an important series of false-positive cases. For example, if this view says nothing at all about our treatment of very advanced dementia patients who (let’s assume) lack status dignity, then this seems to imply that it is morally permissible to torture horribly such patients for fun. But if torturing horribly advanced dementia patients for fun (supposedly) passes the FH, since the FH says nothing at all about our treatment of those who lack dignity, then this would seem to constitute an important falsepositive against this view. Can this Kantian conception of dignity avoid this false-positive?
The contrast between those with dignity and those without dignity is not a contrast between those with worth and those without any worth whatsoever. Rather, it is a contrast between those with absolute worth or status dignity and those with (in most cases) a relative worth. The difference in the relative worth of things can still give us reasons to treat them differently.
For example, an original Van Gogh painting is worth much more, aesthetically and financially, than a cheap poster reproduction. This higher relative worth of the original gives us good reasons to treat it differently compared to the cheap reproduction. We have good reasons, for example, to handle and store the former far more carefully than the latter. Indeed, it would be irrational to do otherwise. But those reasons to treat things with differing degrees of relative worth differently are not moral reasons. If I really want to burn my original Van Gogh painting for the fun of it and treat with reverence a cheap poster reproduction, then that would seem to be morally permissible according to the FH, even if it is irrational in other senses.
But can there be any moral reasons in regards to how we treat beings with a mere relative worth?
While we only have direct moral duties to beings with status dignity, we are still morally limited in how we may use beings and things which lack dignity by our moral duties in regard to them, that is, by what Kant calls our indirect moral duties.78 And indirect moral duties are still moral duties. These duties are called indirect since the subject (who lacks dignity) of the duty is not the same person as the one (who has dignity) to whom the duty is ultimately owed. While Kant’s examples of indirect duties are duties to animals and nature, we can also have indirect moral duties to humans who lack dignity. Drawing on Kant’s arguments in regards to animals and nature, we can argue that our indirect moral duties in regard to humans who lack dignity can have at least two bases. First, they can be based in a duty that we owe to those who care deeply about them, such as their parents, their family or members of society more generally. Second, they can be based in a duty that we owe to ourselves, since it is difficult to maintain (as we must) a disposition of love and respect for all rational beings if we fail to care for all humans, including those who lack dignity. This implies that care, and not dignity, seems to be the right moral category within which to structure our moral relationships and interactions with humans who lack dignity.
But if the basis of our moral duties to humans who lack dignity lies either in the care that we have for them or in the maintenance of our own moral character, doesn’t that provide an insufficiently robust basis for such duties?
For example, what if no one (including their family members) cared about the well-being of humans with very advanced dementia who lack rational capacities and we didn’t harm our own moral character by torturing horribly such humans for fun? While it is true that if that were the case, then we would lose the basis for an indirect moral duty to them, it also seems highly unlikely that this ever would be the case. This is because it seems highly unlikely that no one would care about those who lack dignity or that a person’s moral character could really be immune to such horrendous behaviour. So in practice, the basis for Kantian indirect moral duties to humans who lack dignity are strong, since even though their basis is conditional on contingent facts about empirical psychology and what people care about, those conditions generally, even if not necessarily, seem to be satisfied.
In any case, even if one considers this strong but contingent basis for moral duties to those who lack dignity to be insufficient, there still remains a further theoretical option. That further option is to endorse the Kantian conception of dignity outlined here while rejecting Kant’s extra claim that we only have direct moral duties to beings with dignity. We can do that by holding that, while dignity provides a very important basis for our direct moral duties, other things can also provide a basis for direct moral duties, such as the possession of fragments of rational nature. Wood defends an approach along these lines. He argues that ‘honouring rational nature as an end in itself sometimes requires us to behave with respect toward nonrational beings if they bear the right relation to rational nature’. This ‘right relation’ includes having had a rational nature in the past, having recognisable fragments of a rational nature, or having some of the necessary preconditions of a rational nature. For example, Wood thinks that animals have a ‘fragment’ of rational nature in their capacity to have desires which can be frustrated. To frustrate wantonly an animal’s achievement of its desires is, Wood claims, to express disrespect for a fragment of rational nature.
Similar arguments to these could be extended to humans who lack dignity, but who still possess fragments of rational nature. This would provide a basis, for example, for direct moral duties both to advanced dementia patients who still have desires and to humans in a permanent vegetative state who had a rational nature in the past. Wood’s approach therefore demonstrates an effective way of endorsing the core Kantian conception of dignity defended here, while also holding that we can have direct moral duties to humans who lack status dignity. However, those with only fragments of a rational nature and who (by definition) lack moral capacities in the future-potentiality sense, will still fail to have an absolute and unconditional worth and will therefore lack status dignity. But, if we follow Wood here, we can develop an alternative (but complementary) basis for holding that they can still have a lesser but directly moral status through their possession of the right relation to rational nature. This alternative would complement the core conception of status dignity outlined here because it is also based on the rational necessity of adopting an appropriate response to the awe-inspiring capacity of rational self-direction. Even when that aweinspiring capacity and the potential to develop it are absent, there can still be fragments of that capacity present, and those fragments seem sufficient
to ground a lesser moral status (other than dignity).
The final point worth making in regards to our treatment of the excluded is that we should not confuse moral standing with legal standing or confuse morality with justice. (We made this same point earlier in regards to the legal right to abortion). For Kant, these are distinct as the two parts of The Metaphysics of Morals makes clear. This distinctness is important in this context since it is clear that it is not only beings with dignity that deserve positive legal protections and rights. For example, Kantians can and should argue for the legal protection of ecosystems and animals on the grounds that they have a relative value or worth since rational agents care deeply about and have significant interests in the welfare of ecosystems and animals. Similar Kantian arguments can and should be made for the positive legal rights and protections of humans who lack dignity.
These arguments can be based in: moral reasons (such as the sort of reasons used to ground indirect moral duties to the excluded or those based in an extension of a lesser moral status to those with fragments of a rational nature); epistemological reasons (since we can’t be sure who has dignity); slippery slope worries (since once we start excluding those who lack rational capacities, we might start excluding those who only marginally have rational capacities); pragmatic reasons (since it is easier and more efficient to include everyone); reasons of solidarity with both the excluded and those who care about them; and so on. For these reasons, there can and should be strong legal protections and positive rights for all humans, including those who lack dignity. As such, denying that some humans have dignity does not commit us to also denying them legal protections and rights.
In this chapter I have argued, first, that there are good interpretative grounds for ascribing the Rational (Moral) Capacities (Future-Potentiality) View to Kant and, second, that there are good philosophical reasons on the grounds of justificatory force and inclusivity to prefer this view over alternative Kantian conceptions of status dignity. This view tells us that all humans (at least from birth) who have the potential to develop moral capacities have dignity, and that they retain that full moral status for as
long as they could still develop or exercise those moral capacities in the present or in the future. We are required to structure our moral relations and interactions with all those who have dignity in terms of the perfect and imperfect duties required by the FH (as set out in Chapter 3). We cannot, however, structure our relations and interactions with those humans who lack dignity in terms of the FH, since they lack the relevant rational capacities that could be promoted, developed and respected. Nonetheless, we are still subject to moral restrictions in our treatment of humans who lack dignity based in our indirect moral duties to them, a possible extension of a lesser moral status to those with fragments of a rational nature, and positively legislated legal protections and rights.
This chapter completes our understanding of Kantian status dignity. We now know why we have status dignity, how we ought to treat someone who has it, and who has it. The final step in fully outlining a Kantian ethics of dignity is to move from a discussion of status dignity to an account of achievement dignity. We shall do that in Chapter 5. »
– Formosa, P. (2017). Who Has Dignity? Rational Agency and the Limits of the Formula of Humanity. In Kantian Ethics, Dignity and Perfection (pp. 120-162). Cambridge University Press.
The FH [e Formula of Humanity] is based on the dignity that all persons have in virtue of having (or having the potential to develop) rational capacities, including moral capacities. To treat people in accordance with their status dignity, we must never use them as mere means (the MMP) and always treat them as ends in themselves (the ETP). We developed distinct, but foundationally unified, conceptions of these two sub-principles of the FH above. In doing that we formulated a new conception of possible consent and end sharing that avoids some of the false-positive and false-negative problem cases that arise for other Kantian conceptions of possible consent in the literature.
When we treat everybody in accordance with the FH, we practically and fully acknowledge all persons as rational agents who are able to direct themselves on the basis of rational deliberation. However, to treat ourselves and others with respect and love we also need to recognise the ways in which the embodied rational capacities of humans are vulnerable. This includes both their vulnerabilities in the broad sense, which give rise to specific concrete duties, and their vulnerabilities in the narrow sense, which can make our duties more onerous. But now that we know how to treat vulnerable rational beings in accordance with their dignity, we need to be clearer about who has status dignity. We need to know this since the scope of status dignity and the scope of the FH are equivalent. We shall now turn to this issue in Chapter 4. »
– Formosa, P. (2017). Treating People with Dignity and Respect: How to Apply the Formula of Humanity to Vulnerable Humans. In Kantian Ethics, Dignity and Perfection (pp. 72-119). Cambridge University Press.
Lectures supplémentaires / complémentaires :
- Formosa, P. (2017). Achievement Dignity, Virtue and Autonomy: How to Live Up to Your Status Dignity. In Kantian Ethics, Dignity and Perfection (pp. 163-205). Cambridge University Press.
- Formosa, P. (2017). The Categorical Imperative and the Formula of Humanity. In Kantian Ethics, Dignity and Perfection (pp. 15-36). Cambridge University Press.
- Castillo, M. (1990). Kant et l’avenir de la culture. Presses Universitaires de France.
- Castillo, M. (1990). IV – Races et humanité. Dans : , M. Castillo, Kant et l’avenir de la culture (pp. 77-92). Presses Universitaires de France.
- Castillo, M. (1990). VI – Civilisation et culture. Dans : , M. Castillo, Kant et l’avenir de la culture (pp. 109-128). Presses Universitaires de France.
- Castillo, M. (1990). V – Finalite et mouvement. Dans : , M. Castillo, Kant et l’avenir de la culture (pp. 93-108). Presses Universitaires de France.
- Castillo, M. (2006). La question du sens : le pacifisme d’aujourd’hui à l’âge des guerres nouvelles. Inflexions, 3(3), 199-208.
- Castillo, M. (2017). Significations du cosmopolitisme kantien. Raison présente, 1(1), 19-30.
- Castillo, M. (2008). Pluralisme culturel et cosmopolitisme kantien. Dans : Yves Charles Zarka éd., Kant cosmopolitique (pp. 31-46). Éditions de l’Éclat.
- Castillo, M. (2013). Ingérence et/ou paix mondiale. L’apport de Kant. Droits, 1(1), 3-14.
- Castillo, M. (2018). Le langage comme lieu de guerre. Inflexions, 3(3), 147-151.
- Castillo, M. (2016). Les armes de l’esprit. Études, 11(11), 53-62.
- Castillo, M. (2005). Connaître la guerre et penser la paix. Éditions Kimé.
- Castillo, M. (2016). La laïcité comme spiritualité. Études, 1(1), 57-69.
- Castillo, M. (2015). La fracture culturelle. Inflexions, 2(2), 11-20.
- Castillo, M. (2001). L’obligation morale : le débat de Bergson avec Kant. Les Études philosophiques, 4(4), 439-452.
- McGrath, Sarah. Moral Knowledge. Oxford University Press, 2020. Pp. 240.
- Moral Understanding as Knowing Right from Wrong*, by Paulina Sliwa
- Sarch, Alexander. Criminally Ignorant: Why the Law Pretends We Know What We Don’t. Oxford University Press, 2019. Pp. 296.
- Bedin, V. & Dortier, J. (2011). Violence(s) et société aujourd’hui. Éditions Sciences Humaines.
- Le crime, un choix rationnel ?. Dans : Véronique Bedin éd., Violence(s) et société aujourd’hui (pp. 160-166). Éditions Sciences Humaines.
- Dortier, J. (2011). Violence, nature ou culture ?. Dans : Véronique Bedin éd., Violence(s) et société aujourd’hui (pp. 204-211). Éditions Sciences Humaines.
- Vallier, Kevin. Must Politics Be War? Restoring Our Trust in the Open Society. Oxford University Press, 2019. Pp. 256.
- Vanderschraaf, Peter. Strategic Justice: Convention and Problems of Balancing Divergent Interests. Oxford University Press, 2018. Pp. 416.
- Weaver, Bryan R., and Scharp, Kevin. Semantics for Reasons. Oxford University Press, 2019. Pp. 176.
- Kant on Morality, Humanity, and Legality : Practical Dimensions of Normativity, by Ansgar Lyssy & Christopher Yeomans
- Sex, Love, and Gender : A Kantian Theory, by Helga Varden
- Krishnan, M. (2021). Kant’s Critical Theory of the Best Possible World. Kantian Review, 26(1), 27-51.
- Makkreel, R. (2021). Kant and the Need for Orientational and Contextual Thinking: Applying Reflective Judgement to Aesthetics and to the Comprehension of Human Life. Kantian Review, 26(1), 53-78.
- Thomason, K. (2021). The Symbol of Justice: Bloodguilt in Kant. Kantian Review, 26(1), 79-97.
- Firestone, C. (2021). The Impossible Possibility of Palmquist’s Kant and Mysticism. Kantian Review, 26(1), 99-104.
- Medhananda (Ayon Maharaj), S. (2021). Mysticism without the Mustikos? Some Reflections on Stephen Palmquist’s Mystical Kant. Kantian Review, 26(1), 105-111.
- McQuillan, J. (2021). Dreams of a Spirit-Seer and Kant’s Critical Method: Comments on Stephen R. Palmquist’s Kant and Mysticism. Kantian Review, 26(1), 113-117.
- Nelson, E. (2021). Critical Mysticism or Critical Ethos? Intercultural Reflections on Stephen Palmquist’s Kant and Mysticism. Kantian Review, 26(1), 119-127.
- Pasternack, L. (2021). Immediate Experience, Mystical ‘Encounters’ and the ‘Voice’ of God: Palmquist’s Critical Mysticism and Kant’s Theory of Experience. Kantian Review, 26(1), 129-135.
- Palmquist, S. (2021). Responses to Critics: What Makes Mysticism Critical? (Or, What Makes Critique Mystical?). Kantian Review, 26(1), 137-162.
- Louden, R. (2021). Anthropology from a Kantian Point of View (Elements in the Philosophy of Immanuel Kant). Cambridge University Press.
- Louden, R. (2021). Daniel O. Dahlstrom (ed.), Kant and his German Contemporaries, vol. 2, Aesthetics, History, Politics, and Religion. Cambridge University Press, 2018. Pp. xii 285. Kantian Review, 26(1), 163-168.
- Kahn, S. (2021). Obligatory Actions, Obligatory Maxims. Kantian Review, 26(1), 1-25.
- Ertl, W. (2020). The Guarantee of Perpetual Peace (Elements in the Philosophy of Immanuel Kant). Cambridge University Press.
- Schwartz, J. (2017). Was Kant a ‘Kantian Constructivist’? Kantian Review, 22(2), 257-280.
- Zinkin, M. (2016). Making the Ideal Real: Publicity and Morality in Kant. Kantian Review, 21(2), 237-259.
- Sedgwick, S. (2008). Section II: Transition from popular moral philosophy to metaphysics of morals. In Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals: An Introduction (Cambridge Introductions to Key Philosophical Texts, pp. 83-167). Cambridge University Press.
- Guyer, P. (2019). Kant on the Rationality of Morality (Elements in the Philosophy of Immanuel Kant). Cambridge University Press.
- Pollok, K. (2017). The Normativity of Practical Judgments. In Kant’s Theory of Normativity: Exploring the Space of Reason (pp. 249-272). Cambridge University Press.
- Louden, R. (2014). Cosmopolitical unity: The final destiny of the human species. In A. Cohen (Ed.), Kant’s Lectures on Anthropology: A Critical Guide (Cambridge Critical Guides, pp. 211-229). CCambridge University Press.
- Wood, A. (2006). The supreme principle of morality. In P. Guyer (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Kant and Modern Philosophy (Cambridge Companions to Philosophy, pp. 342-380). Cambridge University Press.
- Cholbi, M. (2016). The Categorical Imperative and the Kantian Theory of Value, Part II. In Understanding Kant’s Ethics (pp. 74-106). Cambridge University Press.
- Denis, L. (2008). Individual and Collective Flourishing in Kant’s Philosophy. Kantian Review, 13(1), 82-115.
- Otfried Höffe, Kant’s Cosmopolitan Theory of Law and Peace, Alexandra Newton (trans.), Cambridge University Press, 2006
- Porras, I. (2011). Liberal Cosmopolitanism or Cosmopolitan Liberalism? In M. Sellers (Ed.), Parochialism, Cosmopolitanism, and the Foundations of International Law (ASIL Studies in International Legal Theory, pp. 118-148). Cambridge University Press.
- ARCHIBUGI, D. (1995). Immanuel Kant, Cosmopolitan Law and Peace. European Journal of International Relations, 1(4), 429–456.
- Cosmopolitanism, by Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- Deleixhe, M., & Raillard, S. (2014). Re-evaluating Kant’s Cosmopolitan Law: European Citizenship as a Transition from the Right to Visitation to the Right to Residence. Revue Française De Science Politique (English Edition), 64(1), 77-91.
- Brown, G. (2006). KANTIAN COSMOPOLITAN LAW AND THE IDEA OF A COSMOPOLITAN CONSTITUTION. History of Political Thought, 27(4), 661-684.
- Kleingeld, P. (2011). Kant’s concept of cosmopolitan right. In Kant and Cosmopolitanism: The Philosophical Ideal of World Citizenship (pp. 72-91). Cambridge University Press.
- Kleingeld, P. (2006). Kant’s theory of peace. In P. Guyer (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Kant and Modern Philosophy (Cambridge Companions to Philosophy, pp. 477-504). Cambridge University Press.
- Kant (1724/1804) – Le devoir comme phare, par Raphaël Ehrsam
- Emmanuel Kant : Penser la pensée, par Louisa Yousfi
- Laboulais-Lesage, I. (2000). La géographie de Kant. Revue d’Histoire des Sciences Humaines, 1(1), 147-153.
- La philosophie, un art de vivre – Grands Dossiers n°43 – juin – juillet – août 2016
- Yai, O. (1978). Théorie et pratique en philosophie africaine : misère de la philosophie spéculative: (Critique de P. Hountondji, M.Towa et autres). Présence Africaine, 4(4), 65-91.
- Hountondji, P. (1981). Que peut Ia philosophie ?. Présence Africaine, 3(3), 47-71.
- Hountondji, P. (2011). Jacques Derrida, l’Afrique, le colloque de Cotonou. Critique, 8(8-9), 726-735.
- Hountondji, P. (2018). Moraliser Dieu ? Le retour à l’humain, condition de la paix mondiale. Diogène, 3(3-4), 97-104.
- Reconstruire la philosophie à partir de l’Afrique : une utopie postcoloniale (thèse doctorale – 2018), par Delphine Abadie
- « Seize questions sur la philosophie africaine* », Africultures, 2010/3 (n° 82), p. 83-91.
- Kodjo-Grandvaux, S. (2013). Philosophies africaines. Éditions Présence Africaine.
- Kodjo-Grandvaux, S. (2013). IV. La philosophie africaine comme praxis : penser le vivre-ensemble. Dans : , S. Kodjo-Grandvaux, Philosophies africaines (pp. 195-250). Éditions Présence Africaine.
- Kodjo-Grandvaux, S. (2013). Pour une philosophie nomade. Dans : , S. Kodjo-Grandvaux, Philosophies africaines (pp. 251-262). Éditions Présence Africaine.
- Kim, S. (2016). Public Reason Confucianism: Democratic Perfectionism and Constitutionalism in East Asia. Cambridge University Press.
- Li, Z. (2019). Political Confucianism and Multivariate Democracy in East Asia. The Review of Politics, 81(3), 459-483.
- Bamforth, N., & Richards, D. (2007). Criteria for Evaluating New Natural Law. In Patriarchal Religion, Sexuality, and Gender: A Critique of New Natural Law (pp. 17-55). Cambridge University Press.
- Den Otter, R. (2009). Constitutional Public Reason. In Judicial Review in an Age of Moral Pluralism (pp. 139-171). Cambridge University Press.
- Audard, C. (2006). Pluralism and political consensus: The argument for political liberalism. In John Rawls (pp. 175-228). Acumen Publishing.
- Johnson, K. (2007). The recent journey of liberal toleration. In Theology, Political Theory, and Pluralism: Beyond Tolerance and Difference (Cambridge Studies in Christian Doctrine, pp. 28-81). Cambridge University Press.
- Kant et la paix universelle, par France Farago – Grands Dossiers N° 61 – Décembre 2020 – janvier – février 2021
- The Future of Postcolonial Thought, by Arjun Appadurai
- Chimpanzees without borders : A new large-scale study uncovers recent genetic connectivity between chimpanzee subspecies despite past isolation events, by Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.
- The Art of Dreams, by Public Domain Review
- Reflection and Resilience, by Aesthetica Magazine
- UNEP launches a virtual journey through three unique desert ecosystems
- Fruteau de Laclos, F. (2012). La psychologie des philosophes: De Bergson à Vernant. Presses Universitaires de France.
- Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919) : Une économiste au service de la révolution, par Guillaume Fondu
- Abolir l’esclavage, un consensus moral, par Olivier Grenouilleau – Grands Dossiers N° 61 – Décembre 2020 – janvier – février 2021
- The Stupidity of War, American Foreign Policy and the Case for Complacency – by John Mueller
- Aux sources des droits humains, par Valentine Zuber – Grands Dossiers N° 61 – Décembre 2020 – janvier – février 2021
- Olano, M. (2019). Les pionniers de la psychologie humaniste. Les Grands Dossiers des Sciences Humaines, 6(6), 11-11.
- Les grandes controverses de la philosophie – Les Grands Dossiers des Sciences Humaines 2019/12 (N° 57)
- Halpern, C. (2019). Vive les controverses !. Les Grands Dossiers des Sciences Humaines, 12(12), 1
- Halpern, C. (2019). Le conflit, terreau de la philosophie. Les Grands Dossiers des Sciences Humaines, 12(12), 2
- Saetta Cottone, R. & Santoro, F. (2019). Socrate est-il un sophiste comme les autres ?. Les Grands Dossiers des Sciences Humaines, 12(12), 3
- Boudon, B. (2019). Du ciel des idées au monde sensible. Les Grands Dossiers des Sciences Humaines, 12(12), 4
- Magies et sorcelleries : Du chamanisme à Harry Potter, 30 000 ans d’histoire – Les Grands Dossiers des Sciences Humaines 2020/9 (N° 60)
- Dortier, J. (2020). La magie est toujours là…. Les Grands Dossiers des Sciences Humaines, 9(9), 1
- Dortier, J. (2020). Dix questions (plus une) sur la magie et la sorcellerie. Les Grands Dossiers des Sciences Humaines, 9(9), 2
- Bondaz, J. (2020). Magies et globalisation en Afrique subsaharienne. Les Grands Dossiers des Sciences Humaines, 9(9), 3
- Martin, M. (2020). La magie gréco-romaine, à la découverte d’une belle oubliée. Les Grands Dossiers des Sciences Humaines, 9(9), 4
- Bordes, F. (2020). La chasse aux sorciers et aux sorcières, quatre siècles d’histoire. Les Grands Dossiers des Sciences Humaines, 9(9), 6
- Martin, M. (2020). Magie et pouvoir, le souvenir du roi magicien dans le monde antique. Les Grands Dossiers des Sciences Humaines, 9(9), 5
- Dortier, J. (2020). Magie et religion, des liens très étroits. Les Grands Dossiers des Sciences Humaines, 9(9), 7