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What is Human Dignity? Kant Sheds Light

“We are not just material objects in a value-free universe. Kant makes the radical and highly innovative argument that autonomy of the individual is the enabling condition of moral philosophy.”

While there remains no consensus on what dignity means, by far, the most important and famous conception remains the classical liberal account of dignity developed by Immanuel Kant. This fame is well deserved, even if Kant’s articulation of his conception of dignity is occasionally quite confusing. In this article, I will briefly discuss Kant’s conception of human dignity.

Part of the difficulty in giving an account of Kant’s conception of dignity is the different formulations given. Moreover, it is not always clear what theoretical role dignity is intended to play in the Kantian system. At points, Kant seems to argue that dignity flows from, and is thus conceptually subordinate to, human autonomy, which is taken to be the central feature of human life which gives us moral value generally.

At other points, Kant gives dignity a more central place. Indeed, in some interpretations of his work, it would almost seem to warrant place of pride in the entire moral system. Unfortunately, there is no space to deal with all of these conceptual difficulties here, let alone to provide a rigorous articulation of all possible formulations of Kant’s conception of dignity. Instead, after briefly discussing some of these challenges, I will focus on reconstructing Kant’s conception in the strongest possible light.

Kant’s most famous formulation of dignity is that human dignity is a status which places the life of human beings above all. As a rhetorical statement, this is about as good as Kant gets, and it remains a deeply moving formulation of his conception. However, by itself, the formulation tells us little about Kant’s overall conception, aside from the worth he ascribes to human life. To better understand why he ascribes us this value, we need to dig deeper into the Groundwork to the Metaphysics of Morals.

In this seminal work, Kant developed a complex argument to the effect that all autonomous human individuals possess a free will from the standpoint of practical reason and are therefore able to will their own independent ends. Other objects in the world, including non-human animals, do not possess this capacity. They are governed by material causality like all purely scientific phenomena and therefore operate according to laws of cause and effect.

Kant argues that, on occasion, human beings are prone to the bad faith belief that we are also simply material objects in the world, governed by causality. But Kant feels that this can never be proven metaphysically without lapsing into illusion and is denied by our practical reason, which affirms the sense of ourselves as a rational being capable of willing their own ends. The moral belief that we are simply the product of our material environment is heteronomy and is to be rejected.

“We are not just material objects in a value-free universe. Kant makes the radical and highly innovative argument that autonomy of the individual is the enabling condition of moral philosophy.”

There is an important reason Kant is keen to reject heteronomy and all its affiliated beliefs. This is because Kant believes that the transcendental capacity to will our own ends is the central reason we are not just material objects in a value-free universe. Kant makes the radical and highly innovative argument that autonomy of the individual is the enabling condition of moral philosophy. This might seem like a curious feature at first glance. If it were true that autonomy and freedom were the enabling conditions of morality, then how could we claim that morality had any substantive content? Wouldn’t all individuals simply be free to will their own ends as they saw fit, or for that matter, none at all?

This position would certainly become more prominent in the writings of later thinkers, particularly those in the existential tradition. But Kant is unwilling or unable to take this step. He will not claim that autonomy of the self and freedom of the will leave us free to pursue any ends which we prefer. In fact, recognizing our freedom to pursue different ends is simply the first step to recognizing the rational form, substance, and end of morality which we have a duty to conform to.  The capacity to will our own ends is central to Kant’s broader argument that practical, or moral, reason demands that we submit our will to a regulative categorical imperative, which is to direct our actions in conformity with the overall and universal moral law.

Kant breaks the categorical imperative of dignity and morality into several formulations. The first formulation is that all human beings must always act in a way that we could accept the maxim we order ourselves by as a universal law. Kant refers to this as the formula for a universal law of nature. It is probably the most well-known formulation of the categorical imperative—and also the most controversial.

Given these controversies, I will only acknowledge this formulation briefly here. It is obvious that Kant considers it exceptionally important to his moral thought overall. However, it is not clear what direct relation this first formulation of the categorical imperative has to Kant’s account of human dignity. The clearest link is that the first formulation—if it truly is a universal law—demonstrates our capacity to will ends that are objectively moral. This places us above other animals, who are purely subject to deterministic heteronomy and therefore cannot be said to act on any imperatives which are universalizable. The core insight here is that dignity is related to autonomy and freedom from causality, which is better captured by the second formulation.

The second formulation imperative bears the most important relation to dignity. It is that all individuals must always act in a way that we treat our humanity, and the humanity of others, not just as a means, but always as an end in itself. It is our status as the only beings with the capacity to submit ourselves to moral imperatives of our own designs, in effect to will towards ends that we ourselves have chosen—but which have a rational moral structure, which gives human beings a dignity that places human life above all price.

Price is a variable which can be measured and affiliated with an object. But the dignity of human beings cannot be measured in this manner, if at all. It is incommensurable and absolute. Moreover, for Kant, dignity as an end in ourselves is what sets us above and to some degree outside of the world around us, which is defined by causal relations in which objects interact with one another according to a predefined script.

This point is complex and bears more reflection as it relates to dignity. At points, Kant seems to think this capacity to choose to will the moral law sets us above anything else in nature with the exception of other rational beings. Kant could be justifiably attacked from an environmentalist perspective for so elevating human beings at the expense of nature. Kant is firmly in the classical liberal tradition in his approach to the natural world. There is little sense in which nature or any non-human animals enjoy anything approaching a dignity “beyond price.”

While his later works, especially the Critique of Judgement, develop a formidable approach to interpreting nature’s beauty and telos, he is committed to the idea that natural objects and objects are appropriable for the ends determined for them by man and God. But it is important to note that this is not simply some crude speciesism on Kant’s part. Kant does not simply assert that we are different than animals and nature because we are free to choose and therefore enjoy a dignity which sets us apart from them. Freedom and autonomy are at the locus of Kant’s account of dignity but do not exhaust it.

He develops a complex argument to that effect, since, for Kant, moral value stems precisely from our capacity to set ends for ourselves. Because we are capable of doing this, and in effect bringing value into the world, we cannot be treated as means to an end since it is in some respects the duty of man to ascribe all ends to the world. Without us, there would be no value. This in effect elevates us above all the values we create.

As mentioned, dignity and equality are centrally related to our autonomy and freedom to choose, since treating ourselves or other human beings as means to an end removes our capacity to choose, and therefore our ability to will moral ends. It is, in effect, to treat human beings as a thing in the world rather than as an autonomous person who can will their own ends. For Kant, this is a failure in our moral duty and betrays both our dignity and the dignity of the one we diminish.

But there is also an important egalitarian humanism to this. Kant’s account of dignity is firmly in opposition to accounts given by Locke, Smith, and others, who associate it with institutional office and rank. He would also be opposed to attempts by modern thinkers, such as Waldron, to conceive of dignity as a status or rank which is ascribed by individuals or institutions as a social gesture. We are indeed supposed to treat each individual as having a dignity as an end in themselves. But for Kant, such a conception would still ascribe too much influence to the external world, and thus risk being affiliated with inegalitarian ideas if manipulated properly.

The only way to properly and securely understand dignity is as belonging to everyone, low and high, from birth to death as an a priori fact. Moral imperatives are to be organized around it. Perhaps more importantly for our purposes, states and social institutions are to be organized in a manner that respects dignity and its egalitarian connotations. This is where the third formulation of the categorical imperative comes in. Kant believes that a kingdom of individuals, who are ends in themselves, should be established—wherein free individuals will moral laws in tandem with one another.

In later works, it becomes clearer that such a society would look very different from the one he lived in, and indeed, would look very different from our own. Kant’s works in political and legal philosophy are replete with calls for reform and the transformation of both the state and cosmopolitan society along lines that would better treat human beings as ends in themselves. As pointed out by Arthur Ripstein, Kant’s legal and political philosophy has a fundamentally radical edge to it that is occasionally under-appreciated. He claims that for the state to claim sovereign authority over citizens, it must maintain the rightful conditions for the exercise of their freedom as dignified ends in themselves. This includes a responsibility to maintain and deepen a host of liberal institutions that would have seemed radically progressive at the time and engage in a cosmopolitan politics that seems idealistic even to this day. To the extent that states fail to establish this rightful condition, they cede the moral right to sovereign authority over their citizens.

“However, I think we must follow his somewhat constricted insight that freedomwhat I will later call agencycan be very much inhibited or amplified by the socio-historical contexts individuals live within.”

To my mind, this more realistic and contextually-sensitive dimension of Kant’s thought demonstrates how one should go about re-conceiving his conception of dignity. I agree with Kant that there is a fundamental link between one’s freedom and human dignity. However, I think we must follow his somewhat constricted insight that freedomwhat I will later call agencycan be very much inhibited or amplified by the socio-historical contexts individuals live within. Because of the links I follow Kant in drawing between agency and dignity, this also means that it is possible for the dignity of human beings to be amplified or limited by the socio-historical contexts they live within.

We must try to make individuals more capable of agency to amplify the dignity they enjoy as authors of their own life. This means that taking dignity seriously means organizing these socio-historical contexts to amplify agency to the extent possible. In this respect, we still have a very long way to go. Many states still engage in practices that directly or indirectly limit the dignity of individuals. Large changes are needed, if we are to begin to realize some of these ideals when it comes to human dignity.

Matt McManus completed his PhD in socio-legal studies at York University. He is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. He is in the process of formalizing a deal for a second book, The Rise of Post-modern Conservatism. Matt can be reached at