Dignity’s due

Why are philosophers invoking the notion of human dignity to revitalize theories of political ethics? Samuel Moyn’s review of two new books about human dignity outlines a history of the concept of human dignity, including Kant’s role in redefining the idea. “One philosopher, however, the German Enlightenment sage Immanuel Kant, thought about human distinction precisely in terms of dignity—namely, the priceless worth conferred on us by our freedom to choose. … Kant insisted that man’s ‘rational nature’—our ability to set ends—makes every human life of highest value, and indeed provides the basis of all value in the world.”

The review goes out to show the tension between the deontological idea of respect for human dignity and the utilitarian value of humans caring about the welfare of others : “Today, human dignity is a principle chiefly for those who admire judges and want them to have the power to check the state in the name of basic humanitarian values. Its currency is a sign that our morality has been redefined around the worst that can transpire in history rather than some better order that could be achieved through political contest and struggle. A consensus about dignity may have become deep enough for us to insist that the state not torture, but it has proved far less helpful when some of us insist that our fellow humans care about one another’s broader welfare or collective emancipation. Isn’t that undignified?”

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