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DignityA History$

Remy Debes

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780199385997

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: June 2017

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199385997.001.0001

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Kant’s Revolutionary Conception

(p.237) Chapter 8 Dignity

Oliver Sensen

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

It is commonly thought that Kant introduced a new conception of dignity into philosophy. According to this interpretation, “dignity” is the name for an absolute inner value all human beings possess, and having dignity is the reason why one ought to be respected by others. This chapter argues that Kant uses a more traditional notion of dignity instead. He conceives of dignity as a special form of rank, an elevation of one thing over another. What is revolutionary in Kant’s account is his notion of autonomy, in that he grounds the requirement to respect others on a Categorical Imperative of one’s own reason. The chapter presents the general meaning of Kant’s conception of dignity, distinguishes his four main uses of this notion, analyzes his justification for the claim that all human beings should be respected, and sums up the differences between Kant’s conception of dignity and the contemporary one.

Keywords:   Kant, dignity, value, respect, autonomy

Kant seems to introduce a new conception of dignity into philosophy. He argues that all human beings ought to be respected, and in turn that human beings have an equal moral standing—independently of race, gender, nationality, birth, wealth, or orientation. It is commonly thought that Kant justifies this view by reference to an absolute inner value all human beings possess equally. On this interpretation, (1) it is an objective fact that all human beings are precious, (2) “dignity” is the name for this value, and (3) dignity is the reason why one can claim one’s rights against others. This picture is a prominent one in contemporary rights debates, and given the apparent influence of Kant on this debate, one can speak of the hegemony of Kant in contemporary debates.1

(p.238) In this chapter I shall argue that Kant’s fame in this matter is not fully deserved. He does hold that all human beings should be respected—even a criminal deserves respect as a human being (cf. Metaphysics of Morals [MS], 6:463).2 However, I argue that he does not ground this requirement on a value the other possesses, and “dignity” is not the name for such a value. Nor is he the inventor of the requirement of universal respect. Indeed, on this last score Kant himself famously credits Rousseau for awakening him to that idea: “I am an inquirer by inclination… . There was a time when I believed this constituted the honor of humanity, and I despised the people, who know nothing. Rousseau set me right about this… . I learned to honor humanity” (Remarks, 20:44). There is something revolutionary in Kant’s thought. However, it does not lie in his account of dignity, but in the way Kant justifies the requirement to respect all others. Kant is the inventor of moral autonomy3 in that he argues that all moral requirements must originate in one’s own reason.

In order to substantiate my interpretation, I shall first look at the general meaning of Kant’s conception of dignity (first section), and defend that interpretation against important objections (second section). I shall then distinguish four main ways in which Kant uses his notion of dignity (third section). After that I shall analyze his justification for the claim that all human beings should be respected (fourth section), before summing up the differences between Kant and the contemporary conception of dignity (fifth section).

The General Meaning of Kantian Dignity

What does it mean to say that human beings have dignity? In the contemporary usage often attributed to Kant, “dignity” is the name for (p.239) a value inherent in all human beings that grounds the requirement to respect them. This conception has three main features: (1) It is an objective fact that human beings have this value; (2) because of this feature one has the standing to claim respect from others, for example, to demand an apology or reparation; (3) respect also involves that the other treats one in a special second-personal way, for example: because of one’s dignity one cannot only demand an apology for an insult, but also that the other look one in the eye.4

It is easy to see why this conception of dignity is commonly attributed to Kant. In the Groundwork Kant famously makes the distinction between dignity and price: “What has a price can be replaced by something else as its equivalent; what on the other hand is raised above all price and therefore admits of no equivalent has a dignity” (Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals [GMS], 4:434) Kant goes on to apparently give a definition of dignity when he distinguishes “relative worth, that is, a price,” from “an inner worth, that is, dignity” (GMS 4:435). In other words, Kant seems to define dignity as an inner worth. Moreover, he seems to ground the requirement to respect others on this worth in the following passage from the Metaphysics of Morals: “The respect that I have for others or that another can require from me (observantia aliis praestanda) is therefore recognition of a dignity (dignitas) in other human beings, that is, of a worth that has no price” (MS 6:462). It would thus seem that, of the three features mentioned above, (1) the objective preciousness, (2) the standing to claim rights, and (3) the standing to claim them in a special way, Kant does introduce at least the first two.5 Hence why, if one reads these passages in isolation, it seems clear that Kant proposes the contemporary paradigm of dignity: Because one has an inner worth (a dignity), one can claim respect from another.

(p.240) However, if one reads these passages in their contexts, and includes the other tenets of Kant’s philosophy, the impression changes. Thus, notice that immediately following the passage that connects dignity and respect, Kant says the following: “Humanity itself is a dignity; for a human being cannot be used merely as a means … but must always be used at the same time as an end. It is just in this that his dignity (personality) consists, by which he raises himself … over all things” (MS 6:462). Here Kant turns the relationship between dignity and respect around: It is not that one should respect others because they have dignity, but others have dignity because they should be respected! How can we make sense of this?

These passages are coherent if Kant is still using the older conception of dignity as rank or elevated standing, which was prominent in the Stoics, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the natural law tradition.6 Indeed, in both works Kant uses “dignity” in the context of something “being raised above” something else (GMS 4:434), and he directly specifies it as “rank” (Anthropology, 7:127; MS 6:468), “prerogative” (GMS 4:438), or “sublimity” (Erhabenheit) (GMS 4:440). Unlike in the contemporary paradigm, in the older traditional one “dignity” was not the name for an intrinsic value property, that is, a preciousness an object would have even if it existed in isolation. Instead, by itself “dignity” merely expresses a relation of one thing being raised over another. Correspondingly, why one thing is higher and in which respect it is raised needs to be specified by the context in which “dignity” is used. This might be a moral context, and it might be in terms of value, but it does not have to be. Dignity can be predicated of very different things. Kant, for instance, speaks about the dignity of a teacher (Religion, 6:162), or the dignity of mathematics (Critique of Pure Reason [KrV] B492). Dignity is not a moral value in these (p.241) contexts—otherwise one might have a duty to become a teacher or study mathematics—but instead expresses that a teacher has a special position in the classroom because of his authority to dismiss class, and that mathematics is special among the sciences in virtue of being more purely a priori.

Similarly, by itself an elevation does not give rise to rights or duties. It is merely a relation in which one thing x is raised above another y in a specific respect. However, there can be contexts in which an elevated position comes with privileges akin to rights. A king who had the most powerful position in society could demand certain prerogatives and special treatment. In addition, an elevated position might also exact an admiration that has similarity with a feeling of respect. This feeling of respect (reverentia or appraisal respect) is different from the respect one owes to others (observantia or recognition respect).7 For instance, the king’s palace, his dress and retinue might have instilled a feeling of awe in an observer. However, it is not in virtue of being “higher” as such that these privileges and admiration occur, just as it does not follow from one person being taller than another that he deserves special treatment. Rather, it is the underlying feature (e.g., the political power) that gives rise to the elevation that explains any special treatment.

Two Objections and Two Replies

One might resist the suggestion that Kant is relying on an older, traditional paradigm of dignity. For instance, it might be pointed out that Kant uses the German Würde, and not the older Latin dignitas.8 However, this difference is more apparent than real. First, Kant knew the traditional paradigm of dignity, and he directly refers to what he takes to be the Stoic conception (cf. Religion, 6:57n). Second, Kant’s predecessors wrote in Latin, and so his concepts often are more a (p.242) translation of the Latin than an unrelated German usage. Accordingly, Kant often specifies the German term with the Latin term he has in mind: “respect … is … recognition of a dignity (dignitas)” (MS 6:463). Finally, the roots of the Latin dignitas and the German Würde are very similar. The Latin dignitas is believed to derive from dignum (worthy),9 while the German Würde comes from würdig (worthy).

A second line of resistance is more serious. Thus it might be asked, even if Kant does use to the older conception of dignity, does he not also put forth the contemporary one? After all, he does seem to define “dignity” as inner worth. In response, I shall give three reasons why Kant does not put forward the contemporary paradigm of dignity. In contemporary usage, I have argued, “dignity” is the name for a value property that grounds the requirement to respect others. However, (1) Kant does not have a conception of value that all human beings possess as such. (2) On his account, value follows from the moral law, and does not ground it; and (3) dignity is similar to value, but not itself value. Think about it: Kant says that (i) only a good will can have absolute value (cf. GMS 4:393), (ii) not all human beings have a good will (cf. MS 6:463), and that (iii) all human beings should be respected (MS 6:463). This indicates that value is not the reason why one should respect others; and in turn that Kant does not adhere to the contemporary paradigm.

But let us examine points (1)–(3) in detail.

  1. (1) The first reason why Kant does not conceive of “dignity” as a name for an inherent value property all human beings possess is that he does not have such a conception of value. Kant famously opens his Groundwork discussion by stating: “It is impossible to think of anything at all in the world, or indeed even beyond it, that could be considered good without limitation except a good will” (GMS 4:393). Kant repeats (p.243) this view throughout his writings: “Only through that which he does without regard to enjoyment, in full freedom and independently of that which nature could passively provide for him, does he give his being as the existence of a person an absolute value” (Critique of the Power of Judgment [KU], 5:208f; cf. 443). Absolute value is not an inherent property all human beings possess, but results from a good will.

A good will, however, is nothing other than a will following the Categorical Imperative for its own sake. Kant says: “That will is absolutely good … whose maxim, if made a universal law, can never conflict with itself” (GMS 4:437). Predicating that a will is good does not postulate the existence of an inherent value property; rather, a “good will … consists just in the principle of action being free from all influences of contingent grounds” (GMS 4:426), that is, in a will following the moral law or Categorical Imperative for its own sake. The Categorical Imperative runs: “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law” (GMS 4:421), and its content is just the freedom from contingent grounds (cf. GMS 4:400–402, 431–32). Kant therefore ascribes value not to the mere existence of human beings, but to the quality of actions and thereby one’s will:

Thus good or evil is, strictly speaking, referred to actions … , and if anything is to be good or evil absolutely (and in every respect and without any further condition), … it would be only the way of acting, the maxim of the will, and consequently the acting person himself … , but not a thing. (Critique of Practical Reason [KpV], 5:60)

So this is one respect in which Kant differs from the contemporary view of dignity.

  1. (2) If value is not an inherent property of a thing (or human being) but can only be predicated of actions and wills, what is (p.244) the meaning of “good” or “value,” on Kant’s account? Kant is a prescriptivist about value: The information the expressions “is good” or “has value” add to a proposition is that reason prescribes it as practically necessary: “The will is a capacity to choose only that which reason … cognizes as practically necessary, that is, as good” (GMS 4:412).

This prescription of reason can be of two kinds. If reason cognizes something to be necessary as a means, for example, to take the plane if one wants to get to Australia quickly, it dictates a hypothetical imperative. If, however, it prescribes something as necessary under all circumstances, it prescribes a categorical imperative:

Since every practical law represents a possible action as good … , all imperatives are formulae for the determination of action that is … good in some way. Now, if the action would be good merely as a means to something else the imperative is hypothetical; if the action is represented as in itself good, hence as necessary in a will in itself conforming to reason, as its principle, then it is categorical. (GMS 4:414)

The concept of “absolute value” is therefore not an inherent property all human beings possess as such. Rather it is whatever a categorical imperative or moral law commands: “The concept of good and evil must not be determined before the moral lawbut onlyafter it and by means of it” (KpV 5:62f.). Thus, to say that something is “absolutely” or “inherently” good, on Kant’s account, is another way of saying that reason prescribes something as necessary “in every respect and without any further condition” (KpV 5:60).10 Since absolute value is something that follows from the Categorical Imperative, it is not something that (p.245) could be the foundation of moral laws, such as the requirement to respect others.11

  1. (3) Even if Kant does not ground moral requirements on a value, could not “dignity” still be the name for one? After all, he does seem to define “dignity” as a value in the famous passages from the Groundwork and Metaphysics of Morals. However, if one keeps Kant’s usage of “worth” or “value” in mind,12 dignity is not strictly speaking a value, even if they have certain elements in common. Let me explain: To say that something has value, I have argued, is another way of saying what reason prescribes. If reason says that a knife is useful for cutting bread, then the knife has a relative value. “Relative value” here means nothing more than “is useful for.” Similarly, if reason commands something unconditionally, for example, never to deceive, then the act of not deceiving has an absolute value. But “having absolute value” means nothing more than “reason prescribes it unconditionally.” Such an unconditional command, which strikes down self-conceit, exacts a feeling of respect (reverentia): “Before a humble common man in whom I perceive uprightness of character … my spirit bows, whether I want it or whether I do not… . His example holds before me a law that strikes down my self-conceit” (KpV 5:76f).

By contrast, strictly speaking “dignity” expresses only that something is raised above something else. Now, whatever is so raised might also exact a feeling of respect in virtue of being elevated. Thus, in the famous Groundwork passage where Kant seems to define “dignity” as “absolute value” (GMS 4:434–36), he asks why a morally good person abides by (p.246) the moral law (cf. GMS 4:434). His answer is because morality has an absolute or higher value, and it is this higher value that exacts respect. However, “dignity” here expresses only that moral value is higher than other value, not that dignity is itself a value. In other words, all absolute value has a dignity, but not every dignity has an absolute value (in that it should be pursued—as the example of the dignity of mathematics brings out). Indeed, in the few passages where “dignity” appears next to “value,” Kant talks specifically about this elevated worth of morality:

From the (natural) human being’s feeling himself compelled to revere the (moral) human being within his own person … comes exaltation of the highest self-esteem, the feeling of his inner worth … in terms of which he … possesses an inalienable dignity (dignitas interna), which instills in him respect for himself (reverentia). (MS 6:436)

The Varieties of Dignity

If “dignity” is not the name for an inherent preciousness, but expresses an elevated standing of something over something else, in virtue of what do human beings have dignity? On this account dignity is in need of a scale to specify in which respect something is raised above something else. What is the scale in the case of human dignity? Furthermore, is this dignity absolute, and the same for all human beings? Is it only to be found in human beings, or do other creatures have it as well? In Kant’s case, there is not one single answer to these questions. He uses “dignity” in very different contexts, and has at least four different usages.

  1. (i) In a first way, Kant uses “dignity” to denote an elevation of one member of a group above the other members. This view is not necessarily tied to human beings, as Kant talks about (p.247) the dignity of mathematics (cf. KrV B492) or philosophy (cf. KrV B86). Nor is dignity in this sense absolute. The dignity of a teacher (cf. Religion, 6:162), for instance, can be gained, lost, and regained. Notably, this is also the sense in which Kant talks about the dignity of a regent or minister (Perpetual Peace, 8:344), or calls the powers in a state “civic dignities,” which comprise the “relation of a commander (imperans) to those who obey” (MS 6:315). This usage is thus akin to the general use of dignitas in ancient Rome (cf. Griffin’s chapter in this volume). Out of the 111 times that the term Würde appears in Kant’s texts, 39 refer to this sense of dignity.13

  2. (ii) Kant uses “dignity” in a different sense when he talks about human dignity (Würde der Menschheit or Menschenwürde). In this context Kant talks about the elevation of all human beings above the rest of nature. Human beings are elevated, according to Kant, because they possess the capacity of freedom. In virtue of freedom human beings are not a mere plaything in nature, that is, they are not just a means to the end of another (Naturrecht Feyerabend, 27:1320, GMS 4:435). This usage is similar to the Stoic conception of dignity (cf. my Kant on Dignity, 164–72). Dignity here is absolute, and peculiar to rational beings that have free will. Kant calls this dignity “innate” (MS 6:420) and “inalienable” (MS 6:436). It is not necessarily just tied to human beings. If there is another species that has free will, it would be elevated over the rest of nature in the same way. Altogether, Kant uses “dignity” 40 times out of 111 in this sense (cf. my Kant on Dignity, 178f).

(p.248) Although this kind of dignity is often used in moral contexts, dignity by itself does not yield any moral implications. Accordingly, saying that human beings have dignity in virtue of freedom merely says that human beings are special in nature. But other animals are special in different respects. A cheetah can run faster than other animals, and a centipede has more feet. A further argument is required in order to derive any rights or duties from this special quality. In the history of philosophy, some of the normative premises for such duties were to live in accordance with nature or to imitate God (cf. Kent’s contribution to this volume). In Kant’s case, I shall argue, the normative premise is the Categorical Imperative.

  1. (iii) Closely connected with Kant’s second usage of “dignity” is a third type, what I shall call the “dignity of morality.” Human beings can realize their “initial dignity” (Conflict of Faculties, 7:73) if they make a proper use of their freedom. This too is a Stoic element (cf. my Kant on Dignity, 168f). Human dignity comes in two stages: “The dignity of human nature lies only in its freedom… . But the dignity of one human being (worthiness) rests on the use of his freedom” (Reflection, 6856, 19:181). The worthiness one can acquire in making a proper use of one’s freedom consists in a morally good will; and this third type concerns the dignity of morality. In this sense, Kant speaks about the “dignity of virtue” (MS 6:483), or the “sublimity and dignity in the person who fulfils all his duties” (GMS 4:440). Kant uses “dignity” in this way thirty times throughout his published works (cf. my Kant on Dignity, 179f).

This third type of dignity is not absolute, and not necessarily universal. Not everyone has a good will: “I cannot deny all respect to even a vicious man as a human being … even though by his deeds he makes himself unworthy of it” (MS 6:463). A good will can be gained, lost (p.249) and regained. It is something one should strive for, and it exacts a feeling of respect from oneself and others (cf. again KpV 5:76f). But while this feeling of respect might be a motive to be moral, it is not the justification for why one should have a good will. Having a feeling cannot be commanded (cf. MS 6:449). Instead, the justification for why one should have a good will is the Categorical Imperative. A good will consists in following the Categorical Imperative for its own sake (cf. again GMS 4:426), and this is what makes imperative the striving to acquire a good will. The seven occurrences where “dignity” appears next to “value” in Kant’s works occur in the context of the dignity of morality—which is not surprising, as it is morality that has the highest value (cf. my Kant on Dignity, 180).

  1. (iv) Finally, there is the peculiar usage of “dignity” in which Kant says that human beings have dignity because they should be respected. This is a way in which all human beings are elevated over the rest of nature, but it is different from the second way Kant uses “dignity” specified above. Here Kant is not saying that human beings are special in virtue of a capacity they have, but because they are the beneficiaries of respect. In fact, there are two different ways in which human beings are said to have dignity because they should be respected—corresponding to the two forms of respect: observantia and reverentia (see the first section). The first passage I have already cited at the beginning of the first section: “Humanity itself is a dignity; for a human being cannot be used merely as a means … but must always be used at the same time as an end. It is just in this that his dignity (personality) consists, by which he raises himself … over all things” (MS 6:462). Here Kant talks about the respect one owes to others or recognition respect (observantia). One should respect others in this sense, I have argued in the second section, because it is commanded by a (p.250) categorical imperative of one’s own reason. But the resulting dignity (iv1) is absolute, and pertains to all human beings.14

The second passage in which Kant says that human beings have dignity seems to work slightly differently. It appears in a section on a duty against servility or false humility. Kant’s point is that no one has to lower him- or herself because everyone is capable of a good will that is of absolute value. In virtue of a good will everyone could exact an esteem from every other rational being. The respect Kant has in mind here is a feeling of appraisal respect (reverentia). The passage runs:

But a human being regarded as a person, that is, as the subject of a morally practical reason, is exalted above any price; for as a person (homo noumenon) he is not to be valued merely as a means to the ends of others or even to his own ends, but … he possesses a dignity (an absolute inner worth) by which he exacts respect for himself from all other rational beings in the world. He can measure himself with every other being of this kind and value himself on a footing of equality with them. (MS 6:434f)

Because one is capable of a good will, which is the most important value, one should not lower oneself toward others. The idea of a good will causes the human being to “revere the (moral) human being within” for the “inner worth … in terms of which he … possesses an inalienable dignity … which instills in him respect for himself (reverentia)” (MS 6:436). In this second sense (iv2), therefore, a human being is elevated over the rest of nature because he can exact esteem from others in virtue of a morally good will. Strictly speaking, though, this sense of dignity is not absolute. One can acquire a good will (which alone has absolute value), but also fail to have one.

(p.251) In sum: There are different ways in which a human being can have dignity, according to Kant. Some of these are absolute, while others are not. “Dignity” just signifies that a human being is elevated in some respect. This could refer to the elevation of one human being over other human beings. In this sense it could describe an elevation in terms of birth, wealth, power, or merit, or the elevation of a morally good being ([i]‌, [iii], and [iv2]). But all these senses are not universal and not absolute. One can gain this standing and lose it. On the other hand, there are two senses in which the dignity of human beings is universal and absolute ([ii] and [iv1]). All human beings are special in nature in virtue of having free will. In addition, all human beings are elevated because they are owed recognition respect (observantia). It is the justification for this last form of dignity (iv1) that interests us here.


How does Kant justify the idea that all human beings should be respected and therefore have an equal dignity? So far I have argued that dignity is not itself the reason, as it is not an inherent precious feature all human beings possess, but merely expresses that something is elevated over something else. However, it is not that human beings should be respected because they are elevated; rather in one sense (iv1) they are elevated because they should be respected. But why, then, should one respect others? Kant’s answer—which I have already hinted at but will in this section explicate more fully—is that the requirement to respect others is a categorical imperative. One should always respect others, and the command does not admit of exceptions. In being necessary and universal, the requirement must lie a priori in one’s own reason. This is because experience (for instance the experience of the value of another) could never yield necessity and universality. Only an a priori law could do that.

What is respect? On Kant’s account, the respect that one ought to have for others is not a feeling of appraisal (reverentia), because—to (p.252) reiterate—a feeling cannot be commanded (cf. again MS 6:449). Rather it is a maxim or principle one should adopt of not exalting oneself above others, that is, of not thinking of oneself as something better:

Respect to be shown to others … is not to be understood as the mere feeling that comes from comparing our own worth with another’s (such as … a pupil toward his teacher, or any subordinate toward his superior). It is rather to be understood as the maxim of … not exalting myself above others. (MS 6:449f)

Why should one adopt this maxim? Kant holds that it is required by the formula of humanity, which is itself one formula of the Categorical Imperative: “The duty of respect for my neighbor is contained in the maxim not to degrade any other to a mere means to my ends” (MS 6:450). This maxim not to treat others as mere means is one half of the formula of humanity. The other half commands one to positively help others. The formula of humanity runs: “So act that you use humanity, in your own person as well as in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means” (GMS 4:429). Kant conceives of this formula to be “tantamount” to and “at bottom the same” as the main formulation of the Categorical Imperative (cf. GMS 4:436–38).15 The requirement to respect others is therefore a categorical imperative, and the justification for the formula of humanity will be the same as for any categorical principle.

This is, at least, how Kant specifies it. He says that the formula of humanity is a command of one’s own reason: “This principle of humanity … is not borrowed from experience; … because of its universality … so that the principle must arise from pure reason” (GMS 4:431). The justification for this is the same as it is in his theoretical philosophy. Experience can provide examples of a few cases, but not of (p.253) all possible cases, and it can provide that something is the case, but not that it is necessarily so: “Necessity and strict universality are … secure indications of an a priori cognition” (KrV B4). In addition to this positive argument, Kant provides a negative one. He argues that all other theories than his own could only yield heteronomy and conditional necessity, not an unconditional ought: “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” (GMS 4:441). But heteronomy cannot ground a moral obligation: “Heteronomy … not only does not ground any obligation at all but is instead opposed to the principle of obligation and to the morality of the will” (KpV 5:33).

What, more specifically, is heteronomy, and why is it unable to ground any moral requirements? Heteronomy, in short, is the idea that morality is based on a law that has a foreign source (e.g., it comes from society or nature), as it is not grounded in one’s own reason. Heteronomy cannot yield morality, according to Kant, since one would need a motivation to comply with this foreign law. And this motivation could only arise from something we think we will get out of following the law—what Kant calls an “interest.” That is, we will only be motivated to follow the foreign law if we think it will get us something we want, that is, produce a result that will satisfy some desire we have:

If one thought of him only as subject to a law (whatever it may be), this law had to carry with it some interest by way of attraction or constraint, since it did not as a law arise from his will; in order to conform with the law … one never arrived at duty but instead at the necessity of an action from a certain interest. (GMS 4:432f)

Kant’s point is easier to see if one were to base morality in desires or an outside authority such as a government or an arbitrary God. If one (p.254) were confronted with an outside command, one would need to have a further desire, say, not to be punished (this would be the “interest”), in order to be motivated to comply with that demand.

But does this also apply to the contemporary conception of dignity? Why would a value inherent in other people also yield heteronomy? Imagine that you should respect (observantia) another human being because that person has a value. If this value is supposed to be more than a description of what we actually do value, and more than something one should value for another reason,16 then value would be a property or substance that literally is in the other person. But how could one discover this property? (And why should one be motivated or bound to respect it?)

Kant’s point is that one could only discover it through experience. On his account, all knowledge begins with the senses (cf. KrV B1). If one wanted to ground morality on a value the other possesses, one would first have to discover this value with one’s senses. But if the value is not something one can discover with the five senses—one cannot literally see the value when performing surgery on a human being—the only sense left would be a feeling. However, feelings are relative and contingent, and cannot ground a necessary and universal law: “From the feeling of a sensation that may be different in every creature, no generally valid law can be derived for all thinking beings, and that is how the moral principle must be constituted” (Kant’s Lectures on Ethics Mrongovius II, 29:625).17

But even if one were to claim—against Kant—that one can discover the value property with one’s senses, or a nonnatural intuition (such as a seeing with a mental eye), this discovery would still be based on (p.255) experience, and as experience is relative and contingent (cf. again KrV B3–4); it cannot ground a necessary moral law.

As a result, morality can only be necessary and universal if it is grounded in one’s own reason. This origin of moral principles is what Kant describes as autonomy: The moral law is an a priori constitutive principle of pure reason (cf. KU 5:196f). But what does that mean? Kant describes the origin of the moral law thus: “Pure reason … gives (to the human being) a universal law which we call the moral law” (KpV 5:31). Accordingly, the law is something “our own cognitive faculty … provides out of itself” (KrV B2), and is an “a priori proposition that is not based on any intuition, either pure or empirical” (KpV 5:31). It is also not a rational decision one makes consciously, like a New Year’s resolution. Such a commitment would not be binding, for “the one imposing obligation … could always release the one put under obligation … so that … he would not be bound at all to a duty he lays upon himself” (MS 6:417). Rather, the moral law is prescribed prior to and independently of one’s awareness. Independently of one’s conscious deliberations, the moral law would still make itself heard in a way that is similar to a bad conscience. But this also does not mean that the moral law is innate, on Kant’s account. For if it were innate, given by God or evolution, it would not be strictly necessary, since another law could have become innate this way (cf. KrV B167f). Instead, the law is “initially acquired” (On a discovery whereby any new critique of pure reason is to be made superfluous by an older one, 8:222), meaning that when one is confronted with a moral situation, “reason … with complete spontaneity … declares actions to be necessary” (KrV B576).

But why should one believe that there really is such a law? So far Kant’s argument has only been conditional: if one wants morality to be necessary and universal, it has to be grounded in autonomy. The condition, as he presents it, is provided by the ordinary view of morality (cf. GMS 4:389, 445). However, he is of course aware that this ordinary view might be false, and he does not rest his case on the popular view (p.256) of morality. To this effect Kant gives a separate argument. If the moral law is a priori, then it should be demonstrable by its necessity and strict universality: “We can become aware of pure practical laws just as we are aware of pure theoretical principles, by attending to the necessity with which reason prescribes them to us” (KpV 5:30). In order to support that we can become aware of a necessary principle, Kant gives the following example of the “gallows.” Imagine a prince commands you to give false testimony against an innocent and honorable man, who would then lose his life. And imagine that no desire speaks in favor of the moral action: If you refuse, you and your family will be punished, you will lose your influence at court, along with everything you hold dear, including your life, and so on. Similarly, suppose you do not believe in an afterlife, that you do not expect a revolution to follow upon your demise, that you are not a person who desires to be moral above all, and so on. Kant assumes that—even if no desire speaks in favor of refusing to give false testimony—everyone will judge the action to be morally wrong; the man is innocent after all.

But Kant does not introduce the gallows example to make the case that everyone has a direct knowledge of what is right and wrong, and that it does not need any further evidence. Rather he uses it to prove freedom, and grounds morality in freedom. His point is that the judgment about the wrongness of the action lets one discover that one could refuse to give false testimony. The agent “must admit without hesitation that it would be possible for him” (KpV 5:30). If this is the case, then one assumes that one could act independently of one’s desires—since one has assumed that no desire speaks in favor of the action—and this independence is freedom. The moral judgment therefore lets one discover that one assumes freedom: “He judges, therefore, that he can do something because he is aware that he ought to do it and cognizes freedom within” (KpV 5:30).

Kant then uses freedom to justify morality. Freedom is considered to be a causality, and the essential feature of causality is for Kant that it operates according to laws: “The concept of causality brings with it (p.257) that of laws” (GMS 4:446). The only law that could be a law of freedom (understood as independence from desires) is one that abstracts from all desires and ends adopted on account of desires. The only law that remains is the mere form of the law, which demands universality and is the same as the Categorical Imperative: “what, then, can freedom of the will be other than autonomy, that is … to act on no other maxim than that which can also have as object itself as universal law. This, however, is precisely the formula of the categorical imperative” (GMS 4:446f; cf. 402; KpV 5:29).

In concluding this section, I want to tie back the results to dignity. I have argued that dignity is not by itself the justification or grounding for moral requirements. Assuming I am right, how does dignity relate to the grounding of morality? The passage that explains the connection is also the passage in which Kant endorses the Stoic conception of dignity:

These philosophers [Stoics and others] derived their universal moral principle from the dignity of human nature, from its freedom (as an independence from the power of the inclinations), and they could not have laid down a better or nobler principle for foundation. They then drew the moral laws directly from reason, the sole legislator, commanding absolutely through its laws. And so was everything quite correctly apportioned. (Religion, 6:57n)

Morality is grounded in freedom. Inasmuch as one has freedom as a capacity, one is also under its law, the moral law: “The two concepts are so inseparably connected that one could even define practical freedom through independence of the will from anything other than the moral law alone” (KpV 5:93f). For a purely rational being that does not have inclinations, the moral law would be a purely descriptive law that governs how such beings would behave. It is only for beings like us, who are also tempted by inclinations, that the law of freedom appears as an imperative, prescribing what one ought to do: “This ‘ought’ is (p.258) strictly speaking a ‘will’ that holds for every rational being under the condition that reason in him is practical without hindrance” (GMS 4:449).

Dignity, then, is not part of this grounding. Instead, “dignity”—in this usage—describes that human beings are special in nature in virtue of having freedom. By itself, “dignity” merely expresses that human beings are special. But other animals can be special: a centipede has the most feet, a cheetah can run the fastest. However, what makes them special has no bearing on morality. In contrast, freedom is the source of morality. Since the source of morality is in one’s own freedom, something Kant calls “autonomy,” autonomy is what makes human beings special: “Autonomy is therefore the ground of the dignity of human nature and of every rational nature” (GMS 4:436). Autonomy and dignity describe different aspects of freedom. But morality is grounded in freedom itself.


In concluding, I want to compare Kant’s conception of dignity to the three features of our contemporary notion of dignity that I specified at the beginning. There I had said that the following are now considered to apply to dignity (1) it is a value or objective preciousness all human beings possess equally; (2) this standing gives one the right to make second-personal claims on others (e.g., for an apology), and (3) this standing gives the right to demand a special treatment from others (e.g., that the other look one in the eye while apologizing).

Concerning (1), I noted that—unlike the contemporary conception of dignity—Kant does not ground morality in a third-personal fact (of being valuable), but rather in a first-personal law of one’s own reason (the Categorical Imperative). On Kant’s account, the right (Categorical Imperative) is prior to the good (or any value): “For, (p.259) nothing can have a worth other than that which the law determines for it” (GMS 4:435f). One has a moral standing or dignity because the Categorical Imperative commands that one should be respected (see the fourth section). This moral standing is equal among all human beings, but—as I have argued above—the standing is not the ground but the result of the requirement to be respected. The duty to respect others is therefore a duty to oneself, on Kant’s account:

For I can recognize that I am under obligation to others only insofar as I at the same time put myself under obligation, since the law by virtue of which I regard myself under obligation [the Categorical Imperative] proceeds in every case from my own practical reason; and in being constrained by my own reason, I am also the one constraining myself. (MS 6:417f)

I should respect others, not because they have a value, but because it is commanded by the Categorical Imperative of my own reason.

Accordingly, in contrast to the second feature of the contemporary view of dignity (2), in Kant’s view it is not a value or one’s own dignity because of which one can make rights claims. Rather one can claim a right by reminding the agent of his duty (expressed by the Categorical Imperative of his reason) to respect the victim. On Kant’s account, duties are prior to rights:

But why is the doctrine of morals usually called (especially by Cicero) a doctrine of duties and not also a doctrine of rights, even though rights have reference to duties?—The reason is that we know our own freedom (from which all moral laws, and so all rights as well as duties proceed) only through the moral imperative, which is a proposition commanding duty, from which the capacity for putting others under obligation, that is, the concept of right, can afterwards be explicated. (MS 6:239)

(p.260) One can claim a right by reminding the agent of his duty:

The other, having a right to do so, confronts the subject with his duty, i.e., the moral law by which he ought to act. If this confrontation makes an impression on the agent, he determines his will by an Idea of reason, creates through his reason that conception of his duty which already lay previously within him, and is only quickened by the other, and determines himself according to the moral law. (Kant’s Lectures on Ethics Vigilantius, 27:521)

Finally, unlike the third feature of the contemporary view of dignity (3), Kant does not specify the particular way in which one has to respect others. On Kant’s account, these ways could be very different in different cultures (cf. Kant’s Lectures on Ethics Collins, 27:466). Kant wants to confine himself to what he can say about morality a priori. One could imagine that looking someone in the eye could be a sign of respect in one culture, but an insult in another. What counts as respect in one culture needs to be found out empirically:

The different forms of respect to be shown to others in accordance with differences in their qualities or contingent relations—differences of age, sex, birth, strength or weakness, or even rank and dignity, which depend in part on arbitrary arrangements—cannot be set forth in detail … in the metaphysical first principles of a doctrine of virtue. (MS 6:468, cf. 468f)

In sum: On the contemporary account of dignity the good (the value of human beings) is prior to the right (the principle that one should respect others), and the right of the victim is prior to the duty of the agent. Kant turns both relationships around. The right (Categorical Imperative) is prior to the good, and the duty of the agent is prior to the right of the victim. Universal dignity is not itself part of this foundation, on Kant’s account, but it describes (a) that rational beings are (p.261) special in nature in virtue of possessing freedom, (b) that all human beings are special because they should be respected, as required by the Categorical Imperative, and (c) what should be respected in others, their striving to realize their initial dignity (cf. note 6).

Kant is the inspiration for the contemporary paradigm of dignity, but—if I am right—not its author. This does not weaken the contemporary paradigm, but it opens up a further way of how one can justify the requirement to respect all human beings. (p.262)


(1) Cf. Remy Debes, “Dignity’s Gauntlet,” Philosophical Perspectives 23 (2009): 49.

(2) Page numbers refer to the Prussian Academy edition of Kant’s works (de Gruyter, 1902–), citing volume:page. All translations are taken from the Cambridge edition, general editors Paul Guyer and Allen Wood.

(3) Cf. J. B. Schneewind, The Invention of Autonomy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 3.

(4) Cf. Stephen Darwall, The Second-Person Standpoint (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), 119.

(5) For the third see the final section below.

(6) Cf. the contributions in this volume, and my Kant on Human Dignity (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2011), 152–64. My claim is that the first passage in 6:462 states what should be respected in others, and that the second states why one should respect them.

(7) Cf. Stephen Darwall, “Two Kinds of Respect,” Ethics 88 (1979): 38f.

(8) Cf. Jeremy Waldron, Dignity, Rank, and Rights (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 24.

(9) Cf. my Kant on Dignity, 153–55; similarly Michael Rosen, Dignity: Its History and Meaning (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), 19f.

(10) Kant therefore uses “absolute,” “inner,” and “unconditional” interchangeably, cf.: “The word absolute is now more often used merely to indicate that something is valid of a thing considered in itself and thus internally [innerlich]” (KrV B381).

(11) For the fuller argument, see my Kant on Dignity, 23–27, and the “Justification” section below.

(12) In German there is only one term, Wert, and so I shall use “worth” and “value” interchangeably.

(13) For the full list of the passages and their analysis see my Kant on Dignity, 177f.

(14) For Kant’s views on the beginning of life see MS 6:280–82, for his views on old age MS 6:468f.

(15) For a reconstruction of why those two are equivalent see my Kant on Dignity, 122–27.

(16) For such arguments cf. Christine Korsgaard, Self-Constitution (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009) and Allen Wood, Kantian Ethics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 95–105.

(17) The same argument also rules out that Kant could conceive of dignity as the value of an “inner transcendental kernel” (Rosen, Dignity, 31); cf. KrV B798 and Thomas Hill, “In Defense of Human Dignity: Comments on Kant and Rosen,” in Understanding Human Dignity, ed. Christopher McCrudden (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 315–27.