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The Taste for Being Moral


One of the main culprits of Haidt’s book, for insisting that morality must be based on reason, not on feelings, is Immanuel Kant. Kant’s influence has been very great, and Haidt believes it has sidetracked philosophers and others from the true path of understanding indicated by his predecessor David Hume, who maintained that reason was always subordinate to feeling or “sentiment” in the control of action, and therefore in morality. But it should be said that Hume’s influence has been equally great, and that contemporary ethical theory continues to be dominated by the disagreement between these two giants.

Michael Rosen’s stimulating and informative Dignity: Its History and Meaning is about a moral idea that is important in Kant’s writings and influence, though Rosen also investigates the history of the concept of dignity before Kant and its place in other systems of thought, such as Catholic moral theology and German constitutional law. Rosen is not a social psychologist but a political theorist, and his investigations are historical, institutional, and textual rather than biological and psychological. Unlike Haidt, he does not propose a general theory of morality. Yet he is trying to understand a particular moral norm that in his reading functions rather like one of Haidt’s moral modules.

Article I of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights begins: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” Article I of the Grundgesetz (Basic Law) of the Federal Republic of Germany reads:

Human dignity is inviolable. To respect it and protect it is the duty of all state power. The German people therefore acknowledge inviolable and inalienable human rights as the basis of every community, of peace and of justice in the world.

The prominence of dignity (Würde) in the German text reflects not only the influence of Kant but the need to exorcise the radically antiuniversal morality of Nazism. Both texts associate dignity with rights, a point Rosen will question.

In the aristocratic past, dignity was associated with high social status. Dignity demanded respect, but it was thought to be possessed not by all human beings, but only by an elevated few. Rosen points out that the reversal of this status hierarchy, so that “the last shall be first,” is an important aspect of Christian social thought. But the conversion of dignity from an exclusive to a universal elevated human status was given its secular form by Kant, whose conception of the moral community is described by John Rawls as “the aristocracy of all.”1

Kant famously held that the only thing that is good in itself and without qualification is a good will—a will that obeys universal laws of morality that it gives to itself. It is in virtue of their capacity for morality—as both the authors and the subjects of the moral law—that humans are ends in themselves and must always be treated as such. As Kant wrote:

Morality is the condition under which alone a rational being can be an end in itself, since only through this is it possible to be a lawgiving member in the kingdom of ends. Hence morality, and humanity insofar as it is capable of morality, is that which alone has dignity.2

We give ourselves the moral law by applying the categorical imperative, whose first formulation (the formula of universal law) is: “Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.” But Rosen is primarily concerned with the interpretation of the second formulation (the formula of humanity): “So act that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means.”

What is it to treat humanity as an end in itself, and thus to respect the dignity of all human beings? Most interpreters of Kant take both the formula of universal law and the formula of humanity as injunctions to put yourself in other people’s shoes. You are to ask not just “What shall I do?” but “What should anyone in my position do?” and the answer comes from subjecting your conduct to standards acceptable from everyone’s point of view at once, or the points of view of all those affected—suitably idealized and combined.

Setting aside the difficult question whether such a method can yield definite moral requirements, and if so, what they are, this interpretation identifies the core of Kantian morality with some form of equal consideration for all persons, as a limit on the pursuit of one’s own interests—not by maximizing aggregate welfare as utilitarianism requires, but by mandating certain forms of decent treatment of each person individually. But Rosen believes that this way of understanding Kant does not do justice to what he calls the extraordinary “austerity and radicalism” of the theory. Rosen believes that its driving force is not concern for others, but something quite different.


Admirers of Kant have always had difficulty with some of his views that seem impossible to account for according to the humanistic conception I have described. One is his notorious insistence that it is not permissible to tell a lie even to save someone from being murdered. Another is the strict prohibition against suicide, even to escape unbearable suffering. Kant holds that this would violate the requirement to treat one’s humanity as an end, and not merely as a means. But why wouldn’t a person who ends his life to shorten the suffering of a terminal illness be treating himself not merely as a means—by ending his life—but also as an end—to shorten his suffering? If suicide for such a reason is a failure to treat oneself as an end, then Kant must be talking about a very different kind of value, one that cannot be understood as the satisfaction of human interests.

Rosen believes that a value of precisely this kind is expressed in the idea of dignity, and in the final section of the book he explains his understanding of this value, and confirms its independence of human interests, by finding it manifest in yet another example (not taken from Kant), the requirement that the bodies of the dead be treated with respect, indeed with dignity. Some such requirement seems to be recognized by all cultures, and to have strong emotional support. It is not for reasons of public health that we would be appalled if someone ground up a dead relative for dog food. (We are clearly in Haidt’s domain of sanctity/degradation.) Rosen believes this has nothing to do with the interests of the deceased or anyone else. It is just a requirement that we not do certain things to a person’s body after they have died. It is a pure duty, corresponding to no one’s right, and it doesn’t benefit anyone.

Rosen holds that Kant’s doctrine of dignity and of moral beings as ends in themselves is fundamentally a morality of duty—duty in essence to ourselves, to conduct ourselves in certain ways. Even if some of those ways concern the treatment of others, the point is not their benefit, but our conduct. This is an exaggeration, but Rosen makes a persuasive case that it is at least part of the truth. Our duty to treat morality and humanity’s moral nature as an end in itself “consists not in trying to bring that timelessly valuable thing into existence or defending it from destruction (which is both impossible and unnecessary) but in acting in ways that are appropriate toward it.” The distinction between a value that gives us reason to produce more of what has it, like the value of human happiness, and a value that gives us reason to treat what already has it with respect, like the value of human dignity, is an important one. The first might be called benefit-value, the second status-value.

Yet I believe Rosen finds too big a gulf between the two; both are important in Kant’s theory. Rosen rejects the Kantian attempt to base human rights on human dignity, saying rights are better explained by the benefit-value of the human interests that rights protect. But there is an element of pure status—a value that demands respect rather than increase—in the idea of basic rights. That is why a right may not be violated in order to minimize overall violations of rights: one may not murder one innocent person even to save five others from being murdered. On the other hand, Rosen’s “pure duty” reading ignores the fact that Kant’s moral theory explicitly requires us to advance the interests of others as part of the requirement to treat them as ends in themselves: “For the ends of any person, who is an end in himself, must as far as possible also be my end, if that conception of an end in itself is to have its full effect on me.”

Rosen describes the role played by the concept of dignity in contemporary legal argument, often with questionable results. He discusses the French case of Manuel Wackenheim, a dwarf who was prohibited from hiring himself out for dwarf-throwing contests on the ground that this was a violation of his dignity—a judgment upheld by the French Conseil d’É tat, the European Commission on Human Rights, and the Human Rights Committee of the United Nations. Rosen observes correctly that these judgments were based on a confusion between dignity as a moral status and dignity as “dignified” bearing:

Doesn’t being treated with dignity mean that we should have the right to make our own choices about whether to behave with dignity or not? Does the state’s duty to protect “the dignity of the human person” entail that it has the right to prohibit people from choosing to behave in an undignified way?

Rosen is here appealing to a general principle of individual autonomy—something very different from respect for the bodies of the dead. Other violations of dignity may need to be explained by reference to fairness, privacy, the avoidance of humiliation, or bodily integrity. Without such interpretation the concept of dignity as requiring “appropriate” or “respectful” treatment is too vague to determine any definite standards. Rosen’s attempt to redeem it as an independent basis for judgment is finally unconvincing. Here as elsewhere in moral thought, intuition may be an indispensable starting point, but justified confidence about right and wrong requires more.

  1. 1

    John Rawls, Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy, edited by Barbara Herman (Harvard University Press, 2000), p. 211. 

  2. 2

    Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Ak. 4:435. 

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