Dignity and Self-Creation

The previous chapter examined the general shape of the practical domain, suggesting a division of ethics into three branches—morality, law, and prudence—each corresponding to a different level of abstraction of the self, designated respectively as person, citizen, and individual. In this chapter I focus on one part of this picture, morality, and relatedly on the notion of person, which signifies the most abstract, and so the universal, aspect of human identity. As already indicated, linking morality to such an abstract self is one of Kant’s central ideas, as is his related conception of human dignity as the core or foundational value for a universal morality. But human dignity is of course not an exclusively Kantian notion, and though I engage mostly with Kant’s views, I link them to some other sources, in the interest of exploring the relationship between a dignity- based morality and the constructive, meaning-oriented conception of self I introduced in earlier chapters. [1]

targets its welfarism and juxtaposes it to a Kantian view that valorizes individual autonomy. But even a casual reader of the legal and the philosophical literature will have noticed a significant shift from autonomy- talk to dignity-talk that has been taking shape in recent years on the deontological side of the normative divide, with an increasing emphasis on respect for persons as the preeminent concern. Seen in this context, the merits of a dignity-based morality are to be assessed not only as against those of a welfare-based utilitarian approach but also as against those of an autonomy-based Kantian approach. I do not conduct a full-scale inquiry to establish the superiority of the dignity-based view in these regards, but discuss one example, that of slavery, to illustrate some of the difficulties that a focus on either welfare or autonomy as the foundational moral value encounters. This invites, even if it doesn’t quite mandate, a consideration of dignity as an appealing foundational value on the basis of which a moral theory can be constructed.

The institution of slavery has long served in the liberal literature as a stock anti-utilitarian example and as a demonstration of the merits of a deontological approach. The challenge that slavery poses to any moral theory comes from a pretheoretical conviction that slavery is a paradigm of injustice, and that the opposition to it is categorical rather than contextual and contingent. It has been often maintained that utilitarian moral theory fails this test. One way in which slavery serves as a counterexample to utilitarianism is by targeting its aggregative aspect: as long as enough people are sufficiently benefited by slavery, the institution is justified on utilitarian grounds, no matter how wretched the slaves’ lives turn out to be. Utilitarianism is here castigated for its willingness to sacrifice some people in order to benefit others. But slavery presents the utilitarian with an additional embarrassment, more pertinent to our present discussion, in the form of the specter of the happy slave. Here we focus on a particular slave who, we are asked to imagine, is quite happy with his lot. The difficulty of raising any objection to his enslavement on utilitarian grounds highlights the utilitarian’s impoverished conception of value, and draws attention to the independent value of autonomy (or its cognates) in our ordinary moral scheme.


But upon reflection, the appeal to autonomy does not straightforwardly underwrite a categorical opposition to slavery. To see this we must inquire more closely into how precisely slavery relates to autonomy. Two different moments should be distinguished. The first concerns the circumstances of enslavement. We ordinarily assume that enslavement itself is involuntary, foisted on the slave through brute force. But what about voluntary enslavement?2 To avoid the presumably unwelcome conclusion that voluntary enslavement is acceptable, it must be maintained that through this exercise of one’s autonomy one sacrifices more autonomy than one gains. I am not sure how convincing this argument is in its own terms. After all, promises and contracts involve some restriction on freedom of choice, and yet, since the restriction is self-imposed, promises and contracts are generally perceived as expressing autonomy and promoting it. Should each promise or contract be made vulnerable to an assessment of its overall effects on the parties’ autonomy? Be this as it may, the entire onus of this response to the problem of voluntary enslavement rests on the second moment in the relation of autonomy to slavery: whether or not the slave agreed to the enslavement, the ongoing regime under which he lives is assumed to consist in a severe limitation of his freedom of choice. But here too we must tread carefully. Is it really necessary that to be a slave one’s choices must be severely curtailed? Everyone’s options are limited, so the slave’s situation would be distinctive in this regard only if his options were more restricted than those of non-slaves. But that need not be the case. Imagine a slave whose master, out of benevolence or enlightened self-interest, gives him considerable free rein. It may perhaps seem that the slave’s predicament will still turn out to involve limitations on choice if we attend to the reliability of the slave’s choice opportunities and not just to their number: the non-slave’s options appear precarious since they can be withdrawn at any time at the master’s whim. However, the slave’s options need not in fact be less secure than the non-slave’s. We can posit a master whose firm, perhaps obsessive character makes it all but impossible for her to depart from her benevolent policy toward her slaves, rendering the range of choices afforded to them no less secure than that available to their free counterparts. In short, de facto curtailment of autonomy is not essential to slavery. What distinguishes the slave from his free counterpart is a matter of legal status: someone who enjoys de facto freedom of choice may yet be enslaved de jure. But if a slave does in fact enjoy the same level of welfare and exercises the same degree of choice as some free people, wherein does the evil of his enslavement lie? Why is de jure slavery odious even in this case?

It is open to the reader to deny the premise of these questions, and maintain, along broadly rule-utilitarian lines, that what makes slavery in general a heinous institution is precisely the fact that real-world slaves are deprived of both welfare and autonomy to a shocking degree. Stipulate away these incidents, and you have removed those features that make slavery the paradigm of injustice. Such readers would get off board the argument at this point. My own belief is that not many will, accepting instead the judgment that to describe someone as a slave is to pronounce him a victim of injustice, rather than to invite an investigation into the actual circumstances of his life. And it is this judgment that ushers in the idea of human dignity and the related notion of respect. What remains evil about slavery even in the case of the slave who is de facto relatively free and content is the affront to human dignity. Slavery is the paradigm of injustice because it denies people’s equal moral worth and thus treats them with disrespect.

But why ascribe to all human beings an equal moral worth and treat them with respect? What does such ascription and treatment amount to or require? And in what sense can an action offend against dignity without otherwise affecting the victim negatively, such as by derogating from his welfare or autonomy? Questions such as these have of course long troubled moral philosophers, eliciting from some a skepticism toward the very idea of dignity and its location at the foundation of morality. At any rate, these questions pose a double challenge: to demonstrate that the notion of dignity can do some useful work in a moral theory, and to offer an account of dignity that shows it to be a substantial and attractive ideal in its own right. Various exponents and advocates of dignity, most notably Kant, have done much over the centuries to meet these challenges and put at least some cardinal doubts to rest. But the recently renewed interest in dignity inevitably awakens opponents as well. My aim accordingly is to draw from the tradition, and again, mostly from Kant, a few threads and weave them into a safety net of sorts that will provide dignity’s friends with some reassurance and some support.

  • [1] WHY DIGNITY The notion of human dignity has a long history, much of which precedesthe writings of Kant, and some of which I mention later on. But Kant’swritings are by far the most influential attempt to formulate a moraltheory grounded in this notion. Kant’s influence on liberal moral philosophy has to be seen against the backdrop of the dominance of utilitarianism and as an antidote to it. Part of the critique of utilitarianism
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