The concept of dignity on which I focus has two main sources, theological and philosophical. The former is the biblical idea of imago Dei (in the original Hebrew, b’tzelem Elohim), claiming that human beings were created in the image of God; the latter source is for the most part in the writings of Immanuel Kant. However, tracing the concept of dignity to these two sources raises serious difficulties. One concerns the relationship between the sources. Kant himself does not couch his discussion of human dignity in the ancient imago Dei idiom. Though Kant professes religious beliefs, his moral theory is resolutely secular. The two sources thus seem to be in tension rather than complementary. Each source also raises problems of its own. As to imago Dei, many of those who pledge allegiance to human dignity do so within a secular liberal worldview; what possible interest can they take in Man’s alleged resemblance to God? Kant’s appeal to children of the Enlightenment is clearer, but here we face the problem that, as I’ve previously mentioned, Kant’s own moral theory is grounded in the metaphysics of the thing-in-itself, and relatedly of the noumenal self, that few contemporary normative Kantians espouse. So it appears not only that the sources of dignity we inherited, the religious and the metaphysical, are at odds but that neither is particularly appealing to many of us today. I will argue to the contrary that despite religious misgivings and metaphysical doubts, the two sources remain viable. Contemplating Kant’s concept of dignity against the background of the imago Dei idea makes sense and reveals a common ground that is hospitable to any nonbelieving humanist, eager to uphold humanity’s moral worth without the support of a divine warrant, while also staying away from the more esoteric aspects of a Kantian metaphysics.
I start by considering the imago Dei idea. To see its relevance to a secular sensibility, we should distinguish in it two different claims or moments. One, call it the creation thesis, is the belief that the world in general, and human beings in particular, are God’s creation. The second, the resemblance thesis, holds that humanity resembles God. The first thesis does not distinguish humanity from the rest of creation; rather, it is the latter claim that gives rise to human dignity. The resemblance can be interpreted in different ways, but one attractive theme sees it in terms of the knowledge of good and evil. It is in this respect in particular that humankind’s resemblance to God is said to imply humanity’s divine stature and so its special worth. Obviously, the creation thesis cannot be accepted by the secular mind. Even so, my suggestion is that the resemblance thesis can. But how? If man was not created by God, whence the resemblance? And what is the resemblance a resemblance to?
Possible answers to these questions are provided by a tradition of thought, most famously associated with the German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach,5 that reverses the creation thesis. Rather than being God’s creation, people have created God, and indeed created Him in their own image, by projecting an idealized vision of themselves. We can appeal to this view to reinterpret the imago Dei idea. The cardinal difference between the religious standpoint and its secular reinterpretation is that humanity, which from the religious standpoint is the image, turns out to be the original, reflected in a mirror of its own creation. On this reinterpretation, the resemblance to God is there all right; only the direction of fit is different. The idea of God thus bespeaks a human devotion to an ideal of perfection and a commitment to strive for the realization of its implications for one’s life. To recognize that the source of the ideal lies in the believers and that they are the ultimate authority for the imperatives by which they live is to ascribe to them an uncontestable worth, commensurate with the value that they themselves ascribe to the being they conceive.
In contemplating this reversal of the imago Dei idea we should note that the atheist does not fault the believer for ascribing to God the value that she does. If He existed, He would be worthy of the reverence the believer displays. Nor need the atheist deny that resemblance to God— that is to say, the partial possession of His attributes—would entitle the possessor to a pro tanto measure of the same attitude. The difference of opinion concerns God’s existence, not the counterfactual constituents of His sublimity. But in this dispute the atheist should, if anything, invest the imago Dei idea with greater, not lesser, significance, since, unlike the believer, she is better situated to trace the divine attributes to their origin in the human mind and heart. For the believer, reverence is the proper attitude toward God conceived as an absolute authority. But short of revelation, which is not, after all, an essential aspect of all religious faith, the way this authority is brought to bear requires that the believer form her own conception of the divine will. Her resemblance to God offers her a measure of hope. As seen by the atheist, the religious person’s striving to decipher and follow God’s will makes entirely good sense, with one crucial difference: God’s role in this story is that of a placeholder or a regulative idea, potentially useful but dispensable. And this difference, far from denigrating the believer’s striving to live up to God’s demands, elevates this striving and its subject even further, since it credits the believer not just with the will to approximate perfection but also with the ability to conceive of perfection and give it content and shape. This suggests why, insofar as the value of humanity is concerned, there is not much gained in dressing up the idea of human dignity in a religious garb. If anything, the opposite is the case, since tracing the ideals that the believer associates with God to their human origins serves to elevate humanity and augment its importance. Even so, religious traces in the discourse of dignity need not be erased within a secular frame. Instead, they can be fruitfully transposed into a system of thought that explicitly casts human beings as the origin of all value.6
Such a view can be found in Kant’s moral theory and specifically in his conception of human dignity. But before turning to Kant, let me refer to another beacon of the idea of dignity, in between the Bible and
Kant: Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and his famous fifteenth-century Oration on the Dignity of Man.7 As we have already noted (in Chapter 1), Pico proclaims the theme of human self-creation. This is what distinguishes humanity from the rest of creation and indeed gives it its special, elevated worth. In speaking of human self-creation, Pico is, of course, not suggesting that human beings create their own organism. Our essence or identity, the answer to the question of what we are, is a matter of our pursuing projects, goals, and, in the broadest sense, values. But why is self-creation a source of elevated worth? An appealing approach to this question is to give Pico’s view a Kantian gloss. We can link the notion of self-creation, as well as the (reversed) imago Dei idea, to an interpretation of Kant’s conception of dignity, while avoiding the metaphysics of the noumenal self.