The Value of Valuation

The key to a Kantian morality of dignity is no doubt the Humanity formulation of the Categorical Imperative, probably the most often cited statement in all of Kant’s work: “Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.”8 But in order to successfully turn this key, we must relate it to what Kant says directly about human dignity. This is brief and merits quoting in full.

Now I say that man, and in general every rational being, exists as an end in himself, not merely as a means for arbitrary use by this or that will ...

In the kingdom of ends everything has either a price or a dignity. If it has a price, something else can be put in its place as an equivalent; if it is exalted above all price and so admits of no equivalent, then it has a dignity . Now morality is the only condition under which a rational being can be an end in himself; for only through this is it possible to be a law-making member in a kingdom of ends. Therefore morality, and humanity so far as it is capable of morality, is the only thing which has dignity .

For nothing can have a value other than that determined for it by the law. But the law-making which determines all value must for this reason have a dignity—that is, an unconditioned and incomparable worth—for the appreciation of which, as necessarily given by a rational being, the word “reverence” is the only becoming expression.9

We can distinguish in these quotations three points: the equivalence between dignity and being an end; the view of people as ends and hence the ascription of dignity to them; and the claim that ascribing this value to people is the core of morality. To elucidate Kant’s concept of dignity requires that we understand these three points and their interrelation. Different accounts have been proposed, in part because there may have been more than one strand in Kant’s own mind. I sketch a variant of one of these strands that I find attractive.10 I call it the value of valuation.

The first step is Kant’s insistence on human intelligibility.11 In Kant’s own hands this idea is bound up with his metaphysics. However, purged of the metaphysical groundings, and in the sense relevant to the practical domain, this amounts to holding that all human action makes sense, has a point; it is, to use another idiom, meaningful. What makes action intelligible, what gives it meaning, is that it is done for the sake of something or other. That for the sake of which an action is done is its end. Now the same idea can also be expressed in the vocabulary of value. To act intelligibly requires that the end for which one acts be deemed worth pursuing, and so valuable. In this sense all action consists in the attempted realization of purported values. One goal of a theory of the practical domain is accordingly to account for the values we pursue. What Kant can be seen as offering in this regard is a theory of value centered around a binary division between two types of value: price and dignity. Roughly, price expresses the value of things for us, that is for persons, whereas dignity expresses our own value; it is the value of persons.

But this is too rough. This classification, as well as the distinction between our own value and the value things have for us, on which this classification depends, must be clarified and refined. Starting with the classification of values, price is not a unitary value: Kant further distinguishes between market price andfancy price. Though he does not elaborate much on this subdivision, commentators tend to associate the latter with esthetic value.12 Kant accordingly distinguishes three kinds of value: pragmatic, esthetic, and moral. Building a house or a table is the realization of pragmatic value; listening to music, visiting a museum, taking a trip to the Grand Canyon, and playing basketball or soccer are realizations of esthetic value; keeping a promise, helping a blind person cross the street, and visiting with a sick friend are realizations of moral value.

It is also evident that all three kinds of value make a claim on us, have a certain force, though the nature of the claim or the force varies, forming a hierarchy. And this requires a clarification of what it means for something to have value for us. The italicized expression is ambiguous between (1) serves our interests and satisfies our desires, and (2) is deemed valuable by us. Now some of the things we value, those that possess what Kant labels market price, are valuable for us in the first sense. But others are not. We enjoy or admire the Mona Lisa or the Grand Canyon because of the value they possess; they are not valuable because of the satisfaction they provide. And this is true, even more emphatically, of moral values. We perceive them as having, in Kant’s idiom, a categorical force, which is independent of our contingent needs, desires, and goals. Nevertheless, everything for the sake of which our actions are performed or toward which they are oriented, and so everything that is valuable, is valuable for us in the second sense: all the values we pursue, all the ends that make our actions, and more broadly our lives, meaningful, originate in us.

To view the values that guide our actions and our lives as originating in us is also to view ourselves as self-governing, and thus as autonomous. And this interpretation of our autonomy as a matter of being the authors of our lives naturally leads to a further idea, of being our own authority: we implicitly view ourselves as validating our values.13 To recapitulate: to be intelligible we must pursue ends, and this is the same as projecting and realizing values. Since we deem these values worth pursuing, we must endorse them. This is the sense in which, in pursuing any value at all, we must recognize ourselves as the ultimate authority. Now the key to the authority relationship is the notion of deference: to recognize an authority is to defer to it as a source of valid guidelines and demands. Since each person must recognize herself as a definitive authority, she defers to herself; she enacts an attitude of self-respect.

But as we have noted in Chapter 2, even if each person is the ultimate authority for the ends she pursues and so for the values she endorses, the resulting deference and the dignity it implies would seem to be distributive: I implicitly assert my own dignity; you, yours. Morality, however, is mostly concerned with respect for others’ dignity rather than merely for one’s own. To see why respect extends to humanity as a whole, we need to attend more closely to the notion of intelligibility. If to encounter a human being is to encounter an intelligible being, then it is to encounter a being with whom communication and, hence, mutual interpretation and understanding are in principle possible.14 For this to be the case, I must be able to see another’s values, no matter how different from mine, as values, that is as ends capable of making sense of her actions and more broadly of her life in the same way that my values make sense of mine. And this involves a further aspect of intelligibility: its dependence upon abstraction.

When David puts on a suit and tie, he knows what he is up to: he is going to the opera, to see Fidelio. The italics draw attention to two possible descriptions of David’s end at different levels of abstraction. But though other formulations are possible, notice that some such abstraction is necessary in order to account for David’s dressing up. If instead of referring to “the opera” David were to conceive of a highly detailed, step-by-step depiction of the route that leads from his home to the opera house, and of a brick-by-brick description of this end point, while omitting the designation of his destination as the opera, then despite the abundant detail, or rather because of it, he would be at a total loss to know what to wear. The situation is similar when making sense of another person’s conduct. David observes Ruth wearing a t-shirt and jeans. Why? She explains that she is on her way to a soccer game. But suppose David has never heard of soccer. At this point, the more abstract idea of a ball game, or failing that, just a game, may help him make sense of Ruth’s attire. If this is not sufficient, the explanation of Ruth’s behavior may have to appeal to even more abstract notions, such as entertainment or edification, which David associates with his own venture. Why does Ruth put on this casual dress? Because like David she is “dressing appropriately for the occasion.” What is this occasion? Like in David’s case, it is a form of entertainment or edification, or, like him, she is going to have a good time. Variation in dress style at the more concrete level is rendered intelligible by appeal to such notions as “dress code,” “appropriate,” and “occasion” at the abstract. In order for David and Ruth to be intelligible to themselves and so potentially to each other, they must in principle be able to see what they are each up to. And so they must be able to ascribe to each other ends, and thus values, that can be construed as ends and values, that is as pertaining to endeavors appropriate for a human life and making sense of it. This amounts to their viewing themselves as respectively articulating at a relatively high level of detail a cluster of highly abstract meanings that they both associate with the very idea of a human being and thus have in common. Whereas the interpretation of “human being” implicit in David’s life will differ in innumerable ways from the one implicit in Ruth’s, each of them is capable of pursuing and enacting their disparate interpretations only when conceived as interpretations, designed to manifest at a higher level of resolution content that at a high level of abstraction belongs to the category of humanity as such. Stated in reverse, in fixing their individual identities, both David and Ruth are enacting and articulating a more abstract identity, their identity as persons, which they share with everyone else.

When Kant speaks about respecting the humanity in oneself, he can be understood as appealing to that shared abstract meaning. But this also suggests that respecting myself (in the relevant sense) while disparaging others is not an option: my attitude toward others would amount to disparaging the very same cluster of meanings that, when abstracted from my own pursuits, I must hold in high regard. This allows us to identify a sense of respect that cannot be selective along individual lines. When the attitude one has toward any individual human being addresses that individual qua intelligible being, and so as a site of meaning, this attitude must extend to everyone else. And since leading my life requires that I defer to myself and so assert my own superior worth, this attitude of mine extends to humanity as a whole, and so to each of its individual manifestations.

As I said, more than one road leads to this conclusion, though probably none that is completely clear of potholes and bumps. Whatever the precise route leading to it, the conclusion is remarkable. One of Kant’s great insights is the idea that moral content can be derived from purely formal considerations. The very fact that we pursue any ends at all, and so have any values at all, quite apart from their content, attests to our own value, and so provides a foothold for a system of moral values designed to acknowledge this value and give substance to this acknowledgment. This account gives morality a particularly secure position that other systems of value lack. All other values are in principle contestable. But as long as we contest them, we are committed to the validity of some value. And as long as we are committed to the existence of any value, we are committed to the supreme value of ourselves, as the origin of that value and the authority for it.[1]

  • [1] Since on this line of reasoning dignity is established by backward derivation from thehuman endeavor of projecting and pursuing values, it is of the utmost importance whatthose values are: to take our dignity, and so ourselves, seriously, requires taking seriously ourvarious projects and the values implicated in them. And within the picture I discuss, theseprojects and values are to be seen at different levels of abstraction, from the individual to theuniversal human scale. This is where our attitudes to animals and the environment comeinto the picture and assume the greatest importance, not just in their own right but fromthe standpoint of our dignity as well. Kant himself recognizes duties with regard to nonhuman beings, though his way of accommodating them within his overall theory is not alwayssatisfactory. For an illuminating discussion see Allen Wood, “Kant on Duties RegardingNonrational Nature,” Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volume 72 (1998): 189-210. Butthese issues fall outside my present topic.
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