Kant's Conception of Human Dignity

Kant-Studien 100 (3):309-331 (2009)
In this article I argue that Kant's conception of dignity is commonly misunderstood. On the basis of a few passages in the Grundlegung scholars often attribute to Kant a view of dignity as an absolute inner value all human beings possess. However, a different picture emerges if one takes into account all the passages in which Kant uses ‘dignity’. I shall argue that Kant's conception of dignity is a more Stoic one: He conceives of dignity as sublimity ( Erhabenheit ) or the highest elevation of something over something else. ‘Dignity’ expresses that something is ‘raised above’ all else. What it is raised above, and in virtue of what, depends on the context in which Kant uses ‘dignity’. For instance, he talks about the dignity of a monarch to refer to his rank as the ruler of his subjects. When Kant refers to the dignity of humanity, he expresses the view that human beings have a prerogative over the rest of nature in virtue of being free. What Kant is saying in the famous Grundlegung passage on dignity is that morality is raised above other determinations of will in that morality alone should be valued unconditionally. In unfolding the complicated usage of ‘dignity’ in Kant's works, my reading helps to bring out the coherence of his ethics.
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DOI 10.1515/KANT.2009.018
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