The Dignity of Persons: Kant, Problems, and a Proposal

Thomas E. Hill Jr.

in Virtue, Rules, and Justice

Published in print May 2012 | ISBN: 9780199692002
Published online September 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780191741241 | DOI:
The Dignity of Persons: Kant, Problems, and a Proposal

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What is it to treat someone as a person with dignity? There are no doubt some descriptive criteria for "treating a person as a person," but the idea of dignity implies something more. Drawing from Wittgenstein's famous duck-rabbit example, we might try to interpret “seeing someone as a person” in a more expressivist fashion. Though perhaps promising, this leaves open important ethical questions. The discussion turns, then, to Kant, who made the idea of dignity a center-piece in his moral theory. After a review of basic features of Kant’s idea, the chapter expresses doubts about aspects of the interpretations proposed by some other commentators, notably, Marcus Singer, Alan Donagan, David Cummiskey, Christine Korsgaard, and Allen Wood. Kant's idea of dignity raises two important problems of application. The first is that it apparently generates conflicts of duty. The second is that, although it offers an appealing contrast to consequentialism, it imposes such severe constraints that its practical implications are often counter-intuitive. In particular, it seems to require strict conformity to moral principles that are appropriate for most conditions even when extraordinary circumstances make it reasonable to make exceptions. Arguably these problems are more manageable, however, if we use the idea of the dignity of persons at a second-order level of moral deliberation rather than case by case. The chapter pursues this suggestion by developing further some earlier ideas about humanity as an end in itself and incorporating them into a fuller account of the deliberative standpoint suggested by Kant’s ideal of moral legislation in a kingdom of ends. This is a framework for articulating and assessing mid-level moral principles, addressing conflicts among them, and considering possible exceptions. It is a basis for the later chapters here on practical issues.

Keywords: Kant; dignity; humanity; kingdom of ends; conflicts of duty; cummiskey; Donagan; moral princples; exceptions

Chapter.  7555 words. 

Subjects: Moral Philosophy

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