How "human dignity" poisons everything!

Marcus's picture
Submitted by Marcus on Fri, 2011-01-28 08:54

Beware the expression "human dignity" because it is toxic and contradicts individual rights, even though it purports to support them. It comes from the pen of none other than Immanuel Kant. No wonder Kant upset Ayn Rand so much. At least communists rejected individual rights openly, whereas Kant pretends he is defending them.

According to Kant, human beings are "ends in themselves” because they are required to make moral choices. Those choices are driven by a sense of duty, the "categorical imperative". The categorical imperative, which drives morality, is just something one knows intuitively.

To respect human dignity out of duty requires that others must never be treated as means, but always ends, regardless of the context. It must be absolute.

As Kant puts it:
"Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law."

1. The first premise is that a person acts morally if his or her conduct would, without condition, be the "right" conduct for any person in similar circumstances (the "First Maxim").

2. The second premise is that conduct is "right" if it treats others as ends in themselves and not as means to an end (the "Second Maxim").

3. The conclusion is that a person acts morally when he or she acts as if his or her conduct was establishing a universal law governing others in similar circumstances (the "Third Maxim").

In order to illustrate this Kant set up a ridiculous hypothetical situation in which a friend comes to his house seeking shelter from a murderer. This he does out of his duty to the human dignity of his friend and himself. However the murderer then comes to his door and asks where his friend is. According to Kant, he may not lie to the murderer about his friend’s whereabouts, even if it puts his friend’s life in danger. If he lied to the murderer, he would harm his own dignity as well as the murderer’s.

Kant was so sick and twisted that he did not necessarily believe that the final result (of murder) was the most important aspect of the person’s action, but how the person “felt” while carrying out the action. He must retain his feeling of dignity, no matter how subjective that “feeling” might be. Therefore, according to Kant, it would be immoral to lie to save his friend. It is an absolute, do not lie regardless of the context, the “end in itself.”

Of course, as Ayn Rand would argue, human beings really are “ends in themselves”, they are sovereign autonomous entities who possess individual rights. However Kant believes that one should never lie or kill to prevent the murder of an innocent life, exactly because it would be in one’s own selfish interest to do so.

Kant says:
“It is a duty to preserve one’s life, and moreover everyone has a direct inclination to do so. But for that reason the often anxious care which most men take of it has no intrinsic worth, and the maxim of doing so has no moral import.”

So duty may not be selfish and can only be towards ends which are inimical to life?

To equate the noble concept of individual rights with the Kantian concept of dignity is clearly a disgusting perversion. It makes murder seem acceptable and portrays terrorists as victims – all supposedly in the name of “justice”.

And yet is has already happened.

Human dignity is the founding principle behind the present German constitution.

“Article 1 of the Basic Law (in German legal shorthand GG, for Grundgesetz), establishes the principle that "human dignity is inviolable" even before any mention of the “right to life”.

As Wikipedia describes, this has a significant impact on German law-making and jurisdiction:

***Human dignity is the basis of § 131 StGB, which prohibits the depiction of cruelty against humans in an approving way. § 131 has been used to confiscate horror movies and to ban video games like Manhunt and the Mortal Kombat series.

***A decision by the German Federal Constitutional Court in 1977 said life imprisonment without the possibility of parole is unconstitutional as a violation of human dignity (and the Rechtsstaat principle). Today, a prisoner serving a life term can be granted parole on good behavior as early as 15 years after being incarcerated, provided that his release is held to constitute little danger to the public. Note that persons deemed still dangerous can be incarcerated indefinitely on a life term, if this judgment is regularly reaffirmed.

***§ 14(3) of the Luftsicherheitsgesetz, which would have allowed the Bundeswehr to shoot down airliners if they are used as weapons by terrorists, was declared unconstitutional mainly on the grounds of human dignity: killing a small number of innocent people to save a large number cannot be legalized since it treats dignity as if it were a measurable and limited quantity.

***A Benetton advertisement showing human buttocks with an "H.I.V. positive" stamp was declared a violation of human dignity by some courts, but in the end found legal.

***The first German law legalizing abortion in 1975 was declared unconstitutional because the court held that embryos had human dignity. A new law on abortion was developed in the 1990s. This law makes all abortions de jure illegal, but the state does not prosecute early-term abortion if preceded by counseling.

***In a decision from 1981-12-15, the Bundesverwaltungsgericht declared that peep shows violated the human dignity of the performer, regardless of her feelings. The decision was later revised. Peep shows where the performer cannot see the persons who are watching her remain prohibited as a matter of dignity."

Not surprisingly, human dignity is also included in the UN Charter of human rights and is being used by religious fundamentalists to defend blasphemy laws.

"Through much of the 20th century, dignity appeared in assorted writings as a reason for peacemaking and for promoting human rights. For example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948, states:

Article 1. All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

“At the beginning of the 21st Century, dignity was invoked as a reason to restrict freedom of expression. Clergy and laity invoked dignity to explain their agreement with resolutions that were being approved by the United Nations. Those resolutions bid all nations to restrict rights by imposing legal sanctions upon blasphemy (defamation of religion) and upon all conduct that a religious person might find offensive. One archbishop favored legal sanctions because, he said, it is "the manipulation and defamation of religion which threatens human dignity, rights, peace and security."

So beware Immanuel Kant and those who would use his "human dignity" as a weapon against you to justify murder, censorship and oppression. Unfortunately Kant's philosophy is alive and well today. Ayn Rand was right to warn us.

Dignity on Wikipedia

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There is nothing wrong with

Leonid's picture

There is nothing wrong with human dignity to be in the foundation of any legal system. In fact dignity, pride and self-esteem are unalienable human rights. But it is obviously wrong to apply these rights to non-humans, like fetuses, animals, plants and landscapes. If legal systems do that then this is plain stupid. In the case of aircraft with terrorists and innocent people on board the situation is much more complicated. No proper system of law can authorize the legal killing of innocent people. In such a situation the decision should be solely military.

I was referring to "human dignity"...

Marcus's picture the legal system as a subsititute for individual rights.

No quibbles with the word "dignity" per se.

"Dignitas" is the root word of dignity, from Latin. It just happens to be also the name of a noble organistation in Switzerland that facilitates voluntary euthanasia.

That's why I put "human dignity" in speech marks.

I know, it's hard not to miss.


Leonid's picture

What gave to you this a bizarre idea that concept of dignity exclusively belongs to the Kantian philosophy? Dictionary defines dignity as

"the quality of being worthy of esteem or honor; worthiness, proper pride and self-respect"

Self-esteem is a cardinal Objectivist value and virtue. As Ayn Rand observed "As to pride, dignity, self-confidence, self-esteem—these are characteristics that mark a man for martyrdom in a tribal society and under any social system except capitalism. (The Voice of Reason, 129)

In AS she wrote "If you wish to save the last of your dignity, do not call your best actions a “sacrifice”

Kantian system, however doesn't make any provision for dignity and self-esteem, in spite lip service which Kant payed to the dignity, since in Kantian ethics one doesn't act morally toward any ends. Only actions by inclination have ends, but according to Kant such actions are amoral, that is-outside the realm of morality. Objectivism, not Kant supports and promotes human dignity.


Marcus's picture

The article was inspired by a BBC TV documentary presented by Michael Sandel, a Harvard University Political Philosopher, who is perhaps best known for his critique of John Rawls's "A Theory of Justice".

The program investigates Bentham, Kant and Aristotle's different takes on morality and justice.

Although Sandel tries to give an objective, unbiased critique of each - he obviously favours Aristotle over the other two - which is why he leaves him until last.

A clue to his preference is in the title of his program. "Justice: A citizen's guide to the 21st century."

I suspect he is politically a "compassionate conservative" to the left of George W Bush. I think he is secretly a fan of David Cameron.


Frediano's picture

Sorry. Don't humanly dignify that silliness with a response.

Seriously, good advice. Speaking for 'human dignity' is safely like speaking for God or "S"ociety, a transparent political leg-lifting tactic.

Is it surprising how often that supporting 'human dignity' translates directly into supporting the political views of the speaker-for-human-dignity?

Not in the least.

It reminds me a little of Rawl's carny huckster trick, and the logical insights he draws from his hypothetical visit to the unvisitable land, where unbiased folks exist in their perfect state capable of making their 'original position.' If we imagine humans in that hypothetical state, then trust Rawls: they would choose his politics. No need to actually visit that place where nobody can actually visit, because Rawls has rolled his eyes into the back of his head and divined what we would find there: not surprisingy, the politics of he and his.

Just like every other religious zealout who has received a message from God/"S"ociety/human dignity and is overcome with the need to beat the rest of humanity over the head with their inspired truth.

When the end justifies the jeans.

Frediano's picture

***A Benetton advertisement showing human buttocks with an "H.I.V. positive" stamp was declared a violation of human dignity by some courts, but in the end found legal.

Clearly, a case of an end justifying the jeans.

It must of been a young end. As we age, sadly, we tend to mustify the jeans.

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