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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Kant on Morality and Dignity

Yesterday I came up with the notion that the primary function of morality is to foster dignity. I noted a relation between my idea and Kant's view of rational agents as ends in themselves, but I wasn't aware just how similar my view is to Kant's. Today, while doing a little reading about dignity, I found this passage from his Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals (edited and translated by Mary Gregor, Cambridge, 1998, pp. 42-43):
In the kingdom of ends everything has either a price or a dignity. What has a price can be replaced by something else as its equivalent; what on the other hand is above all price and therefore admits of no equivalent has a dignity.

What is related to general human inclinations and needs has a market price;
that which, even without presupposing a need, conforms with a certain taste, that is, with a delight in the mere purposeless play of our mental powers, has a fancy price; but that which constitutes the condition under which alone something can be an end in itself has not merely a relative worth, that is, a price, but an inner worth, that is, dignity.

Now, morality is the condition under which a rational being can be an end in itself, since only through this is it possible to be a lawgiving member in the kingdom of ends.
Hence morality, and humanity insofar as it is capable of morality, is that which alone has dignity.

Kant concludes that morality, and that which practices morality, alone has dignity on the grounds that morality is "the condition under which a rational being can be an end in itself." However, in the view which I expressed yesterday, morality requires that persons be treated as ends in themselves because morality is the practice of fostering dignity. Our views look the same, but our reasoning is in opposite directions.

Update: After a little reflection, I wonder if Kant's reasoning really is so different from my own. Kant's view may have been that only ends in themselves can have dignity, because only ends in themselves can be valued in themselves, and not according to some price. Thus, when he says morality is the kingdom of ends, he is saying that morality is the province of dignity. I'm not sure if this is quite the same as saying that morality is the practice of fostering dignity, but it seems awfully close. Still, I'm not sure how much I like defining "dignity" as being beyond price. Maybe there's nothing wrong with that definition, but it leaves a lot unsaid.

Second update (Dec. 20): I've taken out a couple paragraphs of wrong-headed Kantian interpretation.