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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

More on Kant, Dignity, and Morality

Ronald A. Lindsay was kind enough to reply to my comment about the purpose of morality. (I claimed that the primary function of morality was to foster the dignity of persons--i.e., rational, self-aware agents.) He asked for some clarification of what I meant by "dignity," and also made some comments which reminded me that his primary concern is with establishing a methodology for resolving moral dilemmas. Here is the substance of my reply:

I agree that it might be hard for people to accept my answer without a little discussion of what “dignity” means. I like the way Kant approaches it. He contrasts dignity with prices. Prices are relative values, and they are fixed to objects because those objects are means to ends. The value of an object is relative to the ends it serves. For Kant, dignity is the quality of being beyond comparative value. It is the quality of being an end in oneself. Persons are distinct from objects because they have dignity—they are ends in themselves—and this is what defines their moral dimension.

I don’t suppose most people think about dignity in these terms. We are more likely to think of dignity in terms of self-worth, or self-respect. But these needn’t be treated as mutually exclusive alternatives to Kant’s view. Rather, Kant may have been suggesting an explanation for what it means to value and respect oneself.

It’s common to say that everyone has a price, that we can all be bought. Isn’t this another way of saying that moral principles only go so far? Though isn’t it impossible to buy a person completely, so that they can no longer think of themselves as an end? No, I don’t think you can buy a person’s sense of self—though with violence you can destroy it.

One lacks moral principles to the extent that one can be bought. But this is not to say that one’s moral principles are necessarily good. It is only to recognize them as moral principles, for better or for worse.

I think the point to take to heart here is that understanding what morality is for—what makes morality what it is—does not help us resolve moral dilemmas. It does not tell us which moral principles are good or bad. It doesn’t tell us what we should do with morality. It only tells us how to recognize a moral principle as such.

As for constructing a methodology for resolving moral dilemmas . . . I’m not so optimistic that this can be done. Rules of thumb can be loosely established, if we’re talking about a third-party methodology. E.g., Find the most basic common ground. Identify the motivating emotional and circumstantial factors. Establish the relevant scientific and historical facts. Look for possible areas of compromise. Avoid harm. Minimize losses. Etc. But I’m not sure how well moral disagreements lend themselves to third-party moderation. And without that, I don’t see how a methodology could be possible at all.