Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Robert George on Kant and Human Dignity

Robby George writes:

Rob Vischer asks:   What does the Christian belief in human dignity owe to Kant?

One way of approaching the question is to consider Kant’s second formulation of the categorical imperative, namely:  “treat humanity, whether in the person of oneself or another, always as an end, and never as a means only.”   This is an elegant and accurate (so far as it goes) way of stating what respect for human dignity requires, at least as Christians understand the matter.

Note, firstly, that as a principle of rectitude in choosing and acting, it is not exclusively concerned with the impact of one’s conduct on others.  To be sure, it demands that one behave justly towards others; but it recognizes that moral obligations obtain even where the rights and interests of others are not at stake:   treat humanity, whether in the person of oneself or another, always as an end  . . . “   In other words, it is possible for one to behave immorally by treating oneself as a means—an instrument, a thing—and one must, as a matter of moral obligation, refrain from doing that.  This has implications in many areas, including those pertaining to self-killing and to sexuality.   Although Kant is often invoked by contemporary liberal writers who are interested in defending putative rights to suicide and voluntary euthanasia, fornication, sodomy, and so forth, Kant himself was a “conservative” on these issues, and his conservatism is not to be accounted for (as some have rather lamely suggested) by reference to his stern Prussian Protestant upbringing.  Kant’s moral conservatism (including his view that conduct can be immoral—contrary to human dignity—even where it has no bearing on anyone other than adult participants who are consenting to it) flowed from his Kantian principles.   (See John Finnis, “Legal Enforcement of 'Duties to Oneself':   Kant v. Neo-. Kantians,” Columbia Law Review, Volume 87, 1987, pp. 433–456.)

Note secondly that Kant sees humanity itself as possessing fundamental worth—dignity.  One’s dignity as a human being is not only profound, but also inherent.  One has it by virtue of one’s humanity.  And all members of the human family have it.  None, then, may be reduced (or may licitly reduce themselves) to the status of instruments or objects.  If we wish to put the matter in the language of rights, it is fully in line with Kantian ethics to say that each and every member of the human family is, as such, a possessor of human rights.  Human rights are what we see when we consider the dignity of the human being with our focus on the way in which human beings are entitled to be treated.

In all of this, Kant’s moral philosophy is more closely in line with traditional Christian morality than with secular liberal (or even contemporary liberal Christian) ethics.  Yet, from a traditional Christian point of view, and especially a Catholic one, there is nevertheless something deeply inadequate about what Kant gives us.   Although the gap between traditional Christian morality and Kantianism is not nearly as wide or deep as the chasm separating traditional Christian thought from utilitarianism and, indeed, all forms of consequentialism in ethics (including the “proportionalism” of liberal Catholic moral theologians such as the late Richard McCormick, S.J.), it is true that in one crucial respect traditional Christian ethics (especially of the Catholic sort) is like utilitarianism and other forms of consequentialism and unlike Kantianism. 

Like consequentialists, and unlike Kantians, traditional Christian moral philosophers and theologians take as the starting points of ethical reflection the basic aspects of human well-being and fulfillment which, considered integrally, constitute human flourishing (eudaimonia).  At the foundation of moral reasoning and judgment is a concern with the human good (which means a concern for human goods—since the good of human beings is variegated); and ethics is most definitely not an enterprise designed to identify principles of right conduct detached from a consideration of what makes for, and detracts from, the various dimensions of human well-being and fulfillment.  For traditional Christian ethics, the idea of a purely “deontological” ethical theory is nonsense.  Ethics is about both the right and the good, and the two are intimately—indeed, intrinsically—connected.  Norms of morality are principles of right action that are entailed by the directiveness of all of the various aspects of human well-being—i.e., the human good considered in its wholeness (integrally).  So principles of right action (“the right”) are shaped by principles of human fulfillment (“the good”).  The content of ethics, considered as principles of rectitude in willing—moral principles—and the habits and traits of character disposing us to choose in conformity with those principles—virtues— is what it is, because the human good is what it is; and the human good is what it is, because human beings are constituted in a certain way—they have a certain nature.  (For example, friendship is intrinsically fulfilling of human persons, and not a merely instrumental good, because human beings are by nature social creatures.  Of course, this does not mean that as an epistemological matter our knowledge of human nature is methodologically antecedent to our knowledge of human fulfillment.  Indeed, in my opinion the reverse is true.)

A consideration of the goods of human nature is necessary if we are to specify the Kantian categorical imperative by making it possible to judge what it means to treat a person as an end—what it means to respect human dignity.  To respect a person, to honor his dignity, is to respect—esteem, favor, foster, orient our own wills positively towards—his well being, his flourishing, in a word, his good.  Basic human goods just are the fundamental and irreducible aspects of the well-being and fulfillment of the person in whom they are instantiated.   To honor a person’s dignity is to respect and favor his integral good—his good in all its dimensions.  To respect human dignity as such, is to will in a way that is compatible with the ideal of integral human fulfillment—the good of all persons and the communities to which they belong.

So every faithful Christian—certainly every Catholic—will want to cheer when Kant says “treat humanity, whether in the person of oneself or another, always as an end, and never as a means only.”  It is a true Christian principle (albeit, one that can rationally be affirmed, as a matter of natural law, even by those who do not share the Christian or Jewish faith).  And it makes a contribution to the Christian understanding of human dignity (at least insofar as it succinctly expresses what Christians can affirm as a kind of master ethical principle).  But it is a formal principle, so it needs specification if it is to be meaningful as a principle of action.  And its specification requires that we advert to that which Kant insistently declined to advert to, namely, the content of the human good.  So, in my opinion, it would be better to formulate the principle in such a way as to explicitly bring into focus to the human good.  Although it requires trading away elegance for precision, I would join Germain Grisez in formulating the principle in something like the following terms:   In all of one’s choosing and willing, one should choose and will those and only those options that can be willed compatibly with a will towards integral human fulfillment.   If one respects the specifications of that principle, then one will certainly be treating humanity, whether in the person of oneself or another, always as an end.  One will be honoring the profound, inherent, and equal dignity of every member of the human family.


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