In Defence of Kantian Dignity

A Reply to "Humanity without Dignity" by Andrea Sangiovanni

Term Paper, 2020

14 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. Introduction

2. The Regress Reading
2.1. The Rationale Desideratum
2.2. The Equality Desideratum

3. The Address Reading
3.1. The Rationale Desideratum
3.2. The Equality Desideratum

4. Conclusion


1. Introduction

In Humanity without Dignity, Andrea Sangiovanni argues that we should abandon the idea of dignity as a basis of our commitment to moral equality and human rights. Unsurprisingly, one of his main targets are thus various theories of dignity, with the Kantian tradition at their head. The aim of this essay is to defend the Kantian conception of dignity against the criticisms he puts forward in the first chapter of his book.

Sangiovanni claims that any theory of dignity must meet two desiderata: The equality desideratum and the rationale desideratum. According to the first, a theory of dignity “must explain the sense in which we are equal in dignity” (Sangiovanni 2017: 15). If a theory cannot meet this desideratum, it fails to establish a sufficient basis for the kind of substantive (rather than mere formal ) moral equality which lies at the heart of human rights. According to the second desideratum, a theory of dignity “must explain why and in virtue of what we have dignity” (ibid.). If a theory cannot meet it, it fails to “provide a rationale for which human rights we ought to respect and why” (ibid.). Sangiovanni considers two versions of the Kantian conception of dignity - the regress reading and the address reading - and argues that both of them fail to meet his desiderata.

My argument, therefore, proceeds in four steps, each of which seeks to show that the Kantian conception of dignity can in fact meet Sangiovannis desiderata. In section 2.1., I will argue that Sangiovanni misrepresents not only Kant's own regress arguments, but also those of his scholars, and that his arguments therefore do not apply. Though my arguments are in this sense rather negative for large parts, I will try to deliver a positive argument by showing that Sangiovanni in fact has to concede that the regress argument can meet the rationale desideratum. In section 2.2., I contend that Sangiovanni does not sufficiently accommodate the idea of transcendental freedom - that is, the idea that we have to presuppose from a practical point of view that we are free and hence can act morally. As I will try to show, this also shows why the regress reading can meet the equality desideratum. Following this, we turn to the address reading of the Kantian conception of dignity. Here, I will argue that address Kantians can coherently claim that we are owed a justification for however anyone interacts with us, and hence can meet the rationale desideratum (section 3.1. ). Finally, I will contend that the address reading can - as opposed to Sangiovanni's argument - rule out most cases of slavery (section 3.2.).

2. The Regress Reading

2.1. The Rationale Desideratum

Sangiovanni discusses several versions of a regress argument that he ascribes to Kant and his scholars. They are regress arguments in the sense that all of them seek to show that by recognizing something as conditional, we are able to infer to something as unconditional. More precisely, they can be understood as regress arguments since all of them share roughly the following overall form: Every proposition of the kind ‘X has value' necessarily requires (for some reason p) that rational choice has value. Therefore, rational choice has unconditional value, that is dignity, while X has value only conditionally. In what follows, I will argue that his way of restating the argument not only misrepresents Kant, but also does not allow him to pursue his critique against the Kantians in the way he thinks it does.

Let us begin with Kant himself.1 There are two arguments in the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals that roughly resemble the form as stated above and hence are taken to be regress arguments,2 although I will argue that only the first really qualifies as one. This first argument can be found at the very beginning of the first section of the Groundwork : Here, Kant states that the only thing that could possibly be conceived to be unconditionally good would be a good will. Things that we often call “good”, such as virtues or talents, can in fact be very bad if they are not accompanied by a good will. To use one of Kant's own examples (4:415):3 While it is surely good that a well-intentioned physician who tries to cure her patient is skilled, smart, or self-controlled, it is presumably bad if a poisoner has this character traits.

Why might concede that “good” can be understood as “having value” - even we must be careful about what we really mean by that, as I will argue later. And we might also concede that Kant does at this point claim that a good will, given that such a thing existed, would have unconditional value - it would be, as he famously writes, “like a jewel” that shines “in itself, as something that has full worth in itself” (4:394). But he does not claim that a good will is characterized by our capacity of rational choice, nor does he equate it with dignity. He refrains from doing so because he hasn't shown yet the possibility of a good will.

All he has done so far is to point at a place where an unconditional value could be found, yet it might turn out to be a mere “high-flown fantastication” (ibid.). That only a good will would be unconditionally good is something that can be, according to Kant, recognized by “common moral recognition”, as the title of the first section suggests (see also 4:392). But in order to show that this commonly shared belief is also justified - and hence can meet demands such as Sangiovanni's desiderata - we need further philosophical (and, in the end, critical ) reflection. The regress argument concerning the good will is thus simply the wrong place to look for an argument which explains “ why and in virtue of what we have dignity” (Sangiovanni 2017: 15). As it will turn out, it is not the good will itself, but the condition of it that helps us to answer this question. It is important to keep this in mind, since this is also crucial for the second argument in the Groundwork that often is - although mistakenly, in my view - taken to be a regress argument.

While Sangiovanni is not really concerned with Kant's argument concerning the good will - maybe because he correctly recognizes that it is not supposed to do much work in order to meet his desiderata - he is concerned with the follwing argument that Kant brings up in the context of the Formula of Humanity of the Categorical Imperative: Here, Kant argues that material ends are "only relative, for merely their relation to a particular kind of desiderative faculty gives them their worth" (4:427) and can therefore be “the ground of hypothetical imperatives only” (4:428). As such, those ends are “good merely as a means for something else” (4:414) . If, on the contrary, categorical imperatives - and hence morality itself - shall be possible, there must be such a thing as an end in itself (4:428). Kant then goes on to claim that every human being “by necessity represents his own existence” (4:429) to be such an end in itself. According to the influential reading of Christine Korsgaard, this argument is also best understood as a regress argument in the way stated above:4

When Kant says: "rational nature exists as an end in itself. Man necessarily thinks of his own existence in this way,- thus far it is a subjective principle of human actions" (G 429), I read him as claiming that in our private rational choices and in general in our actions we view ourselves as having a value-conferring status in virtue of our rational nature. We act as if our own choice were the sufficient condition of the goodness of its object: this attitude is built into (a subjective principle of) rational action. [...] Thus, regressing upon the conditions, we find that the unconditioned condition of the goodness of anything is rational nature, or the power of rational choice. To play this role, however, rational nature must itself be something of unconditional value - an end in itself. (Korsgaard 1996b: 122f.)

In my view, this is an overinterpretation. Kant does at no point use any vocabulary that would suggest a logical connection between the idea that all material ends are only good in relation to some faculty of desire and the idea that we have, as ends in ourselves, unconditional value.


1 Quite surprisingly, Sangiovanni barely refers to Kant's original writings at all when he discusses Kantian theories of dignity. As it will hopefully become clear, I think this is part of the reason why he is not getting to the aspects of Kant's theory which are really crucial for understanding his account of dignity, and instead is rather busy with arguing against straw men.

2 I will mainly discuss the arguments that Kant discusses in the Groundwork, since it is the only work where he really explains his concept of dignity thoroughly. In the other writings of his practical philosophy, with the second critique at their head, it is rather mentioned marginally.

3 All quotations from Kant follow the Akademieausgabe and are taken from the translation from Mary Gregor and Jens Timmermann [Kant (2012)].

4 I will not discuss David Velleman's variation of the regress reading here, since I hold Korsgaard's interpretation to be the more plausible one. Especially, I am not sure if I agree with Velleman's analysis of suicide (though it does, admittedly, find support in Kant's writings).

Excerpt out of 14 pages


In Defence of Kantian Dignity
A Reply to "Humanity without Dignity" by Andrea Sangiovanni
University of Frankfurt (Main)
Catalog Number
ISBN (Book)
defence, kantian, dignity, reply, humanity, andrea, sangiovanni
Quote paper
Maximilian Strietholt (Author), 2020, In Defence of Kantian Dignity, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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