Most discussions of important moral and political issues, along with our everyday reflections on how others should be treated, occur against a background assumption of human dignity—for example, the idea that human beings have special standing shared by no other creatures on earth. In countless contexts—talking about what we must provide to all persons (health care?), what we must never do to anyone (torture?), how to handle end-of-life scenarios (assisted suicide?), what persons should be free to do (gay marriage?), and so on—we can’t get very far without running up against some claim about the dignity that each person possesses. Getting clear on what that notion involves, and what such claims are grounded on, is thus a hugely important task.

Faced with these questions, there are four main options. First, one might simply give up the idea that humans have any special status of the sort dignity connotes and carry on from there. Alternatively, one might argue that since any sane person recognizes the special dignity of all humans (even if they don’t in practice respect it), there’s nothing to be gained by exploring the theoretical foundations of the idea. Third, one might believe that human dignity can adequately be explained only through a theological account, rooted in our relationship to the divine. Last, one might defend human dignity through a secular account that offers various considerations but makes no appeal to God.

The first route, exemplified by the sort of crude utilitarianism that aims to redirect our attention away from dignity toward a strict focus on pleasure and pain, is deeply at odds with our basic moral language, thought, and practices, and would require radical and unattractive revisions to these. The second, perhaps represented by the late pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty, is unsatisfactory insofar as we find that we need a theoretical account to help us resolve questions over what dignity in fact requires of us. The theological approach faces a raft of familiar obstacles—religious diversity, the existence of unbelievers, questions about the appropriateness of religious reasoning in democracy’s public square, and so on.

Human Dignity doggedly and unflinchingly advances the fourth option. Political philosopher George Kateb’s main goal here is to establish, without recourse to God, two claims about human dignity: (1) that all humans possess it equally (we all have equal status in some important way), and (2) that human beings as a species have a special status that sets them apart from the rest of nature. To prepare his defense of both claims, Kateb begins with a lengthy analysis of the idea of human rights, a notion that he thinks depends on the idea that human beings possess some special dignity grounding such rights. Kateb’s order of argument here might at first seem puzzling (how can we defend claims about dignity by exploring a notion that already assumes such claims?), but his discussion is vital in establishing two different ways of understanding such rights, which track two different axes for understanding the kinds of wrong that can befall human beings. The first is the axis of morality, which focuses on the prevention of suffering and defends rights in those terms. The other, which Kateb calls the existential axis, defends rights not in terms of how they protect well-being but instead by appealing to a failure to treat persons as the special kind of things they are. 

To illuminate this distinction Kateb uses Huxley’s Brave New World, where drugged and manipulated human beings lead lives marked by very little suffering. Even if one cannot criticize Huxley’s dystopia on moral grounds, Kateb says, it remains deeply objectionable insofar as its human inhabitants are not developing into the impressive kind of beings that each potentially is. Kateb’s ultimate position is that while rights can be defended through both sorts of appeals, we should give logical priority to the existential axis. If we don’t, he suggests, we open the door to violations of rights in the name of preventing greater suffering (and so endanger the very function of rights, which is to rule out such trade-offs). The upshot, then, is that the notion of rights we most require depends on our having a dignity grounded primarily not in our capacity for suffering, but instead in the special status of human beings as compared with everything else.

So far, I think, so good. The vital question, of course, is how we defend this claim for our special dignity. Kateb’s approach begins in the fact that we alone, among known objects in the natural world, are able to rise above nature through our capacity for self-conscious thought, made possible by our sophisticated use of language. This capacity is both intrinsically commendable in its connection to great achievements (the Parthenon, Shakespeare, democracy, etc.) and, more importantly, sets human beings apart as the only agents that can perform for the natural world “the three indispensable functions: keep the record of nature, understand nature, and appreciate it.” While the appeal to our capacity for reflective thought is a standard move in secular accounts defending human dignity, Kateb’s enlisting that capacity to serve nature is genuinely innovative.

There are, however, at least two important worries his approach raises. First, it’s not clear why it matters to the non-natural world that we serve it in the way Kateb describes. And if it matters only to human beings, then (as he recognizes) his account of dignity just begs the question in favor of the human perspective. (Of course we seem special to ourselves.) Indeed, Kateb at times seems torn between the idea that the mere existence of the world (irrespective of human beings) is itself a source of deepest wonder, and the idea that such a world without us to admire it would somehow be lacking something utterly crucial. I am not sure these views can be harmonized. Finally, it seems to me more relevant than Kateb allows that our relation to the natural world is so much more often that of intruder, corrupter, and destroyer than that of faithful and friendly recorder. If the natural world could speak, would it really express gratitude at having us around?

To his credit, Kateb engages with this general line of objection. But the other significant obstacle he largely ignores. I am thinking of the familiar but still serious problem that bedevils secular attempts to explain dignity, which we might call the inclusive/exclusive worry. The problem here is to account for dignity in a way that gets all human beings in and keeps nonhumans out. Some severely disabled human beings, we know, fail to develop the distinctive human capacities to the level that some of the higher primates do, while other persons come to lose them through disease, injury, or old age. If dignity hinges on possessing such capacities, then we seem to have no grounds for treating such human beings with dignity. At one point Kateb does insist that the severely disabled “must be treated as human beings,” but within the context of his argument this comes across as mere dogmatism. In addition, if our equal status as individuals and our special stature as a species are both grounded in our capacity for self-reflective thought and agency, doesn’t it follow that persons who excel in this respect have more dignity? To get around such problems we might choose to set the bar for dignity quite low. But if so, many heretofore excluded animals would seem to qualify. (Recent admittedly controversial studies have sought to establish that some primates not only can use language but also have self-consciousness. Can we be sure human beings are distinct in this regard?)

Readers of this journal will have noted that the theological option Kateb foregoes is better able to withstand these particular challenges. If human dignity derives from God’s unique disposition toward us, or from the fact that we alone are created in God’s image, then we have grounds for both distinguishing ourselves from nature and resolving the inclusive/exclusive problem. Such theological accounts encounter their own important criticisms, but this is not the place to sort out those worries. Here it’s enough to note that Kateb’s book makes clear how central the idea of human dignity is, how helpful it would be to provide a convincing secular defense of that idea, and how difficult it is do so.

David McCabe teaches philosophy at Colgate University.

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Published in the 2011-06-17 issue: View Contents
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