Dignity: the absolute, non-denumerably infinite, intrinsic, and objective value of persons, especially human persons, by virtue of their possessing a unified set of basic innate cognitive, affective (aka caring-oriented, aka emotional), and practical capacities that are jointly constitutive of their free agency (Immanuel Kant)—see also the entry on “free agency.”
Controversy: It’s sometimes held that either (i) the notion of human dignity is conceptually confused and mythical, hence the purported metaphysical and moral fact of human dignity is really non-existent (dignity-skepticism) or (ii) the notion of human dignity is only a historically and socioculturally contingent concept, hence the purported metaphysical and moral fact of human dignity is nothing more than a fact about honor and/or social status (dignity-debunking or dignity-deflationism). By contrast and on the contrary, the above definition is framed in robustly metaphysical and moral terms that are neither skeptical, debunking, nor deflationist.
According to the broadly Kantian theory of human dignity—or in Kant’s terminology, Würde—that I defend, human dignity is the absolute, non-denumerably infinite, intrinsic, and objective value of human real persons as ends-in-themselves, and human real personhood is grounded in a unified set of innate cognitive, affective, and practical capacities present in all and only human animals possessing the essentially embodied neurobiological basis of those capacities.
Some human animals are born permanently lacking this essentially embodied neurobiological basis or have suffered its permanently destruction by accident, disease, or violent mishap, and therefore some human animals do not have human dignity because they are not human real persons.
So not necessarily all human animals are real persons.
Conversely, not necessarily all real persons are human: it’s really possible for there to be real persons belonging to other animal species, whether on the Earth or other planets.
If so, then they’ll have dignity too.
Nevertheless and in any case, you’re a real person, and so am I.
And so is every other living organism that’s capable of fully understanding those words, feeling their normative force, and then choosing and acting under the guidance of that normative force.
Neither logically possible or conceivable non-animal persons, disembodied persons, or divine persons, nor actual artificial persons (personae) or actual collective persons, created by human convention, are real persons in this sense.
For human real persons, like all real persons, are essentially embodied minds.
In turn, the essential embodiment thesis has two logically distinct parts: (i) the necessary embodiment of conscious minds like ours in a living organism (the necessity thesis), and (ii) the complete neurobiological embodiment of conscious minds like ours in all the vital systems, vital organs, and vital processes of our living bodies (the completeness thesis).
The necessity thesis says that necessarily, conscious minds like ours are alive.
Negatively formulated, it says that conscious minds like ours cannot be dead, disembodied, or machines.
By contrast, the completeness thesis says that conscious minds like ours are fully spread out into our living organismic bodies, necessarily including the brain, but also necessarily not restricted to the brain.
In view of the essential embodiment thesis, specifically human real persons are real persons who are necessarily and completely, human animals, hence we’re “human, all-too-human.”
To say that human real persons have dignity is to say that they’re absolutely, nondenumerably infinitely, intrinsically, and objectively valuable ends-in-themselves.
What, more precisely, do I mean by saying that?
Objective values are whatever anyone can care about, that is, whatever anyone can aim their affects/emotions (i.e., desires, feelings, or passions) at.
Otherwise put, objective values are what Kant called “ends” (Zwecke).
In turn, “absolute” means “unconditionally necessary.”
So to say that human real persons are absolutely, nondenumerably infinitely, intrinsically, objectively valuable ends-in-themselves, or that they have dignity, is to say that their value as ends-in-themelves is not only an unconditionally necessary, internal feature of the kind of manifestly real being they are, but also the very highest kind of value.
Now many things are intrinsically objectively valuable, or ends-in-themselves—for example, pleasant bodily or sensory experiences, vivid emotional experiences, beautiful natural objects and environments, fine craftsmanship, skillfully-played sports, good science, good philosophy, good works of art, and any job well done.
To say that human real persons are absolutely, nondenumerably infinitely, intrinsically, objectively valuable ends-in-themselves—i.e., that they have dignity—however, is to say that each of us has a moral value that is a transfinite cardinal quantity in relation to all denumerable or countable, economic, or otherwise instrumental kinds of value, for example psychological pleasure or preference-satisfaction.
It seems clear that however we measure such things, whether in terms of market value or monetary price, degrees of psychological pleasure, degrees of preference-satisfaction, or comparative rankings of such things, nevertheless every actual or possible economic or otherwise instrumental value is expressible as some rational number quantity or another, including denumerably infinite rational number quantities.
Then, by essentially the same method that Georg Cantor used to show the existence of transfinite numbers, at least in principle, we can create a vertical and denumerably infinite list of every actual or possible economic or otherwise instrumental value, then draw a diagonal across it, and discover another value that’s categorically higher than any economic or otherwise instrumental value.
So this value is the prime example of what—following Cantor’s alternative term for transfinite numbers, transcendental numbers—I’ve called transcendental normativity.
Correspondingly, it’s what I’ll call transcendental value, by which I mean either a single transcendental value or else a unified system of several distinct but essentially complementary or interlocking transcendental values.
Kant called the unified system of all transcendental values the highest good.
The dignity of human real persons has transcendental value in that sense: thus each human real person, by virtue of their dignity, has transcendental value, and their human dignity also inherently belongs to the unified system of all transcendental values, aka the highest good.
As a consequence, even though each individual human real person has transcendental value—a value that’s categorically higher than any economic or otherwise instrumental value and thereby irreducible to any economic or otherwise instrumental value—nevertheless the value of groups of human real persons can still be calculated from the cardinality of the membership of the group, just as there is an arithmetic of transfinite cardinal numbers.
The dignitarian transcendental value of N>1 human real persons is N times greater than the dignitarian transcendental value of one human real person.
This special kind of transfinite/transcendental value-calculability is true of groups of human real persons, and yet the dignity of each individual human real person has a value that’s categorically higher than any economic or instrumental value and thereby irreducible to any economic or otherwise instrumental value, which is to say that it’s a transcendental value, and that it belongs to the highest good.
The highest good in this sense is innately contained and specified in each and every one of us; and that’s the one and only sense in which we’re all morally and politically equal. But apart from that broadly Kantian dignitarian sense of equality, as Harry Frankfurt has compellingly argued, egalitarianism more generally is a misguided and mistaken moral and political ideal.
What’s strictly and universally morally and politically obligatory is to treat every human real person with sufficient respect for their human dignity, which will sometimes involve strict equality of treatment across sets of individual human real persons, but not necessarily.
Sufficiently treating a human real person with respect for their human dignity, in turn, has three individually necessary, individually insufficient, and jointly sufficient conditions: (i) a human real person is sufficiently treated with respect only if they are not treated either as a mere means or as mere thing, for example, in the way that Nazis treated people, like a piece of garbage or offal, for no good reason whatsoever, (ii) a human real person is sufficiently treated with respect only if they are treated in such a way that they can give their explicit and/or implicit rational consent to that treatment, and (iii) a human real person is sufficiently treated with respect only if they are treated with kindness—that is, with benevolent attention to their true human needs.
These are mutually logically distinct and individually necessary, but still individually insufficient conditions for sufficient respect for human dignity.
For, despite what may appear at first glance, they’re not necessarily equivalent, for two reasons.
First, it’s at least minimally really possible for a human real person to give their explicit or implicit rational consent to being treated either as a mere means or as a mere thing.
Indeed, it’s at least minimally really possible that a human real person could explicitly or implicitly rationally consent even to becoming someone else’s slave or to being killed by that other person—as an extreme form of self-abasement, self-punishment, self-sacrifice, or sexual self-expression.
One real-world example, it seems, is the notorious “German cannibals” case in 2002.
I do hold, however, that the German cannibals’ explicit rational consent also violates their implicit rational consent.
But the more general point I am making here is that in all such cases, someone, of their own free will, disrespects themselves and therefore is choosing and acting impermissibly.
In On Liberty, Mill famously argued that freely willed self-enslavement is impossible.
But that’s a mistake.
Freely choosing self-enslavement is really possible.
Self-enslavement is putting oneself in bondage, and thus under a system of harsh external restraints, so it’s essentially equivalent to self-imprisonment—obviously, an extreme form of putting oneself under a system of harsh external restraints.
Both self-enslavement and self-imprisonment are conceptually, metaphysically, and even psychologically coherent, even if, other things being equal, deeply perverse, pragmatically self-stultifying, and morally impermissible.
So self-enslavement isn’t the contrary of freedom.
On the contrary, what I call natural mechanism, that is, the overwhelming compulsion or manipulation of an agent’s choices or acts by inherently deterministic or indeterministic natural processes, hence metaphysical puppethood or robothood, is the contrary of freedom.
What is impossible, is to choose freely while also being a natural automaton, and this is clearly shown by the soundness of arguments for what is nowadays called source incompatibilism in the debate about free will.
In rejecting the very ideas of free self-enslavement, Mill confused the concept of self-stultifying impossibility with the concept of freely failing to respect one’s own human dignity.
The latter is obviously immoral, but also obviously not impossible, since, just like the ought, the ought-not also implies can.
Second, even if a human real person is not being treated as a mere means or as a mere thing, and can also give their explicit or implicit rational consent to some proposed mode of treatment, nevertheless she might still be treated without kindness.
For example, someone who is living in extreme poverty might receive just enough food aid not to starve, and just enough health care aid not to die from preventable causes, but also not enough aid to be well-fed, healthy, self-supporting, or able to engage in any creative, meaningful, useful, or productive activities.
Then they’re being oppressed, by being condemned to a life of constant neediness and suffering.
The upshot, then, is that a human real person is sufficiently treated with respect if and only if (i) they’re not being treated either as a mere means or as a mere thing, (ii) they can give their explicit and/or implicit rational consent to that treatment, and (iii) they’re being treated with kindness.
In other words, no meaningful act-intention should ever be chosen or acted upon which entails that human real persons are treated either as mere means or as mere things, without their explicit or implicit rational consent, or with cruelty.
To treat a human real person without sufficient respect for their human dignity, and thus either as a mere means or as a mere thing, without their explicit and/or implicit rational consent, or with cruelty, is to harm them by violating their dignity.
Therefore, it’s strictly morally impermissible to harm human real persons by violating their dignity; and for the very same reasons, it’s also strictly morally obligatory, to prevent or reduce dignity-violating harms to human real persons.
These moral principles are also commonly known as “the negative duty not to harm” and “the positive duty to prevent harm.”
Equivalently, a human real person is sufficiently treated with respect for their human dignity if and only if they’re provided with freedom from oppression.
One direct consequence of this broadly Kantian conception of human dignity, which overlaps significantly with early Karl Marx’s political theory, as formulated, for example, in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, is that human real persons are not commodities of any kind.
Therefore, any person or social institution or system that commodifies human real persons, undermines and violates their human dignity.
A second direct consequence of this conception of human dignity, is that human real persons do not have to do anything in order to have dignity, nor can they lose their human dignity by acting badly.
And a third direct consequence of this conception of human dignity is that it is not a general requirement of any human real person’s having dignity that they self-consciously recognize that they themselves have dignity, nor is it a general requirement of our acknowledging others as having dignity that we self-consciously recognize that they have dignity.
This is for two reasons.
First, the mental act or state of recognizing oneself or another real person as having dignity is not originally or primarily an act or state of self-conscious, or reflective, report, belief, or judgment.
On the contrary, it’s originally and primarily an act or state of pre-reflectively conscious emotional perception, or what Michelle Maiese and I have called affective framing.
More precisely, on this view, emotional perception consists in an essentially embodied, conscious, feeling, desiring, passionate intentional agent’s representing the world via her desire-based readiness to choose or act intentionally, and, in the midst of that readiness, being disposed to have feelings about the world, or others, or herself, in certain specific ways; and the mental content of such acts or states of emotional perception is essentially non-conceptual.
These same points are also very effectively conveyed by Ludwig Wittgenstein in the Philosophical Investigations, without any technical terminology:
“I believe that he is suffering.” –Do I also believe that he isn’t an automaton? It would go against the grain to use the word in both connexions. (Or is it like this: I believe that he is suffering, but am certain that he is not an automaton? Nonsense!) Suppose I say of a friend: “He isn’t an automaton.” –What information is conveyed by this, and to whom would it be information? To a human being who meets him in ordinary circumstances? What information could it give him? (At the very most that this man always behaves like a human being, and not occasionally like a machine.) “I believe that he is not an automaton,” just like that, so far makes no sense. My attitude towards him is an attitude towards a soul. I am not of the opinion that he has a soul.
Second, the concept of human dignity, as I’m spelling it out here, is a characteristically moral-metaphysical concept that’s knowable or known only by rational reflection, moral intuition, and philosophical analysis.
It would be paradoxical in the extreme if, for example, someone’s falling deeply in love and regarding another real person as inherently lovable required reflectively knowing the moral-metaphysical analysis of the concept of love, either partially or completely.
On the contrary, obviously, romantic people normally affectively frame other people as inherently deeply lovable, and thereby fall deeply in love with them, without requiring any reflective or analytical grasp whatsoever of the concepts under which they themselves or the objects of their pre-reflectively conscious emotional perception fall.
So too, it would be paradoxical in the extreme if, for example, someone’s either being worthy of respect for their human dignity, or someone’s respecting another human real person, required reflectively knowing the moral-metaphysical analysis of the concept of human dignity, either partially or completely.
On the contrary, people normally affectively frame themselves and others as having dignity in a pre-reflective and non-self-consciously conscious way, and without requiring any reflective or analytical grasp whatsoever of the concepts under which they themselves or the objects of their pre-reflectively conscious emotional perception fall.
The metaphysical ground of the dignity of human real persons is their real personhood.
And our real personhood is an essentially embodied, unified set of innate cognitive, affective-emotional, and practical capacities.
And this is the metaphysical ground of the absolute, non-denumerably infinite, intrinsic, and objective value of all real persons, including of course all human real persons, as ends-in-themselves, precisely because this essentially embodied set of capacities is the only thing in the universe capable of freely recognizing, freely creating, freely acting according to and for the sake of, and freely sustaining, transcendental value or the highest good, which we already know to exist by the Cantorian argument sketched earlier.
So human dignity is, at bottom, all about the essentially embodied complex capacity for free will and practical agency that’s aimed at transcendental value or the highest good, aka free agency.
For a full development and defense of the theory of essential embodiment, see R. Hanna and M. Maiese, Embodied Minds in Action (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2009). ↩︎
See G. Cantor, “Ueber eine elementare Frage der Mannigfaltigkeitslehre.” Jahresbericht der Deutschen Mathematiker-Vereinigung 1 (1891): 75–78, also available online in English translation, as “On an Elementary Question of the Theory of Manifolds,” at URL =
See R. Hanna, “Transcendental Normativity and the Avatars of Psychologism,” in A. Stati (ed.), Husserl’s Ideas I: New Commentaries and Interpretations (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2015), pp. 51-67. ↩︎
See H. Frankfurt, On Inequality (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 2015). ↩︎
This is a specifically Kantian version of what Frankfurt calls “the doctrine of sufficiency”; see his On Inequality. ↩︎
—As opposed to their merely self-perceived and false human needs, that is. It might be that someone perceives within themselves an intense need to own a certain luxury automobile, even though they already own a car that’s perfectly adequate to their true human needs. Therefore, it’s not unkind of us not to cater to this self-perceived and false human need. For more on the crucial distinction between true human needs and false human needs, see Maiese and Hanna, The Mind-Body Politic, ch. 3. ↩︎
J.S. Mill, On Liberty (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1978), pp. 101. ↩︎
See R. Hanna, Deep Freedom and Real Persons: A Study in Metaphysics (THE RATIONAL HUMAN CONDITION, Vol. 2) (New York: Nova Science, 2018), chs. 1 to 5. ↩︎
See, e.g., D. Pereboom, Living Without Free Will (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2001); H. Steward, A Metaphysics for Freedom (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2012); and Hanna, Deep Freedom and Real Persons: A Study in Metaphysics (THE RATIONAL HUMAN CONDITION, Vol. 2), sections 4.5 and 7.2. ↩︎
See R. Hanna, Kant, Agnosticism, and Anarchism: A Theological-Political Treatise (THE RATIONAL HUMAN CONDITION, Vol. 4) (New York: Nova Science, 2018), sections 18-20. ↩︎
See Hanna and Maiese, Embodied Minds in Action, section 5.3. ↩︎
Maiese and I spell out and defend this theory of the emotions in detail in Embodied Minds in Action, ch. 5; she’s also worked out and defended this view separately in Embodiment, Emotion, and Cognition (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011); and I’ve spelled out and defended the theory of the essentially non-conceptual content of perception in detail in Cognition, Content, and the A Priori: A Study in the Philosophy of Mind and Knowledge (THE RATIONAL HUMAN CONDITION, Vol. 5) (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2015), ch. 2. ↩︎
L. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe (New York: Macmillan, 1953),
p. 178e. ↩︎