Respect for Dignity: a defense by Craig Duncan Ithaca College 10/06 draft Abstract

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The Stoics' central mistake, I maintain, lies in failing to acknowledge these distinct forms of injury to human dignity. An account of dignity that acknowledges these forms of injury thus can avoid the problem of external goods that renders Stoic doctrine unacceptable.28 In an article that covers much of the same ground as “Compassion and Terror,” Nussbaum briefly (in a single paragraph) proposes a two-tiered “Aristotelian” account of dignity to replace the Stoic account. This two-tiered account distinguishes, first, between innate capacities for rational choice and developed / trained capacities, and second, between trained capacities and the real opportunity to express these.29 The two distinctions are not explored in detail, and Nussbaum acknowledges that they “need further development”;30 this section of my paper can be read as an effort at such development. In fact, Nussbaum’s two distinctions parallel my ideas of diminishing dignity (this occurs when innate capacities are left undeveloped) and obscuring dignity (this occurs when opportunities for choice are constrained). Hence I believe my account of dignity (with its additional third category of threats to dignity—namely, that of insults) is one that Nussbaum may find congenial.

4. The Problem of Watery Motivation.

Finally, there is the problem of watery motivation. This problem, recall, originates in the Stoic call for us to extinguish our partial attachments to other people and operate instead from moral motives of exclusively impartial regard for all persons. According to Nussbaum these moral motives are likely to be weak and compare unfavorably with motives of compassion animated by genuine attachments to others.

There are two distinct interpretations of Nussbaum's complaint. The first, more modest interpretation objects only to Stoicism's totalizing insistence that dignity is the only thing of intrinsic value in the world, and hence our particular loves and likes are in truth devoid of such value. We can agree with this complaint, certainly. A world in which humans extinguish all motives of particularized love for others would not be a desirable world. However, recall that Nussbaum's explicit aim in her article is that of showing the necessity of motives of compassion in addition to motives of respect; this aim suggests a second, broader interpretation of Nussbaum's complaint. According to this second interpretation, the Stoic doctrine of respect for dignity, while an extreme doctrine, reveals an important truth about motives of respect more generally, namely, that they are inherently thin, often ineffective, and at odds with erotic/familial attachments—in short, "watery"— and hence in need of help from the motive of compassion, which is inherently more potent.31

If this is Nussbaum's complaint, then it is unpersuasive. For if this is Nussbaum’s complaint, then I think she has made the mistake of failing to distinguish between, on the one hand, the contest between motives of respect and compassion, and on the other hand, the contest between impartial and partial motives. After all, compassion itself can take an impartial form as well as partial forms. For instance, utilitarianism (especially in its "ideal spectator" form) can be read as identifying our moral duties with those actions that would be favored by a compassionate identification with the happiness of all persons (and perhaps all sentient creatures). Significantly, the familiar criticisms made of this form of utilitarianism—it is unrealistic; a purely impartial regard for all will leave no room for more personal relationships of value; and so on—precisely mirror the criticisms Nussbaum makes of Stoic motives of respect.

The distinction between the compassion/respect debate and the partiality/ impartiality debate becomes even clearer once we realize that just as compassion can take partial and impartial forms, so too can respect. Just as I can feel much compassion for the welfare of loved ones, neighbors, co-nationals, etc. and little for the welfare of others, so too can I be greatly concerned to respect the dignity of loved ones, neighbors, co-nationals, etc. and yet be unmoved by the dignity of others.

To illustrate this claim, consider how someone who would not dream of showing utter contempt for family members may think little of holding many other members of his society in contempt, especially if these others differ along lines of race, religion, class, etc.. As yet another example, consider how common it is, even for people who respect their co-nationals as their equals, to care little whether their actions (say, the purchase of cheap, foreign-made consumer goods) contribute to the exploitation other people far away; in this context the dignity of those others just does not matter to them. Finally, observe that motives of respect can be partial in yet another way. For in addition to showing greater respect for one's loved ones, one can also be far more concerned to combat insults to, and eclipses of, the dignity of oneself and one's loved ones as opposed to similar shabby treatment of anonymous others. The righteous indignation such partial concern can generate is far from "watery." Thus the potency of at least some motives of respect is beyond question.

Hence I suggest that the motivational powers of respect on the one hand, and compassion on the other hand, compare favorably with each other. It is easier to experience potent forms of compassion and respect for those close to us, and harder to cultivate these motives in impartial form. Where is the asymmetry? I cannot see that one of these motives is inherently more "watery" than the other; compassion for far away others is likely to be as watery as respect for those same others. And if it is difficult to see how to make motives of enlargened respect compatible with our particularized loves, it is also difficult to see how to make motives of enlargened compassion compatible with our particularized loves.

This is not to disparage either motive. Nussbaum is surely right about this: the world would be much better were there much more of both enlargened compassion and respect.


While the animal problem, the external goods problem, and the problem of watery motivation are genuine problems for the Stoics' account of respect for dignity, these problems are artifacts of the extreme nature of this account. The animal problem abates once we recognize that there is dignity in purposive agency more generally, and not just in rational agency (or responsible agency) more narrowly. The Stoic claim that human dignity is invulnerable to external threats reveals itself as false once we recognize that human dignity can be diminished, obscured, and insulted. As for watery motivation, doctrines of respect for dignity that do not require us to give up all of our partial loves and attachments run no risk of thinning out all human motivation. Moreover, while the motive of respect for others not near and dear does risk being a watery sort of motive, the same is true of compassion for others not near and dear. Thus the problem of watery motivation, to the extent that it is a problem for doctrines of respect for dignity, is not a special problem for such doctrines. Any doctrine recommending moral regard for far away persons will face this problem, whether the regard it recommends takes the form of respect, or whether the regard it recommends takes the form of Nussbaum's educated and enlarged compassion.


1. Daedalus 132:1 (Winter 2003), pp. 10-26. Further references to page numbers in this article will be given parenthetically. This article was also published with minor revisions in James P. Sterba, ed. Terrorism and International Justice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), pp. 229-252.

2. The connection with terror—as suggested by the article's title "Compassion and Terror"—comes with Nussbaum's discussion of the horrors of September 11, in which she argues that the proper response to these horrors requires a deeper understanding of the plight of others around the globe, an understanding generated by an enlarged and educated compassion for such others. Interesting though this claim is I will not focus on it in this article.

3. See for instance Martha Nussbaum, Women and Human Development (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

4. See for instance Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers 7.87-89, p. 395 in A. A. Long and David Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987); Stobaeus, Eclogae 2.75[11ff.] (reporting the view of Zeno of Citium, Stoicism’s founder) and 2.76[9-15], both passages in Long and Sedley (pp. 394 and 357 respectively); Seneca, Epistles 41.8-9, 66.40, 76.9-17, 92.11-13, and 124 passim. (In Seneca, Moral Epistles, 3 vols., trans. R. M. Gummere [Cambridge, MA: Loeb Classical Library, 1917-25]).

5. In addition to the animal problem, Stoic dignity faces another related problem inasmuch as it appears to deny that we have any obligations of justice toward non-rational forms of life; the category of the non-rational, after all, is broader than that of the nonhuman, for human infants are not yet rational beings, and many profoundly mentally retarded humans never will be rational beings. How, then, can the Stoics account for the wrongness of the abuse or killing of these humans? This is a challenging problem that deserves a full discussion, but beyond a few suggestive remarks in the section below titled “The External Goods Problem” I will not discuss this problem in the present essay. (Were I to discuss the question of infanticide in more detail I would by and large follow the approach taken in Richard Norman, “The Wrongness of Killing,” Chapter 2 of his Ethics, Killing and War [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995].)

6. Ep. 47.17. Noting an individual’s status as a slave, Seneca asks “Will this do him any harm?” Here I follow Nussbaum’s translation of Hoc illi nocebit? (p. 19) rather than Gummere’s translation “But shall that stand in his way?” in the Loeb classical edition. C. D. N. Costa’s recent translation of Letter 47 parallels Nussbaum’s: “Must this be damaging to him?” (Seneca, 17 Letters, C. D. N. Costa, trans. [Warminster, U. K.: Aris and Phillips Ltd., 1988], p. 33).

7. For a state-of-the-art look at the issue of animal consciousness see Colin Allen, "Animal Pain," Noûs 38:617-43 (2004).

8. My claim, then, is that where one finds purposive agency one also finds dignity. I regard this as a normative claim rather than a meta-ethical claim, i.e. in saying this I do not purport to be defining the concept of dignity. One possible definition is due to Stephen Darwall, who defines dignity as “[a] moral status or standing that is the appropriate object of (recognition) respect” (Stephen Darwall, Philosophical Ethics [Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998], p. 234; for Darwall’s account of recognition respect, see his “Two Kinds of Respect,” Ethics 88:1 [1977], pp. 36-49). This seems along the right lines, though I worry it is overbroad—e.g. Andy Warhol’s famous soup can paintings probably merit respectful treatment (one shouldn’t burn them as campfire fuel, for instance), but do they really possess a dignity? To fix this problem I am tempted to build in the idea of integrity (to be discussed above shortly): to say an entity possesses dignity on this account would be to say it possesses an integrity that is the appropriate object of (recognition) respect. I will not defend this definition further in the present paper, however.

9. The connection I am positing between power on the one hand (in particular, the power of purposive agency) and dignity on the other should not really be surprising, I think. Not so long ago, after all, only those people who had significant power over others were believed to possess dignity. (Indeed, this substratum of meaning still persists in our use of the term "dignitaries" to refer to individuals in positions of power.) Nowadays doctrines of equal human dignity are more likely to hold sway; these doctrines sever the connection between dignity and power-over-others, finding instead the locus of morally valuable power to lie within each human individual. It is hence unsurprising that a further expansion of the "circle of dignity," so to speak, to include nonhuman animals should retain a connection with power of some sort. For some further brief speculations on the connections between dignity and power, see Joel Feinberg, "Some Conjectures About the Concept of Respect," Journal of Social Philosophy 4:1-3 (1973).

10. It is true that a tree's growth is sometimes susceptible to teleological explanation (e.g. when it grows toward the sun). Surely, though, this is not enough to qualify it as a purposive agent, otherwise a refrigerator, say, would likewise qualify since its "behavior" too can be described in teleological terms ("it began its cooling cycle in order to bring the temperature back to the level of the thermostat"). Even if this counterexample could be avoided on the grounds, say, that refrigerators are human-made artifacts, other counterexamples threaten. For all I know, for instance, the "behavior" of mold can be teleologically explained, but pace "biocentric egalitarians" like Paul Taylor, mold surely does not thereby possess a dignity deserving of respect. (See Paul W. Taylor, Respect for Nature [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press].)

11. Mary Oliver, Blue Iris: Poems and Essays (Boston: Beacon Press, 2004), p. 17

12. John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley (New York: The Viking Press, 1961), pp. 168-69 (emphasis added); quoted in Paul Woodruff, Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 222. It is worth noting that we can speak of reverence for nature as well as respect for nature. Woodruff defines reverence thusly: “Reverence is the well-developed capacity to have the feelings of awe, respect, and shame when these are the right feelings to have” (p. 8). In Woodruff’s view, then, reverence is a broader phenomenon than respect (cf. pp. 9, 65-66), inasmuch as it encompasses shame and awe as well . Indeed, after reflecting on the cases of mountains and trees just discussed, one may wonder whether the feelings in question are better described as feelings of awe at these objects’ presence rather than feelings of respect for a dignity they possess. In this paper I will remain agnostic on the question; my aim instead has been the more modest one of arguing that if on further reflection we wish to impute dignity to some non-living things, this is not a fatal objection to my account of dignity in terms of purposive agency.

13. For a good start on this issue, see Elizabeth S. Anderson, "Animal Rights and the Values of Nonhuman Life," pp. 277-98 in Cass Sunstein and Martha Nussbaum, Animal Rights: Current Debates and New Directions (Oxford University Press, 2004).

14. Pages 299-320 in Sunstein and Nussbaum, Animal Rights.

15. Ibid., p. 309. Since there is such a thing as the characteristic functioning of a sponge, I presume Nussbaum’s capability approach would license talk of a sponge’s good. Hence I interpret her as rejecting option (i).

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid.

18. Some of Nussbaum’s phrasing suggests she may already accept such an approach. E.g. early on in her article she states that “I believe that thinking of animals as active beings who have a good and who are entitled to pursue it naturally leads us to see important damages done to them as unjust” (ibid., p. 302; my emphasis), and she stress that the capabilities approach treats animals “as agents seeking a flourishing existence” (ibid.; my emphasis). However, she does not return to this idea when invoking sentience to define which animals exactly are subjects of justice. I believe the idea of agency should be foregrounded as a more central element of her account. (Perhaps Nussbaum might resist this suggestion on the grounds that it risks being unacceptably monistic and hence at odds with her pluralistic capabilities approach. I would dispute this. To treat purposive agency as of central moral importance is not to say it is the only item of moral importance. Nussbaum herself, in her book Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach [Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000] argues that in the human case we can treat practical reason as central in importance, without reducing the other capabilities’ value to a merely instrumental kind [p. 82]. Cf. her claim in an earlier article that “[p]ractical reasoning is both ubiquitous and architectonic. It both infuses all the other functions and plans for their realization in a good and complete [human] life.” [Martha Nussbaum, “Aristotelian Social Democracy,” in R. Bruce Douglas, et. al., eds. Liberalism and the Good (London: Routledge, 1990), p. 226].)

19. I speak of observing a strong presumption against impairing, constraining, and ignoring the capacity for responsible agency, rather than an absolute prohibition against these, because the theory I would defend is not an absolutist theory. We may face tragic choices in which, say, all of our options leave some person’s dignity injured, so that the best we can do is minimize rather than avoid such injuries.

20. Even Seneca seems to acknowledge this when he writes, "What element of evil is there in torture and in the other things which we call hardships? It seems to me there is this evil—that the mind sags, bends, and collapses" (Ep. 71.26). It is true that he continues by saying, "But none of these things can happen to the sage; he stands erect under any load"—thus attempting to preserve the claim that human dignity in principle can withstand such misfortunes. However, in another letter Seneca notes the rarity of the true Stoic sage: "one of the first class perhaps springs into existence, like the phoenix, only once in five hundred years" (Ep. 42.1). The life of the sage, we may surmise, is more an impossible ideal that one should aspire to approximate than a strict mode of conduct that one should live by.

21. It is not necessarily destroyed altogether, for as I observed in the previous section, there may be other forms of dignity besides the characteristic human sort located in the capacity for responsible agency.

22. Here I rely on James Rachels's distinction between "being alive" and "having a life." For further discussion, see his The End of Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986).

23. This is not to suggest that there are no moral complexities involved in questions of euthanasia.

24. For brevity’s sake, in this paragraph I have passed over some complexities. Harry Frankfurt, for instance, would view handing the money to the mugger not as a coerced choice but rather as a choice made under duress (see Harry Frankfurt, “Coercion and Moral Responsibility,” in his The Importance of What We Care About [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988], pp. 36-37). For my purposes what matters is that regardless of whether one chooses under duress or coercion, one’s menu choices is radically truncated by the mugger’s action.

25. Note that Martha Nussbaum is a prominent voice in discussions of the moral treatment owed to the disabled. See for instance her forthcoming Frontiers of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2006).

26. Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, trans. H. J. Paton (New York: Harper and Row, 1964), 96.

27. For a sophisticated discussion of the Kantian formula, which likewise judges that Kant's command to treat others as ends possesses moral content above and beyond the content that is expressed in his command not to treat others as mere means, see Thomas E. Hill, Jr. "Humanity as an End in Itself," Ethics 91:84-99 (1980).

28. For further exploration of these distinctions, and in particular what consequences they have for political relations between individuals, see [identifying reference omitted]..

29. Martha C. Nussbaum, “The Worth of Human Dignity: Two Tensions in Stoic Cosmopolitanism,” in Gillian Clark and Tessa Rajak, eds. Philosophy and Power in the Graeco-Roman World: Essays in Honour of Miriam Griffian (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 46.

30. Ibid., p. 47

31. For example, after rejecting Marcus’s Stoic account of respect, Nussbaum asks, “Where are we then? It looks as if we are back where Aristotle and Adam Smith leave us: with the unreliability of compassion, and yet the need to rely on it, since we have no more perfect motive” (p. 23). Thus Nussbaum apparently understands the problems with Stoic ideals of respect to be problems with ideals of respect more generally. (This does not mean that Nussbaum rejects motives of respect, however, for she immediately adds that “[t]his does not mean that we need give up on the idea of equal human dignity, or respect for it”; she then goes on to make it clear that in her view we are to respond to respect’s deficiencies not by jettisoning all motives of respect, but rather by supplementing these motives with motives of compassion.)

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