Here and there – Dignity in Kant and Shakespeare

In any community, two questions always arise.  How should I treat my neighbour?  (Or, and this question may evoke the same answer, how would I like my neighbour to treat me?) And, are my neighbour and I equal in our rights?

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote a great deal and most of it is beyond the understanding of most of the rest of us.  He did however have something to say about dignity or worth or value that we can follow.  For some people – including me – what he says can be taken as offering an axiom on which we might base our view of the moral world.

Here is part of the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals.

….all rational beings stand under the law that each of them is to treat himself and all others never merely as means but always at the same time as ends in themselves….In the kingdom of ends, everything has a price or dignity.  What has a price can be replaced by something else as its equivalent; what on the other hand is raised above all price and therefore admits of no equivalent has a dignity.

What is related to general human inclinations and needs has a market price; that which, even without presupposing a need, conforms with a certain taste, that is with a delight in the mere purposeless play of our mental powers, has a fancy price; but that which constitutes the condition under which alone something can be an end in itself has not really a relative worth, that is, a price, but an inner worth, that is dignity.

Now morality is the condition under which alone a rational being can be an end in itself, since only through this is it possible to be a lawgiving member in the kingdom of ends.  Hence, morality, and humanity insofar as it is capable of humanity, is that alone which has dignity.  Skill and diligence in work have a market place; wit, lively imagination and humour have a fancy price; on the other hand, fidelity of promises and benevolence from basic principles (not from instinct) have an inner worth.

In another paper (On the Common Saying: That May be Correct in Theory), Kant said this about equality:

Whoever is subject to laws is subject within a state and is thus subjected to coercive right equally with all other members of the commonwealth…in terms of right…they are nevertheless equal to one another as subjects; for no one of them can coerce any other except through public law….From this idea of the equality of human beings as subjects within a commonwealth there also issues the following formula: Every member of a commonwealth  must be allowed  to attain any level of which his talent, industry or luck can take him….

(This was written after the fall of the Bastille, but before the Terror became known to the world.)

In another text (Critique of Judgment, par.60), Kant said that humanity signifies the universal feeling of sympathy – although we might feel a little more at home with a reference to a capacity for a kind of sympathy that may or may not be found in gorillas.

Shakespeare touched on the issue of dignity in one of his plays that I find very heavy going, Troilus and Cressida.  Paris the Trojan has eloped with Helen the Greek wife of a Greek king.  This affront to Greek honour leads them to declare war against Troy.  Not surprisingly, at least some Trojans ask whether this insult, if that is what it was, warrants men being killed in their thousands. 

Helen and Paris have not had a good press.  (You may fairly ask who of this motley warrants one?)  A Greek soldier says of Helen:

For every false drop in her bawdy veins

A Grecian’s life hath sunk; for every scruple

Of her contaminated carrion weight

A Trojan hath been slain.  (4.1.69-72)

Hector may be the only decent person on the stage – the rest are a parade of human frailty or nastiness – and Paris and Troilus are among the worst.  Hector lines Paris up with a shirt-front:

… ..or is your blood

So madly hot that no discourse of reason

Nor fear of bad success in a bad cause

Can qualify the same? (2.2.115 – 118)

(Fear of ‘bad success in a bad cause’ might be said of us in every war since 1945.) 

Ulysses is even more damning about Cressida.

…….Her wanton spirits look out

At every joint and motive of her body….

For sluttish spoils of opportunity

And daughters of the game.  (4.5.56-63)

(The last line has its modern reading.)

But the passage we are interested in is as follows.


Brother, she is not worth what she doth cost
The holding.


What is aught, but as ’tis valued?


But value dwells not in particular will;
It holds his estimate and dignity
As well wherein ’tis precious of itself
As in the prizer.   (2.2.51ff)

So, Troilus has the view that value, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder – ‘the prizer’ (the person making the appraisal).  Value is whatever the market will bear.  But Hector says that the dignity of a person ‘is precious of itself.’  Some might say that Troilus is on the side of relativism, the moral cancer of our time – there are no intrinsic values, only those that are attributed by others.  But for Hector human dignity is inherent in a human being – it comes with humanity.  This was the view of Kant.

Hector says that some truths are beyond matters of opinion.

There is a law in each well-order’d nation
To curb those raging appetites that are
Most disobedient and refractory.
If Helen then be wife to Sparta’s king,
As it is known she is, these moral laws
Of nature and of nations speak aloud
To have her back return’d: thus to persist
In doing wrong extenuates not wrong,
But makes it much more heavy. Hector’s opinion
Is this in way of truth….(2.2.180-186)

But then Hector flips and says that he will just go with the flow – and that is part of the reason this play is so hard to grapple with.

The notion of dignity inherent in humanity underlies the self-evident truths of Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, and the first article of the Rights of Man: ‘Men are born and remain free and equal in rights’.  If you look at a random cross-section of world slayers like Julius Caesar, Charlemagne, Henry VIII, Calvin, Napoleon Bonaparte, Lenin, or Donald Trump, you see immediately how important are the views of Kant and Hector.  These people have no regard at all for the dignity of other people.  For them, other people exist only as means to an end, and in acting that way they reject out of hand the rationale of Kant for his primary rule.  And of course their celebration of their own egos leaves any conception of equality as illusory as a thing writ on water.  For any of them, you would be talking into air to offer them the plea that a Danish prince offered on behalf of travelling players – to ‘use them after your own honor and dignity’ (Hamlet, 2.2.54—542) – that is not what they were built for.

For others, this assertion of human dignity from two of our most famous minds is a real comforter in a time of need – especially at a time of epidemic when some people, who appear to me to be close to being morally insane, think that it might be a good idea to put a dollar value on my human life.

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