What is Dignity?


Now this would seem to be in agreement both with what we said before and with the truth. For, firstly, this activity is the best (since not only is reason the best thing in us, but the objects of reason are the best of knowable objects); and secondly, it is the most continuous, since we can contemplate truth more continuously than we can do anything. And we think happiness has pleasure mingled with it, but the activity of philosophic wisdom is admittedly the pleasantest of virtuous activities; at all events the pursuit of it is thought to offer pleasures marvellous for their purity and their enduringness, and it is to be expected that those who know will pass their time more pleasantly than those who inquire.
-- Aristotle: Ethica Nicomachea (1177a19-28)
From what has just been said, it is easy to see how it happens that although the conception of duty implies subjection to the law, we yet ascribe a certain dignity and sublimity to the person who fulfils all his duties. There is not, indeed any sublimity in him, so far as he is subject to the moral law; but inasmuch as in regard to that very law he is likewise a legislator, and on that account alone subject to it, he has sublimity.
-- Kant: Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals (4:440)
To the rash ones, yet a word!
Ay, my voice shall now be heard,
As a peal of thunder, strong!
Words as poets' arms were made,--
When the god will he obey'd,
Follow fast his darts ere long.
Was it possible that ye
Thus your godlike dignity
Should forget?
-- Goethe: The German Parnassus

Truth be told, my humble quest initially ventured toward connecting Aristotle's state of happiness with Kant's notion of dignity. Although intuition tells me that this connection might indeed prove fruitful and merits closer examination, the more reasonable first plunge should probably aim at figuring out no more than what Kant means by "dignity". That discovery alone would be most welcome. So, even though unpacking Aristotle's meaning of happiness could conceivably help inform Kant's notion of dignity, a twofold Aristotle-Kant discovery route followed by an attempt to connect their respective states of being seems a bit daunting at present. Instead, this essay will focus only on Kant for now, hoping to illuminate his notion of dignity as translated in the second quotation above.

Mindful that "dignity" serves as but one translation of the German "Würde" provides a logical starting point. Recalling Kant's first mention of dignity in the Groundwork offers another point of departure:

In fact, the sublimity and intrinsic dignity [Erhabenheit und innere Würde] of the command in duty are so much the more evident, the less the subjective impulses favour it and the more they oppose it, without being able in the slightest degree to weaken the obligation of the law or to diminish its validity (just before 4:426).

Curiously, Kant seems to couple dignity with sublimity, at least in both this quotation and the cover page quotation. Can we glean a better sense of dignity from this coupling, and does Kant make further use of it? Do other couplings, or even some oppositions, occur in Kant's references to dignity, and might they sharpen our impression? Finally, a more thorough contextual examination of Kant's notion of "Würde" likely will provide a clearer understanding of its meaning and better inform our sense of Kant's "dignity".

Now, although my familiarity with the German language barely qualifies as novice, a quick search of German-English dictionaries and hopefully reliable web sites provides a helpful and, if nothing else, mildly amusing experience.[1] "Würde" as a noun indeed translates as "dignity" in most cases, but interestingly it also translates as "portliness" and even at times as "laureateship". Intriguingly, the verb form (würde) translates as "became" (past tense of werde, or become) and, when serving as a conjunctive, it essentially means "would" (as in Ich würde, or I would). One commentator, however, objected to such usage, so I am less sure of its conjunctive role.

These multiple translations resonate with some sense of a state of being, all closely related to Kant's dignified legislator. Concerning translations of "Würde" as the noun "portliness", one dictionary elaborates thus: "The quality or state of being portly; dignity of mien or of personal appearance; stateliness." In this sense, it derives from an archaic meaning of "portly" – that is, "stately; majestic; imposing." Stepping back slightly further etymologically deposits us at a less frequent use of the root word "port", the definition being "The manner in which one carries oneself; bearing."[2] Our path seems pointed toward some notion of a Kantian realm for his perfectly moral man.

The even more intriguing translation of "Würde" is as "laureateship". In my recollection, I cannot remember ever encountering this form of the word "laureate". Without too much difficulty, rules of grammar inform us that "laureateship" indicates the state of being a laureate, and our dictionary confirms it.[3] Of course, we immediately connect it with current day usages like poet laureate and Nobel laureate. The word itself signifies a crowning or honoring with (a wreath of) laurel.[4]

In its verb form (perhaps here I take a wrong path with regard to translating German), "würde" signifies a sort of movement. "Become" and "became" suggest attainment or movement from one state of being to another. Generally, I recognize "becoming" as a positive trend toward a state of "whole being-ness". Similarly, the conjunctive "would", as the past tense of "will", also suggests movement, though perhaps with more intentionality or desire and no singular notion of an end.

Clearly, these various translation possibilities lead us on a not so surprising path to an encounter with what we generally recognize as a favorable state of being, a state Kant suggests man attains when he fulfills his duties and, more importantly, conducts himself as a legislator – that is, when he decides his actions according to Kant's categorical imperative. Investigating now how Kant couples and opposes "dignity" in some of his passages may raise our understanding yet another notch above this initial definitional inquiry.

Although not directly coupled with "dignity" other than in the two quotations already cited above, "sublimity" remains a Kantian ally for it in several other passages. Sublimity inheres in the "mere dignity of man" that arises from actions completely independent of aims informed by happiness, wants, or inclinations (just below 4:439). The "principle of private happiness" may make a prosperous man but destroys the possibility of a good man, a virtuous man, just as it destroys the sublimity of "morality and its dignity" (para. on empirical principles just above 4:443). Sublimity, of course, indicates a state of being – that state of being sublime – and evokes spiritual images, heavenly images of majesty, grandeur, nobility, supremacy, and godliness.

In still more passages regarding dignity, Kant offers additional comparisons and contrasts to further emphasize its godlike nature, which its coupling and association with sublimity already seems to evoke. Firstly, valuing actions according to measures that stand outside the action itself violates the "sanctity" of one's dignity (below 4:435). Secondly, our ideal will attains its "proper object of respect" when we act "only under the condition that its maxims are potentially universal laws" (4:440). Thirdly, Kant contrasts dignity, or more accurately its intrinsic worth, with the value one may give ends from without. In Kant's kingdom of ends, "everything has either value or dignity." If something has a value, something of equal value can substitute for it. Dignity "is above all value" and "admits of no equivalent" (just before 4:435). Fourthly, Kant assures us that while our faculties may "play" at extrinsic aims, giving them market values, fancy values, and relative worth, "dignity" constitutes an incomparable, intrinsic worth, lying completely opposed to any extrinsically valued aims (4:435). Factoring in his comparisons and contrasts, we find that Kant's state of dignity still appears quite glorious and supreme.

We can now venture on to a more thorough contextual unpacking. Indeed, if to this point we sense a certain godlike nature associating itself with the state of being which Kant calls "dignity", our notion only becomes more assured as we note his related language surrounding it. That Kant contrasted extrinsically determined, relative values with moral man's state of dignity implies that "dignity" comprises a value of an absolute nature. In an early passage, Kant portends this notion when commenting that any empirical basis or contingent knowledge leading to a moral concept detracts from this "absolute value of actions" (just above 4:412). Kant further bolsters dignity's heavenly nature saying that it "admits of no equivalent" (just before 4:435), lies "infinitely above all value" (a little further below 4:435), is autonomously based and of an "unconditional incomparable worth" (4:436), and results from "legislating universally" (just below 4:438). For sure, the use of such language frees the nature and notion of dignity from any earthly limits.

With his language, Kant certainly elevates the man who legislates universally to an almost unimaginable state. His concerns are not extrinsic, his actions and ends are not contingent, and his state of being is not dependent. But who is this man? Were we to meet him on our path, would we recognize him? Kant's absolute moral man, if not God, lives as a god, with perfect goodness, virtue, honor – and dignity. He obeys "no law but that which he himself also gives" (just before 4:435), he is "an end in himself" and "above all mere physical beings" (4:438), he is the "sole absolute lawgiver" who estimates "the worth of rational beings only by their disinterested behaviour" (just before 4:440).

Kant's references to dignity as a state of being, a state of the perfectly moral man who aligns his actions according to the categorical imperative, unambiguously evokes the idea of God, the form of God, perhaps even God qua God. But how would Kant answer the claim that this moral man of whom he speaks is not man, but God? My hunch is that he would disagree by first reiterating his purpose, being the examination of moral philosophy with the aim of determining a fundamental principle existing a priori, by which man can then direct his actions and to which man can conform his will. He would emphasize that his study's focus was man. And he would rally support from phrases like "we have no intuition of the Divine perfection" (slightly below 4:443), hence the concept as stated is ontological, not theological, regardless of its problematic circularity. Further, whereas morality arrived at through (man's perfect) reason can make a good and virtuous man, the Divine will, though absolutely perfect, is not absolutely good, owing to its "desire of glory and dominion, combined with the awful conceptions of might and vengeance" (further below 4:443). Goodness apparently does not comprise a Kantian notion of God. Kant might also point out that although the judge of one's external relations by which man's absolute worth is measured could be the Supreme Being (just before 4:440), the judge need not be divine. The state of being – that is, dignity – in which such a man finds himself, while quite divine, does not imply divinity.

So, just who is this man we may perchance meet along our path in life? Am I potentially that man, though currently in an imperfect legislative state? Is Kant's dignity of man the aim to which we, all of mankind, should strive? Reason informs me that Kant's dignity cannot be a state which I should ever hope to attain, for on at least two levels such hope would disqualify me as Kant's legislative man. First, my end – the attainment of this state – would constitute an external value, and as an external value then, according to Kant, it could be replaced by an equivalent value. Would that equivalent value or end be Plato's philosopher-king or Aristotle's happiest man? (Sorry, I just had to throw in other possibilities for papers.) Either way, my end would not be absolute. Second, my hope would constitute an inclination, a want, a desire. I would no longer be directing my will, my actions, autonomously. Dignity, then, would be elusive and, to paraphrase Goethe, thus my godlike dignity I should forget.


Kant "Dignity" Passages


From what has been said, it is clear that all moral conceptions have their seat and origin completely a priori in the reason, and that, moreover, in the commonest reason just as truly as in that which is in the highest degree speculative; that they cannot be obtained by abstraction from any empirical, and therefore merely contingent, knowledge; that it is just this purity of their origin that makes them worthy to serve as our supreme practical principle, and that just in proportion as we add anything empirical, we detract from their genuine influence and from the absolute value of actions; (just above 4:412).


In fact, the sublimity and intrinsic dignity [Erhabenheit und innere Würde] of the command in duty are so much the more evident, the less the subjective impulses favour it and the more they oppose it, without being able in the slightest degree to weaken the obligation of the law or to diminish its validity. (just before 4:426)


Reason then refers every maxim of the will, regarding it as legislating universally, to every other will and also to every action towards oneself; and this not on account of any other practical motive or any future advantage, but from the idea of the dignity of a rational being, obeying no law but that which he himself also gives. (just before 4:435)


In the kingdom of ends everything has either Value or Dignity. Whatever has a value can be replaced by something else which is equivalent; whatever, on the other hand, is above all value, and therefore admits of no equivalent, has a dignity. (just before 4:435)


Whatever has reference to the general inclinations and wants of mankind has a market value; whatever, without presupposing a want, corresponds to a certain taste, that is to a satisfaction in the mere purposeless play of our faculties, has a fancy value; but that which constitutes the condition under which alone anything can be an end in itself, this has not merely a relative worth, i.e., value, but an intrinsic worth, that is, dignity. (4:435)


Now morality is the condition under which alone a rational being can be an end in himself, since by this alone is it possible that he should be a legislating member in the kingdom of ends. Thus morality, and humanity as capable of it, is that which alone has dignity. (just below 4:435)


This estimation therefore shows that the worth of such a disposition is dignity, and places it infinitely above all value, with which it cannot for a moment be brought into comparison or competition without as it were violating its sanctity. (further below 4:435)


Now the legislation itself which assigns the worth of everything, must for that very reason possess dignity, that is an unconditional incomparable worth; and the word respect alone supplies a becoming expression for the esteem which a rational being must have for it. Autonomy then is the basis of the dignity of human and of every rational nature. (4:436)


It follows incontestably that, to whatever laws any rational being may be subject, he being an end in himself must be able to regard himself as also legislating universally in respect of these same laws, since it is just this fitness of his maxims for universal legislation that distinguishes him as an end in himself; also it follows that this implies his dignity (prerogative) above all mere physical beings, that he must always take his maxims from the point of view which regards himself and, likewise, every other rational being as law-giving beings (on which account they are called persons). (just below 4:438)


And it is just in this that the paradox lies; that the mere dignity of man [Würde der Menschheit] as a rational creature, without any other end or advantage to be attained thereby, in other words, respect for a mere idea, should yet serve as an inflexible precept of the will, and that it is precisely in this independence of the maxim on all such springs of action that its sublimity [Erhabenheit] consists; (just below 4:439)


For this sole absolute lawgiver must, notwithstanding this, be always conceived as estimating the worth of rational beings only by their disinterested behaviour, as prescribed to themselves from that idea [the dignity of man] alone. The essence of things is not altered by their external relations, and that which, abstracting from these, alone constitutes the absolute worth of man, is also that by which he must be judged, whoever the judge may be, and even by the Supreme Being. (before 4:440; translator added explanation of "idea" within brackets)


From what has just been said, it is easy to see how it happens that, although the conception of duty implies subjection to the law, we yet ascribe a certain dignity and sublimity [Erhabenheit und Würde] to the person who fulfils all his duties. There is not, indeed, any sublimity in him, so far as he is subject to the moral law; but inasmuch as in regard to that very law he is likewise a legislator, and on that account alone subject to it, he has sublimity. We have also shown above that neither fear nor inclination, but simply respect for the law, is the spring which can give actions a moral worth. Our own will, so far as we suppose it to act only under the condition that its maxims are potentially universal laws, this ideal will which is possible to us is the proper object of respect; and the dignity of humanity consists just in this capacity of being universally legislative, though with the condition that it is itself subject to this same legislation. (4:440)


The principle of private happiness, however, is the most objectionable, not merely because it is false, and experience contradicts the supposition that prosperity is always proportioned to good conduct, nor yet merely because it contributes nothing to the establishment of morality – since it is quite a different thing to make a prosperous man and a good man, or to make one prudent and sharp-sighted for his own interests and to make him virtuous – but because the springs it provides for morality are such as rather undermine it and destroy its sublimity, since they put the motives to virtue and to vice in the same class and only teach us to make a better calculation, the specific difference between virtue and vice being entirely extinguished. On the other hand, as to moral feeling, this supposed special sense,* the appeal to it is indeed superficial when those who cannot think believe that feeling will help them out, even in what concerns general laws: and besides, feelings, which naturally differ infinitely in degree, cannot furnish a uniform standard of good and evil, nor has anyone a right to form judgments for others by his own feelings: nevertheless this moral feeling is nearer to morality and its dignity in this respect, that it pays virtue the honour of ascribing to her immediately the satisfaction and esteem we have for her and does not, as it were, tell her to her face that we are not attached to her by her beauty but by profit. (just above 4:443)


Aristotle. Ethica Nicomachea, in The Basic Works of Aristotle. Trans. W.D. Ross. Ed. Richard

McKeon. New York: Modern Library, 2001.

---. Nicomachean Ethics. Trans. Joe Sachs. The Focus Philosophical Library. Ed. Albert

Keith Whitaker. Newburyport, MA: Focus, 2002.

Kant, Immanuel. Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals, in Basic Writings of

Kant. Trans. Thomas K. Abbott. Ed. Allen W. Wood. New York: Modern Library, 2001.

---. Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten, in Werkausgabe VII. Ed. Herausgegeben von

Wilhelm Weischedel. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1991.

[2] https://www.thefreedictionary.com/portliness
(We also find a perhaps insightful quotation here from Edmund Spenser in Amoretti, Sonnet V: "Such pride is praise; such portliness is honor.")

[3] "State, or office, of a laureate" at

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