rosen’s dignity and schopenhauer

michael rosen is professor of govern­ment at harvard university [1]. his book dignity [2] liter­ally opens with schopen­hauer:

schopenhauer, the ebenezer scrooge of nine­teenth-century philo­sophy, took a character­istically jaundiced view of talk of human dignity: that expression, dignity of man, once uttered by kant, after­ward became the shibbo­leth of all per­plexed and empty-headed moralists who concealed behind that imposing expression their lack of any real basis of morals, or, at any rate, of one that had any mean­ing. they cunningly counted on the fact that their readers would be glad to see them­selves invested with such a dignity and would accord­ingly be quite satisfied with it. is schopen­hauer right? is the talk of dignity mere hum­bug – a pomp­ous facade, flattering to our self-esteem but with­out any genuine sub­stance behind it?

why does rosen attack schopen­hauer personally?

schopenhauer’s criticism is troubling when we think how im­portant the word dignity has become in con­temporary polit­ical and ethical discussion.

rosen is so afraid of being found out that he even entitles the first chapter with schopen­hauer’s words: the shibboleth of all empty-headed moralists.

he counts ruth macklin, james griffin, and joel fein­berg among the few con­temporary dignity deniers like schopen­hauer.

rosen jumps back into the nine­teenth century:

although i think that schopen­hauer exagge­rates how far the nine­teenth-century idea of human dignity derived from kant, it seems plaus­ible to think that, by the time that he was writ­ing (1839), the various strands of human dignity had in­deed be­come fused into a cliche of pious humanit­arianism. nor is it sur­prising to find dignity opposed by liberal­ism’s con­temporary critics. it was not just schopen­hauer who re­acted against the pervasive­ness of appeals to human dignity.

at the end of the book rosen finally discloses his own meaning of dignity:

one of the key ways in which human dignity is violated is by pre­venting human beings from behaving in ways that are dignified.

this indeed sounds like an echo in an empty head. schopen­hauer is right.