rosen’s dignity and schopenhauer

michael rosen 1952– is professor of govern­ment at harvard university. his book dignity: its history and meaning opens p 1 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?

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

rosen even titles the first chapter with schopen­hauer’s words: the shibboleth of all empty-headed moralists.

soon p 5 he brings in contemporary voices.

for macklin like schopen­hauer the concept of dignity is redundant at best – any content it has comes from another value, auto­nomy. such a view of dignity is common among the relati­vely few contemporary philo­sophers writing in english who make mention of dignity.

i take it that it is james griffin’s view.

and it was, it seems clear, also the view of the late joel feinberg.

rosen mentions schopen­hauer once again p 41.

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.