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 ofdignitymere 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 worddignityhas 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 ofhuman dignityhad indeed become fused into a cliche of pious humanitarianism. nor is it surprising to finddignityopposed by liberalism’s contemporary critics. it was not just schopenhauer who reacted against the pervasiveness of appeals to human dignity.