michael rosen is professor of government at harvard university.1 his book dignity2 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.3 is schopenhauer right? is the talk ofdignitymere humbug — a pompous facade, flattering to our self-esteem but without any genuine substance behind it?2.1
why does rosen attack schopenhauer personally?
schopenhauer’s criticism is troubling when we think how important the worddignityhas become in contemporary political and ethical discussion.2.1
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.2.2
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 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.2.3
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.2.4
this indeed sounds like an echo in an empty head. schopenhauer is right.