rosen’s dignity and schopenhauer

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 of dignity mere 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 word dignity has 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.2:5

rosen mentions schopen­hauer once again:

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.2:41

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.2:159

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


  1. harvard university, michael rosen, 9 july 2019.
  2. michael rosen, dignity: its history and meaning, harvard university press, 2012.
  3. arthur schopenhauer, on the basis of morality, hackett, 1965, p 100.