|Respect for Dignity: A Defense
Abstract. In a recent article Martha Nussbaum identified three problems with the Stoic doctrine of respect for dignity: its exclusive focus on specifically human dignity, its indifference to the need for external goods, and its ineffectiveness as a moral motive. This article formulates a non-Stoic doctrine of respect for dignity that avoids these problems. I argue that this doctrine helps us to understand such moral phenomena as the dignity of nonhuman animals as well as the core human values of life, freedom, and equality. I end by arguing that Nussbaum under-estimates the mutual support between motives of respect and other moral motives such as compassion.
Key words. Dignity, Compassion, Equality, Freedom, Moral Motivation, Nonhuman Animals, Respect, Stoicism.
In her recent, widely read article "Compassion and Terror,"1 Martha Nussbaum aims to defend the moral necessity of compassion against detractors such as the Stoics who would eliminate compassion as a moral motive. Instead of compassion, the Stoics can be seen as urging the exclusive reliance on the competing moral motive of respect—in particular, the motive of respect for human dignity, wherein our dignity is understood to lie in our rational faculties. By way of rebutting the Stoic view, Nussbaum articulates several problems with the Stoic reliance on respect, and then argues that compassion does not suffer from these problems; the truly moral agent, she concludes, must therefore make room for both motives.2
This is an eminently sensible conclusion, and I will not dissent from it in this essay. If (as I believe) at the most general level the moral life should be understood as one of responding appropriately to sources of genuine value and disvalue in the world, then one can reach this same
conclusion by arguing that while dignity is a source of genuine value, to which the appropriate response is (typically) that of respect, pain and other forms of suffering are sources of genuine disvalue, to which the appropriate response is (typically) that of compassion. Hence the moral person will act on some occasions on the motive of compassion, and on some occasions on the motive of respect (and sometimes on both at once).
Nor will I dissent from Nussbaum's verdict that the Stoic understanding of respect for dignity suffers from several serious problems. Instead I want to use Nussbaum's incisive discussion of Stoic respect for dignity as an opportunity to sketch a more flexible, non-Stoic understanding of this ideal, which I believe can avoid the problems she describes. Indeed, in her own writings Nussbaum appeals to ideals of dignity;3 clearly, then, she believes there is some way of thinking about dignity that ought to command our allegiance. This essay seeks to find such a way, and thus its conclusions are ones that I believe even a staunch defender of compassion like Nussbaum can endorse. I will, however, argue that Nussbaum errs in one important regard, namely, in underestimating the large area of convergence that exists between motives of respect and compassion.
1. The Critique of Stoic Dignity.
The Stoics famously maintained that the only thing of value in the world is virtue, and virtue consists in living in accordance with "right reason." It is in these powers of rational agency, they argued, that our unique human dignity lies.4 An important consequence of this fact, according to the Stoics, is the invulnerability of human dignity. For they insisted that in any context of choice it is always possible to choose the virtuous option; even a person being tortured on the rack may still do what virtue requires (say, by "stoically" refusing to divulge information that will be used to harm innocent people). Indeed, the Stoic philosopher Seneca goes so far as to argue that the activity of relaxing with friends and the activity of enduring torture with equanimity are equally valuable activities, since in both cases the agent is choosing properly:
Therefore it follows that joy and a brave unyielding endurance of torture are equal goods; for in both there is the same greatness of soul, relaxed and cheerful in the one case, in the other combative and braced for action (Ep. 66.13).
Thus a life composed exclusively of torture would be no less a good life than a more ordinary virtuous life. The reassuring message of the Stoics, then, was to stress the resiliency of human dignity. No doubt such reassurance was a large part of Stoicism's appeal.
According to Martha Nussbaum, however, whatever initial appeal Stoicism enjoys disappears with further scrutiny. She identifies three problems with the Stoic picture of dignity, which she labels the animal problem, the external goods problem, and the problem of watery motivation. I will discuss each of these in turn.
First, the animal problem stems from the Stoic identification of human dignity with our rational capacities. Nussbaum writes:
Reason, language, moral capacity—all these things are seen as worthy of respect and awe at least in part because the beasts, so called, don't have them, because they make us better than others. This view has its moral problems, clearly. It has long been used to deny that we have any obligations of justice toward nonhuman forms of life (p. 18).
One can imagine that in ancient times this would hardly have been judged a problem. But with the recent growth in moral consciousness regarding the treatment of nonhuman animals, any view that fails to ground some duties to nonhuman animals risks obsolescence.5
Second, the external goods problem stems directly from the Stoic view about the invulnerability of human dignity. For if dignity is the only good, and if it can survive all forms of misfortune and mistreatment completely intact, then it looks as if humans are invulnerable to morally significant harm. What, then, is wrong with coercion, theft, lying, and all other sorts of mistreatment? Since these affect only items external to people's inner mental lives, after all, they do not harm anything of real value according to the Stoics. We see this problem arise for Seneca when, in a letter adjuring masters not to beat their slaves or sexually exploit them, he shrinks from calling for the abolition of the institution of slavery, on the grounds that after all slavery does not harm slaves, for slaves can still choose virtue. 6 How, though, Nussbaum pointedly asks, can Seneca consistently leave slavery intact and at the same time condemn the mistreatment of slaves, since according to Stoics neither slavery nor mistreatment destroys human dignity (p. 19)? Stoicism, concludes Nussbaum, is unacceptably quietistic; it fails to recognize that humans need adequate levels of external goods for a life of dignity: among other things, food, health, shelter, the good will of others, freedom from arbitrary coercion, and so on.
Finally, there is the problem of watery motivation. The term "watery" comes from Aristotle's criticisms of Plato's plan for exclusively communal family arrangements in his ideal republic. The absence of strong ties of intimacy between individual parents and their offspring, Aristotle notes, will lead to a substandard care of children. This is so because the potent care of a single loving mother and father will be replaced by an inferior, "watery" kind of communal care (Politics 1262b15). Stoicism, Nussbaum argues, suffers from a similar problem of "watery" care for others. For it counsels a wholly impartial regard for people’s dignity—an impartial regard, moreover, that leaves no room for genuine partial attachments to family, friends, and lovers (p. 21). But can we really imagine humans acting exclusively from impartial motives? And if we could, would this be desirable? Nussbaum quotes to great effect some extraordinary passages from Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher, in which Marcus, attempting to resist the appeal of passionate ties to other human beings, "repeatedly casts life as a kind of death already, a procession of meaningless occurrences" (p. 22). The Stoic picture of dignity, then, far from being a powerful source of moral motivation, apparently threatens to extinguish nearly all human motivation whatsoever.
Having briefly described these three problems for the Stoic doctrine of respect for dignity, I will now turn to examine whether they are problems that afflict only the rather extreme Stoic doctrine, or alternatively, whether they are problems for the idea of dignity more generally. I will endorse the former option and argue that a less extreme doctrine of dignity can avoid each of the problems.
2. The Animal Problem
In my judgment the animal problem is the most challenging of the three. The challenge lies not in believing that some nonhuman animals possess a dignity; I find that rather easy to believe. Instead the challenge lies in articulating precisely the nature of animal dignity; my remarks in this regard will be somewhat tentative. By way of tackling this challenge, let me recount a story that one of my colleagues relates about once taking his young son to a circus in town, and discovering there a lone protestor outside the tent silently holding aloft a sign that read "Remember the Dignity of Elephants." The sign hit him like a lightning bolt, my colleague said. The protester's point is surely an intelligible one, though we could debate about whether it is genuinely reason enough to avoid all types of circuses. As a second example, think about an eagle whose wings have been clipped to keep it in a zoo's cage; it is not unreasonable to look upon such a creature and feel a keen sense of its loss—even something of a tragic sense of its loss.
The key to explaining these reactions, I believe, is the sense that elephants and eagles have some significant powers of agency of their own. It is true that such animals lack the powers of rational agency that humans possess, for I presume they cannot consciously formulate judgments as to which actions they have reason to perform and which actions they have reason to avoid. However, many nonhuman animals surely are able to have conscious experiences (they feel pain, have felt needs and wants, etc.)7 and are able to act in a purposive manner (e.g. as when an animal goes to a river bank to drink), even though they admittedly do not have conscious thoughts along the lines "I am now doing such-and-such in order to achieve this-and-that." Referring to these abilities as the "powers of purposive agency," my suggestion is that creatures with these powers possess a type of dignity, even when these powers fall short of truly rational agency.8
Why should this be the case? This is a hard question to answer, and my thoughts in this regard are somewhat speculative. Let us use the term "purposive agents" to refer to creatures that possess powers of purposive agency that fall short of rational agency. My suggestion is that purposive agents still possess an integrity that rocks and blades of grass and drops of rain and other natural phenomena lack. Purposive agents like elephants and eagles are still in some important sense capable of living a life, unlike the other natural items just listed. They are not merely pushed around by forces wholly external to themselves, devoid of any significant powers of their own. They are not merely "dust in a wind," to borrow a phrase from the popular 70s rock tune by that title (an effective metaphor indeed if one wishes, like the band Kansas who wrote the tune, to puncture our typically exalted view of ourselves). To put the point slightly differently, it is easy to view an entity that is devoid of significant powers of its own as merely a bit part of a much larger system, and hence as devoid of a separate integrity of its own. By contrast, it is much harder to view a conscious creature with powers of its own in this way; the integrity such creatures possess seems to me to be a plausible source of dignity.
I want to stress that in my view not just any integrity will suffice for dignity. For instance, I suppose that a snowflake could be said to possess a type of integrity (compare it to, say, a snow drift), but in my judgment it is too much of a stretch to speak of the "dignity" of a snowflake (imagine scolding children who are busy making snowballs for failing to respect the dignity of individual snowflakes!). Instead I have in mind the integrity that comes with powers of one's own, and in particular with what I have called the powers of purposive agency (this latter qualification seems necessary, otherwise we might have to reckon hurricanes to possess dignity, inasmuch as they possess both a sort of integrity and powers of their own). Perhaps we can refer to the powerful sort of integrity that grounds dignity as "willful integrity," inasmuch as non-rational purposive agents can be said to have a "will" of some sort, even if this will is not as free as (we like to think) ours is.9
We ought to ask, however, whether this view is too restrictive. For is it not possible to speak intelligibly of, say, giant redwood trees and mountains as possessing dignity, although they do not possess the powers of purposive agency?10 Americans sing of "purple mountains majesty" in "God Bless America," for instance; does this not impute a dignity to mountains? In reply, I would like to think that these cases are the exceptions that prove the rule, so to speak. For there seem to be two natural ways of explaining our willingness to speak of such entities as dignified. First of all, it is natural to speak of a mountain "imposing its will" on us, in the sense of standing as an obstacle potentially blocking our way; we might also speak of a mountain-climber "struggling against" the mountain. The metaphorical reference to a mountain's will—that is, the metaphorical reference to its agency—makes it natural to speak figuratively of the mountain's "dignity."
I am not sure this idea is enough on its own, however. If we rely exclusively on this line of thought to impute dignity to a mountain, we might also be forced, alas, to impute dignity to a hurricane, for it can certainly "impose its will" on us. A second line of thought provides the necessary assistance. For surely it matters that mountains (and some types of trees) endure for dramatically long periods of time, whereas hurricanes do not. It is easy to view this endurance metaphorically as an achievement, as the impressively successful execution of a purposive striving to stay in existence. Consider for instance this passage from “The Bleeding Heart,” a “prose poem” by Mary Oliver:
I know a bleeding heart plant that has thrived
for sixty years if not more and has never
missed a spring without rising and spreading
itself into a glossy bush, with many small red
hearts dangling. Don’t you think that deserves
a little thought?11
More explicit in its affirmation of respect is the following passage by John Steinbeck:
The redwoods, once seen, leave a mark or create a vision that stays with you always. No one has ever successfully painted or photographed a redwood tree. The feeling they produce is not transferable. From them comes silence and awe. It’s not their unbelievable stature, nor the color which seems to shift and vary under your eyes, no, they are ambassadors from another time. They have the mystery of ferns that disappeared a million years ago in to the coal of the carboniferous era. They carry their own light and shade. The vainest, most slap-happy and irreverent of men, in the presence of redwoods, goes under a spell of wonder and respect. Respect—that’s the word. One feels the need to bow to unquestioned sovereigns.12
In short, I contend that attributions of dignity to natural objects draw their strength from the ease with which we speak of some natural objects as imposing their wills on us, as well as the ease with which we speak of endurance through the ages as an achievement. If I am right about this, then even apparent exceptions to the connection between dignity and purposive agency end up confirming it.
Of course, much more needs saying about nonhuman dignity—in particular, about precisely what sort of moral duties would be grounded in a respect for this sort of dignity.13 I must, however, leave such reflections for another occasion; instead I will close this section by comparing my exploration of animal dignity with a recent discussion of this topic by Nussbaum herself, in her article “Beyond ‘Compassion and Humanity’: Justice for Nonhuman Animals.”14 Ironically given Nussbaum's praise for the motive of compassion in "Compassion and Terror," in her article on animal rights she is critical of philosophers such as John Rawls who would ground our duties to animals in compassion rather than in a concern for justice. In emphasizing the relevance of a concern for justice has for animal rights, moreover, Nussbaum is quite willing to speak of animal forms of dignity.
In her article Nussbaum extends her well-known capabilities approach in ethics to the case of nonhuman animals, persuasively arguing that the flourishing life for a given animal—in other words, that animal’s good—is defined by reference to the characteristic functionings of that animal’s species. She recognizes, however, that she must argue for more than just this claim, for this same claim could also be embraced by Rawlsians who favor a compassion-based approach to animal welfare rather than a justice-based approach. So Nussbaum must either (i) argue that any creature with a good is also a creature that is entitled to just treatment, or (ii) argue that only some subset of creatures with a good are entitled to just treatment. Nussbaum chooses option (ii), not wishing to classify all animals as subjects of justice (e.g. there is no injustice involved in killing a sponge, she says15).
What defines the subset of creatures with entitlements of justice? Nussbaum’s answer is sentience: “Sentience is not the only thing that matters for basic justice, but it seems plausible to consider sentience a threshold condition for membership in the community of beings who have entitlements based on justice.”16 This strikes me as plausible, but also as incomplete in an important way. For another important goal of Nussbaum’s article is to recommend her capabilities approach as superior to the utilitarian approach of Peter Singer and others. Toward this end she is especially critical—and rightly so—of utilitarianism’s monistic focus on a creature’s pleasure and pain as all that matters, morally speaking. And yet she feels obliged to introduce sentience as an important threshold in the sphere of justice toward animals by saying “[a]t the same time, I believe that the capabilities approach should admit the wisdom of utilitarianism” and regard sentience as the threshold of just concern.17
This represents a missed opportunity, however. The utilitarian, after all, has a ready answer to the question of why sentience is an important threshold: non-sentient animals do not experience pleasure or pain. What is Nussbaum’s answer to this question, if not the utilitarian answer? She does not say. This is a missed opportunity, for the idea of purposive agency is well-suited to be a non-utilitarian answer to the question of why sentience should matter. Although I will not argue for this claim here, it is surely plausible to believe that purposive agency requires sentience; it is hard to think of “unconscious automatons” and “purposive agents” as anything other than mutually exclusive classes. Hence understanding purposive agency as a source of dignity, and understanding dignity as grounding entitlements of justice, would (as Nussbaum wishes) focus attention on sentience as a significant moral threshold, without any threat of covert reliance on utilitarian notions. As a result, I believe Nussbaum has reason to welcome the approach to animal dignity I have defended here.18
3. The External Goods Problem.
This problem, recall, stems from the Stoic claim that neither misfortune nor mistreatment injures human dignity; it is complete unto itself, in need of no external goods or assistance—in a word, invulnerable. While attractive in some respects (it is nice to think that a source of such value in our lives is always secure), we earlier saw that this doctrine has an unacceptable consequence: if mistreatment and misfortune result in no morally significant harms, what then is wrong with mistreatment of others or indifference to others' misfortune?
The solution to this problem lies in giving up the doctrine of invulnerable dignity. Far from maintaining that human dignity is invulnerable to injury, I will argue that there are at least three distinct forms of injury to human dignity, each of which consists in a failure to show due respect for such dignity. To make this argument, I must begin by saying more about the grounds of specifically human dignity.
The Stoics, we have seen, locate human dignity in our powers of rational agency: our self-consciousness, our capacity to imagine future consequences, to articulate our values, to deliberate as to which course of action is best, to guide our choices by these deliberations, and so on. I will not dissent from this part of the Stoic view, but I do want to add a layer of detail to it, for I believe that this constellation of mental capabilities is especially valuable inasmuch as it allows adult human beings to cross an important threshold, namely, the threshold that separates beings who are morally responsible for their actions from beings who are not. The powers of responsible agency that ordinary human adults possess are such that they are responsible for their choices in a way that young children, for instance, are not. That is a significant difference, well worthy of a deep respect. This fact is acknowledged in the numerous distinctions we draw between appropriate ways of treating adults and appropriate ways of treating children. “Show me some respect,” a young adult might say to her elders who persist in treating her as a not-yet-responsible being.
Of course, a number of puzzles accompany the notion of moral responsibility. Where exactly should we draw the line between beings who are responsible for their actions and beings who are not? Moreover, insofar as moral responsibility is widely thought to depend on the existence of a free will, we face the well-known challenge of how free will can exist in a world of atoms and energy bound by scientific laws. Clearly, it would be foolish of me to attempt to solve this deep challenge in the short space I have here. Instead I will be content to note that regardless of the puzzles that abound in the debate over free will, it is hard to deny that there is surely some difference between adults and children that warrants us treating them differently. Adult decision making is typically competent in the way a young child’s simply is not. The capacity for this sort of competent decision making is what I have in mind when I speak of responsible human agency. The free-will debate, however it turns out, will surely not erase all morally relevant distinctions between adult and children.
Let us now ask: Supposing the source of human dignity does lie in our capacity for responsible agency, what does it mean to respect this capacity? The answer to this is threefold: one respects the capacity for responsible agency by observing a strong presumption against impairing it, against constraining it, and against ignoring it (that is, against failing to recognize its existence).19 Each of these ways of failing to respect dignity requires commentary.
First, the most devastating way one can fail to respect another person’s dignity is by failing to recognize any presumption against impairing that person’s capacity for responsible agency. In general, one impairs a person’s capacity for responsible agency by crippling the mental capabilities necessary for responsible agency or by preventing their healthy development. Certain forms of abuse, both physical and psychological, can produce this result, especially if the victim is a child. Quite plausibly, too, a person’s capacity for responsible agency is crippled while he or she is in the grip of a severe substance addiction. Additionally, one can impair other people’s capacity for choice by paralyzing them with fear or by incapacitating them with intense and prolonged pain—and so on.20 In all these cases the implications for dignity are especially severe. For when a person’s capacity for responsible agency is destroyed, we may say that his or her dignity is correspondingly diminished.21 Indeed, I believe that past some hard-to-locate threshold, a severe diminishing of dignity will void the usual moral protections against the taking of human life. A human being in a permanent vegetative state, lacking all consciousness for instance, can no longer be said to be living a life in the paradigmatic sense; he or she, we might say, is merely alive.22 Ending the life of such a being is thus poles apart from ending the life of a being whose powers of responsible agency are intact.23 In other words, I suggest that in failing to observe a strong presumption against diminishing other people's dignity, one is in essence failing to show due respect for morally valuable human life. The ideal of respect for dignity, then, helps to illuminate the value we attach to human life.
The second way in which one can fail to respect another person’s dignity is by failing to observe any presumption against constraining the exercise of that person’s capacity for responsible agency. The clearest case of this lies in physical constraints on a person’s body. At the extreme, the person is shackled to a dungeon wall, thereby removing nearly all opportunity for action. A prison cell allows a greater scope of action than a set of shackles but drastically less scope than exists outside of prison—and so on for other less impairing physical restraints. In the case of constraint, it is not genuinely apt to say that the constrained person’s dignity is diminished, for unlike the case of impairment, the person’s capacity for responsible agency will remain intact so long as the constraint is not so extreme as to be mentally incapacitating. The Stoics were right at least to this extent in stressing the resiliency of human dignity. Rather, the harm of constraint lies in preventing the person from using this capacity in significant ways. This is a serious harm, for ideally one’s life should reflect one’s dignity, much like the moon reflects the light of the sun. While constrained, however, a person’s life does not reflect his or her capacity for responsible agency, as when the moon no longer reflects any light while in the earth’s shadow during a lunar eclipse. For this reason, it is best not to say the person’s dignity is diminished, as we did in the previous case of impairment; rather, we should say that the person’s dignity is obscured.
In addition to physical constraints, there is another important sort of constraint by which one may obscure another person’s dignity, namely, threat-based constraints. The paradigmatic instance of this type of constraint is a mugger with a gun in his hand who says, “Your money or your life.” After complying with his demand, you might later say, “He forced me to hand over my wallet; I had no choice but to do as he said.” Of course, in a technical sense this is not quite right: you could have made a dash for it, or tried to tackle the mugger, or defiantly said to him, “No, you’ll just have to shoot me if you want my money.” From this technical point of view, the mugger does not constrain you unless and until he does so physically. We should, however, ask why (contrary to this technical point) it seems so natural to say that you were forced to do as the mugger said, even if no shot was ever fired. It is natural to say that you were forced to hand over your money, despite having some choice in a technical sense, because owing to the lethal threat against your life you had no “real” choice, we might say. Your choice was between handing over your wallet or putting your life in serious jeopardy; those were your only options. Since all reasonable people would judge the latter option to be an intolerable one, handing over the money was surely your only tolerable option. Given this, no one could reasonably hold you responsible for the loss of the money; your exercise of responsible agency, while still existent, was certainly constrained during the mugging. During that time, your dignity was obscured—eclipsed, we might say, by the dark shadow of the mugger’s deed.24
Just as our discussion of the diminishing of human dignity helped us to understand the core value we attach to human life, so too this discussion of constraining a person’s exercise of responsible agency helps us to understand another of our core values, namely, the value of human freedom. This is so because constraints on people’s exercise of their powers of choice are in fact constraints on their freedom. It thus follows that respect for a person’s dignity requires one to respect that person’s freedom.
There is yet more that respect for dignity requires. For in addition to underlying the core values of human life and freedom, I now will argue that the ideal of respect for human dignity also underlies the core value of human equality. The key question to ask about the value of equality is: In what sense are people equal? The answer to this question is hardly obvious; after all, some people are stronger than others, some are smarter, virtuous, better looking, more artistic, more personable, and so on. The ideal of respect for human dignity has an answer to this question, however. Recall the mental prerequisites of responsible agency mentioned earlier: our self-consciousness, our capacity to imagine future consequences, to articulate our values, to deliberate as to which course of action is best, to act on our choices, and so on. To be sure, people differ in each of these mental abilities; some are better than others at imagining future consequences, or at guiding their choices by their deliberations, etc. Yet once a person’s degree of these abilities passes a certain threshold, we rightly hold him or her to be capable of responsible agency. That is to say, all those who pass a basic line of competency share the status of “responsible being,” even if some are more competent than others. (Compare the class of responsible beings with the class of pregnant women—all of the women in this class are pregnant, even though some are more advanced in their pregnancy than others.) Importantly, this is not to say all members of this class do in fact make choices we judge to be wise, prudent, moral, etc.; many do not. Rather, it is to say that members of this class make choices—good or bad—for which we can properly hold them responsible.
To be sure, this account of human equality does not grant equal status to absolutely every living being with human DNA. Profoundly retarded individuals and young children do not make the cut, for instance. This by itself is not an objection to my proposed foundation for moral equality, however, since to my knowledge no one proposes treating young children or the profoundly retarded—someone who understands no language of any kind, for instance—exactly the same as adult humans generally (e.g., by granting them the right to vote). This does not imply, however, that these human beings have no rights of any kind. Children’s status as responsible-agents-in-training will give them certain rights. Profoundly retarded people’s status as bearers of tragic misfortune will morally rule out subjecting them to further indignities beyond what they already suffer by nature; one should not kick people who are already down. Beyond these merely suggestive remarks, however, in the short space I have here I will not address further the difficult question of what rights incompetents possess.25
Returning to the case of human adults who pass the relevant threshold of competency, we can say that one respects those other people as equall by recognizing in one’s actions the other people’s status as beings capable of responsible agency. Failing to do this is another failure of respect for human dignity, to set alongside the other failures of respect described above, namely, impairing a person’s capacity for responsible agency, or constraining its exercise. One fails to recognize other people’s status as beings capable of responsible agency when one treats them as something other than such a being. Consider in this regard the famous formula of Immanuel Kant, according to which you should “always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.”26 To take one of Kant’s own famous examples, if I borrow some money from another person and make a lying promise to repay it, with no intention ever to do so, then I am surely not treating the other as a person in her own right, with her own life to lead and own choices to make; rather I am treating her as nothing more than, say, an ATM machine with buttons I may push to obtain free money.
So treating others as mere instruments for achieving your personal ends is one way of failing to recognize others as responsible beings, and thus one way of failing to treat them as equals. Moreover, treating others as mere instruments is not the only way of failing to treat them as equals (that is, of failing to treat them as “ends,” to use the Kantian lingo).27 You might for instance treat them as pieces of refuse to be destroyed or cleared away (as in cases of “ethnic cleansing”). Or you might treat them paternalistically, as incompetent at making their own choices—say, by censoring what they read, or by assigning them their occupation, choosing their spouses for them, etc. Or you might treat them as nothing at all, as nonentities. You would do this, for instance, if you look upon other people who are suffering impairment of their capacity for responsible agency, or a constraint on its exercise, and you treat them with indifference despite being able to help them with only a modest level of effort on your part. Finally, you might subscribe to a stereotype and view certain other people as beings whose choices are fated to take a particular form; in this case you are treating others as mere cardboard cutouts of people, not full-blooded ones. In short (and at the cost of some linguistic infelicity), we can say that respecting people’s capacity for responsible agency requires that we observe a very strong presumption against treating people in instrumentalizing, infantilizing, refusizing, nonentitizing, or stereotyping ways—that is, against treating them as inferiors, rather than as equals who like us possess powers of responsible agency.
To fail to observe this presumption, we may say, is to insult another person’s dignity, and hence to fail to respect it. Thus we may set insulting other people’s dignity alongside the other failures of respect previously examined: diminishing other people’s dignity by impairing their capacity for responsible agency, and obscuring other people’s dignity by constraining their exercise of this capacity. The relations between the three forms of disrespect and responsible agency on the one hand, and core moral values on the other hand, are summarized in Table 1 below:
Observing a strong presumption against impairing a person's capacity for responsible agency
= observing a strong presumption against diminishing that person's dignity
= showing due respect for human life
Observing a strong presumption against constraining a person's exercise of responsible agency
= observing a strong presumption against obscuring that person's dignity
= showing due respect for human freedom.
Observing a strong presumption against ignoring a person's capacity for responsible agency
= observing a strong presumption against insulting that person's dignity
= showing due respect for human equality