Human Dignity, Rights and Self-Control

Dissertation, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (1987)

Political theorists and ethicists often rely on the idea of human dignity. Yet typically they conclude by simply invoking this popular concept rather than giving a full account of it. I offer an analysis of human dignity which begins by distinguishing Enlightenment views of human dignity from the once prevalent idea of a social dignity. This distinction provides the essential background for an interpretation of Kant's influential notion of the dignity of humanity. I explain the significance of the fact that Kant discusses dignity in the context of the realm of ends. Kant bases human dignity on retionality; I demonstrate in turn that dignity is not principally the characteristic value of a "good will," but rather of a will which self-legislates moral law. Following Kant's lead, I investigate human dignity by first analyzing human autonomy. My account of human dignity is based on the distinction I develop between rights-sensitive autonomy and stoic autonomy. Some contemporary thinkers err in maintaining that the dignity of human beings can be reduced to their capacity to claim rights. I argue instead that the fundamental basis of human dignity is the human capacity for self-control. Eschewing a narrow reading of self-control as either self-repression or self-sufficiency, I set forth a conception of human dignity as a human capacity for self-management, in particular a capacity for deliberative action
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