Kant on human dignity: A response to Oliver Sensen

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In his book, "Kant on Human Dignity", Oliver Sensen argues that the standard interpretation of Kant's conception of human dignity as an absolute value property is mistaken. According to Sensen, the standard interpretation is based on the assumption that Kant endorses Moorean moral intutionism. This leads to the false view that we must first perceive that other human beings have value and then infer that we ought to respect them. Against this standard interpretation Sensen claims that Kant endorses moral prescriptivism. According to this view a value statement is "nothing more than a (rational) prescription that commands what we should value". If we interpret Kant's moral epistemology along these lines, we will come to see that dignity is in fact a relational concept. In this paper I want to agree with Sensen that Kant was not a moral intuitionist. In thinking that objectivity in morality would require that the moral law "exists" independently of rational cognizers the moral intuitionist presupposes a conception of objectivity rather than arguing for it. The unargued presupposition is that the object has to be something other than the cognizing subject itself. However, the fact that intuitionism is not the adequate account does not imply that the standard interprtation of Kant's conception of human dignity is mistaken. In other words, the claim 'intuitionism is false' and 'human dignity is an absolute value property' are compatible. I believe that Sensen ultimately does not sufficiently appreciate the fact that the moral law is the form of practical cognition. Presriptivism only claims that a certain actionis rational, but it does not explain why we perform it. Since the inner worth of a good action as well as the inner worth of humanity as such depends on practical cognition a priori, I don't see any reason why we should resist the claim that Kant ascribes an absolute or inner metaphysical value property both to humanity and to particular morally good actions. My paper comes in three parts. I first want to show why Kant is neither a moral intuitionist nor a prescriptivist but that his view is best described as a view I call 'moral idealism?. I then argue that moral constructivism does not have the voluntarist or subjectivist implications Sensen takes it to have, and that is much closer to the position he sympathizes with. Finally I show on textaul grounds why Kant did in fact ascribe an absolute value to humanity and to morally good actions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)78-87
Number of pages10
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 20 2015


  • Constructivism
  • Dignity
  • Intuitionism
  • Moral Realism

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Philosophy


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