My book Human Dignity (Harvard, 2011) is a defense of human dignity. I mean that it combines a defense of the equal status of individuals or persons vis-à-vis one another and a defense of the superior stature of the human species vis-à-vis other species. The concept of human dignity as I use it is thus made up of two related parts, which have a complex and sometimes troubled relationship to each other. This tension shows itself most glaringly when we believe that what once enhanced the human species degraded the masses of human beings. The further difficulty is that what now enhances the life of the masses degrades the planet and thus interferes with what would be the greatest expression of human stature: the project of trying to save nature from cataclysmic human exploitation. What is the concept of human dignity a defense against? In what I say I can’t

help sounding presumptuous. Who am I, who is anybody, to presume to speak about human dignity, which is to say, to put oneself in the position of judging the worth or lack of worth of human beings? Let this question pass. The concept of human dignity is first a contribution to the theory of human

rights. The defense of human dignity is, among other things, a defense of human rights against the state. The failure by the state to recognize and respect human rights is an assault on human dignity, the dignity of individuals; it is an assault on the equal status of all human beings. Although I make the appeal to human dignity a major part of the defense of human rights, I realize that appeal to dignity is the not the whole defense, as we shall see. My chief theoretical aim, however, is not to present a detailed indictment of oppressive states, but to take issue with some critics of human rights who actually find harm to human beings when a state works diligently to protect their rights. I explore two theories, in particular, that question the validity of human rights on the grounds that guaranteed rights can injure society, or injure many individuals as individuals in their dignity or otherwise. These critics provide some theoretical surprise, and certainly a valuable challenge. I refer to proponents of utilitarianism and virtue-ethics. Thus, the salient fact is that these two theories side with the people, not with those who oppress them, and yet hold that the people are not well served by individual human rights – at least, if those rights are defended as absolute. I deal with both theories very selectively, and I try

to rebut them; and to rebut them I employ the idea of human dignity, as I conceive it, as one major component of the defense of human rights. Second, I offer a defense of human stature – the worth of the human

species – against two views. One of them, philosophical naturalism, is pervasive and longstanding, and contends that the human species is only an animal species; but I wish to claim that humanity, alone among all species on earth, is only partly natural. (Marx’s phrase is that “man is not merely a natural being”; 1978) The philosophical naturalists want to efface human specialness, its special separateness in nature, and reduce humanity to, at best, a complex animality, whereas I want to say that humanity is only partly natural. To the extent that it is not natural, to that extent it is exempt from the determinism of nature. No predictive science of human behavior could ever be adequate to encompass humanity. If humanity is only partly natural, what else is it? How is the non-natural part to be conceived? The reason for the partial exemption from nature is the unique human ability to use language, which de-naturalizes – not denatures – the human species. The non-natural aspect is thus mental, hence artificial, and hence free; being free it is creative and hence unpredictable. And this aspect is solely human. Language is the key to human uniqueness because it enables the creation of the whole human artifice, a second world besides and alongside the natural one. My further judgment is that just in being the only partly non-natural species, humanity is the highest species. That’s what the stature of the species comes to. The other view relevant to stature and against which I write is that the

earth would be better off without the human species. This view is concerned, and rightly so, with the desolation that humanity has brought to the earth and will continue to bring. But I try to counter this second view by saying that because the human species is only partly natural, it alone among species is able to make an indispensable contribution to nature on earth and in the universe. The human mind, based on the brain but not reducible to the brain, allows it to serve as the steward of nature. The idea of stewardship has two main components: radically limiting our damage to nature for the sake of nature; and doing for nature what no other species can. Both components are continuously urgent. The second main component, however, occupies most of my attention. Let us for the time being posit that the human mind is perhaps the only mind in the universe, and that if there are other minds, they would be inaccessible to our mind and ours to theirs, even if we somehow encountered them. The second component of stewardship consists in knowing the truth about nature and its history and, where possible, appreciating and admiring it. Only the human mind can perform these activities; and therefore the disappearance of the human species would be an incomparable cataclysm, although there is no one or nothing on whom or which the cataclysm would register. I say this, knowing what is obvious: humanity is already in the process of inflicting through its exploitation of nature a cataclysm of a different kind. The desolating fact, which we must try to come to terms with, is that the

activities that make up the second component of stewardship, and their value,

don’t register on their object, nature. There is no will in nature to be understood because nature has no mind. But let us say, in the spirit of Camus’ notion of the absurd, that this fact makes the worth of the effort all the greater, despite or because of the futility inherent in nature’s unawareness and unresponsiveness. At least, that is how it seems to me. Nature does not know itself or its history and does not appreciate or admire itself, nor does it look to something outside itself to perform these activities for it. Imagine, then, an earth with all its creatures and things, and a universe in its vast purposelessness, but without the human mind knowing and saying that earth and universe, all creatures and things, exist, and trying to understand what they are and how they got to be what they are, and then appreciating and admiring them where possible. Just as only a human being can say “I exist,” only humanity can say that nature exists. I am not claiming that unless earth and universe are thought by us they would not exist, but rather that unless they are thought, they might as well not exist or not have existed. Even animals are like machines in that they mean nothing to themselves; though unlike machines, they have the will to persist, the will to self-preservation. But animal consciousness does not extend to nature as such, let alone to the universe. Animals do what they do because they are only what they are, which is wondrous but not comparable to what humanity is. In sum, I oppose for the sake of human stature as part of human dignity

the reduction that philosophical naturalism tries to impose on humanity, and the speculative wish to see the earth rid of the human species. Both positions are represented in John Gray’s remarkable book, Straw Dogs (Granta, 2002). What kind of defense of human dignity do I offer? It is a purely secular

defense. I don’t want to use any religious arguments, even those that seem to make extraordinary claims for human beings above all other kinds of being on earth. Although I offer a sketch of a philosophical anthropology in support of both my defense of individual human rights and my defense of the worth of the human species, it is not theological. In these sorts of things, you can’t do without a philosophical anthropology and other elements of a “comprehensive doctrine.” But I think we must do without any religion or theology because we must keep unwarrantable claims to a minimum. We can learn from theology and religion provided we don’t take them literally or have faith in them. I actually think that human rights are incompatible with most parts of

all religions. I am aware that the modern emergence of the idea of rights (as distinct from revocable privileges) was helped along by Puritan England in the middle of the seventeenth century; but the help is owed to a few religious people who were extremely heterodox, like some of the Independents (Congregationalists) who were called Levelers and who were suppressed by Oliver Cromwell, their fellow Independent. Their contribution nonetheless required the theoretical work of contemporary and later heretical Deists and religious skeptics, all of them writing under the threat of religious or political-religious persecution. When a given religion gets around to respecting rights, it is always belated and often reluctant. By and large there is now no

“overlapping consensus” of theories that can include theologies, despite the undeniable symptomatic interest of the writing of Pope Paul VI in Dignitatis Humanae (7 December 1965), belated though it was. From their very nature, theologies stand for service and submission to the more-than-human. Secularists say that humanity has the only word. Humanity must finally affirm that it is the measure of all things. Religions only contingently espouse rights, not from any inner necessity. There aren’t many intellectual roads, religious or not, that lead to a system of human rights. The equal dignity of individuals, which requires the protection of human

rights, is based in theory on both our common humanity and each individual’s uniqueness. The dignity of the human species is tied to traits and attributes, and capacities and characteristics, that are commendably unique to all humanity, actually or potentially, and that are not natural. I will turn shortly to listing these distinctive features; their discussion helps to make up the sketchy philosophical anthropology that I propose and that underlies individual commonness and uniqueness and human species’ uniqueness – in short, individual and species’ dignity. I work with two distinctions. In addition to the distinction, which I have just

mentioned, between the dignity of individuals and the dignity of the human species, I introduce another distinction; it is operative in the realm of values and principles: the distinction between the moral and the existential. My contention is that individual status and human stature are existential principles or values, not moral ones. I stipulate that an existential value recognizes or affirms essential identity: either individual identity or species’ identity. There are, however, a number of prominent existential values that also pertain to individual identity; and they are implicated in the concept of human dignity through the transfer of the notion of stature from the species to especially commendable individuals. Virtue-ethics makes much of these values, but they are not relevant to the theoretical defense of human rights. Indeed, in the book, I exclude them from that defense. They are all forms of enhanced individuality; examples of such existential values include virtue for its own sake, human flourishing, commitment to a vocation for its own sake, virtuosity in any kind of performance, and a sense of honor. These existential values are not only unnecessary to establish the theoretical basis of human rights, they may even inhibit the defense of human rights. I work with the assumption that morality, in contrast to any existential value, pertains to the prevention or reduction of human suffering. I say this, despite the fact that Kant’s profoundly influential categorical imperative appears not to concern itself with human suffering and is concerned not only with one’s duties to others, but also with one’s duties to oneself. I side with Schopenhauer’s On the Basis of Morality in the effort to place concern with human suffering at the center of moral action. In my treatment of human rights, I concentrate on the relation between the

state and citizens. I see the state, no matter how good its form, as the principal source of violation of rights, even though when its form is good it is their indispensable protector. The state is obliged to recognize the human rights of

citizens; otherwise it is illegitimate. It is, however, everyone’s duty to recognize the identity of the human species. Morality and elementary existential values, morality and dignity, ordinarily

converge and cooperate in the defense of human rights; they work together and reinforce each other. The defense of human rights must therefore include, most of the time but not always, a moral component – a reference to the ways in which guaranteed rights work to prevent or reduce human suffering; on the other hand, the defense of human rights must always include an existential or dignity component – a reference to the requirements of the proper recognition of what all human individuals are, no matter what their group identity – assumed, ascribed, or inherited – may be. But affirmation of individual status may conflict with morality (just as individual status may conflict with the dignity of the species). In the case of a painless dystopia like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World

(1932), morality is satisfied just because the authorities make that world as painless as possible. (They also make society as positively pleasurable as possible.) But the dignity of individuals as agents is thrown out; for that sufficient reason such a society is to be condemned. Actually, in many societies the ever-watchful concern to make life less painful, less full of suffering, but also more pleasurable, can lead to the kind of mild, even benevolent but insidious despotism that Tocqueville warned about as injurious to human dignity in the second volume of Democracy in America (1959). In this case – but let us leave aside the promotion of pleasure and concentrate on pain – the demands of morality and the existential principle conflict with each other. Although they ordinarily cooperate in the defense of human rights, they do not do so in the case of painless and un-self-aware degradation, to use Mill’s conception from Considerations on Representative Government (1977b). At the same time, in cases of suffering so great that human beings become

dehumanized, when the suffering inflicted on them is so steady or intense that they lose almost all the uniquely human traits and attributes in the often futile effort merely to stay alive – that is, when every effort is made to rob them of their identity as human beings – the existential principle is needed to complete the indictment of those atrocious systems and practices, whether war, extermination camps, torture, gulag-type camps, induced famines, neglected but correctable famines, severe punishments, and capital punishment. However, the system of war is the most steady and, for many of its victims, the most intense violation of human dignity. Of course I don’t refer just to war crimes. I think that the system of war is the greatest kind of crime against humanity; it is the most comprehensive degradation because it degrades both winners and losers, both agents and their victims. Does any charter of rights make that simple point with appropriate emphasis? There is one now recognized right, the right to abortion (at least in the first

three months) that, unlike all other rights, seems from its very nature to contain a conflict between the moral component and the existential component in its defense. I think that the right to abortion, under Roe vs Wade, protects

immorality in taking the life of a potential person but is existentially imperative in order to prevent the conversion of a woman into an instrument of state policy or a vehicle of life as such. I would add that only the existential component in the defense of human

rights permits us to maintain that though animal suffering that we casually or systematically inflict on animals for numerous unnecessary purposes is atrocious, we are nonetheless obliged, on grounds of human dignity, to prefer in cases of conflict the preservation of the life of a human being to that of an animal, and in general to allow the suffering of human beings to count for more than that of animals. It would appear then that an existential principle, human dignity, underlies every moral principle except utilitarianism. We can’t start talking about human suffering without first being clear that there’s something special about the human species and hence something special about its suffering. In sum, in reasoning about the defense of basic or human rights, the moral

component of the defense sees rights as a matter of justice, as instrumental to the prevention or reduction of human suffering, and the existential or dignity component sees rights as valuable in themselves. The state’s recognition of a person’s identity as a fully human and also as a unique – irreplaceable – individual would be mistakenly characterized as instrumentally valuable. A person’s identity is not an instrument. The relationship between rights and suffering contains contingencies of instrumentality, but to be protected against the state’s assault, diminishment, or effacement of one’s identity as a unique human being by certain kinds of treatment is not to be served by the state but recognized by it. The state violates human dignity when it treats persons as mere means or resources for purposes not their own, when it manipulates them, experiments on them, regularly lies to them or distorts or withholds important information or knowledge; when it keeps them under constant surveillance; when it deliberately restricts possibilities of growth; when it infantilizes them through paternalistic policies; and of course most obviously when it treats them as if they were innately inferior or unclean, or as if they were subhuman, or noxious beasts. But I would not insist too emphatically on the distinction between the instrumental and non-instrumental perspectives on human rights, as if to say that the instrumental is always of lesser value than the non-instrumental. I work with the idea that what we have commonly called human rights since

the end of World War II is in substantial continuity with the various theories of rights that arose in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and after, in Western political theory and Anglo-American jurisprudence. Of course there are ancient and medieval antecedents of some significance for basic rights, but the antecedents are often in the nature of privileges and immunities, not rights that are guaranteed against the state absolutely. I cannot agree with Charles Beitz’s judgment that the idea of human rights as present in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Rights, and explicitly based on human dignity, marks the beginning of a theory and practice cut off from the past. There is much to learn from his book of 2009, The Idea of Human Rights, which is an intricate,

subtle, and comprehensive analysis, and courageous when courage is called for, but I nonetheless cannot accept its proposed foundation for human rights in the necessary link between a right and the appropriate sanction, even the violence of war, applied by coordinated states, international or regional, when a right has been violated by a given state, any more than I can accept the analogous contention that J.S. Mill makes in Book 5 of Utilitarianism (1969) that morally cognizable harm is, by definition, what deserves punishment and must be punished. I use the specification of rights, many of them but not all of them, negative

rights, rights against interference or bad treatment at the hands of the state, that is found in the US Constitution beginning with its original articles and in the first ten amendments (the Bill of Rights) that guarantee freedom of speech and press, freedom of religion, and the freedom of association, together with due process of law, and the definition of the US government as based on rights and hence on limitation of state power (Ninth and Tenth Amendments); and then adding the Civil War amendments that abolished slavery, guaranteed the equal protection of the laws to all persons and the right to due process of law, and enfranchised all races (Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments); and the Nineteenth Amendment that enfranchised women. We should also notice that the US Constitution teaches that state establishment of any religion, race, or ethnicity de-legitimates a government prima facie. All these rights, joined to structural arrangements that include an independent judiciary, are required for the moral purpose of preventing or reducing suffering and for the acknowledgement of the dignity of the equal status of persons. Providing only a few rights, which are usually privileges that can be revoked at pleasure, is better than nothing, but is not good enough for either justice or dignity. Offering only racially, ethnically, or religiously selective rights is a mark of the state’s illegitimacy. These amendments give no rationale for themselves. I try to supply a

rationale that is rather eclectic, using sources before and after the Constitution went into effect, many of them European in origin. In my account I have many masters. The aim is to enlist one’s intellectual masters and make them work for you, while knowing that they will always wriggle free of any confinement. It is noteworthy that the rights in the Bill of Rights are not ranked in importance, unless it be that the First Amendment – the rights of mind and conscience – ranks first; yet perhaps the due process clause in the Fifth Amendment ranks first, because without a guaranteed right of life, and not just in criminal law, all the other rights are denatured. Pragmatic exceptions to the enforcement of rights in the name of a variety of state and social purposes are not allowed by the US Constitution, with the fatal exception of the writ of habeas corpus; but exceptions are almost promiscuously allowed in the Universal Declaration and in the European Charter. More than any other charter of rights, the US Constitution says that rights exist in order to put off the inevitable state tendency, which is intrinsic to any form of government, to impose tyranny or despotism, in some degree or on some sectors

of the people. The soul of constitutionalism, as constructed by Locke, Montesquieu, and Madison, is in the original document. Some degree of popular government is assumed, and with time there is a more fully realized representative democracy, which is the natural home of constitutional protection of human rights. Further, an ever more democratic culture grows out of constitutional society, when the political institutions, to begin with, are at least partly representative. Most of the basic rights in a constitutionalist society are negative. My text

shows little sympathy for social democracy because its theorists are always edging towards mild paternalist or egalitarian despotism, and always regulating in the name of distributing and re-distributing good things; and no sympathy for radical democracy because it would be a nightmare of cultural and moral vandalism. It is also the case that social democrats and radical democrats tend to be concerned almost exclusively with domestic policy and hence disregard the awful costs of a country’s foreign policy to people beyond its borders. In the US Constitution, little time is spent, except in the Preamble, to promote the idea that the state exists to take the whole adult population in hand and try to make it happy by bestowing on it a whole range of welfare rights, as other charters do. Sensible discretionary policies that further people’s aspirations are of course desirable. But in general, the pursuit of happiness is for individuals on their own, if they have nothing better to do.