Mark Linville’s Argument from Personal Dignity, Part II

Part I Part III

In Part I we looked at Linville’s arguments against two consequentialist theories—egoism and utilitarianism—by seeing their inability to accord moral standing to individuals. Now we resume his discussion by looking at some additional attempts by various ethical theories, starting with virtue theory. [Note: of course there are theistic ethicists who are also virtue ethicists, like C. Stephen Evans, Robert Adams, and others—and historically, of course, Aquinas.] Virtue ethics places a premium on the goodness of agents. Aristotle maintained that excellence or right action should be understood in terms of how a good person, one of practical wisdom, would choose to act. This has led some to claim that the view leads into a circularity problem (for if rightness is what a good person would do, one can’t say good people are those who perform right actions). But Linville doesn’t pursue that issue, instead assuming, for discussion purposes, that the Aristotelian is able to answer such questions. Again, Linville is concerned to ask this question: Does the moral standing of persons factor in to the virtue ethicist’s account?

Consider how a Virtue Ethic (VE) account might look in explaining the wrongness of an action in a context where we do not suppose that any direct duties are being violated. Routley’s “Last Man” counterexample: Imagine you are literally the last person on earth and, for whatever reason, you’re considering some action that will have disastrous environmental effects. The action still seems wrong; does this mean we’re embracing an ethic of direct environmental duties—the according of moral standing to nature itself? Linville says he’d also blame Last Man for defacing great art, even though it’s not plausible to extend moral standing to paintings or statues.

Thomas Hill suggests there’s a natural way to account for environmental wrongs independently of our positing direct duties to the environment itself. Ask, “What kind of person would do a thing like that?” His is an application of a virtue ethic to the question of environmental responsibility. With this emphasis, there is a shift characteristic of VE away from the question of the rightness or wrongness of the actions in question and to the issue of excellence of character, or lack thereof, of the person in question. Hill writes that sometimes we may not regard an action as wrong at all though we see it as reflecting something objectionable about the person who does it. Hill reasons that, while environmentally destructive behavior does not necessarily reflect the absence of virtues, it often signals the absence of certain traits which we want to encourage because they are, in most cases, a natural basis for the development of certain virtues.

Linville finds Hill’s application of this account of human excellences to environmental concerns plausible, but a parallel application to explain our “moral discomfort” in cases of rape or genocide would be highly implausible. In the face of some gruesome killing, it would be a massive understatement to observe the killer “lacks excellence of character.” Nor is Hurthouse’s account of why we should help a person in need adequate: helping the person would be charitable or benevolent. We ought not to explain why one should refrain from rape by pointing to the fact that raping a person would be uncharitable and malevolent. It is, of course, but it’s more. Moral standing is clearly implicated in the case of rape, but appears to have no place in formulations such as VE. The reason rape is wrong, and, indeed, the reason that it is committed only by bad people, is that persons ought never to be treated in that way.

Linville sees no reason to think the Virtue Ethicist egoistic. He writes he sees no more reason to suppose that the egotism objection sticks here than he saw earlier for supposing that consistent utilitarians must always have “social utility” consciously before their minds and not the welfare of individuals. Surely, he writes, we can see our way to the view that generosity may be consciously altruistic regardless of what we learn about the metaethics involved in VE. But the devil is in the metaethical details, he says.

On Confucianism love for humanity gets wrapped into an account of human flourishing. Humans are moral creatures, and flourish insofar as one cultivates the virtue of love of humanity. Respect-for-persons gets folded into his account of flourishing. “What makes a good person good?” is answered by reference to the person’s regard for humanity and the role that such regard plays in the overall cultivation of character. The “external foundation” that appears in Confucianism is a principle of respect-for-persons, and it compares favorably with the celebrated Kantian formulation of such a principle. (Hursthouse notes that virtue ethicists largely have eschewed any attempt to ground virtue ethics in an external foundation.) Hackett’s explanation of the role of personal worth in the thought of Confucius would work equally well were he discussing Kant’s Principle of Humanity: “Personal being is intrinsically valuable, and the locus of ultimate, intrinsic worth; while love, as recognizing and implementing the actualization of the worth, is the essential principle of ultimate moral requirement.” But this is at odds with classical views in the Aristotelian tradition. Linville’s conclusion is that standard accounts of VE have no conceptual room for the moral standing of individuals, and that this counts against such theories. We should be able to say simply that rape and genocide are wrong because people ought neither to be raped nor exterminated.

Kant’s Principle of Humanity says to treat others as ends in themselves, simply as a means. What informs this principle is the idea that people are of ultimate and unconditional worth, and to treat them as “ends” is just to respect their autonomy as persons who have wills and ends of their own, and thus to act toward them in a way that is consistent with that worth. Kant distinguished two ways something can have value: either it has a dignity or it has a price. It has a price if it has a market value; this is mind-dependent—how much is one willing to pay for it? Something has dignity just in case it resists such valuation in terms of some market value so that its worth is intrinsic. Any property is intrinsic to a thing just in case that property involves no essential reference to any other thing, which is to say that it is nonrelational. Each and every individual human possesses the property being human intrinsically. Kantian dignity is a moral value or worth that individual persons possess intrinsically as persons. Since it is a nonrelational property, its value is mind-independent, and thus not reducible to or derivative of the valuings of some agent or other. If persons have dignity, then they ought to be valued for their own sake even if, in fact, they are not. And for being nonrelational, dignity is not reducible to instrumental value.

So dignity constitutes the unconditional worth of its possessor. Kant’s principle prohibits treating persons simply as means to ends precisely because this amounts to treating a person as though his or her value is merely instrumental, or determined by their relation to something else. This is to treat a person as a thing. Slavery is an example in which a person is regarded quite literally as having a market value. Kant’s notion of dignity is a natural basis for according those natural, inherent, and imprescriptible rights denied by Bentham. What is it to have unconditional regard if it is not to value the person intrinsically? And to be told that one ought to value persons intrinsically would seem to imply that persons just are of intrinsic moral worth.

Personal dignity seems implicated indeed by the sorts of pre-theoretical moral beliefs to which we typically appeal in reflective equilibrium. Should we suppose whether the question of dignity depends on metaphysics? Are we entitled to believe that persons enjoy intrinsic value regardless of what worldview we take to be true? It would be surprising. For example, the belief that persons have dignity would seem to involve the belief that there are persons, so this is not a part of a worldview that would deny persons. Advaita Vedanta appears to deny the real existence of persons. On Theravada Buddhism, the question of whether there are such things as persons is at least problematic—there is only a bundle of nonpersonal constituents, not the sort of thing ascribed dignity.

The naturalist may face a similar problem. Can the existence of persons be accounted for on naturalism? Goetz and Taliaferro call it the “Astonishing Hypothesis” that naturalism could produce the likes of human beings. On “strict naturalism” nature is all that exists and nature itself is whatever will be disclosed by the ideal natural sciences, especially physics. But persons as substantive selves that essentially possess a first-person point of view appear to lie, in principle, beyond the scope of third-person scientific explanation. For naturalists, explanations must explain consciousness by appeal to the unconscious, the personal by way of the nonpersonal, or the first person in third-person terms. Dennett thinks the first person needs to be left out of any final theory. Susan Blackmore has followed his advice, concluding there is no substantial or persistent self to be found in experience. Consciousness has been absent even in 20th century works bearing such promising titles as Consciousness Explained. [I seem to recall Plantinga suggesting the book’s title should have been “Consciousness Explained Away.”] Hume famously failed to find himself despite careful search, only an aggregate of perceptions. But the very practice of science is unintelligible unless persons exist and have observations and thoughts, and presumably observing and thinking are experiences. [Scott Smith hits this theme in his book In Search of Moral Knowledge.]

Owen Flanagan has said recently that we must “demythologize persons,” and by this he means that the Cartesian beliefs of the soul and of libertarian free will must be abandoned. C. S. Lewis once said if he was mistaken about his late wife, she was but a cloud of atoms he mistook for a person. Death would only reveal the vacuity that was already there. Dennett speaks of evolution having wired us to assume an “intentional stance,” which amounts to a predisposition to view certain other things in the world as intentional systems—agents with beliefs and desires. But this is of course misleading, on Dennett’s view, as would be a revised Kantian ethic. In light of the eliminability of teleological purposes on strict naturalism, it’s false to say that intentional systems are autonomous and thus have ends of their own. Neither is it clear that moral agency or autonomy may be preserved on a more relaxed version of naturalism. “Broad naturalism” or “minimal physicalism” describe varieties of physicalism that appeal to some form of supervenience of the mental on the physical. The aim is to allow room for the irreducibly mental within an extensively physical world—property dualism. Kim suggests this is wishful thinking.

Kim’s argument is “the supervenience/exclusion argument” for thinking that the irreducibility of the mental is at odds with the causal efficacy of the mental. Physicalists are committed to causal closure, where if any event has a sufficient cause c, then no event distinct from c can be a cause of the event (barring overdetermination). The result is epiphenomenalism. But this eliminates Kantian grounds and means of treating persons as ends-in-themselves. The latter suffers because the attitude of respect for a person or the law itself presupposes the sort of mental causation precluded on naturalism; the former is eclipsed by the mechanism of intentional systems. Autonomy presupposes teleology, and the latter has no purchase in the world described by naturalism, strict or broad.

We appear to have two irreducibly different kinds of things with different sets of properties. Conscious states, for example, defy description in terms of the spatial and compositional properties that are essential to accounts of physical states and processes. Kim even suggests qualia resist functional reduction.

Ultimately, consciousness is either eliminated altogether, reduced to the physical, or held to be emergent and irreducible. Eliminativism is implausible; reductionist accounts seem bound to fail; and emergentism introduces a pluralist ontology and thus a departure from naturalism.

The insistence that conscious and autonomous persons could be engineered from Big Bang debris is easy to see as a function of an entrenched antisupernaturalism combined with the commonsense recognition that there is consciousness and that it sometimes plays a causal role. We know the world contains persons; what we don’t know is how this could be the case if naturalism were true.

But how does the personal come from the nonpersonal and the intrinsically valuable from the valueless? On naturalism, it’s hard to see why any special and intrinsic value should be assigned to the species as a whole, much less to each and every individual specimen.

Kant claimed to find the ground of personal dignity within himself. Contemplation of the starry heavens above made him feel insignificant, but reflection on the moral law within has the opposite effect, infinitely elevating his worth. That infinite worth is thus secured by our autonomy as moral agents capable of understanding and acting on moral principle. Moral agency is what we might call a dignity-conferring property. But this requires that morality itself must be of intrinsic rather than instrumental value. Kant said both human persons and the moral law itself have dignity. Genuine respect for persons requires respect for the law. My respecting you calls for my acting for the sake of certain direct duties to you. Has the naturalist sufficient reason for supposing that morality itself enjoys the sort of dignity that Kant ascribes to it? Elsewhere Linville has already argued no; on evolutionary naturalism, human morality has emerged as an evolutionary device; a strategy aimed at reproductive fitness. One might as well argue for human dignity by appeal to the opposable thumb or to featherless bipedalism.

Michael Martin has recently suggested ideal observer theory as the foundation for personal dignity. It’s how an ideal observer would react that determines the morality of an act. Copan has questioned the ontology of such a view held by a naturalist. Recall that a property is intrinsic only if, among other things, it is nonrelational and mind-independent. On the face of it, it’s hard to see why Martin supposes that sense can be made of Kim has the property of intrinsic value by analyzing it in terms of the feelings of anyone nonidentical to, or, for that matter, identical to Kim. If the property is intrinsic, then it is identical to or supervenient on something true of Kim’s intrinsic nature. And about what does the ideal observer have feelings of approval in the case of intrinsic value? The ideal observer theory faces a Euthyphro problem. Does the ideal observer value Kim intrinsically because Kim is intrinsically valuable, or is she intrinsically valuable because the ideal observer values her intrinsically? First option is to abandon ideal observer theory. In terms of the other option, why assume the ideal observer would value Kim intrinsically unless she actually is intrinsically valuable? Shafer-Landau has critiqued ideal observer theory along similar lines. So no, if there’s to be an account of dignity, it must be rooted in the metaphysics of personhood.

Kai Nielsen thinks that no special account of persons is required in order to make sense of the requirements of justice. He insists that the religious apologist needs to show, but has not shown, that respect-for-persons can only be supported on religious grounds. [Note: this isn’t true if the argument is abductive; it only need be shown that respect-for-persons is best explained by theism.] Nielsen proposes that Kantian respect may be drawn out of Hobbesian egoism. But what of the powerfully placed egoist who needn’t fear repercussions for treating people poorly? Nielsen acknowledges there may be no egoist rationale for respecting others in such a case. But this makes the values a façade, if it’s just a matter of subscription—in that case, it’s just conditional, hypothetical, not categorical. So Nielsen’s earlier claim that certain moral beliefs are “bedrock” is misleading, and in a later book he suggests that moral realism is a myth. So Nielsen’s project assures us we can have ethics without God but then it doesn’t deliver. And again, Hobbesian egoism makes sense of direct duties only to oneself.

Photo: "Christ Healing the Blind Man" by  Eustache Le Sueur. Public Domain.