Dignity and Preciousness

I gave a talk to the Yeshiva College Philosophy Club recently in which I made the following claim:

In my view, what gives people dignity, what is admirable and noble in them, is precisely their capacity for moral agency. It is when they have the liberty to make free choices but are required to take responsibility for their choices that human beings express their uniquely moral natures and become moral beings. Similarly, it is when we give people the liberty to exercise their judgment but hold them accountable for their decisions that we respect their moral natures. Kant was right that human dignity follows from one’s ability to choose ends for oneself, and that the essence of humanity is as a freely choosing agent.

During the question-and-answer session, an insightful student asked me whether it followed from my position that children and others who do not (yet) possess an ability to choose freely therefore do not possess dignity or nobility.

A good, challenging question, because it exposes the limits of my position. I would like to sketch a brief answer.

I think my answer has to be that such people do not, in fact, possess the dignity that results from moral agency. But it does not follow from that that they possess no dignity, nor that they do not possess something else making them inherently valuable, namely preciousness.

I did not argue that dignity result only from moral agency; rather, that moral agency results in a peculiar dignity. So, lacking moral agency entails lacking moral-agency dignity; lacking moral agency means not possessing the peculiar dignity that results from moral agency. But I believe there is another species of dignity, namely that which results from the inherent value that human beings have qua human beings. I call this inherent value preciousness, and I argue that it results in its own peculiar species of dignity.

One reason to respect people’s expression of their moral agency is because the dignity that agency constitutes is inherently valuable. We respect, or should respect, people because of this inherent value, and respecting that value entails respecting its manifestations, which includes moral agency. But I believe people have inherent value even independent of their moral agency, as human beings qua human beings.

This means, I suggest, that although we do not have to respect the choices of human beings who do not possess moral agency—e.g., children or others who do not have or have lost the capacity of free judgment with which to make free choices—we nevertheless do have to respect their inherent value or preciousness. A child is precious even if not yet a moral agent; a person with dementia is precious even if no longer a moral agent.

What this means in practice will depend on the particular circumstances of individual cases. But in general it will mean that we must treat such human beings with humanity, consideration, and charity befitting their preciousness. Such treatment will include using our judgment regarding such things as their well being, their welfare, their happiness, and so on, and it will require many acts of beneficence, all situation- and person-specific. Such acts of beneficence thus require a great deal of localized knowledge, which is one reason they cannot be specified in advance or by third parties.

Regarding children in particular, except in the rare cases of actual, permanent incapacity, respect for children’s preciousness will transition over time into respect for their moral agency, entailing the freedom and accountability mentioned in the quotation above.

What I have said here leaves many issues unresolved. For example, from where, exactly, does humanity’s inherent value, or preciousness, derive? Is humanity’s preciousness greater than that of nonhuman animals? How does a person’s criminal activity affect his dignity, or the respect we must show him?

I have answers, or attempts at answers, to these questions, but I will leave them for another time. Here my goals were to clarify how, on my conception of human nobility and dignity, people without moral agency still deserve respect, and to indicate, in broad strokes, the kinds of obligations we have toward such people.

We have had here on Pileus some sophisticated discussion of our duties or responsibilities toward children; what I say here does not substantially improve on that. The strength of my position, such as it is, relates I believe to its illumination of the ways we should, and the ways we should not, treat all the normally functioning adults with whom we come into contact—who are neither children nor incompetent, and should not be treated as if they were.

4 thoughts on “Dignity and Preciousness

  1. Is the source of a child’s moral value different from the source of a brain-dead human being’s moral value? Both lack the capacity for moral agency, but the brain-dead human is genetically human and therefore would enjoy preciousness on this account, it seems. Certainly, our obligations toward children and the brain-dead differ. Is that because they have different kinds of moral value, or because their circumstances differ? I suspect it is the former, for you can imagine putting a brain-dead person in exactly the circumstances that a child is in, but they differ solely in their present and future mental capabilities. I suspect that the potential for moral agency confers a certain kind of dignity – and that the brain-dead lacking this potential lack this kind of dignity. It also seems right to me that sentience – the mere capacity for pleasure and pain – confers a certain kind of moral value. Few of us would claim that torturing an animal to death for no reason is morally permissible – but if it is not, that must mean that animals have a certain kind of moral value.

  2. Jim, are you thinking preciousness is really distinct in kind from moral agency as a source of dignity? Or is it the latter in a different form (potential as opposed to actual, for example)? It seems more plausible to me to think something like the latter, as if not for the latter, it’s hard to see why the former would matter as it does.

    I agree with the story in broad outlines, obviously, but I think there may be something more to be said about thinking of dignity as a form of relation, rather than quasi-monadic value inhering in something or someone in virtue of some other monadic property they possess. But that’s a book, not a comment on a blog.

  3. Jason, I would argue that if the child and the brain-dead human being both lack moral agency (ex hypothesi), then although they are both precious our obligations toward them might differ due to the relevant circumstances. These circumstances would include the family situations, the resources available, the relative life prospects, and so on.

    I think that potential (but not actuality) of moral agency increases the inherent value, and thus relative preciousness, of the person in question, and I would claim that sentience in the absence of moral agency also increases relative preciousness. That requires respect from us commensurate with the level of preciousness, and it would indeed entail, I believe, that sentient nonhuman animals would have a level of preciousness—though usually not that of human beings.

    Mark, to be honest, I’m not sure. I think moral agency is a source of preciousness, but I also think it is constitutive of (a species of) preciousness. So I guess on your taxonomy I would say it is a form of preciousness, allowing for the possibility that there are other forms of preciousness. What do you think?

    1. Well, as my comments cryptically indicated, I’m a little skeptical about identifying distinctive monadic moral properties (e.g. preciousness, or for that matter dignity) as a function of monadic physical properties. I find it more congenial to think in terms of the kinds of reasons we have, and to think of those reasons very often as constituted by relations between individuals. Maybe that can allow for a translation back into something that would match up well with preciousness, though I’m not sure. I’m more confident that dignity can be cashed out that way. But I’m not confident enough in handling those tools to be certain. I’m certainly sympathetic with the force of the view.

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