How does Kant argue that all people have moral dignity, the ability to conform to a moral law in which all people are ends only.

I have not substantially read Kant, but it occurred to me, suddenly / facetiously, that it's - fundamentally - due to all persons being unequal in some ways, that being some a priori analytic fact (no men are equal) yet there - by necessity - needing to be some essence to "man" to make this claim, one which - it turns out - is not a means to think anything else about "man", but also has a practical - i.e. moral - component rationally obliging us.

Clearly that would need very many defences and elaborations to convince anyone to its facticity, but I wondered: is that the scaffolding of Kantian morality?

  • 1
    Related: philosophy.stackexchange.com/a/42439/17209
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Dec 17, 2020 at 12:26
  • thanks @PhilipKlöcking did Kant claim that men are equal only according to their dignity? There seems to be a lot written about his lack of concern for differences in power etc.
    – user49534
    Commented Dec 17, 2020 at 17:51
  • People are equal in the fact that we are "rational beings." Our rationality includes not only judgments of critical "reasoning" but our capacity for moral and aesthetic judgments, which also distinguish us from beasts or things. We share the mental "categories" of reason which Kant deduces. Hence we are equally obliged to their logical imperatives. Habermas adapts this to the capacity for communication, in which we enact this general "equality." Perhaps easier to grasp. From this, Kant argues that we ought not treat any rational being as a "means" only, by enslavement for example. Commented Dec 17, 2020 at 22:50
  • Would Kant's categorical imperative help?
    – user48488
    Commented Jan 18, 2021 at 1:16

1 Answer 1


Kantian ethics is fundamentally grounded in rationality and freedom, and to understand it one needs to think about category of the synthetic a priori that he develops.

Kant views ethical claims, which are grounded in the moral law, as cases of the synthetic a priori. This means that they tell us about the world, but are not grounded in experience. (Mathematical statements are probably the paradigmatic example of this).

Kant also, as stated in the question, does regard 'Man' as having a fundamental essence (though I don't think he puts it like this), that of a rational creature.

So when this rational creature thinks about what to do (reasons practically) as a rational creature it thinks as any other rational creature would. Any particularity, to its own interests or backgrounds, is a) a departure from pure rationality and b) a posteriori factors intruding - we do not have our background and interests a priori (note the similarity to Rawls's original position).

So a rational creature reasoning rationally will act as if the maxim of its action would become a universal rule, as per the moral law. Any other thought process would be a departure from its rationality (and thus freedom).

All rational creatures are thereby of equal 'dignity' (if you like) as loci and foci of ethical action. Treating them as means could only be a consequence of an a posteriori particularity on the part of the actor.

We can observe that Kant's conception, as grounded in rationality, is not limited to men and women, any rational being capable of itself reasoning is likewise included (e.g. if we were to regard as higher animals as rational in this way, or if we were to encounter intelligent aliens).

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