Second Thoughts on Dignity

I have written previously on the meaning of dignity, but I left out the theoretical underpinnings of my position. Setting politics aside, what are the metaphysical underpinnings of ethics? What of our moral judgments? Are there some fundamental criteria under which we can say that the current regime or the actions of our leaders is wrong? For, we believe in right and wrong, but we seldom have the resources to completely explain the foundations of our belief.

Decisively, morality is not relative, and there is a basis upon which our generation’s actions and situation will be judged absolutely. This basis involves not only dignity and freedom, which I have previously thematized; but, moreover, the whole structure of morality that rests on dignity and freedom is temporal – a matter of the future and its intimate constitution of history. The moral value of our lives is not now, but is coming to us as we become past.

Freedom characterizes a society that dignifies itself by being more than its history, but that, precisely in its break with historical determination, carries the idea of dignity forward to future generations. Recall that forgetfulness is evidence of something forgotten; likewise, a break is evidence of the relationship that is broken. In breaking with the past, in order to create and reevaluate our customs for a future, we prove our connection to the past. We must either reject or renew everything of value in its time. Thus, each generation evaluates its predecessor in terms of right and wrong, since nothing more generally corresponds to value than the judgments ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ Every generation thereby enters into history, and becomes, for the next generation, the subject matter of evaluation. Thus, although the present generation evaluates the past, the value of the present is set further off, to be discovered only in a future that is not yet determined by history, but that determines history.

Thus, right and wrong are tied to the decision to either reject or renew societal values. This decision confronts us irrevocably. Whether we affirm or reject value, or even if, in ignorance, we pass over it, the past receives its significance from an ever outstanding future. This means that, through value, and in respect to a future that determines value, all of time, all history and society, is put into relation under this single binary opposition: right or wrong? In this, everything we do is figured already into a moral framework, a moral consideration, that will hold us accountable, and all human activity will be responsible to a singular future.

The worth of our individual choices, and the societies that frame them, is not determined in the present moment by us. Rather, whatever we choose to do with our lives is open to interpretation by the next generation, which will evaluate our actions on the basis of right and wrong. We too are freed to evaluate our predecessors on this basis. And, this continuity of answering the call to evaluate the past – to judge it morally – establishes a lasting sense of right and wrong that is capable of spanning the duration of human history.

The meaning of freedom is revealed when one becomes conscious of the fact that the meaning of his existence is not yet determined – it is not determined by a set of facts, or situations, or even aspirations – rather, there is a world left outstanding that one is responsible to create, for better or worse, according to the moral sense. And this created world will judge everyone who participates in its creation. Thus, insofar as the meaning and worth of my life are not yet determined, insofar as they must be determined from a certain future perspective that is not yet here, then, just as we said above, I am free, and society is freed by me, since what is not determined by me can be determined by others, and is, for all, a matter of effort and having a free choice between right and wrong.

Now, human beings are not free to choose the meaning of right and wrong, but only between actions that are right and wrong. And, furthermore, they are only free to do this whenever they are in a free society. But, what is a free society? It is one that is liberated towards the possibility of evaluating its history. And this means that our moral activity must be concerned with freeing others towards the possibility of evaluating our actions. That is, we must not insist that we are right, we must not moralize, but freely choose to surrender the task of evaluating our moral actions to a future. This means that we must free the future, and not inhibit generations to follow from making their decision about us.

This freeing of others is liberal education, since only liberal education can bring the whole person into step with himself such that he can choose to surrender himself to the moral evaluation of his future others. By liberal education, again, I mean an education in the humanities. We must become steeped in the great ideas of our predecessors, and take up the initiative of renewing their projects, or renewing the value that we find there. So to speak, our most morally uplifting activity is carrying forward this task, and leaving it open for the generations to follow. In this way, human dignity will follow from our activities, because we will entrust the most dignifying ideas from history to the care of a future society. Entrusting societies with the preservation of human dignity is itself dignifying, as it lets the absolute value of everything we know and strive for rest with someone else. What could be more dignifying of others than entrusting the ultimate moral status of one’s very existence to another person? Nothing. For everything that one is lies in his actions and projects, and trusting someone else to care for preserving one’s creative efforts is the highest possible honor one human being can confer upon another.

To have access to this possibility, we must carry forward in the humanities, we must ultimately stake our value to a trust in the future. But this means, furthermore, that we necessarily fulfill our obligation to those who have entrusted themselves to us, taking their works and creations forward with us. And, this is possible only if, for us, the task of evaluation, of determining “right from wrong,” remains open. But we also have to hold the possibility open for others. If we pass judgment, and foreclose the same possibility for others, we do not succeed in dignifying other human beings. And what could be more dignifying of us than dignifying others? Nothing. For, educating one another, caring for each other as whole persons, is the only activity that our future others will consider when determining the value of our works.

Now, as a last word, let me say that freedom is not relativism. When I say we leave moral judgments open, I do not mean that there are no moral judgments. Quite the contrary, in fact. What I propose is that moral judgment acts from the end of time through eternity. It is simply our responsibility to recognize that we do not live at the end of time, and that we need to be conscientious with respect to those who will follow, for they are watching already, and they will hold us accountable to the task of making them free.logo-red

3 thoughts on “Second Thoughts on Dignity”

  1. Very thought-provoking article! First, here’s the part I heartily agree with:

    “But, what is a free society? It is one that is liberated towards the possibility of evaluating its history.”

    I agree, but a free society (as I would define it) would also would be able to practically use that knowledge to make real material changes in their lives to bring about greater satisfaction in the present.

    To evaluate one’s history, a society needs (as you correctly alluded) a preservation of the past, access to that past through a liberal arts education (which implies also the material means of obtaining that liberal arts education—sufficient disposable time and access to the intellectual labor of others), and a lack of childhood or state coercion/indoctrination.

    But even still, if all we could do is pass informed judgments of history and our place in it as “yea” or “nay” without the ability to apply those judgments to decision-making in the present, it would feel pretty pointless. We might get the satisfaction of seething in private rage at the thought that things could be so much better if we hadn’t had World War II and the Holocaust or the 2008 financial crisis, for example, but if we see additional tragedies of similar scale on the horizon but feel impotent to do anything to prevent the coming catastrophes, then it becomes fairly easy to develop a cynical attitude towards devoting one’s time, money and attention to a liberal arts education. Anti-intellectualism starts to seem appealing.

    And the worst part is, it’s not like we can make ourselves significantly more in control of our destinies by simply…making our political system more representative, or educating voters. The biggest force that controls our destinies is actually capital—not capitalists, but capital, the Invisible Hand, the Law of Value. If capitalists or politicians were in control, then we could try to convince them to act differently, or just take decision-making power away from them. But instead we have an abstract system of incentives tightly constraining our decisions (including seemingly non-economic decisions like whether to go to war against an opposing imperialist power), and we don’t yet know how to take decision-making power away from that abstract system. So, liberal arts education is bound to feel kind of pointless until we replace capital’s unconscious control of the economy and history with conscious human control of the economy and history.

    Now for where I start to strongly disagree with your claims:

    “For, everything that one is lies in his actions and projects…”

    This ties in with another claim of yours:

    “…we need to be conscientious with respect to those who will follow, for they are watching already, and they will hold us accountable to the task of making them free.”

    This is a surprisingly Christian idea that I did not expect from you! Instead of God judging us for our sins, the future will. But only if there is an afterlife, right? I mean, they ain’t gonna be holding me accountable. I’ll be six feet under, rotting with the worms, not experiencing anything. If I help bring about a techno-utopia, or end up murdering 1 billion people, it’s all going to be the same for me when I’m dead.

    In that sense, I find it difficult to entertain the claim that everything I am lies with my actions and projects. The relevance of those things to myself at any given time depends on my ability to consciously comprehend them. To me, what seems more fundamental to myself is my conscious and sensory experience.

    If I believe that I am serving some greater cause, or that I will be judged by history (as Fidel “History will absolve me” Castro believed, as do many Marxists), then that might give me some positive feelings about myself in the present…so, hooray for that(?) But if I could wirehead myself into feeling all of those positive feelings in all of their same complexity, and if present-me thought that I could ensure the continuation of this wireheading for the rest of my conscious lifetime (even after I began the wireheading), then I would take the wireheading, obviously! (Whereas, present-me might not want to take the wireheading if present-me thought that it would make future-me vulnerable to hackers turning my wireheaded mental paradise into a horrific hellscape).

    Regarding one of your central claims:

    “That is, we must not insist that we are right, we must not moralize, but freely choose to surrender the task of evaluating our moral actions to a future. This means that we must free the future, and not inhibit generations to follow from making their decision about us.”

    How I see it: you internalize the surveillance of an imagined future and call it “freedom.” It reminds me of a piece of graffiti from the Mai ’68 student protests: “A cop sleeps inside each one of us. We must kill him. Drive the cop out of your head.” That would be my advice to you, for your own sake.

    If you want a world of dignity, then pursue a world of dignity! But don’t do it for the sake of an imagined future. Or, do do it for the sake of an imagined future. As a private decision, it’s up to you. But when you publicly proclaim this as a moral duty, it places social pressure on others to believe and act in the same way. And I’m not going to go along with it. I will pursue a world of dignity if it instrumentally serves my goal of obtaining sensory and conscious satisfaction throughout my lifetime, but I doubt I will ever be convinced to pursue a world of dignity out of moral duty to the future. Lot’s of things that would be harmful to myself can start to be rationalized if I start believing that. “Sacrifice yourself for the good of the cause!” No.

    Am I fortunate that previous generations of humans did not think as I am thinking right now? Am I fortunate that previous generations of humans saw intrinsic value in sacrificing to make the world a better place, in preserving traces of the past, and in passing on the practical tools that we need to be able to judge their past and situate ourselves in the present? Probably. And if you can think of a way to enforce some sort of “a-causal trade” whereby my life’s satisfaction depends on “paying that forward” to the next generation, then I will happily comply out of instrumental concern for my own satisfaction.

    Funny enough, some Silicon Valley techno-futurist types solve this dilemma by envisioning that humanity will create an artificial general intelligence someday that will quickly become powerful enough to:
    1. Gather traces of your personality from history books and internet archives,
    2. Create a high-fidelity simulation of your previous consciousness that you will somehow have experience of despite having been dead for decades or centuries,
    3. Reward or torture you depending on whether you contributed bad things to human history or good things.

    Basically, they think they can create a God and an afterlife and thereby enforce an a-causal trade of good behavior now for rewards later. I have my doubts….


  2. I think your article does hit upon an important point: the arrow of time is, according to a typical definition of “fairness,” inherently unfair and undemocratic. Past humans are in a position to constrain the future and reward or punish future humans by handing off to them either a better or worse world, but those in the future cannot return the favor.

    Your internalized concern about needing to serve the future seems to be a way of leveling the playing field so that the future can indeed constrain past humans to act with the future in mind…by, for example, not nuking the planet or incinerating all historical artifacts or turning the world into a 1984-esque totalitarian hellhole.

    In other words, you seem to be extending the abstract principle of “equality” to include temporal equality, where we don’t just represent our interests, but also the interests of future humans.

    But this just seems to me like what Max Stirner complained about as an “idée fixé.” It’s a fixed idea that moralizers get into their heads after getting a little too gung-ho about extending an abstract principle (equality) from an original limited domain in which it happened to be instrumentally self-beneficial (i.e. economic and racial and gender equality are beneficial to me, so I’m all for them) to an extended domain in which it is no longer instrumentally self-beneficial (i.e. caring about equality between the present and the future, which does not benefit me).

    Just as I’ll unabashedly proclaim myself as a human-supremacist, I’ll also proclaim myself to be a “present-supremacist.” Because, fundamentally, I am fine with being a “me-supremacist,” and I happen to be a human living in the present and not the future, so of course I’m happy to be a human-supremacist and a present-supremacist.


  3. Do as thou Wilt, Citizencokane: this shall be the whole of the Law. Shall you will yourself away from your will? For, if you cannot defeat your will by your will, then you will be stuck with what you will.


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