The Idea of Humanity

Landrum, Ty, Department of Philosophy, University of Virginia
Brewer, Talbot, Department of Philosophy, University of Virginia

This dissertation explores the idea of humanity and its normative role in practical thought. The moral resonance of the idea, such as we find it today, owes much to Kant's Groundwork, where he insists that humanity has absolute value. In Kant's view, all of us, as agents of reason, can be moved from sheer appreciation for the absolute value of humanity, and through such appreciation, we can realize our inner worth as human beings. I adopt this analytical determinant of Kant's philosophy, but I rework its substance considerably. I argue that the moral content of the idea of humanity is not fixed by the timeless nature of reason itself, but it requires articulation through the mode of action by which we express our inner worth as human beings. I contend that we each stand to contribute something to the articulation of the content of humanity through action of the relevant sort, and thus I radicalize Kant's notion that we are equally authoritative agents of humanity. Despite his pronounced recognition of the moral distinctness of persons, Kant attempted to homogenize and even depersonalize humanity. I argue that humanity defies that kind of impersonal definition. The normative content of the idea of humanity gains definition through distinctive human activities, viz., those that express our inner worth or dignity as radically singular beings. This is why the requirements of dignity can have an irreducibly personal character, such that the immediate demands of dignity cannot always be captured in universal and impersonal principles of conduct. It follows from this fact, I argue, that what is required for each person to realize her dignity as a human being is not, as Kant imagined, something that philosophers can ascertain for posterity through sheer reflection. It is something that each person must continually rediscover for herself through the treacherous ordeal of seeking to live a truly human life.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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