Ethical Theory and Moral Practice

, Volume 14, Issue 4, pp 487–489

Peter Schaber, Instrumentalisierung und Würde

mentis, Paderborn, 2010, ISBN 978-3-89785-711-7, 171 pages, EUR 16,80 (paperback)


    • International Centre for Ethics in the Sciences and HumanitiesUniversity of Tübingen
Book Review

DOI: 10.1007/s10677-011-9282-y

Cite this article as:
Wolkenstein, A.F. Ethic Theory Moral Prac (2011) 14: 487. doi:10.1007/s10677-011-9282-y

In his latest book, Peter Schaber attempts to examine the relationship between the moral prohibition of using someone merely as a means to an end and human dignity. This fits well into some of his recent research about dignity and duties towards others in general. However, the intention of the book at hand is straightforward: it aims at showing how we can make sense of the well-known principle not to use other humans as mere means to one’s ends (PMM). Therefore, the main question for Schaber is: what does it mean and what is the justification for conceiving of this principle as a fundamental moral truth?

In the first chapter, Schaber tries to make sense of PMM by referring to Kant’s famous second formula of the Categorical Imperative. According to this formula, you should never use others (and yourself) as mere means, but always as ends in themselves. Schaber claims that the only way to understand what this latter notion means is to pay attention to the difference between merely treating someone as a means and treating someone merely as a means to one’s ends. The latter mode of action, but not the former constitutes using someone not as an end in itself. Doing the latter is, as Schaber carefully argues for, not identical with the act of treating others in ways they cannot agree to (logically or normatively) or in ways they have no reasons to agree to. It rather means to use somebody as a means to one’s ends in a morally forbidden way.

The second chapter clarifies what it means to wrong somebody in this sense: The use of someone merely as a means to one’s ends is identical to the treatment of someone in a way that violates his or her dignity. Schaber’s thesis is that persons possess dignity as an entitlement to self-respect (DESR). Hence, any violation of this dignity is identical to a violation of this entitlement (or right) to self-respect. Dignity is therefore not a value among others or a property people only contingently have, e.g. when they are treated wrongly. Dignity is better conceived of as the entitlement to value and exercise one’s right to have power over basic aspects of one’s life. Accordingly, to use others as mere instruments means to refuse them to decide over basic aspects of their lives. Furthermore, Schaber holds, DESR implies the right to the conditions that allow the exercise of the dignity-rights, grounding the moral rights against, for instance, torture and slavery, poverty, and humiliation (chapter six). The solution to Margalit’s famous paradox of humiliation is one of Schaber’s examples that illustrate the plausibility of his theory.

In the third chapter, Schaber argues for the existence of duties towards oneself, based on his theory of DESR. Insofar as dignity is a right, as the author claims, it issues a duty also against oneself. And because this right is, as he argues more detailed in chapter five, inalienable, Schaber concludes that DESR implies that one is not able to free oneself from the corresponding duty, which would be the case if one could step back from the right issuing the duty.

Chapter four attempts to ground DESR in the fact that the ability to have power over one’s life is deeply embedded in our lives and is a central part of the concept of personhood. Schaber discusses several further proposals to justify human dignity, e.g., by the appeal to social ascription, by the ability to act morally, or by the ability to determine one’s actions according to reasons. He concludes that although they are necessary conditions for the exercise of dignity-based rights, all of these properties are not constitutive of our dignity. Rather, they are best conceived of as indicators for the importance of self-respect in our lives. One of the more controversial consequences of this view is that it does not account for the protection of embryos or animals. Insofar as they are not able to have power over their lives, they are not protected by DESR. However, Schaber points out that there are various other justifications for the protection of those entities.

Before Schaber considers several applied cases where PMM plays a central role (cheating others, kill innocents in order to save others, self-defense), he discusses the role of PMM in moral theory. He argues against consequentialist and contractualist positions which, in his opinion, cannot account for the crucial role of dignity because they make rights and entitlements dependent on considerations like overall utility or rational interest.

The clear and concise thoughts Schaber presents in his books are very convincing. The style of presenting his arguments as well as the carefulness with which other arguments are examined is worth of highest appreciation. However, there are some points that deserve closer attention. First, it is not clear that his account of dignity captures our every-day notion of dignity. Although his account is absolutely right, Schaber may face opposition in this case. Especially with regard to the protection of embryos or animals, the question of whether or not those kinds of entities deserve dignity-based protection is pressing. To claim that there are other ways of protecting them could raise at least some worries as to how strong the protection of those entities really is without reference to dignity.

Apart from criticisms of Schaber’s idea of what contractualism is—his view seems to be connected to the Hobbesian version, but maybe not to the Lockean—a second point is worth considering. Schaber talks about duties towards oneself and argues that because of the inalienability of the entitlement to self-respect, no one can be freed from the right. Accordingly, no one can be freed from the corresponding duty. Therefore, the existence of duties towards oneself is conditional on the inalienability of the corresponding entitlement. For those who reject the centrality of self-respect in the sense of exercising the right to control basic aspects of one’s life, the existence of duties towards oneself rests on shaky grounds. Just think of old and tired people who are no longer willing to control all or even basic aspects of their life, although they could well decide for themselves. Are they unjustifiedly rejecting their right to self-respect?

These are all points that deserve discussion but do by no means reduce the value of Schaber’s book. On the contrary, he has written an extremely useful book that is highly recommended to scholars in moral philosophy and also in applied ethics. His way of combining theoretical positions, problems from applied ethics and other philosophical insights is exemplary. Hopefully, there will be many followers of Schaber’s methodology and of his ideas.

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011