Respect for Persons: Kant’s Moral Theory
Like Utilitarianism, Imannual Kant’s moral theory is grounded in a theory of intrinsic value. But where the utilitarian takes happiness, conceived of as pleasure and the absence of pain to be what has intrinsic value, Kant takes the only thing to have moral worth for its own sake to be the capacity for good will we find in persons. Persons, conceived of as autonomous rational moral agents, are beings that have intrinsic moral worth and hence beings that deserve moral respect.
The opening passage of Immanuel Kant’s Groundwork for a Metaphysic of Morals proclaims that “it is impossible to conceive of anything in the world, or indeed beyond it, that can be understood as good without qualification except for a good will.” This is a clear and elegant statement of the theory of value that serves as the basis for Kant’s ethical theory of respect for persons. The one thing that has intrinsic value, for Kant, is the autonomous good will of a
person. That said, Kant does not understand the expression “good will” in the everyday sense. In everyday discourse we might speak of someone being a person of good will if they want to do good things. We take the philanthropist’s desire to give to the less fortunate to be an example of good will in this everyday sense. On Kant’s view, the person of good will wills good things, but out of a sense of moral duty, not just inclination. Naturally generous philanthropists do not demonstrate their good will through their giving according to Kant, but selfish greedy persons do show their good will when they give to the poor out of a recognition of their moral duty to do so even though they’d really rather not. So it is our ability to recognize a moral duty and will to act in accordance with it that makes persons beings that have dignity and are therefore worthy of moral regard. On Kant’s view, our free will, our moral autonomy, is our capacity to act according to duty as opposed to being a slave to our desires or inclinations. So free will, in the sense that is associated with moral responsibility, doesn’t mean being free to do as you please without consequence. Rather, freedom comes with moral responsibility for the intentions we act on.
So, understanding the good will as the capacity to will and act out of duty or respect for moral law, we can see having this capacity as part of having a rational, autonomous will. As persons, we have a free or autonomous will in our capacity to weigh our desires against each other and against the rational constraints of morality and reach our own determination of the will. We are
the originators and authors of the principles we act on. On Kant’s view, our free will, our moral autonomy, is our capacity to act according to duty as opposed to being a slave to our desires or inclinations. So free will, in the sense that is associated with moral responsibility, doesn’t mean being free to do as you please without consequence. Rather, freedom comes with moral responsibility for the intentions we act on. Having an autonomous good will with the capacity to act from moral duty is central to being a person in the moral sense and it is the basis, the metaphysical grounding, for an ethics of respect for persons. Now what it is to respect a person merits some further analysis.
Kant calls his fundamental moral principle the Categorical Imperative. An imperative is a command. The notion of a Categorical Imperative can be understood in contrast to that of a hypothetical imperative. A hypothetical imperative tells you what to do in order to achieve some goal. For instance, “if you want to get a good grade in calculus, work the assignments regularly.” This claim tells you what to do in order to get a good grade in calculus. But it doesn’t tell you what to do if you don’t care about getting a good grade. What is distinctive about a Categorical Imperative is that it tells you how to act regardless of what end or goal you might desire. Kant holds that if there is a fundamental law of morality, it is a Categorical Imperative. Taking the fundamental principle of morality to be a Categorical Imperative implies that moral reasons override other sorts of reasons. You might, for instance, think you have a self-interested reason to cheat on exam. But if morality is grounded in a Categorical Imperative, then your moral reason against cheating overrides your self-interested reason for cheating. If we think considerations of moral obligation trump self-interested considerations, Kant’s idea that the fundamental law of morality is a Categorical Imperative accounts for this nicely.
Here are two formulations of Kant’s Categorical Imperative:
CIa: Always treat persons (including yourself) as ends in themselves, never merely as a means to an end.
CIb: Act only on that maxim that you can consistently will to be a universal law.
Kant takes these formulations to be different ways of expressing the same underlying principle of respect for persons. They certainly don’t appear to be synonymous. But we might take them to express the same thing in that each formulation would guide one to act in the same way.
The formulation (CIa), tells us to treat individuals as ends in themselves. That is just to say that persons should be treated as beings that have intrinsic value. To say that persons have intrinsic value is to say that they have value independent of their usefulness for this or that purpose. (CIa) does not say that you can never use a person for your own purposes. But it tells us we should never use a person merely as a means to your own ends. What is the difference? We treat people as a means to our own ends in ways that are not morally problematic quite often. When I go to the post office, I treat the clerk as a means to my end of sending a letter. But I do not treat that person merely as a means to an end. I pursue my end of sending a letter through my interaction
with the clerk only with the understanding that the clerk is acting autonomously in serving me. My interaction with the clerk is morally acceptable so long as the clerk is serving me voluntarily, or acting autonomously for his own reasons. By contrast, we use people merely as a means to an end if we force them to do our will, or if we deceive them into doing our will. Coercion and deception are paradigm violations of the Categorical Imperative. In coercing or deceiving another person, we disrupt his or her autonomy and his or her will. This is what the Categorical Imperative forbids. Respecting persons requires refraining from violating their autonomy.
Now let’s consider the second formulation CIb. This version, known as the formula of the universal law, tells us to “act only on that maxim that you could consistently will to be a universal law.” The maxim of our action is the subjective principle that determines our will. We act for our own reasons. Different intentions might lead to similar actions. When I want to make myself a bit more presentable, I shave and shower. My son might perform the same action for a different reason (to get his mom off his back, for instance). We can identify different maxims in terms of these different reasons or intentions. For Kant, intentions matter. He evaluates the moral status of actions not according to the action itself or according to its consequences, but according to the maxim of the action. The moral status of an action is determined by the actor’s intentions or reasons for acting.
According to the formula of the universal law, what makes an action morally acceptable is that its maxim is universalizable. That is, morally permissible action is action that is motivated by an intention that we can rationally will that others act on similarly. A morally prohibited action is just one where we can’t rationally will that our maxim is universally followed. Deception and coercion are both paradigm cases of acting wrongly according to Kant. In both cases, our maxim involves violating the autonomy of another rational being and this is something that we, as rationally autonomous beings ourselves, could not consistently will to be a universal law.
According to Kant, there is a contradiction involved in a rational autonomous being willing that autonomy be universally coercively or deceptively violated. This would involve a rational autonomous being willing the violation of its own rational autonomy. Acting out of moral duty is a matter of acting only on maxims that we can rationally will others act on as well. The person of good will recognizes the humanity of others by not making any special exception for herself even when her interests or inclination would be served by doing so.
There is no higher moral authority than the rational autonomous person, according to Kant. Morality is not a matter of following rules laid down by some higher authority. It is rather a matter of writing rules for ourselves that are compatible with the rational autonomous nature we share with other persons. We show respect for others through restraining our own will in ways that demonstrate our recognition of them as moral equals.
Primary Source Reading:
Kant’s Groundwork for a Metaphysic of Morals can be found here: http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/assets/pdfs/kant1785.pdf
In ethical theory, we can understand pluralism as the view that there is a plurality of fundamentally good things. Traditionally, ethicists have tried to analyze right and wrong action in terms of a single fundamental underlying kind of value. We can call this kind of approach ethical monism. For utilitarians that single value is happiness, for Kantian respect for persons theorists, it is the value of the person. Ethical Pluralism allows that there may be multiple kinds of fundamental and irreducible value in the world. Happiness and respect for persons might be among these, but there may be others yet. Here I’ll explain how pluralism so understood differs from Moral Relativism and how it is better suited than relativism and monist ethical theories to the goals of social justice sought by pluralism in a broader sense of valuing diversity.
Recall that according to Moral Relativism, what makes something right relative to a group is just that it is deemed to be right by that group. This is a pretty loose characterization of the view. We could get a bit more specific by asking just what the relevant groups are. We would also want to ask who gets to decide for that group, because according to Moral Relativism and other conventionalist views of morality (like Divine Command Theory) right and wrong, good and bad, are ultimately questions of authority.
Views that take morality to be matter of authority, whether it’s God’s, the culture’s collectively, the king’s or the chess club’s authority, all suffer the same basic defect. They render right and wrong entirely arbitrary. If someone or some group gets to decide what’s right and wrong, then anything can be right or wrong. According to Cultural Moral Relativism, whatever a culture deems to be morally right is right relative to it. So, if our culture says that homophobia, sexism, and racism are fine, then they are what is right relative to our culture and that’s the end of it. If some people don’t like it, that’s just too bad. Moral Relativism denies them any objective standpoint from which to complain or any possibility of providing reasons for changing things. Complaints about the oppressiveness of the dominant group amount to nothing more than the whininess of losers. The group that dominates is perfectly well within its rights to do so. This hardly sounds like a plausible account of social justice. But it is straightforwardly entailed by Moral Relativism and that’s exactly why Moral Relativism is an awful ethical theory. This much is just a bit of review from the last chapter. But bear this in mind for the purpose of recognizing how Ethical Pluralism avoids this defect. For according to Ethical Pluralism the fundamental ethical values are real. The importance of happiness comes with the existence of pleasure. The value of respect for persons comes with the existence of persons. This doesn’t depend on the whim or say so of any authority.
Suppose morality doesn’t depend on the say so of cultures, God, or any other individual or group. On this view goodness is “out there” in the realm of things to be discovered. It needn’t be “way out there,” like goodness in some cosmic sense or goodness for the universe at large. We’re