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Kant on treating persons as ends in themselves


To: Alex V.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Kant on treating persons as ends in themselves
Date: 8th January 2009 12:13

Dear Alex,

Thank you for your email of 21 December, with your essay for the University of London Ethics: Historical Perspectives paper, in response to the question, 'What does Kant mean when he says people should be treated as ends and not means? Are his arguments for this position sound?'

There are two main questions raised in your carefully written paper. The first concerns the role of the emotions, which Kant sees as contingent, and therefore outside the scope of what morality demands. We are required to do our duty -- what the categorical imperative entails -- we cannot be required to 'emote' because this capacity is distributed unevenly amongst human beings. It would not be fair to criticise someone for being cold and unfeeling, if this is that person's given nature. They can be criticized, however, for failing to act in accordance with reason as embodied in the categorical imperative.

The consequence of this downgrading of the emotions, as you note, is that the quality which justifies regarding a human being as an 'end' is restricted in a way which we find counterintuitive. A person is valuable, in themselves, only on account of his or her rationality. Consequently, emotions, like any other features of the world can only have at best instrumental value.

You say, 'I would argue that rationality and emotion interact with each other as feedback loops.' To my ear, this doesn't go far enough because it implies that emotions merely provide aid and stimulation to rational thought. A clear example would be the scientist, whose curiosity, courage and resoluteness all depend ultimately on the scientist's emotional makeup. The greatest intelligence is no use, if you lack the requisite motivation.

However, this is still to regard emotion as having a value as a means. We still have not given an adequate response to Kant's argument that the emotions cannot be commanded, because they are contingently given. However, I think Kant is wrong. Human beings are to a considerable extent responsible for their emotions. A racist who says, 'I can't help feeling disgust when I see...' is lying. This is something that can be 'helped'. We are not passive victims of our emotions. One recent example of the growing awareness of this is the burgeoning literature on 'emotional intelligence'. An essential -- or possibly the essential -- part of becoming a mature person is acquiring emotional maturity.

How would this change Kant's view of what it is that makes a human being an end in themself? Not a lot, actually. The crucial point -- which you could perhaps have emphasized more -- concerns the way we use language to interact with others. A psychiatrist dealing with a difficult patient might say things with the intention of brining about that the patient does X, as one presses certain levers aiming for a particular result. This is discourse which abandons the 'logical space of reasons' (to use McDowell's phrase). P.F. Strawson in his British Academy lecture 'Freedom and Resentment' describes the difference between discourse which recognizes someone as a 'person' and discourse which is merely used as a means to achieving a particular effect, in other words, treating a person as a thing.

This is not wrong, so long as the doctor is prepared to engage the patient in the logical space of reasons whenever the opportunity presents itself.

In this picture, the expression of emotions can be fully part of what is involved in engaging someone in the logical space of reasons. Emotions have 'formal objects', in the sense that you can't simply feel an emotion, for example, pride, about just anything. If I tell you that I am proud of the Seychelles, you are perfectly justified in asking me what connection I have to the Seychelles which justifies that feeling.

But this brings us to the second point, which clearly sets Kant apart from other moral philosophers. Non-human animals are not ends in themselves. Consequently, they have value only insofar as we value them. (That is not to say that their value is merely 'instrumental'. You can love your pet.)

I don't think that Kant would find your argument that non-human animals have the capacity to value things persuasive. All that amounts to is that (in Dennett's terms) the intentional form of explanation is, or can be appropriate to non-human animals. The chimpanzee values fruit. It doesn't know that part of this value is accounted for by the Vitamin C which the fruit contains. However, the theory of evolution by natural selection accounts for the capacity to discriminate between potential foods according to their nutritional value.

Kant is concerned with values insofar as they belong to the logical space of reasons. Of course, things can have value even though we do not recognize this, just as we recognize that there are many facts that we do not know. It is true that an object possesses value X provided that it would be recognized as having that value, were the appropriate circumstances realized. The usefulness of this desk existed prior to my recognizing its usefulness, just as the desk existed prior to my entering the room.

If you set your sights as high as Kant sets them, if you are looking for a logical, rational basis for moral judgements, then it seems inevitable that the foundation must be in the capacity of human beings for reason, in which case Kant's admittedly counterintuitive view of animals and their derivative value follows. At the other extreme, if like Peter Singer you hold that the only relevant question is the objective 'quality of consciousness' then there might indeed, as Singer has argued, be circumstances where you would sacrifice the life of a human infant to save that of an adult chimpanzee.

Kant would say that consciousness as such is merely a natural phenomenon. Any ethics based on maximizing happiness or desire satisfaction has abandoned the idea of a rational basis for moral judgements.

All the best,