Kant’s moral philosophy is centered on his ideas of the obligations of absolute duty and of individual autonomy, without necessary consideration of the consequences of the actions. On the basis of Kant’s principles of duty, all rational beings should be able to decide whether they ought to do any action and these principles are applicable to all rational beings. These rules apply to rational beings on the basis of their rationality, their ability to reason being the source of moral behaviors.
Actions taken which result not from duty but from desires, emotions, etc.
cannot be deemed as having moral worth, regardless of whether they are in accordance with morality. He identified what he called the Categorical Imperative as being the foundation rules of moral actions, providing unconditional principles by which actions of duty (and therefore by which morality itself) must be governed. He also identified Hypothetical Imperatives which are driven by rational principles other than duty and which can be followed except when they conflict with duties guided by the Categorical Imperative.
It is within the notions of the Categorical Imperative that Kant’s reasons for treating all people as ends and not means are characterized. The Categorical Imperative provides a test of moral actions rather than actually advocating particular actions in themselves and it is up to moral agents to apply these tests to their own actions. There are three formulations of the Categorical Imperative, which Kant views as being three versions of the same idea. However, recent readings of Kant have provided reasons for seeing them as three parallel but different ideas and this has caused problems which will be elaborated on here.
This paper will focus on the centrality of the Formula of Humanity but it cannot do so without considering other aspects of his imperative. The contribution of the second formulation to decisions about moral actions will be considered as well as contradictions within the imperative. Kant’s first formulation of the Categorical Imperative sets out that moral actions are those which can be equally applied to all rational beings, as he illustrates in the following way: ‘act only on those maxims that you can at the same time will as universal laws’.
The second formulation, or the Formula of Humanity, has greater implications in terms of the question posed. It conveys Kant’s theories on how moral agents should treat people, including themselves: ‘act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or that of any other, never simply as a means but always at the same time as an end in itself’. Kant’s third formulation of the Categorical Imperative is that moral agents should act only as though they were rational beings creating a universal law in the ‘kingdom of ends’.
The rational beings are both king and subject in the ‘kingdom of ends’ so that actions are part of the natural law; regardless of the role the individual plays in the circumstances which result from the action. All individuals in the kingdom of ends are autonomous moral beings, both lawmaker and subject and all should be which may not always be attained respected equally. The ‘Kingdom of Ends’ is seen by Korsgaard as a ‘democratic ideal’ which may not always be attainable. (1) In the first formulation, that of Universal Law, any action which cannot be universally applied to all rational beings in similar circumstances is not permissible.
For this reason Kant can be interpreted as saying that lying is wrong, on the basis that lying cannot be ‘willed’ as a universal law applicable to all rational beings. The benefit of a lie lies in its deceit and the fact that others are assumed not to lie. A rational being would not want to be lied to and, by lying, he is making an exception of himself; neither lying itself nor making an exception of yourself can be universalised. If lying were to be universalised, it would not bring any benefit because eventually no one would trust anyone.
Lying is only beneficial to a liar if it is not universal; it is therefore self-defeating and morally prohibited. This argument is countered by Korsgaard when she states that in the case of evil, as depicted by the ‘inquiring murderer’ (where an individual has to decide about lying to a murderer at the door about the fact that his intended victim is upstairs) the application of the first formulation can make lying permissible. (2) I will return to this later and the contradictions it raises with treating rational beings as ends.
Kant considers that the Formula of Humanity is a part of the same concept as universalisation but many authors, including Hill, Campbell and O’Neill, have argued that it in fact involves a different but parallel principle. It is another guide to how moral agents should act. It states that rational beings should act only in ways that respect ‘others capacities to act’ and therefore ‘leave them able to act on the maxims we ourselves adopt’ (3). Kant is not saying here that we should never treat people as means to our own ends, but that we should not do so exclusively.
For example, people participating in research trials are being used as a means to obtain some results at the end of the study, which could be interpreted as them being used for the researcher’s or society’s ends. However, their consent to their participation in the research means that they are not being treated exclusively as means, but that they have a share in the ends of the researchers or of society. Were the research subjects not told of their participation, they could not consent to the ‘ends’ of the researchers or society.