PHIL 2030: Introduction to Ethics
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Tuesday April 15, 2014



[7.6.] Kant and Respect for Persons.


Kant believed that the Categorical Imperative could be formulated in a number of different ways. In addition to the version of the CI we’ve seen already (CI1: “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law”), Kant held that the CI could also be expressed as follows:


The (2nd version of the) Categorical Imperative (CI2): “Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only.” (RTD 66; EMP 137)[1]


As we will see, this 2nd version of the Categorical Imperative is central to Kant’s explanation why the punishment of criminals is morally justified.



[7.6.1.] The 2nd CI: The Idea of Human Dignity.


CI2 reflects Kant’s idea that humans have “an intrinsic worth, i.e. dignity.[2] This is something that other beings, including non-human animals, do not have.


By “intrinsic worth,” Kant does not mean intrinsic value. He is not saying the same thing about humans that Mill said about happiness, namely, that they are the only things that are valuable in themselves rather than as a means to an end.


On Kant’s view, humans are “above all value.”


This is supported by two ideas, described by Rachels (EMP 137):


1)      Human beings are the source of value in general, because they give other things their value—things (including non-human animals) are valuable only insofar as humans value them. In a world without human beings, nothing would have any value whatsoever. Valuable things are valuable only because there are human beings to value them.


2)      Human beings are the source of moral value, because they are rational agents. They are able to use reason to guide their conduct, i.e., they can make their own free and rational decisions about how to act. And since, according to Kant, morality depends on reason (the moral law is a rational law), moral value stems from rational choice. Unless there were beings such as ourselves making free, rational choices, there would be nothing of moral value in the world, i.e., there would be no such thing as an action that is immoral or morally permissible… those moral categories just wouldn’t apply to anything.



[7.6.2.] The 2nd CI: Respect for Individual Autonomy.


On Kant’s view, the second formulation of the Categorical Imperative requires that we respect the rationality of individuals.


In other words, it requires that we respect their ability to decide how they will behave, how they will live their own lives. It requires that we respect their autonomy.


This means that we can never use them or manipulate them to achieve our own purposes, even if our purposes are good ones.


Suppose that you lie to a friend in order to get a loan; you say that you will repay it, even though you know you won’t be able to. In doing this, you would be treating her only as a means and not as an end in herself.  You would be manipulating her into doing something that you want her to do by giving her false or incomplete information. This is true, even if you want to borrow the money for very good purposes (e.g., to pay for drugs to save the life of your dying child).


To treat your friend as an “end” rather than as a means only, you would need to be forthcoming about your situation. You would need to tell her why you need the money and that you won’t be able to repay it and then let her make up her own mind about whether she will give it to you. This would be to respect her ability to make up her own mind about how to act. If she chooses to give you the money, then she has freely made your purpose her own.


This suggests an explanation of why Kant thought the two formulations of the CI were equivalent: he thought the two formulations implied all of the same specific categorical imperatives, i.e., all of the same specific rules of morality, e.g.

·         never falsely promise to repay a loan



[7.6.3.] Kant’s Retributivism.


The Kantian view that we must respect individual autonomy has implications for the issue of the morality of punishing criminals.


The punishment of criminals poses an ethical problem...

·         it involves inflicting a harm on someone, either bodily harm or deprivative harm (depriving him of property, or freedom, or in the case of capital punishment, depriving him of his life);

·         it is also something that the person being punished doesn’t want;

·         so what could possibly justify it?


The traditional answer is


retributivism (df.): the view that punishment is justified when it pays back a wrong-doer for what he has done, giving him what he deserves: retribution.


This was the answer defended by Kant.


Retributivism is unacceptable to utilitarians, whose first moral rule is: we should always do what results in the best consequences (either increased happiness [classical] or increased well-being or preference-satisfaction [modern]). Retributivism tries to justify punishment by claiming that it increases the amount of suffering, and this clearly won’t do for a utilitarian.


Utilitarians can give the following justifications for punishment:


1.      Causing comfort and gratification for victims and their families. It makes victims and their families feel better to know that the person who harmed them is being punished for what he or she has done. And the fact that they feel better contributes to an increase in overall well-being.


2.      Preventing criminals from committing further crimes. By incarcerating (or even killing) people who have themselves committed crimes, we ensure that they won’t commit any more crimes… so fewer people will be hurt and general well-being is increased.


3.      Deterring others from committing crimes. Punishing criminals will deter other people from committing crimes; by lowering the crime rate, we will contribute to the long term welfare of the whole population.


4.      Rehabilitation. Crime is associated with poverty, lack of education, psychological illness. If we get rid of these, crime will decrease and we will all be better off. So criminals in prison should be rehabilitated: provided with education and counseling, so that when they are released, they will be productive citizens.


But Kant rejected these justifications on the basis that they violate the second formulation of the Categorical Imperative. For example:


1.      against deterrence: to imprison someone or otherwise punish him in order to cause a decrease in crime in society is to use him as a means to society’s end; it is not to treat him as an end himself.


2.      against rehabilitation: to imprison someone or otherwise punish him in order to cause a change in his future behavior is to disrespect his autonomy, his right to decide for himself how he will behave, to make a rational choice as to what sort of person he will be.



Kant himself offered two moral principles regarding punishment:


1.      the only reason a person should be punished is that he has committed a crime: no other reason (to reduce future crime; to rehabilitate him) is legitimate, and no other reason is needed.


2.      punishment should always be proportional to the crime; small crimes warrant small punishments, but large crimes require large punishments (sometimes including death—so Kant was an advocate of capital punishment).

·         This reflects the first version of the CI: if a person commits a crime, he is in effect saying: this is how people ought to be treated. By punishing him proportionally, we are simply carrying out what he himself has willed.


For example, if X commits kills someone, he is saying: people ought to be killed. In using capital punishment against X, we are simply carrying out what he himself has willed to be a universal law.


Stopping point for Tuesday April 15. Next time, we will have the last pop quiz of the semester, covering the material in section II (vocabulary) of the study guide for your final exam.


This is the last set of lecture notes for this course and the end of the material that will be covered on your final exam.


[1] Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, 1785.


[2] Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, 1785. Quoted at EMP p.130. The entire paragraph from which this passage is taken is as follows: “In the kingdom of ends everything has either value or dignity. Whatever has a value can be replaced by something else which is equivalent; whatever, on the other hand, is above all value, and therefore admits of no equivalent, has a dignity. Whatever has reference to the general inclinations and wants of mankind has a market value; whatever, without presupposing a want, corresponds to a certain taste, that is to a satisfaction in the mere purposeless play of our faculties, has a fancy value; but that which constitutes the condition under which alone anything can be an end in itself, this has not merely a relative worth, i.e., value, but an intrinsic worth, that is, dignity.”

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