Kant: The Humanity Formula “Few formulas in philosophy have been so widely accepted and variously interpreted as Kant’s injunction to treat humanity as an end in itself” (Hill, 38). Immanuel Kant’s views, as elucidated in his book, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, are based on the belief that “people count” by prohibiting actions which exploit other individuals in order for self-prosperity or altruistic ends. Ethics then, are confirmed by the dignity and worth of the rational agency of each person. Since human beings are the only rational beings capable of decision making and reasonable judgement, humanity must be valued. Kant proposes a test that ensures that humanity is treated with respect, and not used merely as an instrument. To understand how he defines this test, we must first take a look at the foundation of his main principle, the Categorical Imperative.
Kant’s way of determining morality of actions is quite different from other philosophers, and many find it extremely hard to grasp or implausible. The central concept of his basic test for morality found in his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals is the categorical imperative. “The representation of an objective principle, insofar as it is necessitating for a will, is called a command (of reason), and the formula of the command is called an imperative” (Kant, 24). In other words, an imperative is something that a will ought or shall do because the will is obligated to act in a way in which conforms to moral law. Imperatives can also be referred to as the supreme principle of morality. According to Kant, there are two types of imperatives: hypothetical and categorical.
Hypothetical imperatives are actions that look for the best means to a goal, however, the goal might not necessarily be an end in itself. On the other hand, the categorical imperative is an objectively necessary means to an end in itself, and the action to obtain the end, must have moral worth. If we as rational agents, have any morality at all Kant says, it takes the form of rational, categorical imperatives (commands of reason) and is found a priori excluding all interests and desires. These commands of reason are proven by the Universal Law Formula, which when applied, is a method for determining the morality of actions. How is this formula applied though? Kantian philosophy is derived from the belief that actions should be universalizable, and this formula, which is a two-part test, ensures that actions of rational agents can be universally accepted. First, one creates a maxim and considers whether the maxim could possibly be a universal law for all rational beings.
Second, one determines whether rational beings would will it to be a universal law. Once the maxim passes both tests, there are no exceptions to it. Kant truly believed in the value of humanity, and felt that everyone should be subjected to the same moral standards. The Universal Law Formula was his method of ensuring this, requiring maxims to be universally acceptable to all rational beings. In the latter half of Section II, he imposes even further stringent requirements for treating humanity in universally acceptable means by proposing his Humanity Formula. Human beings have the special capacity to exercise rational judgement, “foresee future consequences, adopt long-range goals, and resist immediate temptation,” so we must therefore value rational agents as an end (Hill, 40-41).
This yields one of three formulations of the categorical imperative, and the one that is most worth discussing, the humanity formula: “So act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means” (Kant, 38). Kant probably intended “persons are ends” and “humanity in persons is an end” and therefore humans should be treated in a humane way. In other words, we must always treat people with respect to the virtue of their rational capacity and as though their existence alone is valuable. According to Kant, treating people as rational agents and means to ends, also demands (if the agent is fully rational) consent.
Treating people only in ways to which they could consent, in so far as they are rational, not merely as means but also as an end, is a moral requirement. Say a young child has fallen onto a subway track and does not see the subway coming. You have the opportunity to alert the child of the oncoming train by grabbing a briefcase out of the hands of a man standing next to you and throwing it towards the child as to grab his or her attention. Kant’s theory holds that this action is morally permissible, assuming the man could rationally consent.
The only downside to this is that the man must accept the minor inconvenience of having to buy a new briefcase and replacing the papers that were inside of the damaged one. What does this lead us to? Well some might question whether the man was treated respectively. The answer Kant offers for this is that he indeed was, seeing as how he only forfeited something one can attach a monetary value to, and as a result, saved a child’s life. This brings us to Kant’s dignity versus price argument. Rational agents have a certain dignity that is incomparable to something with a price value. Above all, we should respect the value of our rationale.
That which has dignity cannot be traded off for that which has price, and invariably, that which has dignity cannot be exchanged for other dignity values. A prime example of the latter part of argument is suicide in order to relieve pain or suffering. Kant holds that this is an immoral action in that it is trading life, or a dignity value, for death, a pleasure value. You could live a very rational, prosperous life, insofar as you live it out until its natural end. Killing yourself does not respect the value of choice and fails to exercise rational agency capacity (humanity). Although categorical imperatives are not inflexible, Kant does in fact believe morality consists of exception less rules.
One very pertinent such rule is to never lie. The example he explores is a situation involving a murderer. He arrives at your front door and is searching for your friend, who he wants to kill. He asks you if you have seen the individual or if he or she has run inside.
You know your friend has run into your house to hide, and you have the chance to save him by telling the murderer that he has run the opposite direction, but Kant strictly states we should never lie, and therefore, you must tell the man your friend has run upstairs, where he proceeds to hunt and kill him. Even if telling a lie would prevent wrongdoing or bad outcomes, Kant asserts that the truth should always be told. If telling the truth does create undesirable outcomes, the person who tells the truth cannot be to blame or held responsible for those outcomes in that they did their duty in not uttering falsities. What makes lying wrong though, and why can’t there be any exceptions to this rule? Lying when given the opportunity to save someone’s life, seems to fulfill moral duty. There are certain moral values in life that should, above all, take precedence over other moral values. These actions are encompassed in humanity’s duty, to ourselves and to others.
Lying to prevent a murder is rational. Does not saving another human’s life respect their rational capacity more than allowing them to die at the hands of a murderer who you could have sent astray with one lie? But no, Kant’s humanity formula deems lying as a selfish act, because you must always treat people as though they could logically consent, and if you lie to someone, they have no chance to consent and therefore it should not be permissible. If you don’t lie to save your friend’s life, you are not respecting their value and dignity as a rational being, but Kant’s counter argument is, if you lie to the murderer, you are not respecting his rationality or value as a will. Overall, not lying, even to save a life, seems absurd. To any sensible person, this is quite radical and terribly hard to swallow. There is no way to honor both of Kant’s views that we should value humans and also not to lie in the case of the murderer.
If Kant believes so strongly that humans are the only rational beings capable of reason (which is a highly valuable trait), why does he deny them the opportunity to exercise this rationality? As rational beings, humans should be able to use their judgement wisely enough to know that lying would create better outcomes in many situations. This essentially, would be a Utilitarian’s argument. Moral actions are based on consequences; ones which increase happiness or positive outcomes. Telling a lie to the murderer to send him astray would save a life, and consequently would be a moral action. Utilitarianism would take into account the future repercussions caused by the lie, but the analysis of an action still lies in the foreseen or predicted consequences rather than on the action’s intrinsic moral value.
Morality then, would be judged on a case by case basis. Kant’s perspective refutes this by saying morality loses its value as a universal quality. Although situations change, the basis for acting (morality) must stay the same and actions are moral or immoral, regardless of any immediate consequences. Still, morality is based on constantly changing and often unpredictable outcomes. Kantian philosophy, even interpreted by Kant himself, is overly extreme and the strict application of its principles is too stringent. Although there is no definite foundation to base morality on, the universal law formula is highly implausible..