Saturday, May 12, 2007

People As Means

One of the foundations to Kantian ethics is the idea that "people should be treated as ends in themselves, not means." We should not use people, in other words. But it is impossible not to use people. Parents use children for genetic longevity, happiness, and distraction. Friends use friends for support and pleasure. Employers use employees, obviously - even saints use people to express their saintliness.

The moral question, then, is whether you are using people parasitically, symbiotically, or the opposite of parasitically - benevolently, perhaps? The latter does not exist in nature - probably because it's impossible. Even those who give benevolently are dependent upon the giftee. We respect those who give without ado because they are satisfied with pleasure that giving gives to them rather than the public support that accompanies giving.

Giving out of a sense of duty alone is impossible, and it wouldn't be good even if it was possible. Humans should not be robots. Their fundamental duties are theirs to decide. And who really is imposing this duty - is it oneself, or is it the herd?


ADHR said...

Your initial premise is wrong. Kant didn't say that you shouldn't treat people as means, but only as ends -- he said you shouldn't treat people as means only, but always as ends. This is sometimes called the "mere means" test -- not the "means" test, you'll note!

So, Kant's okay with using people. What he's not okay with is doing so disrespectfully -- without full awareness and appreciation of the fact that they, too, are autonomous beings. Which hooks into the "who imposes the duty" business -- every individual agent imposes the duty on themselves, through recognition of the moral law. (Shades of Aquinas, I've always thought.) A divine agent couldn't help but be good, and thus would not need to choose to impose the law on itself; a human agent, however, can go wrong and thus must choose to be bound by duty.

One of the prevailing puzzles is how that's supposed to work. How can you impose a duty on yourself if there's an actual moral law floating around in the ether?

undergroundman said...

Thanks for the correction. :)

I could say that we aren't capable of even treating people as ends - they are always simply means to an objective, whether that objective is to steal or to "follow the categorical imperative" as Kant would say. By treating people as ends you are using them as a means towards that...somehow that makes sense to me.

I mean, I don't think we have to bring this "ends" thing into the picture. Sure, we need to treat people with respect due to the fact that they are rational agents, but is that the same thing as treating them as ends in themselves?

I'm not so sure what I have above is coherent now that I'm reading it. Even if we're treating someone as an end only by treating them as a means to that end, we're still treating people as a means and an end.

(Tried to strike through it with the < del > tag, but apparently Google won't let you use that. Bastards.)

Meh. I haven't read much Kant at all since freshman year - I like his idea of acting morally from a sense of duty even less. I'll have to try reading him over the summer.

ADHR said...

The problem with reading Kant is he's a systematic philosopher. That is, you understand him better by reading more of his works. Just going back over the Groundwork won't help terribly. I found that reading the first Critique really helped bring a lot of what he was trying to do into focus.

As for the "ends" thing, I think it's basically definitional for Kant that treating others with respect for their nature as rational beings is treating them as ends. I'm not entirely sure why, though. Possibly he defends this in the second Critique.

When it comes to acting for the sake of duty, I tend to think Kant went really off the rails here. I'm not sure he's got a coherent picture of motivation at work, and I'm really not sure why he thinks acting from a duty when you really don't want to is better than acting from a duty when you do want to. It's an anti-Aristotelian and anti-Humean point, but it's really very odd. Even people who want to allow for rationalistic motivation -- that is, motivation without wanting -- don't usually hold that it's better motivation. But Kant wants to say that acting for the sake of duty alone is the best form of motive. Again, the second Critique probably clears things up a bit.