For a variety of reasons, Kant has garnered the reputation of being a notoriously difficult thinker. Although in many ways this is the case, it certainly is possible to gain a sufficient understanding of his Ethics without having to “wade into the weeds” of his entire system. Thus, the aim of the following paragraphs is to identify the key elements in his Ethics and to do so in a way that they might be grasped without too much difficulty.
Let’s begin by asserting what is, for Kant, “The Supreme Principle of Morality.” Now, before doing so, let’s note that Kant articulates his supreme principle in more than one way (in fact, he offers three formulas and two variants). So, for the purpose of clarity, I shall offer only one of these formulas: the one Kant calls The Formula of Humanity as the End in Itself (FH). Kant refers to his supreme principle of morality as the Categorical Imperative (CI); the FH version of the CI claims the following:
So act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or that of another, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means.
The first aspect of this formula that must be understood is the assertion that one ought never to treat another as a “means” and that one ought to treat another as an “end.” For Kant, all acts are reflections of maxims. A maxim articulates a person’s rule or justification for a given act. For example, if a person decides to begin contributing a sum of money to a charity, then his or her maxim would be: “I shall begin to contribute X amount of money to charity Y.” Or, to translate his or her maxim into a universal principle: “One ought to contribute to charity.” Here we see the move from the individual to the universal: the individual maxim asserts the specific person’s intention or motive for acting; the universal maxim asserts the claim that all people ought to act in the same sort of way.
When we act, we “manifest” a maxim. And, moreover, if we reflect a bit we shall be able to articulate it. Hence, according to Kant, if we aim to generate a judgment about the moral nature of a given act, then we must look at the maxim from which the act emerged. What we ought not to do, according to Kant, is look at the quantity of pain and/or pleasure that the act generates. Our check – or, better, our limiting principle – on our acts is whether or not the act treats or uses another as mere means or as ends in themselves.
To use or treat another as “mere means” is to involve him or her in an act in which he or she is unable to consent. This does not mean that one can never use another as a means: an employer, for example, uses his or her employees as a means to making money; one uses another as a means to achieve any number of ends. In these cases, the key is that each person involved freely consents to be involved. Hence, in these cases, Kant would say that one uses others as “means,” but not as “mere means to one’s own end: each person engages in the act on basis of his or her own maxim and thus is not used as a mere tool to be manipulated.
Let’s consider Kant’s famous example of one who breaks a promise to another. I make a promise to you, knowing full-well that I intend to break it. You accept the promise, which suggests that you have no idea that I intend to break it: you, that is, have no idea what my intention really is. In fact, if you had known my intention, you would have rejected my promise. This suggests that successful, false promises are a result of the one making the promise deceiving the one to whom the promise is made about one’s intention. Moreover, because the person to whom the promise is made is deceived about my maxim, then the one who accepts the promise can’t, in principle, consent to his or her part in the action of the promise. The deceived person is, thus, being treated as a tool, or, as a mere means, to the end of the deceiver.
Deception is one of the primary ways that one treats another as a mere means. When a person involves another in any sort of scheme – criminal, business, or whatever – by deception then one involves another in an act to which he or she cannot consent. Another common mode of treating another as a mere means is by the exercise of coercion. When one threatens another, and because of the threat one is compelled to involve oneself in act, then the one coerced, in principle, can’t consent to participate in the act. Hence, in Kant’s Ethic, acts that are done on maxims that require the deception and/or coercion of another violate the Supreme Principle of Morality; these acts are, in their very natures (that is, intrinsically) wrong.
For Kant, then, the treating of a human being as a mere means is always wrong, that is, unjust. And, for Kant, the duties of justice are the most important duties. To treat another as an end, and not as a mere means, requires, first, one not use another as a tool. Furthermore, the treating another as an end suggests that one might involve oneself in another’s efforts; one does this by adopting some of the ends of another. If I am to act beneficently – that is, to attend to another’s well-being – then I may adopt as my own some of the ends that the other intends. If my aim is to enhance the well-being of another, then I shall embrace maxims that not only avoid treating the other as a mere means, but I shall also adopt maxims that foster some of their plans and activities. To be beneficent is to try to achieve what the other intends.
In an effort to determine the degree to which they fulfill the duties of justice, Kantians will not assess the consequences of their acts. The ultimate criterion of justice is to be sure that an act does not entail the use of another as a mere means. If the act does not violate the CI, then the act is morally permissible. If by not doing a given act, then one would use another as a mere means, then the act must be undertaken. As noted by Onora O’Neil, Kant’s Ethic has less scope than the Ethic of Utilitarians. Kant’s Ethic is unable to pronounce a judgment on a given act unless that act’s maxim is fully known. That is, Kant’s Ethic is unable to move from an unclear or unknown maxim to an act’s consequences to justify a given judgment.
Let’s, now, consider a couple of the differences between Kant’s Ethic and Utilitarianism. Kant’s Ethic, as noted above, lacks the scope of the Utilitarian Ethic, yet, Kant’s Ethic is more precise. For the Utilitarian, every act, in principle – of a person or a collective – can be judged, so long as data pertaining to the consequences of the act are available. Yet, the Utilitarian Ethic often lacks precision, for consequences are, generally, imprecise. Kant’s Ethic, on the other hand, possesses the precision lacked by Utilitarianism: Kant’s Ethic hones in on the intention of the actor, that is, on the maxim of the act.
Hence, a gap, often, opens-up between intention and consequences. We all know that moral intentions have generated horrific consequences and that bad intentions sometimes garner good consequences. Some scholars have demonstrated that the good intentions of those who attempt to feed the hungry generate dreadful consequences (in the long run). And, who can deny that greedy intentions often generate profitable consequences? These contradictions, says O’Neil, are, generally, the exception, not the rule. Our intentions do reflect what we expect the consequences of our acts to be: when a person’s articulated intentions disregard predictable consequences, one ought to infer that their words do not express his or her true intentions.
The FH assures one that so long as his or her act does not use another as a mere means, he or she does not act unjustly. Moreover, the FH assures one that so long as one’s maxims foster some of the ends of others, then one can be assured that engages in acts of beneficence. Kant’s Ethic, then, is able to make these judgments, unlike the Utilitarian Ethic, even when it lacks relevant information about the consequences of a given act. This allows the Kantian to work out the justice of a given act even though he or she lacks the insight into the long-term consequences of a given act. For the Utilitarian, however, the key phrase “in the long run,” is essential to its assessment of specific acts.
For Utilitarians, an individual, at least in theory, might be sacrificed for the sake of the larger good. Not so for the Kantian: human beings – and, hence human life – are valuable because they are the bearers of rational life. Human beings are able to think, to choose, to plan. Hence, no rational being should be denied this capacity; that is, no human being ought to treated as a mere means for another’s enjoyment or happiness. One may sacrifice one’s own body for others for in doing so one is not being treated as a mere means.
In the end, it might be the case that a society full of Kantians might be a society that is less happy than a society full of Utilitarians. Yet, for Kant, the aim here is not happiness, but virtue, or better, justice: that is, a society in which one will not be made the tool or mere instrument for another’s happiness.