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Kant's Humanity Formula

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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

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