9.1 What do we owe one another?

In the kingdom of ends everything has either a price or a dignity. What has a price can be replaced by something else as its equivalent; what on the other hand is raised above all price and therefore admits of no equivalent has a dignity.

—Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals

Philosophy is the art of making distinctions. If this is true of the work of any philosopher it is definitely true of Kant. The first and most important distinction to keep in mind as we start to explore Kantian ethics is that between the “conditional” and the “unconditional.” This distinction applies to claims about what is true or false (knowledge claims) as well as to claims about what is right and wrong (moral claims). As an example of something that is unconditionally true, consider the following claim from elementary geometry, “For every right triangle with legs labeled a, b and the hypotenuse labeled c, the sum of the square of the legs a and b is exactly equal to the square of the hypotenuse c.” It does not matter what the triangle is made of, whether it is drawn in a book, encoded in a computer program, sketched in dirt on the surface of the moon. This relation between the sides of a right triangle holds unconditionally. On the other hand, most of the (non-mathematical) claims that we make are at best conditionally true. For example, even though it is true that water boils at 100 degrees Celsius, this might not have been the case if the laws of physics and chemistry were different and it all depends on atmospheric pressure which is why high up in the mountains where there is less air pressure water boils at a lower temperature than at sea level. Likewise, that I was born to my particular parents on the day I was born is contingent, something that might not have been the case, and so it is only conditionally true that my birthday is when it is.

The same distinction applies when we are talking about right and wrong. Some things are only conditionally right or wrong. It is, for example, wrong to drive on the right side of the road in England, since the accepted, and legally binding, norm is to drive on the left side of the road. But this clearly might not have been the case and in many other places in the world, one is expected to drive on the right. What about things that are unconditionally right or wrong? Are there any such things? Well in Kant’s view unless we recognize that there are some things that are unconditionally right and unconditionally wrong we have failed to grasp the point of ethics. In fact, Kant’s ethics is an extended defense of the claim that there are such things as unconditional duties, things that we simply either should do, or should avoid doing, no matter what. We will see what Kant’s defense of this fairly strong claim looks like in a moment. Before we get there, let us take a look at what this claim implies about ethics.


So, then, what are the implications of the claim that there are such things as unconditional duties? First of all, it fits in very well with some basic moral intuitions that many people share, namely that some things are just plain wrong. There are some things that we should just simply never do, no matter what the benefits of doing them may be. For example, many people would agree that things like murder, rape, torture and slavery are simply wrong. (Remember that we are not committed to the truth of this claim just yet, since we still need to examine Kant’s argument that this there really are unconditional duties.) Furthermore, if it is in fact the case that such things should never be done, then this would enable us to flesh out the concept of “rights.” Rights are nothing but standards of treatment we are entitled to unconditionally. My right not to be tortured continues to hold, or should continue to hold according to Kantian ethics, no matter what might be gained for society as a whole by torturing me. If Kant is correct, then, and only then does the concept of rights really mean something.

This position is clearly at odds with utilitarianism, according to which nothing should ever be ruled out as a possible course of action since it may be the best way of attaining a greater good. Utilitarians have to leave open the possibility that murder, rape, torture or slavery might be a way of getting the best outcome for the most people. This is the fundamental conflict between utilitarians and Kantians. This conflict, however, extends far beyond the question of rights. For Kantians ethics is not concerned with trying to attain the greater good for the simple reason that it is not concerned with attaining what is good. Ethics, in Kant’s view is about doing what is right and not what is good. It might be nice if the people who did the right thing habitually were also rewarded with good results such as happiness for their efforts, but there is no guarantee that this will happen. Basing ethics on the contingent outcomes of our actions is sacrificing the truly ethical side of our actions for things that are utterly undependable.

This goes back to one of the problems with utilitarianism mentioned in the last chapter, the problem of predicting the outcomes of our actions. Since according to utilitarianism, ethics requires choosing whatever leads to the best overall outcome, it assumes that the consequences or our actions are at least roughly predictable. But, as Kant points out, what happens in the world is contingent – dependent on many things that are simply outside of our abilty to control. So basing ethics on the contingent effects of our present choices seems hopelessly unreliable as a source of ethical guidance. By placing the ethical value of actions out in the world this value gets lost in the shuffle.

Persons and things

A second important distinction that follows from Kant’s claim that there are such things as strict duties is the distinction between persons and things. Both persons and things have value, but the value each has is completely different. Things are valuable in that they are useful for our plans, they are means to an end. Their value is not inherent in them but in the other things of value that we get by means of them. As a result, the value of one thing can be compared to the value of another – an idea reflected in the fact that we give a price to things thus showing how their value compares with the value of other things. Finally, the value of things can be used up. In the end, when a things ceases to be useful to us or even becomes a burden to us, we get rid of it or trade it for another thing. Persons on the other hand, have an entirely different sort of value. Their value is intrinsic or inherent and not dependent on their use for our projects – that is, as log as we are treating them like persons and not like things to be used. Instead of having a price, a person has an inherent dignity, a moral worth that transcends what good they may do for us. Thus, the primary way we treat other persons should be respect. They are worthy of respect simply in recognition of their intrinsic value.

Now all of this may sound completely idealistic and may seem to have little connection with the real ways in which we relate to each other. In Kant’s view that just shows how little our behavior really corresponds to the standards of morality. The fact that we often fail to treat other people persons with inherent moral dignity has nothing at all to do with whether we should treat them like that. In fact, this basic distinction between persons and things follows directly from the idea that there are some things that are just plain wrong. What this really means is that there can never be an excuse for doing certain kinds of things to people. The ideal of moral treatment and the idea that there are real moral standards that just should not be violated are two sides of the same coin.