9.2 Rights and the ideal of respect

Kant’s claim that we should have absolute unconditional respect for persons will doubtless attract skeptical responses. Isn’t respect something that has to be earned? Isn’t respect conditional and can’t we lose respect for others if they show by their actions that they are not worthy of respect? This is a tricky issue, but Kant would have to answer no to these questions. Respect is something that is owed unconditionally to all rational agents. There are two reasons why Kant takes this position. First, if respect is conditional – if each of us will only grant respect to those who prove themselves worthy of respect – respect would never get off of the ground. I would be waiting for others to begin respecting me while they are all waiting for me to begin respecting them. The only way to ever get respectful relations going is for someone to start respecting others with no strings attached. The second reason why Kant refuses to accept that respect is something that can be lost, comes from his recognition of the limitations inherent in our knowledge of each other. If I deem someone else not worthy of continued respect, I am essentially downgrading their status to that of a thing, something beneath me that I can dispose of or use at will. But who am I to make such a decision? How can I possibly claim to put myself in a position to be able to judge someone else like this? Perhaps God knows that the person I refuse to respect is not really worthy of being respected, but lacking such an absolute perspective on things, how could I ever decide that another person is really not worthy of respect? The only way I can do this is by assuming that I am somehow above the person I condemn. But that is an unjustified (and in fact immoral) assumption to make.

As a result of these difficulties with turning respect into something conditional, we have no choice but to understand it as something unconditional. The moral point of view simply demands that we recognize certain absolute limits on the way we interact with others, including our willingness to judge the value of others. We must not put ourselves above other people, no matter how unworthy of respect they seem to us to be. But then this should not seem to unusual, since it is exactly what it means to have rights. Rights are claims that we make about what sort of treatment we are each entitled to. And rights, if they are really rights, have to be unconditional, universal and inalienable. They have to be unconditional because, if they were not, they would be dependent on someone else’s judgment about whether or not each of us deserves rights. But the whole point of insisting on rights is that nobody can be absolutely trusted to make such decisions. Historically, the concept of rights arose in the late 18th century, the era of the American and French revolutions. In those days absolute monarchs had the power to decide whether or not someone else was worthy of respect. But, as the colonists in what was to become the United States and the revolutionaries in France were very much aware, granting that sort of power to anyone undermines the security of everyone. So the “Bill of Rights” and the “Declaration of the Rights of Human Beings,” both insisted on the absolute non-negotiable character of rights. In addition, there is ultimately no way of containing rights to one group of people – even though it took us Americans another 200 years to grant full political rights to women and people of color, the idea of rights really only makes sense if it applies to all rational adults. Finally, rights, if they are to remain rights and not become something much weaker, must be inalienable – incapable of being taken away. If they could be taken away, whoever is entrusted to taking some people’s rights away would then be elevated an almost godlike stature above those whose rights are being taken away.

Conflicting duties

Kant’s position on ethics is thus quite a bit more demanding than the other views we have considered. It insists on the absolutely binding character of moral rules. For some critics of Kantian ethics, this makes it seem too rigid to deal with real life situations that seem to defy clear definition in terms of right and wrong. The most obvious, and most frequently voiced, objection to Kant’s insistence on the unconditional character of duties is that it seems to prevent us from being able to deal with cases where duties come into conflict with each other. For example, if someone shows up at your door and demands to know if your brother is there, you are obligated to tell the truth, even if your brother is upstairs hiding from this person and you suspect that he or she intends to harm your brother. It seems like our duty to help protect someone from harm and our duty to tell the truth come into conflict here. Most of us, naturally, would probably say that Kant is wrong in his insistence that we should tell the truth in this case, on the grounds that a lie is this case would be a good lie.

But is there really such a thing as a “good lie?” According to utilitarians the answer is obvious – as long a lying leads to a better outcome than telling the truth would have, the lie is good. Good lies are those with good consequences and bad lies are those with bad consequences. Of course, all of the problems with basing the rightness or wrongness of a decision on its consequences come rushing back in here. How long do wait have to wait for consequences to unfold before we can decide whether it was worth it to lie or not? How do we even measure the consequences of telling a lie in a way that is not subjectively biased towards our own interests? How can we compare the results of a real lie with what would have happened hypothetically if we told the truth?

In Kant’s view, these problems demonstrate the utter arbitrariness of utilitarian approaches to ethics. But then what do we do when duties conflict? Kant’s answer is, that we have to try our hardest to fulfill all of our duties simultaneously, because we cannot rely on the usual utilitarian excuses to get us out of our moral commitments. So in the case of the person looking for your brother, you have to both tell the truth and protect your brother. Our duties cannot be overridden by what we think may or may not happen if we violate them. All of this assumes that we really have such unconditional duties. Thus we need to consider, at long last, Kant’s argument that we really have such duties.