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It has always been a most curious matter. As an advocate of traditional Christian practices of respect for human dignity, I have always called the attention of my ethics students to Immanuel Kant’s argument for this dignity. Traditionally labeled as the “second formulation” of Kant’s “Categorical Imperative,” it says: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means to an end” (Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, p. 36).

A person is not (“merely” or only) a tool for achieving some other goal. One is an end, a moral legislator worthy of respect, and thus one who gives respect to all other persons, who are equally such legislators.  Therefore, in one famous argument, he argues against deterrence in the justice system. The law should not punish one person so as to deter another person from committing a crime. That makes the first person a tool to influencing the behavior of the second. A person should only be punished in accordance with what he deserves. He receives what he has “legislated”; he earns what he has done.

In Lectures on Ethics,  Kant makes clear that “making a person a tool” is just as wrong when one does it to one’s self, as when one “uses” another. Indeed, it is more so, since one’s fundamental moral duty is to be this ideal universal moral legislator. (This principle is expressed in the “first version” of the Categorical Imperative: “Act in such a way that the maxim of your action could become a universal law of nature.”) He gives some practical examples: prostitution is wrong because the prostitute debases his body, and hence his person. Then we have the example of a man who goes into a bar, and fights for “a few pints”. According to Kant, the small-time pugilist “throws himself away.”

Much of his argument is obscure.  My effort at explanation goes something like this: the prostitute turns his person, his sexual availability, into money, into sheer material well-being. Moreover, he becomes the sexual slave of the client: he wants the money, and must provide whatever services the client wishes. The pugilist wants a ‘burger and a beer, and compromises his physical well-being to get it.

But why is either act wrong? My students—young minds “full of mush”—are never persuaded. What is the difference between that pugilist—who only earns a “few pints”—and a prize fighter who earns 10 million dollars? Why should the former, but not the latter, earn our disapprobation? Certainly the amount of money has no bearing on the morality, since the value of the person is supposedly “infinite.” If the act is wrong, it is wrong whether one earns a ‘burger and a beer, or $10 million. For the person who sniffs in moral superiority at prize-fighting, what about a pro football player, who shortens his expected life-span by 10 to 20 years? Has he not turned his own existence into a means for fortune, fame, and “self-fulfillment”? Are not all the fans who eagerly and lustily cheer him on equally culpable for turning his person into that means?

I always have a difficult time “closing the deal,” or even knowing if I ought to try. Do not we all use our bodies, our persons, as means to the ends of physical existence, of economic survival? This past semester, a fellow professor was disabled and I was asked to fill in for one of his classes. I did not have the time—I was already teaching 8 classes at 3 schools—and did not need the money. In agreeing to take on the ninth course, I lost all freedom to give my other classes the due time and attention each deserved. Did I not thereby become a tool to the needs of the institution, so that I would continue to be “used”?

Furthermore, Kant’s basic argument for the “absolute worth” of these  ”objective ends” never quite convinced me:
These, therefore, are not merely subjective ends whose existence has a worth for us as an effect of our action, but objective ends, that is, things whose existence is an end in itself; an end moreover for which no other can be substituted, which they should subserve merely as means, for otherwise nothing whatever would possess absolute worth; but if all worth were conditioned and therefore contingent, then there would be no supreme practical principle of reason whatever. (Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals, etext here)

As least as I construct the syllogism, this is Kant’s argument:

  • Something must have absolute worth

  • If man does not have absolute worth, then nothing has absolute worth.

  • Therefore, man has absolute worth.

But is the major premise valid? Why (logically) must something have absolute worth? My students can be brought to understand that a world in which all beings possessed only conditional worth is a world in which everyone can be “used” by everyone else. If worth exists only in the worth that one being has for another, then all beings are tools. It would be a world in which all were slaves to the desires and needs of the other.

However undesirable such a world would be, that does not prove that such a world is not the one we live in. Such was the state of my reflection at the beginning of the summer. As the hectic semester wound down, I began reading in preparation for a revision of a course I teach in “Peace and Conflict.” The work was the magisterial analysis by Azar Gat, War in Human Civilization.

As I read Gat, warfare originates in the evolutionary imperatives of survival: food, protection from the elements, and propagation through sex. War was an “adaptation” of early humans that enabled them to maximize acquisition of these essential resources. Gat’s analysis implies all humans everywhere have treated themselves as only possessing conditional worth. Females were valued as subjects of (often forced) sexual relations. An attractive female was far more likely to gain a rich or powerful husband (and thus a mate who could provide essential resources of food, protection, and safety) than an unattractive one. Thus women quickly learned to use sexual appeal as a means to gaining the goods of life—as they do to this very day.  A client of a warlord or chieftain was valued only insofar as he contributed to the defense of the power and military prowess of his lord. The lord in turn was valued only for his ability to keep the goods of life flowing to his clients. A weak lord was very soon a dead one—whether at the hands of an enemy or an ambitious underling.

My “eureka!” moment came when reading Gat’s description of the “high-stake—high-risk—high gain affair” of the competition for imperial authority: “it was in defence of the supreme commanding position over the garden of pleasures that people reached out or fought for, killed and got killed.” Even in purportedly Christian Byzantium, more than 60 percent of the emperors (64 out of 107) were deposed or killed. That is only slightly better than the 70 percent of the rulers of the earlier Roman Empire who died violently.  In the heyday of the Ottoman Empire, prior to the establishment of a formal succession, the conflicts between the sons of the caliph were lethal, leading to a “‘security dilemma’” in which brothers and half-brothers struck out against each other, lest they be struck down first. (pp. 419-421)

The implications leaped out at me: even those people (usually men, of course) at the summit of human power and possession, people who should be able to live with “dignity” and honor, without any need to struggle for more, will struggle. They are compelled to do so by the imperatives of existence. They wager, not merely their health or happiness, but their very existence, in all-or-nothing game of acquisition. Their being is a means to gaining the “gardens of pleasure” that only the supreme ruler can enter. They would sooner forfeit life itself than surrender their ticket to the garden.

In conclusion, Kant was quite wrong. Neither nature nor reason demonstrates that humans have absolute worth. Hinduism does not believe in the absolute worth of the person, rather it believes that “Brahman is Atman,” that a person’s “self” is identical to the universal essence of the cosmos. Buddhism, with its doctrine of anatta (“anatman,” an-atman, “no-self”) says that the self has no ultimate reality.

Why did Kant think otherwise? Because a millennium of Christian culture taught him that it was possible to see human individuals as having infinite worth. However, Kant thought he could strip that revelation of its supernatural basis and shift the grounds of human dignity to reason. For the reasons stated above, I argue that he did not succeed.

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