Kant’s principle of humanity is often confused with his principle of universalizability
since they both relate to one’s relationship with others. However, while the latter deals with the
moral importance of fairness, the principle of humanity relates to the moral treatment of others
through respect and dignity. According to this principle, one should never treat other people or
oneself as a means but rather as an end. According to Kant, the things that make a human being
what he is and that distinguish him from beings like monkeys, sharks, and daffodils, among
others, are what make him valuable and thus deserving of a level of respect.
Kant makes critical points about the importance of rationality and autonomy, for
instance, in explaining the immoral nature of slavery and rape. However, what position does
autonomy hold when the rationality of a person is questionable and his application of autonomy
is in a way that can lead to loss of life/lives? This paper expounds on Kant’s principle of
humanity and how it captures the difference between right and wrong conduct.
Rationality and Autonomy
According to Kant’s principle of humanity, any living being that is rational and
autonomous should be handled with respect and should not be seen as a way to attain one’s goals
(Kitcher 220). However, in life situations, it is possible to treat a person as both as an end and as
a means and still accord the person respect and dignity. For instance, one may need the services
of a housekeeper and will contact and hire one to carry out activities such as vacuuming and
doing the dishes. This way, I will have treated him as a means; however, if when he comes in I
greet him, calmly give him the instructions, and any assistance he may need, and pay him as he
leaves, then I will be treating him as an end.
Shafer-Landau (2010) states that it is a normal occurrence to need people to achieve goals
or fulfill tasks and this is perfectly okay as long as one handles them with a degree of respect and
dignity. On the other hand, to treat an individual in a way that fails to acknowledge any of his
distinctive human features is to handle him as a “mere means”. There is a lack of dignity and
respect when an individual treats another like an inanimate object and this undermines the value
of humanity (Kitcher 220). For instance, asking one’s servant to lie on a pool of water to serve as
a bridge to step on so that one can pass through without coming in contact with the water is
treating them as a mere means.
Indeed, living beings are not limited to human beings only as animals like dogs, lions,
zebras, and monkeys are living beings as well (Howe 138). However, as human beings, we have
a special moral status that gives us dignity and earns us a level of respect, and this is attributed to
rationality and autonomy. Shafer-Landau (2010) explains that rationality is being able to use
reason to decide how to achieve our desired outcomes and to determine whether we can achieve
our goals in ways that are moral and acceptable. No other living being yield the power a human
being uses to come up with personal goals (Shafer-Landau 160). Moreover, the kind of reasoning
a human being engages in is complex and no other species can carry out the same.
On the other hand, autonomy is self-legislation, where people make decisions for
themselves regarding how they will lead their lives. Kant’s principle of humanity concerning
autonomy dictates that a person will always be responsible for the choices they make, the things
they set out to achieve, and how they go after them. According to Kant, it is this rationality and
autonomy that make human life priceless (Shafer-Landau 161). One cannot put a price on human
life or compare it to a piece of art, no matter how beautiful the piece is. Rationality and
autonomy are what promote the need for dignity and respect for each human being and they
bring sense to several deeply held moral beliefs (Kitcher 220). For instance, these two aspects of
Kant’s principle of humanity highlight the wrongfulness of a fanatic’s actions that overlook the
principle of universalizability by handling their opponents as obstacles to victory.
It also explains the immorality of rape and slavery, where the partakers of these acts treat
their victims as objects for their gratification without regard for their goals or consent. The acts
of rape and slavery are some of the indisputable cases of handling other people as mere means
(Shafer-Landau 161). Autonomy is important as it governs why an individual does not lose hope
despite all the hardships they experience. Always being able to decide to better one’s life is a
source of hope for many people regardless of how hard it may be to change one’s behavior.
Kant’s principle of humanity is essential in explaining the outrage that results from paternalism,
where an individual takes on the role of a parent in a person’s life (Shafer-Landau 161).
Paternalism results in the loss of liberty of others, where individuals are treated as children
against their will as if they cannot decide for themselves.
People who partake in paternalism often explain their actions by indicating that they are
doing it for the other person’s good. However, Kant’s principle of humanity indicates that
paternalism undermines a person’s autonomy and rationality (Shafer-Landau 162). Although
paternalism can be infuriating, there may be a need for the same when a human life/human lives
are at stake. For instance, paternalism may occur when an individual begins to take part in
terrorist activities, for in this case, what are at stake are innocent people’s lives that have nothing
to do with the individual’s rationality or autonomy. Some may argue that individuals who take
part in terrorist activities may have underlying mental issues that may undermine their rationality
and autonomy. However, by the time mental evaluations are done on these individuals, it might
be too late and paternalism may be the only way to save lives.
Kant’s principle of humanity brings to light the special nature of human life above all
things and the need for according dignity and respect for all human beings. Human beings are
special because they are rational and autonomous. Kant holds that every human being is owed a
level of respect regardless of the situation. However, there occur situations when people’s
rationality must be questioned and autonomy overlooked because of the dangers their decisions
pose to the lives of other people. It is important to treat all people with respect and dignity and
despite being autonomous; people should make decisions whose consequences cannot take away
other people’s lives.
Howe, Alex. "Why Kant Animals Have Rights?." Journal of Animal Ethics 9.2 (2019): 137-142.
Kitcher, Patricia. "A Kantian Argument for the Formula of Humanity." Kant-Studien 108.2
Shafer-Landau, Russ. "The fundamentals of ethics." (2010).