Persons as Ends in Kant’s Metaphysic of Morals

The Practical Imperative will be as follows: So act as to treat humanity, whether in thine own person or in that of any other, in any case as an end withal, and never as a means only. (Kant, p 46)

It seems crucial to Kant’s Metaphysic of Morals that beings, insofar as they are rational, exist as ends in themselves. While the idea of taking that as a fundamental principle of morality is quite appealing, neither how Kant arrives at it, nor the connection between rational beings as ends and the universally legislative will, which seems essential for the possibility of a kingdom of ends, is readily apparent to me. That’s what I would like to examine in this essay.

Every rational being is an end in itself, and this hinges somehow on having a capacity towards exercising a universally legislative will. Only when these persons come together in the recognition of their respective dignity and legislative capacity can there be a moral society; a kingdom of ends. How is that the case? There seems, first, to be a stark line drawn between that which is objectively good and subjectively good: that which is good for me or for a particular purpose vs. that which is good in itself. Most things fall into the category of that which is good for a particular purpose or the use of a particular person, and therefore is not good in itself. For reasons that remain unclear to me, but which seem to involve being able to maintain a possibility of non-arbitrary freedom, a good will is good in itself, objectively, and that all and only rational beings (persons) are capable of developing such a will.

“That which serves the will as the objective ground of its self-determination is called the end” (p 44). And apparently the end of that which is good in itself is an end in itself, while everything else is only a means which may or may not fulfill that end. It must be the case that “the objective ground of the self-determination of the will” is a person, but what does that mean? Perhaps that thing which holds in itself the possibility of forming or possessing or otherwise allowing for the existence of a will? If there were no such being then morality would have no categorical imperative, but only hypothetical imperatives, for there would be nothing objective to tether our judgment to, but only its relation to various subjective ends. But rational beings are ends in themselves, by virtue of their capacity to will in accordance with universal laws, and therefore it is possible to posit a universally applicable moral principle, or perhaps two related principles: that we should only will universal laws, and that in so willing we should never treat rational beings as means only, but also as ends.

On the one hand, that seems to  be a useful distinction, in that it is not in the same way immoral to cut down a tree in order to make a piece of furniture as it would be to cut off the head of a person to make a political statement. Several times Kant mentions that the reason why suicide is wrong is that people themselves are ends, and not some particular human state, such as happiness. It likewise seems helpful that treating other people as ends is described as not merely refraining from acting for their harm, but also attempting to ensure their good. So to pass by someone who is starving is to treat him not as an end, but simply as a potential means who is not presently useful. Even in cases like the discussion of whether it’s a good idea to make educational requirements primarily statistical it would be interesting to consider to what degree that leads to looking at students as means. But if being an end is contingent upon a potential for a universally legislative will, it would seem to follow that non-rational beings, or beings in which we cannot establish rationality are only means and in no way ends. It is uncertain to what extent Kant sees the ability to will rationally as something that is either wholly present or wholly absent, or as a spectrum, and if the latter what status partially rational beings that cannot universally legislate have in respect to being ends in themselves.

After setting out four moral principles that follow from the practical imperative, Kant argues that the principle that rational beings are ends in themselves is a principle of pure reason because, first, it is universal and only reason can create universal principles, rather than ones that apply only to the rational beings that we happen to know, and, second, because it speaks of men as being ends in themselves, and not only ends for us (p 48). That seems fairly straightforward: from observation and experience we can know only that we or those we know do or do not treat others as ends in themselves, but not whether they are in fact ends regardless of how we treat them, simply by virtue of their status as rational beings, and so such a statement cannot be based upon experience.  But then it seems a bit of a stretch to say that because a statement is not entirely based upon sense, and is also reasonable, it is therefore a statement of pure reason. Is there a third thing being left out of the same sort as Aristotle’s intuitive intelligence, which is neither wholly practical, nor synonymous with reason? Apparently not in Kant’s metaphysic. In any event, there is an immediate turn that results in the universally legislative will:

“The objective principle of all practical legislation lies (according to the first principle) in the rule and its form of universality which makes it capable of being a law (say, for example, a law of nature); but the subjective principle is in the end; now by the second principle, the subject of all ends is each rational being insomuch as it is an end in itself. Hence follows the practical principle of the will, which is the ultimate condition with the universal practical reason, viz., the idea that the will of every rational being is a universally legislative will.”

So then the ability to have a universally legislative will is essential because as an end each person must not only be an object of action, but also a subject and originator of moral action that offers the same respect to other persons: thus its universality?


* Kant, Immanuel. Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals. Translated by Abbot, Thomas K. (1949). Macmillian Publishing Company, New York.

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