The Kantian Continuum

19 September 2012


Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) is the central figure in modern philosophy. He synthesized early modern rationalism and empiricism, set the terms for much of nineteenth and twentieth century philosophy, and continues to exercise a significant influence today in metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, political philosophy, aesthetics, and other fields. (from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

The Kantian Continuum of Means and Ends in Personhood

While Kant’s second critique, the Critique of Practical Reason, gives a systematic account of his moral philosophy, not surprisingly it is Kant’s shorter work of 1785, his Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals, that has been the more widely read and influential. In this little book Kant has this to say about our relation to other persons:

“Now I say: man and generally any rational being exists as an end in himself, not merely as a means to be arbitrarily used by this or that will, but in all his actions, whether they concern himself or other rational beings, must be always regarded at the same time as an end.”


“For all rational beings come under the law that each of them must treat itself and all others never merely as means, but in every case at the same time as ends in themselves.”

Immanuel Kant, Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals, translated by Thomas Kingsmill Abbott, 1785

I have cited this passage previously (in Being Valued by the Other) and noted that while we cannot avoid using other persons as means to an end in the ordinary business of life, the crucial sense of this passage is that even when we are forced to deal with other persons as a means, that they must also also be considered as ends in themselves. This is simply a philosophical formulation of the intuitive idea that all persons are due respect and dignity regardless of their condition, and if we must routinely use others as a means to obtaining our contingent ends, we also have a moral responsibility to acknowledge at the same time that these others are ends in themselves, so that our contingent business with them must be conducted with respect and dignity.

When I was thinking about this passage from Kant this morning I thought of it in relation to Edith Wyschogrod’s conception of sainthood in her book Saints and Postmodernism:

“I shall, however, define the saint — the subject of hagiographic narrative — as one whose adult life in its entirety is devoted to the alleviation of sorrow (the psychological suffering) and pain (the physical suffering) that afflicts other persons without distinction of rank or group or, alternatively, that afflicts sentient beings, whatever the cost to the saint in pain or sorrow.”

Edith Wyschogrod, Saints and Postmodernism: Revisioning Moral Philosophy, p. 34

In brief, the saint is that individual who has devoted his or her life to the other. The Kantian formulation of his would be that the saint always regards the other as an end in himself, to the exclusion of the use of the other as a means to an end.

It seems to me that, whether or not we are skeptical of sainthood, and whether or not we accept Wyschogrod’s definition of the saint, we must at least recognize the theoretical possibility of acting purely on the other’s personhood as an end in itself. As soon as we recognize this ideal possibility recognizing others as ends in themselves, we immediately see the all-too-real possibility of the anti-saint who acts purely on the other’s personhood as a means to an end (and which end is entirely independent of the other’s personhood).

The extremes of the as-an-end-only relation to others and the as-a-means-only relation to others defines a continuum of possibilities, along which continuum the ordinary business of life can be located as it approximates one extreme or the other, or balances the two and inhabits the middle portion of the continuum. Thus what I am here calling the Kantian continuum is that continuum of gradations between relating to others purely as as ends in themselves through relating to others purely as means to an end. Between these two extremes are circumstances when we mostly treat others as ends but also a little as means, when we treat others equally as ends and means, and when we primarily treat others as means to an end and only as an afterthought also treat them as ends in themselves.

Think of the situations and circumstances that one routinely encounters in the course of the ordinary business of life, as, for example, when one enters an establishment that still has living human clerks (as opposed to automated check out terminals) and you conduct a mundane exchange of money for goods, and perhaps acknowledge the clerk with a nod or a few scraps of conversation. This is a relationship that is primarily instrumental, and only as an afterthought do we knowledge the personhood of the other. While the purely instrumental approach to life probably belongs to pathology and is gratifyingly rare, the sort of transaction I have described is quite common in industrial-technological civilization.

At the other end of the scale, short of ideal sainthood but still at the altruistic end of the spectrum, our relationships with friends and family are primarily person-centered relationships that are very much constituted by the meaning and value that these others have for us as persons. It is only as an afterthought that we ask them to do something for us, and the doing of the task is usually accomplished in a way the the personhood of all involved is fully engaged. In fact, in so far as we ask something of those who love us, they may well enjoy serving us or be eager to provide for our needs, and vice versa if we are being asked to provide for those that we love.

One of the central concepts of Kant’s ethics is that of the “kingdom of ends.” Kant characterizes the kingdom of ends in this way:

“By a kingdom I understand the union of different rational beings in a system by common laws. Now since it is by laws that ends are determined as regards their universal validity, hence, if we abstract from the personal differences of rational beings and likewise from all the content of their private ends, we shall be able to conceive all ends combined in a systematic whole (including both rational beings as ends in themselves, and also the special ends which each may propose to himself), that is to say, we can conceive a kingdom of ends, which on the preceding principles is possible.”

Immanuel Kant, Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals, translated by Thomas Kingsmill Abbott, 1785

It seems to me that Kant’s kingdom of ends comprises the whole of the Kantian continuum with the exception of the extreme end point of using persons exclusively as means and not at the same time as an end in themselves. Clearly, it is using others that is excluded in Kantian ethics. While I suspect that most will follow Kant in this, the implicit sanctioning of personhood as an afterthought, near the as-a-means-only end of the Kantian continuum, contains in embryo much of that which has made life in industrial-technological civilization so dehumanizing and depersonalizing.

I am not here trying to censure Kant, or to find him responsible for the failings of modern society — there are a great many philosophers who have vigorously taken up the critique of Kantian ethics, and ably so — but I only wish to illustration how the Enlightenment universalism of Kant so easily passes over into its other. The very off-handedness of a recognition of one’s personhood as an afterthought is itself something less than full personhood — and, often, we feel it, but at the same time we understand it, so it does not often injure us.

It is difficult to point a finger at any individual as particularly responsible for the affronts to human dignity that assail us every day in industrial-technological civilization, since it is all-too-easy to understand how things became the way that they are now, and how difficult it would be to change them.

If, when engaged in some trivial transaction of contemporary life, one were to attempt to engage with the other first as a person, one’s actions would probably immediately elicit suspicion. Some few have the gift of engaging in a genuine way with others, even for a brief period of time, but it is not found all that often.

The bureaucratization of society that so marks industrial-technological civilization incorporates a pro forma recognition of the personhood of the other, in deference to our moral intuitions of the respect and dignity due to all persons, but it is precisely the pro forma character of the recognition that drains it of human meaning. Many have commented on the formalism of Kant’s ethics, and in the passage I quoted above Kant says we must, “abstract from the personal differences of rational beings,” yet it is the personal touch that most often breaks through as a recognition of personhood in otherwise anonymous transactions.

How many times in life does it happen that we are engaged in the formal courtesies required of us by society when someone accidentally goes “off script” and all present laugh at the deviation and suddenly there is a more relaxed feeling and people feel freer to be themselves and to express themselves? This, too, is a mutual recognition of personhood — of the concrete and fallible dimension of personhood that makes us human — and it is perhaps this kind of recognition of personhood that is most valued informally because it doesn’t come across as odd or strained like some ham-handed attempts to engage others.

This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from Pascal:

“When we see a natural style, we are astonished and delighted; for we expected to see an author, and we find a man. Whereas those who have good taste, and who seeing a book expect to find a man, are quite surprised to find an author. Plus poetice quam humane locutus es.”

There is not only a natural style in literature, but also a natural style in personal comportment, and when we encounter this natural style in manners we are astonished and delighted, for we expected to find a type, a cipher, an official, a bureaucrat, and instead we find a man. We also find ourselves, and feel a little freer to be human in the presence of such an other.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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