Kant’s Formula of the End in Itself

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Kant’s Formula of the End in Itself

ABSTRACT: Is Kant’s "Formula of the End in Itself" overly demanding? In addressing this question, I sketch a conception of co-obligation, that is, a sort of moral requirement that holds, not of persons distributively, but of persons collectively. I then raise a problem of devolution: How does a co-obligation for all persons devolve upon me? For instance, given that we must maximize happiness, it does not seem to follow that I must always act so as to maximize happiness. In partial answer to this problem, I claim that some Kantian duties do stem from co-obligations. But this claim has as a crucial assumption the following conjecture: The "Formula of the End in Itself" is to be read as implying that we must treat each person as an end and not simply as a means.

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Kant’s Formula of the End in Itself, with its conception of treating persons as ends and not simply as means, has had enormous influence in the history of ethics. In this talk, I shall discuss an objection to it, namely, that it is overly demanding. To begin with, let me state this objection more fully: Suppose that, in obedience to the Formula, you want to treat your friend as an end (and not simply as a means). Your action of treating her as an end can be either a positive one or a negative one. When it is positive, she is (in some way) the object of your agency — for example, you might treat her as an end by saving her life. In contrast, when it is negative, she is not the object of your agency — for example, you might treat her as an end by refraining from lying to her.

Now the obligation to treat a person as an end is not overly demanding, when such an act is a negative one. For then you are simply obligated not to do something, an obligation that you can fully comply with by exercising self-control. For instance, it is hardly burdensome to refrain from lying to people.

However, when the act is a positive one, the obligation to treat a person as an end can often be overly demanding. For then your obligation to her can be a good-Samaritan one, requiring you not to allow other persons to treat her simply as a means. But an obligation of this sort can be quite difficult to comply with, because you cannot exercise the same control over other persons that you can over yourself.

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