Is Kants Ethics Overly Demanding?
John W. Lango
Kants 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. Why, for instance, should you be obligated, at great risk to yourself, to try to save the life of someone who is about to be murdered?
Therefore, the objection concludes, that persons must always be treated (even positively) as ends is a moral requirement that is overly demanding.
In responding to this objection, I shall sketch a conception of co-obligation, that is, a sort of moral requirement that holds, not of persons distributively, but rather of persons collectively.
Consider, for example, this (disputable) moral requirement: Poverty must be eradicated. But this statement needs to be clarified, for we can ask about it the following question: For whom is the eradication of poverty a moral requirement? If it is a moral requirement for me if it means that I myself must eradicate poverty then it is evidently overly demanding. However, if it is a moral requirement that I share with others (perhaps with all humanity) if it means that we together must eradicate poverty then it is (arguably) not overly demanding. How, then, are we to understand such co-operative obligations that is, co-obligations?
Let us assume that moral requirements are universal, in that they hold for everyone. Perhaps, for instance, the following is a moral requirement: You must not tell a lie. But note that it is most naturally understood as holding for everyone distributively, since it does not make much sense to think of all humanity as collectively telling a lie. In short, the you to whom it is addressed is each individual person. Henceforth I shall mean by the term obligation a moral requirement that holds for everyone distributively. Accordingly, in saying that everyone has the obligation to do such and such, what is meant is that each individual person has that obligation.
But there also are moral requirements that are most naturally understood as holding for everyone collectively. Let us take as an example the one above about poverty, but reformulated as follows: You must eradicate poverty. Here the you is most naturally construed collectively, because it does not make much sense to think of a single individual by herself eradicating poverty. Moreover, to say that this moral requirement is a universal one is to say that it holds collectively for all humanity (or even for all rational beings). In short, it is for all of us our co-obligation.
For another example, let us consider a principle of utility (for example, Benthams), namely (and briefly), maximize happiness. Construed as addressing humanity collectively, this principle would not seem to be overly demanding. But construed as addressing each and every person distributively, it can quite plausibly be charged with overdemandingness. For it does not seem fair to ask each person to shoulder the burden created by shirkers.
In summary, a moral requirement of the form You must do such and such is ambiguous, for it can be understood either distributively or collectively. When understood distributively, it is an obligation; and, when understood collectively, it is a co-obligation.
But it might be objected that this conception of co-obligation conflicts with what Kant actually said in his ethical writings. In particular, it might be objected that he did not recognize a collective duty not to allow a person to be treated simply as a means.
As a counterexample to these objections, let me offer the following passage from his book The Metaphysics of Morals, a passage that also serves to indicate how he would judge current disputes about the role of government in aiding the poor:
As for maintaining those children abandoned because of poverty or shame, or indeed murdered because of this, the state has the right to charge the people with the duty of not knowingly letting them die, even though they are an unwelcome addition to the resources of the state.
The duty here is one of not allowing death. Interestingly, it holds even if such children are not intentionally allowed to die, but only allowed to die knowingly.
Moreover, people (apparently) have this duty collectively. But they are only the people who happen to be citizens of the same state. In contrast, my view is that collective Kantian duties are shared by all persons everywhere.
Although offering this passage as a counterexample, I cannot in this brief talk attempt to critically examine it, or other passages from Kants ethical writings. For instance, I shall not examine his rousseauean notion of "a collective general (common) and powerful will" that the passage presupposes. Instead, I shall in the remainder of this talk discuss his ethics only in general terms.
Returning to the conception of co-obligation, I now want to raise a problem of devolution: How does a co-obligation, a moral requirement for all humanity, devolve upon me? In particular, given that we (collectively) are under the co-obligation to do A, does it necessarily follow that I (individually) am under the obligation to do A?
It would seem to be fallacious to reason, with respect to every use of the term ought, as follows: Because we (collectively) ought to do A, I (individually) ought to do A. Here is a counterexample, in which the term ought is used prudentially: People ought to elect this candidate; therefore, I ought to elect her. What would seem to follow instead from the former statement is that I ought to vote for her that is, that I ought to help to elect her, by voting for her.
This suggests that it is a fallacy to reason from the co-obligation to do A to the obligation to do A. For instance, given that we (collectively) must maximize happiness, it would not seem to follow that I (individually) must (always act so as to) maximize happiness. Accordingly, it might be claimed instead that what follows from the co-obligation to do A is only the obligation to help to do A. Thus, given that we must maximize happiness, it would follow only that I must help to maximize happiness.
Nevertheless, the latter moral requirement seems to be too minimal, for I can (apparently) satisfy it merely by giving a dollar to a beggar. In general, then, in order for me to satisfy a co-obligation, it is not enough for me to provide some help, however minimal. Instead, I must provide the right sort of help, or the right amount. But how must I help? How much is enough?
In answer to these questions, it might be contended that what follows from our co-obligation to do A is my obligation to help as much as I can to do A. However, if this contention means that my helping must be all-out for instance, that I must sacrifice everything, if need be, in order to help to eradicate poverty then it would certainly seem to be overly demanding. On the other hand, the contention could mean that I must help as much as I can, given my other interests and responsibilities. But then co-obligations might demand too little, for they might only entail individual moral requirements that are readily overridable, even by nonmoral considerations.
When we are co-obligated to do A, how must I help to do A? A quite plausible (but vague) answer to this question is the following: Because of that co-obligation, I am obligated to do what is my fair share. For instance, given that we must maximize happiness, I must contribute my fair share towards the maximizing of happiness. But what is fair? And is it never the case that I must contribute more, because others have contributed less?
In discussing the problem of overdemandingness for principles of beneficence, Liam Murphy has defended a "Cooperative Principle" of beneficence, a principle that can be briefly summarized as follows: You must "act optimally" in situations of "full compliance" that is, in situations where everyone else also acts optimally. But in situations of "partial compliance"that is, in situations where other persons do not act optimally it is not the case that you must act optimally (although you may do so, if you want). Instead, what you must do, in situations of partial compliance, is this: that which you would have been morally required to do had everyone else acted optimally.
In order to illustrate this cooperative principle, let us have a somewhat artificial, but clear-cut, hypothetical case: World poverty would be eradicated, if each (sufficiently affluent) person in the world were to contribute five percent of her income to relief organizations. If everyone else made such a contribution, you would, by also making such a contribution, be acting optimally. However, most people contribute nothing, and so, even if you were to contribute your entire income, poverty would still remain. Nevertheless, according to the cooperative principle, it is only the case that you must contribute five percent of your income, for that is what you would have been morally required to do had everyone else acted optimally. Any additional contribution is not morally required, but only supererogatory.
But Murphy admits that even this cooperative principle could sometimes be overly demanding. For a counterexample, let us imagine Malthus vindicated a millennium hence: World poverty can only be eradicated, if each person in the world who is not desperately poor contributes ninety percent of her income to relief organizations. The point is that in such cases acting optimally, even when everyone else also acts optimally, might still be overly demanding.
I would also maintain that the cooperative principle could sometimes demand too little. For an illustration, let us imagine a future of world affluence: The remaining poverty can easily be eradicated, if each person contributes a miniscule part of her income to relief organizations. But most people contribute nothing. Nevertheless, if you (and a few others) were to contribute five percent of your income, poverty would be eradicated. In this case, I would claim that the co-obligation to eradicate poverty requires you to make this contribution, even though most others contribute nothing. (Analogously, both parents are responsible for their children; but, if one parent is a shirker, the other must shoulder the burden.)
We see, then, that, in addition to the problem of overdemandingness, there also is a problem of underdemandingness. Neither problem is completely solved merely by requiring each person to do her fair share.
In light of these difficulties about devolution, it is tempting to conclude that an obligation can never be derived from a co-obligation. Nevertheless, I want now to suggest a Kantian counterexample.
Suppose that a person is about to be murdered. But he is a rational being, he has a good will, and so he must be treated as an end (and not simply as a means). But to whom is this statement addressed? Let us conjecture that it is addressed, most basically, to all of us; that all rational beings are under the co-obligation to treat him as an end. But how, then, does this co-obligation devolve upon you?
He is not treated as an end, if the murder, although preventable, is allowed to occur. Let us understand this claim as implying the following: We (collectively) cannot treat him as an end without preventing him from being murdered. But suppose that, under the circumstances, only you are able to prevent the murder, only you have both the opportunity and the capability. This suggests that the following also obtains: We (collectively) cannot prevent the murder without (under these circumstances) you (individually) preventing the murder. Therefore, from these two claims, we derive the following: We (collectively) cannot treat him as an end without (under these circumstances) you (individually) preventing the murder. Therefore, because we (collectively) must treat him as an end, it follows that you (individually) must prevent the murder. In short, because you alone have the opportunity and the capability to save him, our co-obligation devolves upon you.
Therefore, some obligations do stem from co-obligations. But note that the above counterexample has as a crucial assumption the following conjecture: The Formula of the End in Itself is to be read as implying that we (collectively) must treat each person as an end (and not simply as a means). I find this conjecture quite plausible, especially in light of Kants conception of a kingdom of ends, that is, "a whole of all ends in systematic conjunction (a whole both of rational beings as ends in themselves and also of the personal ends which each may set before himself)".
Let us return to the above objection about overdemandingness: That persons must always be treated (even positively) as ends is a moral requirement that is overly demanding. This objection would appear to presuppose that the Formula only holds of persons distributively. However, in light of this conjecture, I would suggest that it could be (at least partly) answered by rejecting this presupposition.
Accordingly, we might make the following distinction:
On the one hand, suppose that someone would be treated simply as a means if something were done to her. Then the Formula is to be understood as establishing an obligation not to do that thing that holds distributively. (For instance, I must not make a false promise to her.) For each of us can satisfy such an obligation simply by exercising self-control.
On the other hand, suppose that someone would be treated simply as a means if another person were allowed to do something to her. Then the Formula is to be understood only as (directly) establishing a moral requirement to stop him that holds collectively. (For instance, we must save her from being murdered by him.)
We see, then, that, if suggestions like these were accepted, such a co-obligation need not be overly demanding, because only under particular circumstances would it obligate individuals. As an illustration of a co-obligation that does not thus devolve upon an individual, let us alter the above counterexample involving a person who is about to be murdered as follows: You are not alone. Instead, with you is a policeman. But then only the following claim holds: We (collectively) cannot prevent the murder without (under these circumstances) either you or the policeman (or both) preventing it. But this means that the above derivation of your individual obligation to prevent the murder is blocked.
(1) I use H. J. Patons name for this formulation of Kants Categorical Imperative. See Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, translated by H. J. Paton (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1964), p. 32. For Kants statement of the Formula, see p. 96. (Page 429 in the Prussian Academy edition.)
(2) Immanuel Kant, The Metaphysics of Morals, translated by Mary Gregor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), pp. 136-7, emphasis added. (Page 326 in the Prussian Academy edition.)
(3) Ibid., p. 77. (Page 256 in the Prussian Academy edition.) Note that, in the paragraph preceding the quoted passage, Kant referred to the "general will of the people".
(4) Liam. B. Murphy, "The Demands of Beneficence," Philosophy and Public Affairs 22:4 (Fall 1993): 267-292, p. 280.
(5) Ibid., p. 289.
(6) Groundwork, op. cit., p. 101, emphasis added. (Page 433 in the Prussian Academy edition.)