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Humanity, Obligation, and the Good Will: An Argument against Dean's Interpretation of Humanity

  • Lara Denis (a1)


Humanity (die Menschheit) is an important notion within Kant's moral theory. The humanity formulation of the categorical imperative (FH) commands: ‘So act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means’ (G 4: 429). Kant's analysis of ethical obligation and his expositions of rights and duties in the Metaphysics of Morals refer frequently to humanity. How we understand this concept, then, has signifcant implications for how we understand Kant's ethics.



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1 Kant's works are cited by abbreviation and volume and page number from Immanuel Kants gesammelten Schriften, Ausgabe der königlich preuβischen Akademie der Wissenschaften (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1902–), except for the Critque of Pure Reason, which is cited by A/B (for frst and second editions). Translations used are from the Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 1992–), except for F, which has been translated by Frederick Rauscher and used with his permission (it will appear, revised, as part of the Cambridge Edition in Lectures and Drafts on Political Philosophy). Abbreviations: A/B: Kritik der reinen Vernunft (Critique of Pure Reason, trans. and ed. Paul Guyer and Allen Wood); Ant: Anthropologie in pragmatischer Hinsicht (trans. Robert Louden, in Anthropology, History, and Education, ed. Robert Louden and Gunter Zöller); C: Moralphilosophie Collins (in Lectures on Ethics, ed. Peter Heath and J. B. Schneewind, trans. Peter Heath); F: Kants Naturrecht Feyerabend (trans. Frederick Rauscher); G: Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten (in Practical Philosophy, ed. and trans. Mary J. Gregor); HN: Kants Handschriften Nachlass; KpV: Kritik der praktischen Vernunft (in Practical Philosophy); M: Moral Mrongovius II (in Lectures on Ethics); MS: Metaphysik der Sitten (in Practical Philosophy); NF: Notes and Fragments (ed. Paul Guyer, trans. Curtis Bowman, Paul Guyer and Frederick Rauscher); P: Pädagogik (trans. Robert Louden, in Anthropology, History and Education); Rel: Religion innerhalb der Grenzen der bloβen Vernunft (in Religion and Rational Theology, ed. and trans. Allen Wood and George di Giovanni); V: Metaphysik der Sitten Vigilantius (in Lectures on Ethics).

2 All page references to Dean are to The Value of Humanity in Kant's Moral Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006). See also ‘What should we treat as an end in itself?’, Pacifc Philosophical Quarterly, 77: 268–85 (1996). As I note in section V, Dean is not the frst to identify humanity with a good will.

3 Most of these passages are ambiguous between characterizing humanity simpliciter as an ideal and referring to an ideal of humanity (i.e., referring to humanity perfected, personifed or fully realized, as an ideal).

4 Dean also argues – less plausibly, I think – that his interpretation best explains why we should be moral, creates strong links among formulations of the categorical imperative, and explains why benefcence is limited only to the promotion of permissible ends of others (pp. 32–63).

5 See Herman, Barbara, ‘Leaving deontology behind’, in The Practice of Moral Judgment (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993); Guyer, Paul, ‘Ends of reason and ends of nature: the place of teleology in Kant's ethics’, in Kant's System of Nature and Freedom: Selected Essays (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005).

6 See Allen W. Wood, ‘Kant and agent-oriented ethics’, and Guyer, Paul, ‘Kantian perfectionism’, both in Perfecting Virtue: New Essays on Kantian Ethics and Virtue Ethics, ed. Jost, Lawrence and Wuerth, Julian (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming).

7 Dean himself does not appear interested in advancing these trends.

8 By marking the notion of a good will that Dean equates with humanity ‘good will (D)’ I do not mean to imply that it is not a genuinely Kantian notion of a good will.

9 This is my interpretation of radical evil, but I do not take myself to be saying anything with which Dean would have to disagree.

10 At Rel 6: 44 Kant says that the human being always possesses a good will. This is not a good will (D), but perhaps the predisposition to morality or a pure will.

11 See Oliver Sensen, ‘Kant's conception of human dignity,’ Kant-Studien, forthcoming.

12 Alternatively, Dean could argue that ‘humanity’ in this context refers to something other than the end in itself or what makes us ends in ourselves. Several of Kant's claims in surrounding pages would make this diffcult. Kant's statement that ‘[i]n the doctrine of duties a human being can and should be represented … merely in terms of his humanity’ (MS 6: 239) suggests that the same humanity is the concern of all duties, even if different aspects of it are more pertinent in the Doctrine of Right and the Doctrine of Virtue.

13 This is diffcult to defend textually without seeming to beg the question against Dean. Kant emphasizes the necessity of being a person in order to obligate, and associates being a person with the freedom that he identifes with humanity or with human beings as ends in themselves (G 4: 429, 448; MS 6: 223, 239, 442; F 27: 1319–20, 1379). Dean divorces being a person from having humanity.

14 Dean uses two ‘interpretive strategies’. Chapter 7 employs the feeling of respect for a good will to generate duties which, owing to facts about human nature, we should use to govern our treatment of all or most human agents. Chapter 9 employs a Kantian constructivism in which we imagine beings with good wills taking into account facts about human nature as well as moral principles in order to generate duties that cover all or most human agents. In these discussions and in chapter 5, Dean seems primarily concerned with practical implications of his interpretation – e.g., with showing that it does not condone mistreating the wicked or encourage probing others' principles.

15 This approach helps not at all concerning dignity. It might allow us to grant all or most human beings rights, but it would not cohere with Kant's own account of rights as grounded ultimately in the humanity of each agent.

16 Of course, if a ‘bad man’ has humanity in his person, humanity cannot – contra Dean – be a good will (D).

17 Jens Timmermann links ethical obligation and autonomy in ‘Kantian duties to the self, explained and defended’, Philosophy, 81: 505–29 (2006), esp. p. 513.

18 See Denis, Lara, ‘Freedom, primacy, and perfect duties to oneself’, in Kant's Metaphysics of Morals: A Critical Guide, ed. Denis, Lara (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming), chapter 9.

19 See Beck, Lewis White, A Commentary on Kant's ‘Critique of Practical Reason’ (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960), esp. pp. 196203.

20 In delimiting the scope of his project, Dean asserts that ‘there is no perfectly consistent and univocal sense that attaches to Kant's uses of the word “humanity”’ and that his focus is on humanity as featured in FH and FH-related contexts, such as the derivation of duties (p. 65).

21 On the right of humanity in our own person see Gregor, Mary, Laws of Freedom: A Study of Kant's Method of Applying the Categorical Imperative in the ‘Metaphysik der Sitten’ (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1963), esp. pp. 46–8; see also Denis, ‘Freedom’, esp. section 3.3.

22 To clarify: for Dean, a human being counts as having humanity if (but only if) she is committed to striving to live up to the ideal of humanity (p. 49).

23 See Frierson, Patrick R., Freedom and Anthropology in Kant's Moral Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), esp. chapter 5.

24 I do not claim that this is Kant's standard usage of ‘a good will’.

25 Beck suggests that the good will should be a Wille and the bad will a Willkür, though Kant uses Wille for both. See Beck, A Commentary, p. 198, note 68.

26 Paton, H. J., The Categorical Imperative: A Study in Kant's Moral Philosophy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1947), esp. p. 169. See also Ross, W. D., Kant's Ethical Theory: A Commentary on the ‘Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten’ (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954), esp. pp. 12, 52.

27 See Bradley, F. H., Ethical Studies (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989 [originally published 1876]), esp. pp. 142–8. The quotation comes from p. 146.

28 I thank Patrick Frierson, Sally Sedgwick, Roger Wertheimer and two anonymous referees for comments on drafts of this paper.

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Humanity, Obligation, and the Good Will: An Argument against Dean's Interpretation of Humanity

  • Lara Denis (a1)


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