Treating others as means, but not merely as means: Re-reading kant’s ‘formula of humanity’

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Kant’s ‘Formula of Humanity’ is sometimes read as though it allows us to use humanity as a means to our ends, as long as we do not use it merely as means. The present contribution offers three arguments against this reading. First, this reading is not supported textually by the way that Kant uses the verb ‘to use’ (brauchen) in ethical contexts. Second, allowing for actions that use humanity, but at the same time respect its value as an end-in-itself is superfluous within Kant’s corpus. Third, relying on the force of ‘merely’ to modify ‘using as means’ is detrimental in the discussions in the public sphere and in applied ethics, because (lacking rigid and substantive criteria for how to interpret ‘merely’) it becomes possible to justify morally impermissible actions and policies on the grounds that they at the same time respect humanity as an end-in-itself. As a case study, we consider today’s debates on the moral permissibility of ‘saviour siblings’ and show that in it Kant’s ‘Formula of Humanity’ is used in ways that are, at best, conceptually vague and, at worst, distinctly non-Kantian. The paper concludes with an overview of Kant’s use of brauchen in the context of ‘relations of community’, in which (according to Kant) persons acquire rights of possession to one another ‘akin their rights to external objects’ or things; even in these types of relations we are not treating humanity as means (but also, at the same time, as an end). The article concludes that Kant’s ‘Formula of Humanity’ sets up an exclusive disjunction between actions that treat humanity merely as means on the one hand, and actions that are not guilty of this transgression.

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Ethical Perspectives

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