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The Respect-for-Persons Principle

Updated: Feb 7


“Always act so that you treat the humanity in a person, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only.”

Why Humans are entitled to respect?

In his second categorical imperative*, Kant asserted and gave an elaborate argument as to why “human beings are entitled to respect.” Human beings ought to be respected because human beings have dignity. For Kant, an object that has dignity is beyond price.

The question that needs to be answered is: Why do persons possess a dignity that is beyond all price?

Human beings have dignity* because they are capable of autonomy* and, thus, are capable of self-governance. As autonomous beings capable of self-governance, they are also responsible beings since autonomy and self-governance are conditions for responsibility. A person who is not autonomous and who is not capable of self-governance is not responsible. Thus, there is a conceptual link between being a human being, being autonomous, capable of self-governance, and being responsible.

Autonomous responsible beings are capable of making and following their own laws; they are not simply subject to the causal laws of nature. Anyone who recognises that they are autonomous should recognise that they are responsible for their actions, and this should recognise that they are a moral being. (autonomy = self-governance = making & following one’s rules = being responsible for choices made = moral being)

In simple words, a moral being is an individual who is autonomous enough to make rational choices (without any external influence).

Turning to the above categorical imperative, when Kant says that we should not treat people “merely as means,” he is saying that we should not use, exploit, or manipulate people. Further, when he (Kant) says that we should treat others as “ends in themselves,” Kant is saying that we should RESPECT people. We should, for example, allow them to make up their own minds about what to do, as opposed to trying to make their choices for them. An important idea of Kantian ethics is the emphasis on the duty of respecting humans as moral beings.

*Dignity: Dignity concerns how people feel, think and behave in relation to the worth or value of themselves and others. To treat someone with dignity is to treat them as being of worth in a way that is respectful of them as valued individuals. When dignity is present, people feel valued, confident, comfortable and be able to make decisions for themselves. When dignity is absent, people feel devalued, humiliated or ashamed. Everyone has equal worth as human beings and must be treated as if they are able to feel, think, and behave in relation to their own worth or value.

*Categorical Imperative: An imperative is a command or duty; “categorical” means that it is without exception. Thus, a categorical imperative is an overriding principle of ethics. Kant offered several formulations of the categorical imperative: act so as the maxim implicit in your acts could be willed to be a universal law; treat persons as ends and never as means only; treat others as subjects, not objects.

*Autonomy: From the Greek for “self-ruled,” autonomy is the capacity to make free and deliberate choices. The ability for autonomous action is what explains the inherent dignity and intrinsic value of individual human beings.

*Means & Ends: Philosophers often contrast means & ends. The ends we seek are the goals we try to achieve, and the means are the actions or things we use to accomplish those ends.


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