With respect to the Formula of Humanity, if we accept that:

A) We are each capable of acting 'on the basis of reason' (in accordance with the requirement of universal law); and

B) Rationality is our essence as human beings; and

C) To be essentially rational is to be bound unconditionally by the requirement of obedience (of the will) to rationality;

  • When the object of our actions is another person, we encounter their rational essence.
  • Because we have to be obedient to rationality universally, we have to be obedient to rationality in all its forms, including in him (rationality here being his capacity to act on the basis of reason).
  • My obedience to rationality in him is expressed in my acknowledging that capacity (to act on the basis of reason) in him.
  • I fail to acknowledge this capacity when I enslave, torture, exploit or (the example I like the most) humiliate him. For in each case I am ignoring his "setting his own agenda" through exercise of this rational capacity (to act on the basis of reason).

We are obliged not to disregard the rationality in him, however we aren't necessarily impelled to see to it that this "setting of his own agenda" come to fruition.

My question, is this: "Can we justify the disciplining of children (or even mandatory education) by a parent/guardian?" Even though this may constitute a case of acting on a maxim that perhaps couldn't be rationally acknowledged by the agent towards whom the parent, for example, is acting. Would the child agree to his disciplining if he knew all relevant facts and would such a circumstance render the action morally justifiable in a Kantian sense?

As a further point, it seems common sense that we should take care of children (perhaps in particular our own), however I wonder whether Kant provides a rational basis on which to justify what seems to be the positive duties to say, provide for our family, to nourish and protect our children. It seems that love is demonstrative, sometimes gratuitous and actually performed in an special kind of way.

How can Kan't moral schema account for this intuitively important active (rather than passive) quality to moral behaviour?

Perhaps I have missed something! Thanks.

1 Answer 1


We are absolutely allowed to discipline children on Kant's view, and this does not pose a conflict. Kant does not believe children are fully rational. Perhaps, this is merely a bias of his, but it makes it so that we have no reason to not raise up children through a moral catechism (again as in your other question, it is quite clear you've only read the Groundwork -- you need to read the Metaphysics of Morals and for this question Lecture on Ethics).

There are several issues with what you are stating:

(1) Kant does not speak of essences -- it's important not to confuse vocabularies.

(2) You state:

To be essentially rational is to be bound unconditionally by the requirement of obedience (of the will) to rationality;

This is a weird way to put it. We are for Kant as rational beings bound first to our rationality. Our very distinction from animals (on his view) is that we have pure reason. But our weakness is that unlike angels or God we also experience subjective desires that incompatible with reason that lead us to act from impure motives. We are always bound to rationality whether in ourselves or others but this is not "obedience", it is rational choice.

(3) You further state:

When the object of our actions is another person, we encounter their rational essence.

As above, essence is not a Kantian term nor do I know what it would mean to make "another person the object of our actions." Kantian action works in terms of maxims -- which while difficult to define mean something along the lines of:

 "I tell you the truth because you are a human being worthy of respect"

Maybe by object you mean the reason for my action?

Returning to the problem you raise with these oddities in mind, Kant does not think that children have attained full rationality. Instead, he views them as not yet fully rational and in need of discipline to reach maturity. Moreover, Kant has no problem with legal discipline of the masses or enforcement of law. These are not identical with morality -- which has to do with the reasons behind our actions, but Kant has problem with creating civil barriers to immoral action by making the sort of actions that cannot be morally motivated illegal (e.g. the intentional taking of a human life). This is the primary theme of the Rechtlehre ("Metaphysical Principle of Justice" / "Doctrine of Right") section of the Metaphysics of Morals

  • Thanks so much for your feedback. Every point that preceded "My question, is this:..." was copied directly from lecture notes written by Associate Professor Christopher Cordner of The University of Melbourne. He has a Doctor of Philosophy from Oxford (1970) so I find it quite astounding that this wording is problematic, but there you go. Cheers. Jun 7, 2014 at 5:08
  • @QuizzicalTest I think the question you wind up with after reading it helps to show the problem here. Essence language in Aristotelian and Aquinean, so it would cause one to think that children bear the same essence and thus are rational creatures. But Kant's idea of what makes humans what we are is not primarily understood in terms of essences
    – virmaior
    Jun 7, 2014 at 5:14
  • Kant's idea of what makes humans what we are is not to do with a kind of 'rational essence?' If I've been using the incorrect terminology, that would be very helpful to determine now. Haha I'm about to write a 3,000 word essay on the FEI. Cheers. Jun 7, 2014 at 5:25
  • Did Kant also think women incapable of rationality? All these old philosophers seem to be very anti-woman, so I'm assuming he must have had a workaround in there somewhere.
    – ribs2spare
    Dec 2, 2021 at 15:09

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