I've been reading about Kant and everything I've read so far assumes that as we make ethical decisions we are dealing with a rational person. For example, Kant argued that rational beings can never be treated merely as a means to an end, they must always be treated as an ends themselves, requiring that their own reasoned motives must be equally respected.

However, how would Kant make ethical decisions if the person or person's in the ethical dilemma are IRRATIONAL. For example, say the person is a drug addict and her thought process is completely irrational. Or the person is psychotic?

  • Was Freud an irrational person? He was a drug addict, was he not? How do you define a "rational" person? See the work of R.D. Laing and others regarding psychosis. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/R._D._Laing
    – user4894
    Commented Jul 19, 2014 at 20:02
  • ps also Thomas Szasz.
    – user4894
    Commented Jul 19, 2014 at 20:19
  • I am not saying that all drug addicts or those diagnosed as psychotic are irrational. I mentioned these categories merely as an example of someone who could be considered by a rational person to be irrational. My question is what would Kant say about this. Commented Jul 19, 2014 at 20:28
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    @user4894 Freud believed that everyone in the world secretly desires a parent sexually. Whole theories of subconscious thought were developed to explain away the fact that people showed no sign whatsoever that this was the case. I'm not convinced that's entirely rational. I think it tells you more about Freud than it tells you about people in general.
    – AndrewC
    Commented Jul 19, 2014 at 21:18
  • i don't think he would say they "secretly" desire their parents, but that as young children they did and this complex is still affecting them
    – user6917
    Commented Aug 31, 2014 at 12:13

1 Answer 1


There is a conflation between two different senses of the word 'rational' going on here. To be a rational being in a Kantian sense is to a being capable of thought. To be a rational being in the common sense of the word is be a being who is presently thinking things through clearly. Kant had no delusions that rational beings always think things through clearly.

Hence, it is quite possible for a rational being in the Kantian sense to be irrational in the common sense. Consequently, a drug addict is still a rational being for Kant even though such person is not behaving in a fashion that most of us would consider to be rational.

  • While you're right there's a conflation going on, the specific contours of rationality for Kant cannot be simply reduced to "capable of thought." Rather they are capable of understanding and have a faculty of reason -- which involves certain skills in logic. A drug addict is a type of problem case for Kant, because we need to ask whether they've been reduced to animality in their thought process.
    – virmaior
    Commented Aug 1, 2014 at 1:46
  • In context, a junkie would not be a problem for Kant because the question asked about how we as rational subjects are to treat others who are rational subjects. I doubt that Kant would argue that we could treat a drunkard as if he or she was not a rational being while passed out in a stupor simply because in such a state the drunkard is incapable of rational thought. In Kantian thought there is no room for an individual to be treated as an animal just because he or she is asleep or drunk or high or otherwise temporarily incapable of rational thought. Such a being is still a rational being. Commented Aug 1, 2014 at 22:35
  • Which is not responsive to what I was saying... I'm disagreeing with your sentence: " To be a rational being in a Kantian sense is to a being capable of thought" because this is not sufficient as a definition of being rational for Kant. I am in no way suggesting Kant does not say we should consider junkies rational. The reason it becomes a problem is that the Kantian system doesn't allow us to reject his requests for more drugs or anything else as irrational because we must assume rationality in every other person.
    – virmaior
    Commented Aug 2, 2014 at 1:33
  • But a request for drugs from an addict is rational from their point of view as they have a biological need similar to your need for food.
    – Andy Boura
    Commented Aug 2, 2014 at 8:23
  • I should go look it up but I'm pretty confident that Kant allows for rational beings to be in error. In Kant's system there is no different in kind between a rational being making an error in judgment as a simple mistake in reasoning and a rational being making an error in judgment because of a brain being in an altered state. I do not think junkies really present a serious challenge to Kantian ethics. It goes back to making the same conflation I first pointed out. Treating others as rational beings does not imply that we must presume that rational beings always act rationally. Commented Aug 3, 2014 at 11:58

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