Foreword: I'm terribly sorry for my flood of questions. Please advise if there are more efficient ways to understand him, which I struggle to do, excepting posing so many questions so often.

Source: Prof Michael Sandel, Justice: ..., Episode 06: "MIND YOUR MOTIVE"

49:46. For Kant, morally speaking, suicide is on a par with murder. It's on a par with murder because what we violate when we take a life,
49:57: when we take someone's life, ours or somebody else's, we use that person
50:04: we use a rational being, we use humanity as a means.
50:09: And so we fail to respect humanity as an end.
50:14: And that capacity for reason, that humanity that commands respect
50:21: that is the ground of dignity
50:23: that humanity
50:25: that capacity for reason
50:28: resides undifferentiated in all of us.
50:32: And so I violate that dignity in my own person if I commit suicide and in murder.
50:39: If I take somebody else's life from a moral point of view, they're the same. And the reason they're the same, has to do with the universal character and ground of the moral law.

humanity = 2. The quality of being humane; benevolence

Question 1. Is the above definition the right one, for the noun humanity?

Question 2. Was Kant Pollyannish (see here) in his outlook on life? Does Prof Sandel mean that we all possess the same kind of humanity? Really? Even for terrorists?

  • Your first question is off topic: "Questions on the definitions or semantics of words or phrases are off-topic here as they are already well-answered elsewhere. There are many fine dictionaries available on The Internet, and Wikipedia offers good introductions to most common schools of philosophy." (one of the off topic close reasons)
    – user2953
    Mar 27, 2015 at 21:47

2 Answers 2


Question 1: yes, you could say that. Although searching for a definition of such a wide word as used by a philosopher is generally not a good approach. The whole humanity formula of the Categorical Imperative helps us to understand what humanity actually is. Try to follow Kant's thinking first, before trying to understand it. By contemplating on his ideas you will automatically gain a better understanding of the ideas and principles he talks about.

Question 2: basically, yes. If you look at the SEP entry:

Our ‘Humanity’ is that collection of features that make us distinctively human, and these include capacities to engage in self-directed rational behavior and to adopt and pursue our own ends, and any other capacities necessarily connected with these.

The idea of 'humanity' here almost touches biology. It tells you what is different in a human being compared to something else (an enimal, a lifeless object, etc.). And for those things, a criminal or a terrorist possesses the same humanity as a non-criminal.

Keep in mind that Kant is a christian philosopher and moreover is very rigorous. A strict interpretation of the gospel tells us not one person is more worth (or more human, for that matter) than another.

Note also that following that view, Kant may not have understood why someone would think a terrorist is less human than someone else. From the John 8:7 (the adulterous woman):

When they [the teachers of the law and the Pharisees; 8:3] kept on questioning him [Jesus; 8:6], he straightened up and said to them, "Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her."


Kant's use of "humanity" is confusing and not based on the dictionary -- and is absolutely not meant to mean "the quality of being humane; benevolent." For Kant, humanity is synonymous with rational nature, i.e., capacity for reason. In other words Sandel is stating synonyms at 50:25 and 50:28.

Thus, interestingly, for Kant, being a homo sapien is not enough to qualify one as human, and other types of beings if they are rational share in "humanity."

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