Seems like circumventing someone's rational agency, their ability to choose their own end is what it means to treat someone merely as a means. But putting people in prison is circumventing their rational agency/their ability to choose their own end, so it doesn't seem like that's all there is to this.

What am I missing here?

[Question originally limited answer to Groundwork, to end of section 2. Restriction removed.]

  • First off, good question. A few pointers to get started: (1) one of the better texts to look at here is Metaphysics of Morals (not the groundwork). The key is Kant's distinction between Justice (Recht) and Virtue (Tugend) and how criminal punishment falls under the former. (2) there's also some symmetry with Hegel to think about from Unrecht in the philosophy of right. – virmaior Nov 9 '17 at 5:50
  • Fichte also had a nice description on how the possibility of punishment is included in the intent of a criminal in the moment of his crime and how therefore the punishment is exactly acknowledging the autonomy of the criminal instead of ignoring it. You have to acknowledge culpability in order to make legal punishment like imprisonment work, as opposed to bodily punishment, which is basically conditioning. – Philip Klöcking Nov 9 '17 at 8:10
  • @virmaior@Philip Unfortunately I'm tasked with answering this question without referencing past the end of section 2 of the groundwork. Kant says rational beings must always be treated as ends in themselves and never merely as means so it must be the case criminals/prisoners ARE treated as ends. I've spent some time thinking about it but still can't realize how (based off of the first 2 sections of the groundwork). – Robert C Nov 9 '17 at 9:57
  • Wow, that sounds kind of crazy, because the text itself is about ethics and Kant sharply distinguishes ethics and legality in his later texts. Is your instructor a type of Kantian constructivist? I ask because you might be able to come up with something if you're reading (or misreading?) Kant in the same way as say Christine Korsgaard. – virmaior Nov 9 '17 at 10:06
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    I misinterpreted your question to be specifically about prisoners. There should be lots of questions on this topic already on this SE if it's just what does it mean to treat someone as an end rather merely a means? (you can search for them in google more easily than SE's own search function in my experience). – virmaior Nov 9 '17 at 12:47

Your question raises the general issue of what it is to treat humanity, unacceptably according to Kant, merely as a means. I attempt to answer this in 1. To point the contrast in 2. I consider what it is acceptably to treat humanity as a means, again on Kantian lines. Lastly in 3. I take up the point about the compatibility, as Kant sees it, of punishment with treating humanity acceptably as a means.

1. What do we do when we treat humanity merely as a means?

'He used me !', I might say angrily when someone deceives me through feigned friendship to disclose information or to 'borrow' money he had no intention of returning. 'Sure he suckered up to her. He just used her to get promotion'. 'He spiked the guy's drink just to use him sexually'. What pulls these examples together as cases of using people merely as means ?

We use their humanity merely as a means, on the other hand, if we get them to adopt plans they would not otherwise have adopted by trickery, deception, or illegitimate threats.

The underlying idea here, I suggest, is that treating persons as ends is a matter of treating the choices and plans they adopt free from these kinds of manipulation - their values, if you will - as at least ceteris paribus worthy of pursuit, the ends they set as worth attaining. What it forbids, at least in reasonably propitious circumstances, is manipulation by deceit and illegitimate coercion. And so, in our dealings with others, we are to seek, so far as possible, voluntary accommodation in which we can both achieve what we, in the end, choose. When we treat others merely as means, we achieve our own ends by treating theirs with indifference or worse. (William Nelson, 'Kant's Formula of Humanity', Mind, New Series, Vol. 117, No. 465 (Jan., 2008), 85-106 : 97.)

2. What do we do when we treat humanity acceptably as a means?

When I buy something in a shop, I use the assistant as a means. When I purchase something on the internet, I use the seller as a means. When I ask someone to take me to hospital and they oblige, I use them as a means. Kant has no objection to this. You will already know this, I guess, but what conditions are met in this acceptable kind of use of others as means ?

Kant's injunction that we treat humanity as an end, never simply as a means. Consider, first, what it might mean, literally, to treat humanity as a means. In accordance with FA [Formula of Autonomy : 'choose only in such a way that the maxims of your choice are also included as universal law in the same volition' : G 4: 440*], Kant conceives beings with the capacity of humanity as beings who are free to adopt plans of action, maxims, and thereby set themselves to act in one way or another, to achieve one or another purpose. But, any of us, from time to time, may have an interest in how others act, and we may wish to influence their choices and plans for the sake of our own ends or purposes. Think of that as using another's humanity- the capacity to set an end - as a means, and notice that it is possible just because persons not only have ends and plans, but are able, by 'self-legislation, to modify them in light of further information or reflection. However, we do not use others simply as a means if we get them to behave as we wish by appealing to their own reason, openly avowing our own purposes and seeking to coordinate with them in mutually satisfactory ways. Perhaps we offer to compensate them for their trouble, or try to find a way to achieve our purposes jointly by working together. (William Nelson, 'Kant's Formula of Humanity', Mind, New Series, Vol. 117, No. 465 (Jan., 2008), 85-106 : 97.)

*McGregor translation. Paton expresses FA more concisely : 'So act that your will can regard itself at the same time as making universal law through its maxims' (H.J. Paton : The Moral Law, London : Hutchinson University Library, 1948, 33.)

3. Punishment and treating humanity acceptably as a means

So now for the question, Isn't punishment a star example of treating someone unacceptably merely as a means? This question would not bear on Kant’s ethics if he did not endorse the institution of punishment but in fact he does so as is clear from The Metaphysics of Morals, 1797, Part I, § II ‘Public Right’.

To fix ideas: ‘Punishment is a harm inflicted on a person by an appropriate authority because the authority ostensibly believes the person is guilty of doing something wrong or illegal’ (Allen W. Wood, Kantian Ethics, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2008: 208).

If Kant were to justify punishment in terms of deterring others, or of satisfying the public’s demand for vengeance, or of making the public feel safer, etc., then he would be using the punished person as a mere means to such ends. But this is nothing like his justification of punishment.

Jeffrie G. Murphy clarifies the key points:

Kant offers a theory of punishment which is based on his general view that political obligation is to be analysed in terms of reciprocity. If the law is to remain just, it is important to guarantee that those who disobey it will not gain an unfair advantage over those who do obey voluntarily. Criminal punishment attempts to guarantee this, and, in its retribution. it attempts to restore the proper balance between benefit and obedience. The criminal himself has no complaint, because he has rationally willed or consented to his own punishment. That is, those very rules which he has broken work, when they are obeyed by others, to his own advantage as a citizen. He would have chosen such rules for himself in an antecedent position of choice. And since he derives benefit from them, he owes obedience as a debt to his fellow citizens for their sacrifices in maintaining them. If he chooses not to sacrifice by exercising self-restraint and obedience, this is tantamount to his choosing .to sacrifice in another way – namely by paying the prescribed penalty. (J.G. Murphy, Kant: The Philosophy of Right, London: Macmillan, 1970: 142-3.)

Punishment in other words is a debt owed to the law-abiding members of a society; and once the debt is discharged, the punishment undergone and completed, the criminal returns to society as an equal member.

Whatever one thinks of this theory of punishment it needs to be remembered (a) that it applies only in the civil state that Kant outlines in The Metaphysics of Morals and is not defeated by actually existing institutions of punishment; and, more important, (b) there is no trace in it of using one person purely for the benefit of others. Requiring someone to discharge a debt, which is how Kant views punishment, oddly you may think, is nothing like treating someone as a mere means. Kant’s theory is different from, and deeper than, this – whatever its ultimate validity.


I. Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, tr. M. Gregor, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

I. Kant, The Metaphysics of Morals, rev. ed., tr. M. Geegor, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

J.G. Murphy, Kant: The Philosophy of Right, London: Macmillan, 1970.

William Nelson, 'Kant's Formula of Humanity', Mind, New Series, Vol. 117, No. 465 (Jan., 2008), 85-106 .

H.J. Paton, The Moral Law [tr. of Groundwork], London : Hutchinson University Library, 1948.

Allen W. Wood, Kantian Ethics, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

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  • It is possible to treat human both as end and as means. Then it is not "merely as means" by definition. – rus9384 May 16 '18 at 14:53
  • No, what you say is exactly what I mean. "Merely" is a synonym for word "just". – rus9384 May 16 '18 at 15:43
  • Kant is clear that in treating persons as means in the acceptable way outlined, we are also treating them as ends. Treating them merely as means excludes treating them as ends. There's a difference between treating them as ends-and-means and treating them not as ends but only as means. There's an ambiguity in your use of 'merely'. Yes, we don't treat people merely as means if we treat them as ends and additionally as means. Kant never denies this. But we do treat people merely as means if we treat them as means and subtract treating them as ends as well. – Geoffrey Thomas May 16 '18 at 15:49
  • @GeoffreyThomas What about punishment then? We are threatening the in the most literal sense. it is just that the threat is legitimate. What happens when you enforce the threat? – George Ntoulos Feb 25 at 18:48

To treat someone merely as a means you need to be not considering the value of the outcome for them as a person. You have to be intending they should see no benefit or choice, despite their involvement and significance in the situation.

When it is done ethically, imprisonment is meant to serve an reformative or an expiative effect through its restriction of the individual.

The potential for reform or the affirmation of the person's individual responsibility and power of self-determination and the release of their emotional guilt means that this is not use of the prisoner as a mere means, as long as it is genuine.

The latter is kind of subtle, but I think it is the aspect Kant would emphasize, because he minimizes the significance of predictions of the future. (No human skill should be a direct requirement for moral action. So the ability to understand likely outcomes should not matter. Guessing that reform is more or less likely is a computation -- which requires a skill.)

So let me explain 'expiation'. Tying criminal acts to consequences means that one is legitimately making a decision when one acts as a criminal. Not following through on the deal under which that decision was made is unfair to the person making the decision. It undercuts their sense of structure and fairness in the world -- a world in which they live as much as everyone else. It handles them paternalistically, and reduces them to having a childish lack of traction on their future.

So rules are good for everyone, including those who break them. Stating those rules, but then not following them, without making some other demand or plan that everyone involved would agree is in fact 'expiative' is bad for everyone involved, including the perpetrator, as it leaves the self-loathing of guilt and the fear of retribution on the table. (As usual, a genuine Kantian solution allows for both secular and religious interpretations. The notion of expiation allows for the Christian alternative of genuine contrition as an alternative to actual justice, but only, again, when it can be proved genuine to the victim, who gets a sense of righteousness from his forgiveness.)

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  • The problem I have with reforming and expiating is that the Criminal Law is one of acts not thoughts. In criminal law there are crimes not sins. Deal yourself with your sins and get religious help. Reform seems to be structured in bad faith. They commited a crime thence I think they will probably commit one again unless I take reformative measures. Certainly they see no benefit from being incarcerated(ceteris paribus). The only benefits are collective. Crime prevention/deterrence. And that is through penalty threats( their enforcement only makes them credible). – George Ntoulos Feb 25 at 19:01

Haven't got direct quotes from Kant but found some references that may be of use — interesting question.

When you say somebody has a means to choose their own end, it's more-so we aren't using somebody else as a means to an end. Your own agency is impacted by others but there may be nothing you can do about that. However, you have a great deal of volition over your own actions (notwithstanding metaphysical free-will questions). Kant was of the position that somebody who commits a crime should be punished proportionality to the crime, but saw certain forms of punishment, such as only punishing somebody to deter others, as using a human being merely as a means (see: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kant-social-political/#Pun). He wouldn't be arguing for keeping somebody out of jail if they committed a crime because this would be an encroachment on our autonomy, although he considered the question of autonomy to be one of utmost importance.

I interpret Kant here as saying that we shouldn't view other humans aren't mere instruments. Humans are an "end-in-themselves" or intrinsically valuable, regardless of what value they provide to other people (a formulation of the Categorical Imperative). We should, therefore, respect the sanctity of humanity nature (typified by rationality) as a good thing in-itself.

According to Kerstein (2009):

An agent treats another merely as a means if it would be unreasonable for the agent to believe that the other can share the end the agent is pursuing in treating him in some way.

And the relevant section from Kant's moral philosophy on the SEP: "The Humanity Formula":

supposing that [a] taxi driver has freely exercised his rational capacities in pursuing his line of work, we make permissible use of these capacities as a means only if we behave in a way that he could, when exercising his rational capacities, consent to — for instance, by paying an agreed on price.

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  • The definition of using someone as a means for something else is cyclical. In turn what does it mean to be intrinsically valuable and what does the sanctity of human nature mean? When you are punishing a person simply to prevent crimes( if they weren't punished people would start thinking that the treat is not credible). – George Ntoulos Feb 25 at 18:53

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