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Kant says that we should treat sentient beings as ends in themselves.

Dead human beings are not sentient.

So, what would be his view on treating corpses as means, to be used by medical students, for example?

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    Where do you find Kant suggesting that we should treat sentient beings as ends in themselves? I don’t think he asserts that anywhere, and definitely not in the Groundwork. Where he asserts that we should avoid treating someing as ends, it is persons, for which rational will is a necessary condition. That’s very different from sentient beings. – ChristopherE Jan 25 '20 at 23:14
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Joe, welcome to PSE.

Kant and the rational

ChristopherE is right. Kant's requirement that we treat others always as ends and never simply as means is retricted to rational beings. The class of sentient beings is wider than the class of rational beings, and Kant never applies the requirement to treat others always as ends to the entire sentient class.

It's perhaps worth pointing out that Kant says not simply that we are not to treat others as mere means; we are also not to treat ourselves as mere means. We are not to put ourselves in a situation where we are mere means to another's (arbitrary, subjective) will:

Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always at the same time as a end, and never simply as a means.

Kant and the non-rational but sentient

This does not mean that the sentient non-rational is morally insignificant. We cannot have duties to (other) animals because they are not rational but there are still moral constraints on how we should treat them:

[In the Lectures on Ethics Kant] writes, 'If a man shoots his dog because the animal is no longer capable of service, he does not fail in his duty to the dog, for the dog cannot judge, but his act is inhuman and damages in himself that humanity which it is his duty to show towards mankind. If he is not to stifle his human feelings, he must practise kindness towards animals, for he who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his treatment of men (sic).' Not only should he refrain from maltreating animals because this involves a violation of duty to others, but he ought to be positively kind to animals, since 'Tender feelings towards dumb animals develop humane feelings towards mankind'.

(Alexander Broadie and Elizabeth M. Pybus, 'Kant's Treatment of Animals', Philosophy, Vol. 49, No. 190 (Oct., 1974), pp. 375-383: 381.)

Kant and the non-rational non-sentient

Dead humans are neither sentient nor rational, and therefore the use of their bodies in medical education or research is perfectly ethical. I do not see how Kant could consistently object to this. But it is possible that in one's treatment of a dead body for medical purposes one could act in ways that are disrespectful of the human body, and this would have adverse moral consequences for ourselves. There are ethical limits, I'm sure Kant would add, even to the treatment of a dead human.

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Dead human beings aren't sentient - this is why we say that they are dead. Nevertheless, all societies, bar the pathological (though of course pathological societies aren't societies - they are just pathological), treat the dead with respect. There are funerals, graves, ceremonies of remembrance and the like.

This is of course because they were once alive. It seems that your rather literally minded question is avoiding this very pertinent fact. No doubt Kant didn't bother with this kind of question because its rather like tackling all kinds of edge-cases rather than dealing with the main issues at hand.

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Moral questions are complex, and Kant both realized and exemplified this, as he wrote multiple volumes on morality. Your presumption that Kant's thinking boils down to one simple algorithm is - untrue.

Kant looked at multiple issues in his moral thinking, including the effect on oneself, the effect on others, and the genralizability of an action.

So, for example, if one is causing others distress (say family members of the deceased) for one's own gain (dissection knowledge for oneself, or commercial success for your medical teaching institution) then he could have opposed the practice.

In general, a philosophic approach to thinking seeks out the "what ifs" and complexities of a problem, and tries to insure that one considers them, rather than trying to provide a simplified canned answer.

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  • Where do you find Kant suggesting that causing distress — or anything like that — carries any moral weight at all? – ChristopherE Jan 25 '20 at 23:27
  • @ ChristopherE plato.stanford.edu/entries/kant-moral See sections 2 and 6. – Dcleve Jan 25 '20 at 23:36
  • You find the word “sentient” in there? Or one of its synonyms? Or in Kant? – ChristopherE Jan 25 '20 at 23:39
  • @ChristopherE, sections 2 and 6 answer your prior question. The thrust of my answer to the OP, appears to be very relevant to you as well. "Your presumption that Kant's thinking boils down to one simple algorithm (or definition) is - untrue." And: "In general, a philosophic approach to thinking seeks out the "what ifs" and complexities of a problem, and tries to insure that one considers them, rather than trying to provide a simplified canned answer. " – Dcleve Jan 25 '20 at 23:46

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