What Kantianism Gets Wrong

With regard to moral theory I have two hunches. One is that the wellbeing of one’s fellow humans is an intrinsic moral value. Intrinsic not only in that a moral agent will care about it for its own sake but also in that its value is not derivative from other values, like, say, that of rational agency. So Kantianism is false. The other is that the wellbeing of one’s fellow humans isn’t the only intrinsic moral value.  There are virtues that are independent of  benevolence, and respect, of the sort that makes paternalism wrong, is one of them. So utilitarianism doesn’t work either.

But after decades of Kantian dominance in analytical ethics, some of us have become used to thinking of concern for the wellbeing of others as a somehow coarse, primitive virtue befitting swine and Jeremy Bentham, unless it is somehow mediated by, derived from or explained through something more complicated and refined, like the value of rational agency.

Suppose one is roughly Kantian. Reverence for rational agency is the one basis of morality as far as one is concerned, where rational agency is thought of roughly as the capacity to set ends. What to do with the sense that benevolence is a major part of morality? The answer seems to be “think of benevolence in terms of a duty to adopt and promote other people’s ends”. Now suppose that, as many contemporary Kantians do,  you reject the idea that adopting and promoting a person’s ends is the same thing as protecting her wellbeing – after all, most humans have some ends for which they are willing to sacrifice some wellbeing. In this case, what you say is that at the heart of benevolence we have a duty to adopt and promote people’s ends. We also have a duty to protect human wellbeing because, even though it’s not the only thing people care about, it is a very important end for all agents.

I don’t think this works, though. My argument goes like this:

  1. If the reason protecting a person’s wellbeing is important is purely the fact that her wellbeing is an important end to her and we have a duty to adopt her ends, then it would be of at least equal moral importance to protect any end that is at least equally important to her.
  2. Protecting an agent’s wellbeing is something we are morally called upon to do in some cases where, other things being equal, we would not be called upon to protect her pathway to achieving another equally important (to her!) end.

Therefore, it is false that the reason protecting a person’s wellbeing is important is purely the fact that her wellbeing is an important end to her and we have a duty to adopt her ends.

 Let me talk about 2) and why it’s plausible.

Take a case where an economically comfortable person, let’s call her Mercedes, is asked for help by her desperate acquaintance, Roger. She can, by paying 50 dollars, rescue him from being beaten up. If beaten up, Roger would suffer pain and then have to spend some days in a hospital, but he is not going to be killed. I am trying to stick to 1000 words so let me just promise you I have a half-way-realistic case.  Now imagine an alternative scenario in which a person – call him Leonard – asks Mercedes for 50 dollars because without them, a great opportunity to travel and spread his Mennonite religion will have to be relinquished.  Leonard’s end (spreading his religion) is as at least important to him as Roger’s end (not being beaten up) is important to Roger, and more important to Leonard than Leonard’s own wellbeing – he is willing to suffer for it if needed. For all Mercedes knows, spreading Leonard’s religion is itself strictly morally neutral – she has no particular reason to spread it independently of him.

There is an asymmetry between the cases. In the first scenario, Mercedes would display a lack of benevolence – perhaps of decency! – if she were to refuse to rescue Roger from a beating by giving him $50, given that this would be easy for her, no harm would be caused by it to anyone, etc. In the second scenario there is no such presumption. If Mercedes likes Leonard’s cause, it makes sense for her to make a donation. If she’s indifferent to his cause, no compelling reason to donate is provided by the very fact that Leonard would be ready, if worst comes to worst, to suffer for his cause. Unless she does fear for his wellbeing – fears, for example, that Leonard is a bad shape and will plunge into a horrible depression if she declines – Mercedes is not any less of a good Samaritan, certainly isn’t a sub-decent Samaritan, for not wanting to donate to another’s morally neutral cause, however crucial her donation would be to the cause.

If all that made Roger’s wellbeing matter morally was its importance to him as an end, she would have had as much of a duty to help Leonard.

Some Kantians would reply that what matters here isn’t protecting Roger’s wellbeing but the fact that Roger might lose rational agency. Roger, however, is not in danger of death or brain damage. He might suffer pain, but it takes a truly extreme amount of suffering to deprive someone of basic human rationality. His ability to perform successful actions will be impaired for a few days, but being a rational agent is not about being a successful performer of actions – it is about being responsive to practical reasons. It would be quite wrong to say that anyone with whom the world does not collaborate – because of an injury, or due to being in chains for that matter  – is thereby not a rational agent. Further more, preventing a few days of suffering is more morally urgent than preventing a few days of involuntary deep sleep with no significant harm expected, though involuntary sleep deprives you of agency if anything does.

There is something special about wellbeing.