Respect for persons

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L084-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved September 30, 2022, from

2. Respect for persons in Kant’s ethics

The historical roots of most contemporary discussion of respect for persons are in the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant (see Kant, I. §§9–11; Kantian ethics §1). Previous practice and theory often called for proper respect for individuals according to their social rank and individual merit, but Kant (1785, 1788), influenced by Rousseau, argued that all human beings have a dignity that is independent of rank and merit. All moral agents, by virtue of their rationality and autonomy of will, are jointly ‘authors’ of moral law, bearers of fundamental rights, and pursuers of ends that others may not ignore (see Autonomy, ethical; Moral agents). Moral duties are categorical imperatives, that is, rational requirements to which we are subject independently of the various personal ends that we choose to set for ourselves. According to Kant, there could be categorical imperatives only if there is something of absolute value; and only persons, as the source of all other values, could have this status. Persons exist as ‘ends in themselves’, of unconditional and incomparable worth, in contrast to things valuable merely as means or as objects of affection. All rational persons, Kant thought, attribute this special value to themselves. Furthermore, he argued, they must acknowledge, on due reflection, that the ground for this self-attribution is not something unique to them but something they have in common with all other persons, namely, ‘humanity’ or the special human capacities identified with reason and freedom. Accordingly, a version of the categorical imperative, which is supposed to be a basic, comprehensive, and universal requirement of reason, is, ‘Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end, and never as a means only.’

In Die Metaphysik der Sitten (The Metaphysics of Morals) (1797), Kant used this idea as a basis for both legally enforceable rights and ethical duties to respect others and oneself. In his theory of justice he implied that the status of persons as ends in themselves underlies all rights and, in particular, imposes limits on what legal punishments are permissible. In his theory of virtue Kant maintained that proper self-respect requires one to avoid drunkenness, gluttony, and servility and that respect for others is incompatible with arrogance, defamation, and ridicule. He also held that respect, together with love, is an essential element in friendship.

What is required morally, according to Kant, is to act with due respect, not to have or cultivate a mere ‘feeling’ of respect. This is partly because we cannot in general control our feelings by will in the way we can and must control our behaviour. Another reason is that respect for persons is derivative from respect for the moral law, and respect for the moral law, in Kant’s view, is not something we choose to have or not but rather is something that, as human moral agents, we cannot help but feel. It is the humbling feeling that moral requirements reasonably impose limits on our attempts to satisfy our desires and pursue our personal ends. In so far as it is a form of respect for morality, then, the imperative to respect persons does not ask us to try to conjure up immediately, or even to cultivate over time, an ‘affect’ or sentiment that we might lack. Rather, what is required is that we choose to act so that, in practice, we live up to our own rational assessment of the worth (dignity) of humanity, a worth that all human moral agents (to some degree) recognize and feel.

Citing this article:
Hill, Thomas E.. Respect for persons in Kant’s ethics. Respect for persons, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L084-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2022 Routledge.

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