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Means, Ends, and PersonsReview - Means, Ends, and Persons
The Meaning and Psychological Dimensions of Kant's Humanity Formula
by Robert Audi
Oxford University Press, 2015
Review by Sharon Mason
Mar 7th 2017 (Volume 21, Issue 10)

Kant's famous means-end formulation of the categorical imperative has two parts: first, the prohibition that we should not treat persons merely as means, and second, the positive command that we should treat persons as ends in themselves. In Means, Ends, & Persons: The Meaning & Psychological Dimensions of Kant's Humanity Formula, Robert Audi develops a general account of the ethics of conduct that provides the basis for an account of treatment of persons. This account of the treatment of persons is then the basis for examining the notions of merely instrumental treatment and end-regarding treatment. These are both Kantian notions, but this book is not focused on Kantian ethics. Rather, Audi identifies treatment of persons as a significant locus of moral evaluation in its own right and offers his account in an effort that "enriches and refines the vocabulary of moral appraisal" (8).  

The account of conduct he develops here is three-dimensional: conduct "is determined by the action(s) constituting its vehicle and behaviorally manifesting it, the reason(s) for the action(s), and the manner of performance of the action(s)" (139). An interesting feature of Audi's account is his emphasis on the fact that, in addition to assessing the morality of actions and reasons for actions, the manner of conduct is relevant to moral appraisal. Treatment of persons is a kind of conduct, and Audi begins with a description of instrumental treatment from which the general notion of treatment and eventually of conduct eventually emerges. Instrumental treatment has a core idea that will no-doubt be familiar to many readers: "that of using its object not as something valued in itself (even if it happens to be so valued) but to achieve a further end" (17). While Audi does not provide a precise definition of treatment, he offers seven "points" that are intended to give the reader at least a general sense of the notion. Each of these points is worth further consideration, but here I will mention only the seventh (the first six tell us what treatment is not): "treatment of a person is a way of acting that is morally responsible in the sense that (whether blameworthy or not) it may be appropriately assessed in moral terms" (21).

What are the moral assessments relevant to instrumental treatment?  Here Audi introduces a crucial distinction between treating someone merely as a means and solely as a means, where the latter is need not be a moral deficiency, but the former is always morally problematic. A thing is treated solely as a means when "that the thing is used only in order to bring about an end conceptually distinct from it" (15). For instance, I might treat someone as solely a means when I stop to ask them for directions. What is morally problematic about treating someone merely as a means is not the fact that one treats another only instrumentally. Rather, the wrong of treating someone merely as a means is that this kind of treatment involves a failure to value that person as anything other than the means which they serve, as truly nothing more than an entirely disposable means to accomplish one's own goal. An interesting consequence of Audi's view is that cases of mere instrumental treatment turn out to be somewhat rare. Lying, for instance, would only be a case of treating someone as merely a means if the liar also refuses to recognize the value of the person she is lying to. As a result, Audi's notion of mere instrumental treatment turns out to be a much weaker condition than the one Kant proposes, as Audi's constraint prohibits significantly fewer kinds of instrumental treatment.

On the other hand, one strength of Audi's view is that merely instrumental treatment doesn't designate any particular act-type: "treating persons merely as means is not adequately explicable by appeal to the relevant act-types, those constituting the (or a) vehicle of the treatment. Indeed, no ordinary act-type is intrinsically a case of merely instrumental treatment" (46). Act-types, such as lying, become morally objectionable when they are instances of treating someone merely as a means, thus illuminating a significant contrast between moral reasoning that focuses on the moral permissibility of specific act-types and the resources Audi develops whre moral evaluation is untethered to act-types.

The second notion is that of treating a person as an end in themselves. Audi's describes treating a person as an end in terms of caring for the good of another: "treating someone in a way that is governed, and in part motivated, by caring about their good (1) for its own sake (hence non-instrumentally) and (2) under some objectively satisfactory description of that good" (92). Although he does suggest that promoting pleasure and reducing pain are prominent goods, he leaves open the description of what constitutes a person's good, thereby providing an account of treatment that is compatible with various conceptions of the good.

One wonders, of course, how Audi's explanation of end-regarding treatment squares with Kant's account, for Audi claims that "the notion of respect, however, particularly taken morally, is not essential for characterizing end-regarding treatment." (125). Those familiar with Kantian ethics might be surprised that Audi takes his account to be consistent with a plausible, although non-standard, reading of Kant's Groundwork. According to Audi, autonomy is itself a kind of good, and "treating persons as ends requires caring (at least in an implicit way) about whether they have a basis for consent and (regarding rational persons) about what they would or would not consent to on a suitable basis" (121). Thus, all things being equal, a person's conception of his own good is a constraint on our treatment of that person, since autonomy is a good.

But often enough, all things are not equal, and if a person is not fully rational or fully informed, the things to which a person may consent may come widely apart from what promotes the person's own good. To what degree does our respect for consent constrain our treatment of persons as ends? The answer is not entirely clear. Audi is understandably concerned about the ability persons have to recognize what is in their own good, for in some cases there will no doubt be a discrepancy between what is objectively good for a person and the things to which that person will actually consent. Audi attempts to solve this problem by claiming that we must consider what a person would consent to if they were to be ideally rational and informed. Also, the more rational and informed a person is, the more we must take their consent into account: "A plausible hypothesis here is that, other things equal, the more rational and integrated people are, the more their preferences should weigh in clarifying and constraining end-regarding treatment of them" (128).

However, Audi pays considerably less attention to the possibility that the person aiming for end-regarding treatment will fail to properly recognize what is in the other's good. Audi's claim that successfully treating someone as an end requires objectively promoting that person's good is of some help, for failing to treat someone in a way that promotes their good will be a failure to treat them as an end. Nevertheless, our assessments of the rationality or epistemic situation of another can influenced by implicit biases and prejudicial stereotypes, even when we mean the very best. I find it worrying that in practice, the degree to which we avoid acting without a person's consent will depend on our ability and/or willingness to properly acknowledge our own epistemological limitations in knowing what is objectively good for another person. Even if these sorts of flawed judgments would not result in treatment that is objectively good for a person, and thus not in end-regarding treatment (as Audi no doubt would insist), Audi's constraint of consent seems too weak. Concern for the good of another can all too quickly become oppression in the guise of benevolent paternalism.

I have one other minor point of criticism. Although Audi indicates (in a footnote) that he thinks it  is unnecessary for his purposes to discuss other philosophical work in this subject, without engaging these issues the book lacks a greater context of its contribution to this discussion.

Nevertheless, there are many things to appreciate about this book. The chapters are rich with detailed examples which provide a valuable resource for teaching and for further study. Also, Audi has again demonstrated his mastery of the difficult feat of writing a serious philosophical text that has significant depth, while at the same time giving us a text that is jargon-free enough to be of use to the non-specialist. Furthermore, despite the theoretical focus of the book, practical concerns are never far from view. In fact, the final chapter focuses on the extent to which we have control over our treatment of one another and ends with a discussion that reveals his deep concern for acting morally toward one another. It's a lovely way to end a book about what it means to treat people as ends in themselves.

 

© 2017 Sharon Mason

 

Sharon Mason, University of Central Arkansas


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