Kant and Equality

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Some readers of this essay will have become impatient by now; because they believe that the problem that perplexes me has been definitively solved by Immanuel Kant. It is certainly true that Kant held strong opinions on this matter. In an often-quoted passage, he reports a personal conversion from elitism: “I am myself a researcher by inclination. I feel the whole thirst for knowledge and the eager unrest to move further on into it, also satisfaction with each acquisition. There was a time when I thought this alone could constitute the honor of humanity and despised the know nothing rabble. Rousseau set me straight. This delusory superiority vanishes, I learn to honor men, and I would find myself more useless than a common laborer if I did not believe this observation could give everyone a value which restores the rights of humanity.”What Kant learned from Rousseau was the proposition that the basis of human equality is the dignity that each human person possesses in virtue of the capacity for autonomy (moral freedom). This moral freedom has two aspects, the capacity to set ends for oneself according to one’s conception of what is good, and the capacity to regulate one’s choice of ends and of actions to achieve one’s ends by one’s conception of what morality requires. According to Kant’s psychology, brute animals are determined to act as instinct inclines them, but a rational being has the power to interrogate the inclinations it feels, to raise the question what it is reasonable to do in given circumstances, and to choose to do what reason suggests even against all inclinations. The question arises whether Kant’s psychology is correct, or remotely close to correct. Perhaps something like the conflict between conscience and inclination is experienced by social animals other than humans. Perhaps the freedom that Kant imputes to human on metaphysical grounds can be shown to be either empirically nonexistent or illusory. For our purposes we can set these questions aside and simply presume that the human psychological complexity envisaged by Kant does describe capacity we possess, whether or not it is shared with other animals. My question is whether Kant’s characterization, if it was correct, would have the normative implication she draws from it. It might seem that the Kantian picture helps to show how moral freedom is arrange concept, which does not significantly admit of degrees. If one has the capacity to set an end for oneself, one does not possess this freedom to a lesser extent just because one cannot set fancy ends, or because other persons can set fancier ends. If one has the power to regulate choice of ends by one’s sense of what is morally right, one does not possess this freedom to a lesser extent because one cannot understand sophisticated moral considerations, or because other persons can understand more sophisticated moral considerations. Moreover, one might hold that it is having or lacking the freedom which is important, not having or lacking the capacity to exercise the freedom in fancy ways. But the old worries lurk just around the corner. The Kantian view is that there are indeed capacities that are crucial for the ascription of fundamental moral status that do not vary in degree. One either has the capacity or one does not, and that’s that. If the crucial capacities have this character, then the problem of how to draw a no arbitrary line on a continuum and hold all beings on one side of the line full persons and all beings on the other side of the line lesser beings does not arise. The line separating persons and nonpersons will be non arbitrary, and there will be no basis for further differentiation of moral status. One is either a person or not, and all persons are equal. Consider the capacity to set an end, to choose a goal and decide on an action to achieve it. One might suppose that all humans have this capacity except for the permanently comatose and the anencephalic. So all humans...
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