Kant, O’Neill Summary

Q1) “Justice is more fluid than absolute” (pg. 259) If stealing medicine to save a life is justified, where do we draw the line? Should the justice system incorporate moral reasoning into the way laws are enforced? (Examples- theft, drug addiction

How this relates to the reading: This weeks reading was very much regarding morals and as O’Neill states on page 260, “Kant’s scope is much broader than human rights.” He is talking about how the obligations humans have and they may not always correspond with laws and freedoms. This question also relates more to an American way of viewing health care as they have to pay extensive amounts of money sometimes to fill a subscription.

A1) My group came up with many great responses including that Kant would suggest the government help the person obtain a good standard of living instead of arresting someone for a non-violent or petty felony. Not that Kant would ever encourage stealing but stealing would be correct only if it was the absolute final resort and you felt the moral value of stealing exceeded the burden of breaking the law. In this case, laws are in place to protect people from being stolen from which violates personal rights. Programs have been set up now a days to save people from needing to steal. Kant would probably suggest stealing from a large corporation with lots of money (Shoppers Drug Mart) compared to a small business (family owned and run) would be morally better due to the fact that the workers of the huge corporation are still obtaining the same pay cheque compared to if that person had not stolen. Where as stealing from a small business is directly taking the money from the owner who probably doesn’t nearly make as much as a large company. The conclusion was stealing is never right but moral values may not always be the legal way to do things but they may outweigh the legal penalty. The enforcers of the laws should judge each case separately and hold the same level of standards for all people in all situations but the best answer isn’t always throwing them in a cell.

Q2) Say you stumble across a money clip with no ID and no cards or any way to know who it may belong too with a $50 dollar bill in it outside of the grocery store – is it morally better to turn it in to the manager of the store and not accept the money somebody may be looking for or use it to buy $50 dollars worth of groceries and donate them to a food bank?

I chose this question because if it was a wallet with an ID you could get it back to them fairly easily but can you trust the other people along the way? If the store manager decides to take the money for them self then its a lose-lose situation. If the possibility of an unmoral action is present then that action should not be followed through. This relates to the reading because on page 260 it states “There is no problem when we are deciding our own action:..” and “..there is no guarantee we can always work out which maxim will be scrutinized for purposes of what others do.”

A1) We discussed that donating it to charity ensures it is going to a good place and we all agreed it would have a slim chance ending up where it is supposed to. Kant would have a problem taking the money and donating to charity because he would be using the person’s money as a mere means to an end. (happiness) Even though the intentions were right, the money belonged to someone else and if the possibility of them getting it back was present then that may help that person fulfill their end goal. We also talked about how we would feel happiness knowing someone would benefit from the $50 dollars worth of food. Mill would have had no problem donating the money for that same reason, if someone was benefitting and you were feeling a sense of happiness as a result then that action should be pursued to the fullest extent.

Discussion Summary on Kant & O’Neill

  1. What do you think of the scenario on the famine agencies problem? Is it acceptable like Kant says for them to use each other as long there is no manipulation? Do you agree or disagree?

In the text, there is an example provided where a government agrees to “provide food to famine-relief agencies [where] both uses and is used by the agencies, a peasant who sells food in a local market both uses and is used by those who buy the food.” (pg. 260) Kant says this is acceptable because there is consent in between those transactions because they are not deceiving each other, therefore, it is not considered mere means.

In class discussion:

Since there are no manipulations, there is nothing that makes it lead to it being considered mere means, so it is acceptable. People are economists, and since these transactions are made without any of the members deceiving each other, it is fair. We do agree with Kant’s view on this scenario.

2. If someone were to be dead, and you take something from them for the greater good to help someone else without their consent (since they are dead), is it acceptable?

Since the person is dead, it is universalized, therefore it would be acceptable in this first part of the case. The consent part is the missing act for this to be acceptable because without it, you are using the person as mere means. So, it will not be acceptable, since the person isn’t able to give any opinion on the whole situation nor, provide a answer.

In class discussion:

We do agree that it is acceptable to an extent because the person is already dead, and if the dead person has something, such as an organ that could be used to save someone, it should be done. This makes it universalized, but since the second part of Kant’s perspectives is on mere means, this would reject this. Without having a fully consent from the person, you are considered to be using them as mere ends.

Discussion on Kant – Animals and Everyday Life

In Onara O’Neill’s “Kantian Approaches to Some Famine Problems”, there were mentions of the value of animal lives in human morality, and the lack of regard Kant has shown towards this issue. Should animals ever be used as mere means? What determines the value of an animal’s life?
The answers to these question may vary greatly depending on who is asked. It would seem to most people that the inherent value of a fly’s life is much less than that of a chimpanzee, but there isn’t really a concrete reason behind this. It’s not simply based off of their impact on the world: if an animal’s moral significance was determined by its effect on humanity or the world, then bees, which help sustain our food sources, should be valued very very highly. In most cases, animal lives are based on appeal when it comes to moral decisions, even though this should not be the case. Pets take priority over pests.
Another question has arisen in regards to Kant’s philosophy in general: how can an average person apply Kant’s philosophy in everyday life? Kant moral philosophy features the renowned categorical imperative, but who is really to say that acting while keeping in mind the value of people as an end will really cause your actions to be better? It was mentioned that, perhaps in our everyday lives, we apply this train of thought subconsciously, such that we run through the categorical imperative without even knowing so; it is only in the extreme edge cases where categorical imperative falls apart. Despite this, some of Kant’s core values seem to fail in very common cases; most notably, his positions on lying and suicide.
Although the preachings of Immanuel Kant can be seen working in everyday life, it quickly becomes controversial when edge cases, like animals, or other situations that Kant fails to consider show themselves. A lot of us already follow this philosophy without knowing it, and have our own positions when it comes to difficult cases.

Discussion summary: O’Neill and Kant’s CI (second form)

1. Is a lack of beneficience really immoral?

To expand on this: Kant talks about justice and beneficience, the first being mandatory and the second being sometimes mandatory. Consider a person who is always just (ie. uses no one) but by some miracle manages to never help anyone (not beneficient). Would this person really be immoral? Kant never really gives any indication as to how often you should be beneficient. We were conflicted about this.  None of us really agreed with Kant – we thought it was not immoral. On the one hand, it could be amoral: it seems intuitive for this to be the conclusion, since this person would be neither harming nor helping anyone, seemingly the definition of neutral. On the other hand, since this person has not intentionally harmed anyone, it seems that this could be taken as a good person.

Source: Kantian Approaches to Some Famine Problems, p. 262

2. Kant thinks that beneficience is an imperfect duty. How do you know when not being beneficient is acceptable/unacceptable?

This question is somewhat related to the first. Again, Kant never supplies any help with deciding when to be beneficient. We did agree with Kant in that it is impossible to always be beneficient, but we had no conclusion on how to tell when to be beneficient. It does indeed seem to be subjective, as Kant says.

Source: Kantian Approaches to Some Famine Problems, p. 262

3. Is there a hierarchy of morality between beneficient actions?

I proposed a situation where you are deciding between donating to 2 charties: one for kids in Africa and one for cancer. However, you can only donate to one of them. Is one of these objectively better than the other? We decided that helping the thing/person/group that needs the most help is the “morally superior” action to take.

Source: Kantian Approaches to Some Famine Problems, p. 264

4. Do you agree with Kant’s perspective on unconditional value of rational beings?

Kant thinks that human life is valuable because “humans have…capacities for autonomous action”.  We didn’t agree. We thought that humans can remove their value by being generally unethical (but no necessarily 100% unethical). However, this is obviously somewhat of its own can of worms, since no one really agrees on what defines being ethical. We didn’t really want to get into that debate so we left this question at that.

Source: Kantian Approaches to Some Famine Problems, p. 268

Discussion summary on Kant and O’Neill

The Questions

  1. How often do you believe that imperfect duties should be completed?
  2. Are there any flaws in the Kantian “bottom-up” approach to aiding and helping others in need?

The Relevance of the Questions

(1) I asked this question as I believe that this is something Kant only briefly touches on and can seem like a hole in the Kantian theory. As imperfect duties are still obligations, but they are not constant obligations, I was interested in how often my fellow peers thought imperfect duties should be completed.

(2) As the “bottom-up” approach seems to value humans autonomy more so than the Utilitarian “top-down” approach, I was interested in seeing if my peers had any opinions or criticisms of the Kantian “bottom-up” method. Helping others is a very important imperfect duty for society, and it’s important to understand the different approaches and the benefits or weaknesses they might have.

Group Discussion on the Questions

  1. Our group had a similar consensus on the frequency of imperfect duties. We decided that imperfect duties must be completed by everyone, even if someone is in stuck in deep poverty for example. We decided that imperfect duties can range from donating money to charities to asking if someone is okay when they fall down. This leads us to the frequency of imperfect duties. Imperfect duties can come along at random times and even when we least expect them. Defining how often imperfect duties should be done was difficult for my group, yet we decided that imperfect duties should be carried out when they are presented to us. For example, if you know you should learn how to cook and develop your talents, and your friend invites you to her cooking class, we believe it’s ones imperfect duty for you to go to the cooking class and develop your talents.
  2. When my group was discussing the two different methods to helping others in need, we all agreed the “bottom-up” approach is far more superior than the “top-down” approach. We discussed the Kantian approach and noted its focus on autonomy and lack of paternalism. We did note, however, this effect could be more time consuming and might not be as effective in time constrained situations. The other possible fault in this approach is in the situation where the ones being helped aren’t aware they are in a state which needed aid, and therefore could not specify what they needed from those trying to assist. Other than these possible blemishes, our group believes that the “bottom-up” approach is one that should be adopted by all humans and is the most humane way of helping others.

Discussion Summary on O’Neill and Kant

Q1. In O’Neill’s interpretation of Kant’s categorical imperative, she expresses two crucial duties in discerning morally right actions, calling them actions of justice and beneficence, or perfect and imperfect duties respectively.  Which do you think is more important or takes priority in moral dilemmas or ambiguous situations such as those posed by O’Neill?

In her interpretation of the Kantian categorical imperative, O’Neill discusses the usage of perfect and imperfect duties regarding famine and poverty.  She characterizes the importance of considering others and to “act on maxims that treat others as ends in themselves” (260).  Furthermore, she references the act of using others as a mere means in relation to famine.  O’Neill discusses the Kantian perspective on respecting other people’s autonomy and rationality, stressing the concept that the autonomy of another country in famine or generally in need, must be respected as a maxim in itself to “lend some support to others’ plans and activities” (262).  Both these concepts of the categorical imperative are posed as essential to the morality of a maxim and action.  Nevertheless, situations may arise in which either of these are challenged in relation to the other.  By posing this question, I was interested in seeing varying opinions on the importance of each; treating others as ends in themselves, and not treating others as mere ends.  I wanted to observe whether the group could conclude that one aspect of this categorical imperative would trump the other, or if they would be seen as equal in value.

When presented to the group, most agreed that perfect duties or duties of justice were primary in addressing any situation.  As a group, we discussed various theoretical dilemmas that might challenge the two aspects of O’Neill’s perception of Kant’s categorical imperative.  We agreed that both treating others as means in themselves, and not treating others as mere means were both crucial in making moral decisions, but found that the later could be negated even within a maxim considered morally correct.  In essence, the group found that it was not essential to always treat others as means in themselves, but by breaking perfect duties and treating others as mere means, Kant’s categorical imperative would not hold.  Moreover, it was interesting to note that the group also agreed that other people, as the receiver of such actions, was more advantageous than self-directed actions.  We discussed how by treating others in such ways over the self, one could more readily encompass the morality and morally good actions, although we did not discuss the reasoning behind this phenomenon.  Nevertheless, the group’s ideas gave insight on more challenging situations regarding Kant’s concepts and how to handle them.

Q.2 Which form of Kant’s categorical imperative do you think is more useful to apply to different moral situations including the famine problem and other moral dilemmas?

In her article, “Kantian Approaches to Some Famine Problems”, O’Neill addresses the second form of Kant’s categorical imperative in contrast to the previous form that discusses the universability of various maxims.  Although both can be theoretically used to discern morally good actions from those of lesser value, they each come with advantages and disadvantages depending on varying situations.  O’Neill successfully utilizes Kant’s concepts of perfect and imperfect duties regarding poverty, stating that “duties are not, on the Kantian picture, limited to those close at hand…in an interconnected world, we may be able to affect the capacities for autonomous action of those who are far away” (265).  Evidently, by considering both perfect and imperfect duties, O’Neill argues that Kantian perspectives on the roles of both these duties can effectively serve as a source of moral action for famine across the world.  However, it is interesting to note that she does not truly discuss the concept of poverty in regards to Kant’s ideas of universability for the categorical imperative.  I was interested in seeing what others thought of the universability of maxims that may apply to the famine problem, as well as a discussion on which approach was more useful in application.

Interestingly, most of the group agreed that the universability of the categorical imperative was more straightforward to use regarding the ease that it could be applied.  We found that it was simple to apply the “universability test” to a wide variety of situations that might seem morally challenging, and it was applicable to many maxims that might arise.  However, the group found that the morality of each maxim based on this test was ambiguous.  Although a situation might arise that would essentially pass this universability test and render itself morally correct, it was difficult to come to terms with the actual moral correctness of this maxim.  One of the members of the group brought up an example regarding the expulsion of immigrants landed in a country from 2 years past to maintain economic stability.  Although it was theoretically possible for this maxim to pass the universability test, it seemed morally ambiguous as immigrants would then be removed from these countries for the good of the state.  Therefore, we agreed that the second for of the categorical imperative, as presented by O’Neill, was much more useful, although more difficult to actively apply.  Regarding this maxim specifically, the action would not be considered morally correct, as treating immigrants in this way would break the perfect duty; treating others as a mere means for economic value.  Ultimately, we reached this consensus, and agreed that both forms had both advantages and disadvantages depending on the situation.

Summary Of O’Neill Discussion

Question 1:For those who are vulnerable are they more susceptible to injustice, and why do you think so?

– This question tries to analyze what this would look like and tries to see if there are any counter examples that exist against O’Neill’s statement: “Since anyone hungry or destitute is more than usually vulnerable to deception, violence, and coercion, the possibilities and temptations to injustice are then especially strong.” (263)

Question 2: When we use someone for their means, usually there is a way in which they will allow us to use their skills/knowledge. This can be in the form of exchanging money or a favor. So does this mean that when we do not carry out an exchange we are using people for their mere means?

  • This question ties into O’Neill’s discussion about Kant’s ways of how it is acceptable to “use” others in exchange for their knowledge or services.(261) This question tries to ask if it is okay to receive free help.

Summary of Discussion

– Question 1

O’Neil makes the argument that those who are poor or vulnerable will have a higher chance of being coerced in doing things that are unjust(263). We then analyzed various situations where we could think of his occurring. We came up with the a similar example as used in class: poor single mother with a young boy. This mother has to feed not only herself but her child as well. With this idea, we realized that because of this vulnerable situation she in some ways loses some of her autonomy. Of course, she still is able to make her own decisions except these decisions can be easily mutable because of the state of vulnerability. This is because she doesn’t have much choice and can be easily coerced into for instance stealing bread. It was difficult to come up with a counter example of which this rule didn’t exist.

– Question 2

I presented the group with an example: you ask someone for lunch, and later you will pay them back. Both agree that it is okay to do this exchange of service. Now let’s say you ask someone for lunch and they agree to provide lunch for you for free. You continue to do this every day but the person continues to agree for you not to pay. We recognized that this was unfair but it being unfair doesn’t mean that it was using someone for there mere means. So we decided that you can still use someone for their menes despite it being unfair. In which case using someone for their menes does not require a mutual exchange. This is also a very unique situation, and so in most cases, people would not appreciate this type of action and would see it more as using someone for their mere means.

Discussion Summary — Morals


Can you think of some maxims that one could evaluate using the second Categorical Imperative?

This question relates to Kant’s key idea of “Categorical Imperatives” specifically the second version – that of using others as means to an end versus using others as an end in themselves. This is a large part of what was discussed in this weeks readings. O’Neill stressed the importance of this view underlining the fact that Kant believed humans are “rational and autonomous beings.” (O’Neill, 262). In discussing maxims and their effects on society, we are able interpret how the world would function should everyone hold and follow the views of Kant.

In-Class Discussion:

During our discussion we revisited the idea of theft – the maxim being I will steal things in order to benefit myself or others I know. It was fairly simple to agree that when one is stealing simply for personal benefit they are using others simply as a means to an end. As Kant believes one should never use another simply as a means to an end, stealing is morally wrong in his eyes. Even if one was stealing medicine, to save the life of a child, the person they are stealing from is not being treated as they should. We also discussed the morality behind killing. Kant would say it’s morally wrong to kill someone because you are, quite obviously, using them as a means to an end and disregarding their ability for autonomous action (O’Neill, 262). However, how might one apply this to more “gray scale” circumstances? For example, if there is a dangerous criminal threatening the life of a civilian or a police, who continues to approach/goes to attack with a weapon in their immediate possession, and refuses to stand-down after several warnings, is it morally acceptable for a police to shoot this person in order to save the life of the one being attacked? Kant would say no, it is not morally right, but many people would agree that if it is the police’s only option to save the innocent victim then they should do it.


Do you think Kant’s perspective of morals makes more sense than utilitarianism? Why?

This relates to this weeks readings in a much more general way. It is a way of examining and evaluating Kant’s perspective as using others as a means to an end versus using others as an end in themselves, and the idea of justice and beneficence in relation to topics and views we’ve already discussed in depth. O’Neill describes Kant’s views of justice as “[requiring] action that conforms (at least outwardly) to what could be done in a given situation while acting on maxims that use nobody” (O’Neill, 263). In comparing Kant’s views to the concept of utilitarianism we may evaluate which is a better or more realistic version of ethics and morals.

In-Class Discussion:

Our discussion was not conclusive as to whether one view was significantly better than the other. We agreed that compared to utilitarianism, Kant’s views of morals are more difficult to follow and understand. Our general basis for this question was that neither form of viewing morals works in every situation as they are often too general – they over-simplify and disregard the situation at hand. In this regard, Kant’s perspective offers a tad more lenience as what is morally right depends on the maxim at hand unlike utilitarianism where when something is morally wrong, it is wrong in any situation. However, his views also add their own conflict as even maxims used purely for justice must not use another simply as means to an end (O’Neill, 263). Comparing these two views highlighted that each have significant flaws in the foundation of the theories.

Discussion Summary on O’Neill

(1) at least two discussion questions you brought to the group to talk about

  1.  “Act in such a way as to treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of anyone else, always as an end and never merely as a means” (O’Neill 259). Is this a more appropriate formulation than the universal maxim? Why or why not?
  2. Leading on from the idea of treating humanity as rational and autonomous, would Kant consider the TOMS shoes program as morally right according to the CI of human formulation? How do we think we should be treating aid relief programs using this CI formulation? Would doing nothing be more beneficial? Would providing simply autonomous action or paternalistic relief in the extremes senses be more morally correct?

(2) an explanation how these questions relate to one or more of the author’s main argument(s) in the text(s) assigned for that week

  • There are two main aspects that which my questions are relevant to Kant’s, through O’Neill’s writing. These are:
  1. Exploring the second categorical imperative for moral rules. This is, to “act in such a way as to treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of anyone else, always as an end and never merely as a means” (O’Neill 259)
  2. Delving further into imperfect duties/beneficence with regard to helping others. O’Neill writes that we should be sustaining and extending others capacities for autonomous action with respect to this matter. (O’Neill 262). O’Neill writes that for Kantian thinking, paternalistic aid is at the very least, questionable (O’Neill 267)

(3) a brief summary of what your group discussed in trying to answer one or both of your questions

Your post should have enough detail to explain what you said, because the discussion leader can’t hear all of the presentations in each group when they’re going on simultaneously.

Discussion Question 1:

  • All seemed to agree that the second categorical imperative with respective to treatment people as an ends rather than merely a means as more intuitive and applicable than the universal maxim. The universal maxim seemed to rigid to apply in practice and too fallible to be taken seriously in a practical sense. One group member discussed specifically how the universal maxim seems to only work in a theoretical sense as it must be universally applied. On the other hand, the second categorical imperative worked closer to human intuition in respect to ideas of empathy and consent.

Discussion Question 2:

  • Received varied responses in respect to this question.  Overall while all agreed that it would be more beneficial to provide those in need with greater autonomy and in essence the tools with which they can pull themselves out of poverty, it is not always practical to do so. One group member brought up the concept of soup kitchens in parallel with the TOMs shoes example, highlighting how although the soup kitchens would be considered paternalistic and therefore questionable in Kantian thinking; satisfying the need of hunger in that moment would be of greater pertinence than for example teaching said person how to cook.  With respect to the TOM shoes example in particular, I explored more into the fact in providing these shoes, you would be stripping the shoe making economy out of those countries in effect removing autonomous capabilities of this country and would therefore be in conflict with Kantian thinking. The group seemed to agree to this

Mill, Kant, O’Neill

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