Sunday, March 25, 2012

Kantian Ethics And Human Dignity

“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” - Immanuel Kant (Categorical Imperative. try here)
In this rather short video clipped from the BBC documentary - "Justice: A Citizen's Guide to the 21st Century", Prof. Michael Sandle picks up an ethical dilema from a real-life kidnapping case that took place in Germany in 2002, and bounces it off to a Kantian activist and journalist, and to Peter Singer, the utilitarian Bioethics professor at Princeton University.

A kidnapper of a eleven year old boy of a banker in Germany, after collecting the ransom, is caught by the authorities. When he refused to divulge the whereabouts of the boy, the police threatened him of extreme torture. The kidnapper gave into the threats and confessed to murdering the boy. The German authorities, after further investigation, sentenced the kidnapper with life sentence, while at the same time, the police chief was also prosecuted and sentenced for violating the human dignity of the convict. A judge from German constitutional court is heard defending the police chief's prosecution by saying, "There are certain inherent qualities in a person that the person cannot forfeit even by doing the worst of deeds possible."

Peter Singer, from his utilitarian position, dismisses the whole Kantian idea -as followed by the German court in this case- and defends the police chief's actions. The way the (editing of the) clip suggests, Singer's primary issue with the Kantian thoughts seem to be their approach of non-action, but his position seems to begin weakening when Sandel challenges him by supposing that "let's assume the perpetrator wouldn't talk even under extreme torture, but he would talk if you tortured his 14 year old daughter", would Singer allow that? When Sandle adds more "numbers" into the equation, the utilitarian squeeze becomes even more prominent.

Apparently, the answer isn't easy. Though, uneasily perhaps, it seems surprisingly easy to relate to the effects of using man as means rather than respecting his human dignity as ends, with the experience where man seems to witness the everyday world being used as a commodity, that includes himself.

A follow-up question could perhaps be: Could Kantian ethical thinking give back humans -as utilitarian means- their dignified end? 
  • See also:
  • Go here for details of the BBC documentary "Justice: A Citizen's Guide to the 21st Century" by Prof Michael Sandle.
  • Try here for Kantian resources at Online Library of Liberty.
  • Try here for Peter Singer's page at

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