Skip to main content

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


Popular posts from this blog

The Pygmalion vs. The Golem Effect

There are two kinds of self-fulfilling prophecies. They are broadly defined by wiki as follows: The Pygmalion effect , or Rosenthal effect, is the phenomenon in which the greater the expectation placed upon people, the better they perform. On the other hand is the Golem effect , in which low expectations lead to a decrease in performance. In ancient Greek mythology, Pygmalion fell in love with one of his sculptures, which then came to life. The theme was in the main stray of many English literary works during the victorian era. One of which is George Bernard Shaw's play titled "Pygmalion" from which Rosenthal effect gets its name. In Shaw's play, the protagonist, a professor of phonetics Henry Higgins makes a bet that he can train a bedraggled Cockney flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, to pass for a duchess at an ambassador's garden party by teaching her to assume a veneer of gentility, the most important element of which, he believes, is impeccable speech. (The pl

Clay Christensen: How Will You Measure Your Life?

A tribute to Clayton Christensen, the Harvard professor who  introduced "disruption" in his 1997 book  The Innovator's Dilemma , which, in turn, led  The Economist  to term him "the most influential management thinker of his time."  Even more influential  for some would be his 2012 co-authored book How Will You Measure Your Life? . [try here ]. Christensen  passed away in Boston on Jan 23, 2020.

"Peter Drucker - Managing Oneself" on

IN THE INTRODUCTORY paragraph of this legendary paper for Harvard Business Review, Peter Drucker writes: We live in an age of unprecedented opportunity: If you've got ambition and smarts, you can rise to the top of your chosen profession, regardless of where you started out.  But with opportunity comes responsibility. Companies today aren't managing their employees' careers; knowledge workers must, effectively, be their own chief executive officers. It's up to you to carve out your place, to know when to change the course, and to keep yourself engaged and productive during a work life that may span some 50 years. To do those things well, you will need to cultivate a deep understanding of yourself - not only what your strengths and weaknesses are but also how you learn, how you work with others, what your values are, and where you can make the greatest contribution. Because only when you operate from strengths can you achieve true excellence. Marking a small foot