Jul 31st 2020

What is morally wrong with discrimination? A Kantian analysis

by Sam Ben-Meir

Sam Ben-Meir is professor of philosophy and world religions at Mercy Collage in New York.

The Supreme Court decided on June 15 that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects gay and transgender workers from workplace discrimination. Discrimination ‘because of sex’ is unlawful. But what is it that makes discrimination morally wrong? It is useful to examine this from a Kantian standpoint because Immanuel Kant lays the foundation for recognizing the inherent dignity of every individual – and discrimination is indeed an affront to human dignity.

Kant’s moral philosophy – or deontology (‘deon’ referring to duty) – maintains that what makes an act right is that it is done for the sake of the moral law. Consequences, intended or otherwise, are irrelevant in determining the moral worth of an action. What matters is whether the action is motivated by duty, which is to say, respect for the moral law.

Kant offered several formulations of the moral law which he described as a categorical imperative, as opposed to a hypothetical imperative. A hypothetical imperative says “If you want to accomplish x... then you must do y.” A categorical imperative on the other hand says, “Do x!” Your ends, aims or desires are irrelevant. That is what makes it categorical: it is not conditional upon anything. It commands us all the same irrespective of empirical or psychological contingencies.

Two formulations of the categorical imperative are particularly important. The first is the principle of human dignity and it says, never treat another rational being merely as a means but always as an end-in-themselves. In other words, treat every human being as possessing intrinsic value and never simply as a means to your own ends. From this standpoint, slavery is wrong precisely because it reduces the human being to a mere object, a thing, an instrument for satisfying another’s interests and fails to recognize their infinite and intrinsic worth as an end-in-themselves.

The second formulation of the categorical imperative is the principle of universalizability. It tells us to act only on those maxims that we can universalize. In other words, ask yourself if the action I am about to take can be rationally universalized – could I rationally, self-consistently will that everyone act in the same way as I am about to? Suppose I want to break a contract and renege on my promise: could I rationally will that everyone act on the maxim, renege on your promise when it suits you? The answer is no. I cannot rationally universalize the maxim, break your contract whenever it suits you, because in that case the entire institution of making contracts would collapse. No one would enter into a contract if there was not a reasonable expectation that it would be honored. When I renege on an agreement what I am actually doing is making an exception of myself – I am saying that everyone else should abide by their agreements but the same rule does not apply to me.

In fact, it is fair to say that the capital sin from a Kantian standpoint is precisely making an exception of myself, failing to recognize that the same rules apply to me as they do to anyone else. Discrimination therefore violates the very core of Kantian moral theory. When I discriminate against another person or group, I am saying that they do not count as much as I do. Discrimination is always morally wrong from a Kantian standpoint because it means that I allow myself to count more than the other does: the same rules do not apply to us equally. But morality requires that no one, and no group, counts more than any other. The rules apply to us all equally and no one is permitted to make an exception of themselves or the group to which they happen to belong.

There is another aspect to the deontological critique of discrimination. Kant famously writes in the Conclusion to his Critique of Practical Reason (1788): “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and reverence… The starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.” What is so wonderful about the moral law? There is something about it which gives humanity a touch of the divine and the reason has to do with autonomy.

To say that we are capable of acting on the basis of the moral law is to say that we are capable of autonomy – that is, literally, self-lawgiving. If we are able to give the law to ourselves then we are truly free. There is no freedom without autonomy. Freedom is not being able to do whatever you want. It is being able to act on a law that you legislate to yourself.

The alternative to autonomy is heteronomy. I may be physically free but if I live my life satisfying every base inclination then I am not really free at all. In that case, I am heteronomous – ruled by an other. I am still being ruled by an other, even if that other is my own inclinations and desires. As Martin Luther King observed, “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.” Freedom is being able to govern yourself through a kind of self-legislation.

Kant admits that we may never know whether anyone ever truly acted solely out of respect for the moral law: “One need not be an enemy of virtue but only a cool observer… to become doubtful at certain moments… whether any true virtue is to be found in the world.” We can say of any act that it was partially motivated by self-interest or inclination. But if it is impossible to act on the basis of the moral law then freedom is also impossible. When we act on the basis of self-interest or inclination we are not acting with true freedom. Although we cannot know that any act consistent with duty was motivated solely by the moral law, neither can we know that it was not. And not only are we permitted to think that moral freedom is indeed possible, in fact we have to assume it is possible for morality to make any sense at all.

We cannot arrive at any theoretical knowledge pertaining to freedom, according to Kant, because our knowledge is limited to the world of phenomena, or appearances. To the extent that our knowledge is bound by phenomena, nothing in the world including ourselves is free – as Kant observed: “[If] I were only a part of the world of sense [all my actions] would be assumed to conform wholly to the natural law of desires and inclinations, i.e., to the heteronomy of nature.” But it is also because our knowledge is limited that we are allowed to think of ourselves as free; and indeed, for the sake of morality we have to. We do not know what we are in ourselves, so to speak: “Even as to himself, the human being cannot claim to cognize what he is in himself…” – for we cannot know things in themselves, or the world as noumena. And since we cannot know, it is possible that we are free as noumenal beings.

What then is morally wrong with discrimination from a Kantian standpoint? When we discriminate against persons what we are effectively doing is saying this person or group of people lack moral worth. We have moral worth because we have the capacity for autonomy or freedom. That is why one is to be treated always as an end-in-itself, because we are rational agents capable of acting on the basis of a law that reason itself legislates. When I am prejudiced against someone I am, consciously or not, denying their capacity for moral freedom.

But we have also seen that Kant denies that we can have any such knowledge about others or even ourselves. Therefore, when I deny another’s capacity for autonomy I am assuming a knowledge I do not possess. I have to assume that all rational beings are capable of freedom, and as such they possess infinite worth. Discrimination is morally wrong then because it is based on a false premise – namely, that I can truly know the other.

Kant teaches that we have to acknowledge the limits of human knowledge. When I recognize that the other as a noumenal being eludes me I have to admit that I can no more deny their freedom then I can deny my own. And if they are free then they possess infinite self-worth and must be treated as end-in-themselves and never simply as a means.

From a Kantian standpoint discrimination based on race – or religion, or gender – is fundamentally wrong. It is wrong, first of all, because it is dehumanizing, a denial of human dignity. When I racially discriminate, I am denying the person’s intrinsic self-worth, I am, in fact, denying their very right to exist, whether I know it or not. The moral law demands that I treat every individual as a free person equal to everyone else. If the moral law grants each of us a kind of infinite worth, it does not grant someone greater worth than anyone else.

As Patrick Linden, a professor of philosophy at New York University, said to me in an email, it is “more consonant with Kant's ethics to disregard group membership – black, white, sex, tribe, etc. – and focus on the person as a source of freedom and value. To treat a person on the basis of their essential humanity rather than according to other categories they may be members of.  That is what we want to be the universal law. This is why Kant is usually seen as morally opposed to affirmative action whatever its expedience may be. It also contradicts traditionalist understandings of workplace gender segregation.”

Discrimination is morally egregious when we use it to justify treating another human being as anything less than a human being, as anything less than a person possessed with inherent dignity, and immeasurable intrinsic value. Each one of us is an end-in-itself, a citizen within a “kingdom of ends,” as Kant put it. When I discriminate, I do not treat that person any longer as an end-in-themselves – I identify them with some group of which they are a member and allow that to define who and what they are. What I have invariably overlooked is their humanity: when I respect their humanity, I treat them with dignity, because I know they have the capacity for moral freedom and therefore infinite worth.



Sam Ben-Meir is a professor of philosophy and world religions at Mercy College in New York City.

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Jul 31st 2020
EXTRACT: "From a Kantian standpoint discrimination based on race – or religion, or gender – is fundamentally wrong. It is wrong, first of all, because it is dehumanizing, a denial of human dignity. When I racially discriminate, I am denying the person’s intrinsic self-worth, I am, in fact, denying their very right to exist, whether I know it or not. The moral law demands that I treat every individual as a free person equal to everyone else. If the moral law grants each of us a kind of infinite worth, it does not grant someone greater worth than anyone else."
Jul 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "Remember, your wellbeing is extremely important when supporting someone with depression. Take time for self-care so you can model positive behaviours and be replenished enough to provide this crucial support."
Jul 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "--- Nobody is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart, for his purity, by definition, is unassailable. --- Author James Baldwin’s words, written in the America of the late 1950s."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Numerous studies have shown that children who grow up in more deprived neighbourhoods tend to have worse physical health as adults compared to those raised in more affluent areas. This is the case even when researchers take into account family income and education, and whether or not parents have major illnesses. In order to address this health disparity, researchers need to understand how those living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods end up with worse health outcomes. Our team’s latest study has highlighted one potential way your childhood neighbourhood may influence your health for years to come. It might do so through changing how the activity of your genes is regulated."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Ruth Poniarski is a painter and the author of Journey of the Self: Memoir of an Artist (Warren Publishing, 2020), in which she tells the story of her decade long struggle with mental illness, a “spiraling malady” which led her into a “pattern of psychosis”. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Poniarski about her life and work, and how she eventually overcame her demons."
Jun 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "I know I’m good in a couple of things, really good in a few things, and that’s enough. My confidence is big enough that I can really let people grow next to me, it’s no problem. I need experts around me. It’s really very important that you are empathetic, that you try to understand the people around you, and that you give real support to the people around you."
Jun 27th 2020
An essay about the "the enormously influential 1940 'Head of Christ' painting by evangelical Warner E. Sallman" pictured below.
Jun 17th 2020
EXTRACT: "The diverse, non-human life forms that live in our guts – known as our microbiome – are crucial to our health. A disrupted balance of these contribute to a range of disorders and diseases, including obesity, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease. It could even affect our mental health..... It’s well known that the microbes living in our guts are altered through diet. For example, including dietary fibre and dairy products in our diets encourages the growth of beneficial bacteria. But mounting evidence suggests that exercise can also modify the types of bacteria that reside within our guts."
Jun 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "Bonhoeffer’s life holds an important lesson for us today, regardless of our religious affiliation or lack thereof. And simply put it is this: you are called upon; you are called on behalf of your neighbor. When you are called to be responsible that is not an obligation which you can decline, discharge or acquit yourself of – it is an infinite responsibility, a “forever commitment” as Charles Blow recently put it. And we all must be prepared to make any sacrifice necessary when we are called."
Jun 11th 2020
EXTRACT: "People differ substantially in how much they’re affected by experiences in their lives. Some people seem to be more affected by daily stress, or the loss of someone close to them. On the other hand, some people seem to get through the same experiences relatively unscathed. Similarly, some people benefit strongly from counselling, or having a support system of close family and friends. Others seem better able to manage on their own. But understanding why some people are more sensitive than others isn’t just a question of how they were raised, and the experiences they’ve been through. In fact, previous research has found that some people in general seem more sensitive to what they experience – and some are generally less sensitive."
Jun 7th 2020
EXTRACT: " The root causes of anthropogenic climate change – which has led to the endangering of countless species across the globe – cannot be adequately grasped in isolation from the technological application of modern science. While Swedish activist Greta Thunberg was certainly justified in calling upon American legislators to “unite behind the science,” neither can we overlook the culpability of science in bringing about the environmental crisis. "
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The QAnon movement began in 2017 after someone known only as Q posted a series of conspiracy theories about Trump on the internet forum 4chan. QAnon followers believe global elites are seeking to bring down Trump, whom they see as the world’s only hope to defeat the “deep state.” OKM is part of a network of independent congregations (or ekklesia) called Home Congregations Worldwide (HCW). The organization’s spiritual adviser is Mark Taylor, a self-proclaimed “Trump Prophet” and QAnon influencer with a large social media following on Twitter and YouTube."
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The aim of my research for the Understanding Unbelief programme was to investigate the worldviews of non-believers, since little is known about the diversity of these non-religious beliefs, and what psychological functions they serve. I wanted to explore the idea that while non-believers may not hold religious beliefs, they still hold distinct ontological, epistemological and ethical beliefs about reality, and the idea that these secular beliefs and worldviews provide the non-religious with equivalent sources of meaning, or similar coping mechanisms, as the supernatural beliefs of religious individuals."
May 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Psalm 91, for example, reassures believers that God will protect them from “the pestilence that walketh in darkness… A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee”.............Luther was a devout believer but insisted that religious faith had to be joined with practical, physical defences against sickness. It was a good Christian’s duty to work to keep themselves and others safe, rather than relying solely on the protection of God. "
May 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Evidence from this study shows clearly that eating foods rich in flavonoids over your lifetime is significantly linked to reducing Alzheimer’s disease risk. However, their consumption will be even more beneficial alongside other lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking, managing a healthy weight and exercising."
May 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "It’s possible that the answers to questions like, “how do I live a virtuous life?” or “how do we build a good society?” are not the same as they were a few weeks ago."
May 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Strangely, those with strong beliefs tend to be admired. The human mind hates uncertainty, so it is comforting to be told what to think, and to form settled opinions. But it is not rational. As the philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote: “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”
Apr 21st 2020
Extract: "Humans, Boccaccio seems to be saying, can think of themselves as upstanding and moral – but unawares, they may show indifference to others. We see this in the 10 storytellers themselves: They make a pact to live virtuously in their well-appointed retreats. Yet while they pamper themselves, they indulge in some stories that illustrate brutality, betrayal and exploitation. Boccaccio wanted to challenge his readers, and make them think about their responsibilities to others. “The Decameron” raises the questions: How do the rich relate to the poor during times of widespread suffering? What is the value of a life? In our own pandemic, with millions unemployed due to a virus that has killed thousands, these issues are strikingly relevant.
Apr 20th 2020
Extract: "If we do not seize this crisis as a moment for transformation, then we will have lost the war. If doing so requires reviving notions of collective guilt and responsibility – including the admittedly uncomfortable view that every one of us is infinitely responsible, then so be it; as long we do not morally cop out by blaming some group as the true bearers of sin, guilt, and God’s heavy judgment. A pandemic clarifies the nature of action: that with our every act we answer to each other. In that light, we have a duty to seize this public crisis as an opportunity to reframe our mutual responsibility to one another and the world."
Apr 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "Death is the common experience which can make all members of the human race feel their common bonds and their common humanity."