The categorical imperative incorporates two criteria for determining moral right and wrong: universalizability and reversibility. Universalizability means the person’s reasons for acting must be reasons that everyone could act on at least in principle. Reversibility means the person’s reasons for acting must be reasons that he or she would be willing to have all others use, even as a basis of how they treat him or her. That is, one’s reasons for acting must be reasons that everyone could act upon in principle, and the person’s reasons must be such that he would be willing to have all others use them as well. Unlike utilitarianism, which focuses on consequences, Kantian theory focuses on interior motivations.


The second formulation Kant gives of the categorical imperative is this: “Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.” Or never treat people only as means, but always also as ends. What Kant means by “treating humanity as an end” is that everyone should treat each human being as a being whose existence as a free rational person should be promoted. For Kant, this means two things:

(a) respect each person’s freedom by treating people only as they have freely consented to be treated beforehand, and

(b) develop each person’s capacity to freely choose for him or herself the aims he or she will pursue.

Kant’s second version of the categorical imperative can be expressed in the following principle:

“An action is morally right for a person if, and only if, in performing the action, the

person does not use others merely as a means for advancing his or her own interests,

but also both respects and develops their capacity to choose freely for themselves.”

This version of the categorical imperative implies that human beings have an equal dignity that sets them apart from things such as tools or machines and that is incompatible with their being manipulated, deceived, or otherwise unwillingly exploited to satisfy the self-interests of another.

However, even if the categorical imperative explains why people have moral rights, it cannot by itself tell us what particular moral rights humans have. And when rights come into conflict, it cannot tell us which right should take precedence.

Still, there seem to be three basic rights that can be defended on Kantian grounds:

1.  Humans have a clear interest in being provided with the work, food, clothing, housing, and medical care they need to live.

2.  Humans have a clear interest in being free from injury and in being free to live and think as they choose.

3.  Humans have a clear interest in preserving the institution of contracts.

Despite the attractiveness of Kant’s theory, critics have argued that, like utilitarianism, it has its limitations and inadequacies. A first problem that critics have traditionally pointed out is that Kant’s theory is not precise enough to always be useful. Second, some critics claim that although we might be able to agree on the kinds of interests that have the status of moral rights, there is substantial disagreement concerning what the limits of each of these rights are and concerning how each of these rights should be balanced against other conflicting rights. A third group of criticisms that have been made of Kant’s theory is that there are counterexamples that show the theory sometimes goes wrong. Most counterexamples to Kant’s theory focus on the criteria of universalizability and reversibility.

A very different view of rights is based on the work of libertarian philosophers such as Robert Nozick. They claim that freedom from constraint is necessarily good, and that all constraints imposed on one by others are necessary evils, except when they prevent even greater human constraints. The only basic right we all possess is the negative right to be free from the coercion of other human beings.

Libertarians may pass too quickly over the fact that the freedom of one person necessarily imposes constraints on other persons, if only that others must be constrained from interfering with that person. If I have the right to unionize, for example, I constrain the rights of my employer to treat me as he sees fit. Though libertarians tend to use Kant to support their views, there is no consensus on whether or not this is actually possible. There is also no good reason to assume that only negative rights exist.

Justice and Fairness

The dispute over “brown lung” disease caused by cotton dust illustrates how references to justice and fairness permeate such concerns. Justice and fairness are essentially comparative. They are concerned with the comparative treatment given to the members of a group when benefits and burdens are distributed, when rules and laws are administered, when members of a group cooperate or compete with each other, and when people are punished for the wrongs they have done or compensated for the wrongs they have suffered.

Justice generally refers to matters that are more serious than fairness, though some philosophers maintain that fairness is more fundamental. In general, we think that considerations of justice are more important than utilitarian concerns: greater benefits for some do not justify injustices to others. However, standards of justice not generally override individual moral rights. This is probably because justice is, to some extent, based on individual moral rights.

There are three categories of issues involving justice:

1.  Distributive justice is concerned with the fair distribution of society’s benefits and burdens.

2.  Retributive justice refers to the just imposition of penalties and punishments

3.  Compensatory justice is concerned with compensating people for what they lose when harmed by others.

Questions of distributive justice arise when there is a scarcity of benefits or a plethora of burdens; not enough food or health care, for example, or too much unpleasant work. When resources are scarce, we must develop principles to allocate them fairly. The fundamental principle involved is that equals should be treated equally (and unequals treated unequally). However, it is not clear in just what respects people must be equal. The fundamental principle of distributive justice may be expressed as follows:

“Individuals who are similar in all respects relevant to the kind of treatment in question should be given similar benefits and burdens, even if they are dissimilar in other irrelevant respects; and individuals who are dissimilar in a relevant respect ought to be treated dissimilarly, in proportion to their dissimilarity.”

Egalitarians hold that there are no relevant differences among people that can justify unequal treatment. According to the egalitarian, all benefits and burdens should be distributed according to the following formula:

“Every person should be given exactly equal shares of a society’s or a group’s benefits and burdens.”

Though equality is an attractive social ideal for many, egalitarianism has been strongly criticized. Some critics claim that need, ability, and effort are all relevant differences among people, and that it would be unjust to ignore these differences.

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