1. Introduction

The value assigned to the concept of a person is an essential question to all individuals and societies. In the west we have attempted to arrive at a definition through philosophy, and in this philosophy two key perspectives emerge regarding personhood in the context of a society: Kant’s notion that every rational being is an end in itself contained in a moral community, and Hegel’s that humanity is a component in the motion of history toward its ultimate end in the self-understanding of God. Seemingly, the two positions are directly opposed; persons as ends versus persons as means, but in the arcane salad of the philosopher’s words particularities arise that require special attention.

2. Separations and Similarities

2.1 Kant:

Kant presents that persons are ends in themselves and that they have the ability to impose their rational nature upon their will, yet this level of rationality is not always possible, hunger for example or as Kant puts it: “natural necessity is the property of the causality of all non-rational beings, through which they are caused to act in specific ways by the influence of outside causes.” (Kant, 39) so we must consider a person from two standpoints: First as a free and rational actor, and second as a body subject to the sometimes insurmountable influences and demands of the outside world. It is trough this idea of considering persons from dual standpoints that a unity emerges with Hegel where there seemed to be a chasm of difference.

2.2 Hegel

Hegel does not explicitly refer to humanity as ends in themselves, in fact he argues very directly that we are a means by which God comes to understand himself, and history is the process that allows this to happen. Incidentally, when dealing with Hegel we use the term “human” in place of “person” because in Hegel’s conception of history there are only two actors, God and humans; extra-terrestrials, hyper-intelligent cheeses and other possible persons are not a factor in Hegel’s conception of the movement of history toward God’s self-understanding.

2.3 Unity

If persons are both a means and exclusively human to Hegel then how is he at all in concert with Kant, you ask? Well quite your ignorant heart, my gibbering Dante, for your handsome, noble Virgil will illuminate: Hegel conceives of humanity as moving toward an ultimate end, but within that motion we are free, rational actors. From a Kantian perspective we can take Hegel to simply be claiming that we are subject to an extra law in the second standpoint, the motion of history.

3. The Microscope or the Telescope

3.1 Under the Microscope: Ends

It is time to get explicit about each conception of personhood so that we may come to view them with great clarity. Kant views a rational being as an end in itself as an essential component in the ability to create universal laws because, to him, the question of God’s existence is not determinable so laws cannot flow from that source and to derive them from situations and experiences would only provide situational laws (what Kant calls hypothetical imperatives) or as he puts it: “: “Ends that a rational being adopts arbitrarily as effects… are in every case only relative.” (Kant, 95) Food, for example, only has value relative to hunger.

Since his goal is to formulate a universal law (categorical imperative) he must find some other basis; some sort of “groundwork” for a “metaphysic of morals” (titles can be so illustrative). Kant believes that only “something whose being has in itself an absolute value… could be a ground of determinate laws.” (Kant, 95) This something, obviously, is “every rational being” (Kant, 95) This value combined with rationality provides the basis for a being to act morally in that it may regard at least one object as having absolute value and orient its actions around the juxtaposition of absolute and relative values.

This orientation presents itself as the previously mentioned two standpoints. Kant says: “[A person] can consider himself first… to be under the laws of nature (heteronomy); and secondly… to be under laws that… have their ground in reason alone.” This balance is what helps Kant determine where morality exists or is absent. A person may be saving someone’s life because he/she has a tasty grilled panini in his/her briefcase or out of duty to act from moral law. Because the two motives have the same result the only way to determine which act is moral and which has no moral content is by judging to what extent the actor has acted autonomously by imposing moral thought on actions or heteronomously by imposing deliciousness on toasted bread and spicy mustard.

3.2 Under the Telescope: Odds

Hegel argues that philosophy brings the idea that “reason governs the world” to the study of history and that reason shows us that history have a definitive and unstoppable movement toward freedom. God comes to understand himself through this very process. First, there must be a way for freedom to develop on our world, and this exists as the sum of human deeds, or as Hegel puts it: “The question of the means by which Freedom develops itself to a World, conducts us to the phenomenon of History itself.” (Hegel)

So if we, as actors in history provide a mechanism for God does this mean that Hegel was in opposition to the idea humanity had absolute value or that we cannot act autonomously because history is determined? In a sense no, but in another sense yes. No in that Hegel’s conception of God does not have will so in the same way that we could not consider ourselves a means by which gravity achieves the end of pulling we could not necessarily consider ourselves as a means for God.

Hegel uses the example of the building of a house from stone to explain this idea, but we will turn our attention to a more contemporary, less brutish illustration. A number of cars are driving on; let’s say Interstate 80 from Reno, Nevada to San Francisco, California so that the people in those cars might enjoy a nice dim sum in Chinatown. While one driver might be in a Toyota Prius and choose to diligently signal when changing lanes another might be in a hummer and choose to eat bacon while driving and throw draught beer cans from his window. One might go 65 mph, another 80, and in this context the drivers are free to act morally in the Kantian sense. At the same time, however, they cannot, as a collective avoid the perfectly steamed shrimp dumplings on the other side of the Bay Bridge. Hegel describes this process as such: “Thus the elements are made use of in accordance with their nature, and yet to co-operate for a product, by which their operation is limited. Thus the passions of men are gratified; they develop themselves and their aims in accordance with their natural tendencies, and build up the edifice of human society; thus fortifying a position for Right and Order against themselves.” (Hegel)

Hegel’s thinking does, however, present the following dilemma: if history’s ultimate end is the self-understanding of God then all actions within history are influence by this movement, and are therefore in Kantian terms heteronomous. Hegel gets around this and preserves the value of persons in his arguing that the question of God is determinable only in the affirmative, so it is collectively rather than individually that humans have absolute value.

4. Conclusion

To revisit the brilliant example of the highway. We can view Kant as a highway patrolman scanning the roads for violators and obiedients, and Hegel as a government official sending out snow plows and repaving roads to keep traffic moving in the right direction. Both philosophers view persons as having value, but in different ways. For Kant a person is what makes morality possible, and for Hegel people are an essential part of an inevitable history.

Advertisements