“A Kingdom of Ends”

The simple ethical principle that’s stuck with me for over half my life

Mike Sturm

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Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash

I’m always on the hunt for simple principles for better living. So here’s one that I’ve held dear for quite some time. It goes back to my early days in college — right after I failed at being an illustration major, and began studying philosophy. One of my first classes was Classical Ethical Theories, where we studied what the great minds spanning 2,000 years had to say about what constituted good living and right actions.

That class introduced me to Immanuel Kant, who had a unique way of thinking about how to go about living in the world with others:

Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.

Kant went on to talk about humanity as a “kingdom of ends” — a realm of beings defined by our unique rationality and autonomy. We can, and do, make plans for ourselves, adopt principles, and reshape who we are throughout our lives.

What he’s talking about is the fact that any way that we treat people can do one of two things. It can either fully respect the other party as an autonomous and valuable being —with their own hopes, dreams, and feelings and valuable in and of themselves. Or, it can treat them as a means to your own ends — a veritable object you’re using for your own purposes.

It helpfully explains why it’s okay to ask someone to help you move, but wrong to manipulate them into it via a guilt-trip.

To me, it seemed like the best way to capture what’s wrong with various wrong actions that some people may justify by appealing to the “greater good” — but that seem wrong to us. It explains why managers who can simply bark orders at employees shouldn’t. It explains what’s wrong with things that aren’t illegal — like adultery, verbal abuse, or emotional manipulation in consensual relationships.

And it doesn’t appeal to a higher metaphysical being. It also doesn’t appeal to complicated socioeconomic facts. It can be deployed anywhere humans are interacting. It’s easy to remember, and easy to recognize in each other.

Even those who have wronged you — even severely wronged you. The punishment they get can be given — even if it’s painful to them — just so long as your reason for punishing them isn’t about using them as means for you to feel better. Respect even those who do really bad things as ends in themselves. Make their punishment about helping them realize the gravity of their wrongs — not about making wronged parties feel better. It can be a thin line to walk, but it’s worth it to try to do so.

This principle has stayed with me for a long time now, and though it’s been quite a while since I’ve read Kant, I still like this way of thinking about morality. In the end, we’re all human beings trying to eke out an existence we can find joy in and be proud of. The more we can act with that fact in mind, the better off we’ll all be.

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Mike Sturm

Creator: https://TheTodaySystem.com — A simpler personal productivity system. Writing about productivity, self-improvement, business, and life.