Tenth Anniversary Edition

•August 3, 2020 • Leave a Comment


Publisher/Editor: Eli Kanon

Reviewers: Vaughn Baltzly, Anthony Cross, Eric Gilbertson, Peter Hutcheson, Vincent Luizzi, Ivan Marquez, Russell Moses, Robert O’Connor, Burkay Ozturk and Nevitt Reesor.


Kaylyn Pederson, The University of Texas, John Locke’s Theoretical Views on Slavery in the Second Treatise of Government

Elektra Jordan, Texas State University, Condemned to Exist: A Theory on Modernity & Our Inescapable Immortality

Pranav Vijanay, The University of Texas, G.E. Moore Vindicated? A Response to David Ross’s Criticism of Ideal Utilitarianism

Pedro Brea, The University of North Texas, Archimedean Ethics

Dustin Leenhouts, University of Texas, Applying Kantian Ethics to the Use of Drugs

John Locke’s Theoretical Views on Slavery in the Second Treatise of Government

Kaylyn Pedersen, The University of Texas – Austin

John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, henceforth referred to as the Second Treatise, lays out the theoretical foundations for a civil system that relies on the consent of the governed.  Arguing that all men are free rational agents, Locke’s theory throughout the Second Treatise establishes the notion of natural rights that remains prevalent within modern American political theory. The Lockean conception of human rights within the Second Treatise paved the way for the rise of modern Liberalism, however, the work raises serious theoretical questions about the nature of slavery and its role within political systems. How does Locke’s theoretical views on liberty and consent align with his views of slavery? And if they do align, why is there no mention of the contradiction between his theory and his actions regarding his connection to the Afro-American slave trade? (Farr, 277) Throughout this paper, the author will attempt to show that Locke’s conception of slavery is not the modern notion of racial slavery, as seen in the Americas, but rather the slavery that Locke discusses within the Second Treatise is purely political. This political form of slavery comes to light in examining the race-neutral language used throughout the relevant sections on slavery paired with Locke’s theoretical understanding of political structures, which points to potential disunity between his theoretical viewpoint and his moral viewpoint on slavery.

In attempts to understand how exactly theorists can have philosophic views that seemingly condemn the notion of slavery, but fall short of denying the practice, it might be helpful to look at other influential thinkers. Locke is not the only Enlightenment-era philosopher who has received criticism on his treatment of slavery, or lack thereof, within his theories’, with Immanuel Kant serving as another example of this disconnect between theory and practice. (Mills, 10) The criticisms pointed towards both Kant and Locke make one wonder how it is that thoughtful individuals, who had developed profound philosophical views, could have missed this seemingly glaring hole in their theories. While Kant denounced racial slavery that was growing in prevalence throughout Europe and the American Colonies later in his life, the same cannot be said for Locke. Perhaps Locke’s silence highlights the definitional divergence in his use of the term ‘slavery’ throughout his political writings. Rather than using slavery in its modern context, a hereditary, racial system of oppression, Locke may have used the term to represent the broad political oppression at the hands of tyrannical monarchs of the time. It may very well be possible that within Locke’s understanding of slavery there existed a sort of theoretical/moral split between political slavery, done at the hands of governments, and a form of slavery more closely associated with contemporary thinking. The use of ‘slavery’ in the Second Treatise falling into the former definition. The existence of this distinction would explain its use within Locke’s theory, especially when considering the overall purpose of the two treatises: to lay out a philosophical justification for civil government based on consent.

The legislative use of slavery in the Second Treatise can be traced back to the arguments made against the existence of the divine right to rule in the First Treatise. Locke’s opposition to the propagation of  “wrong notions concerning government” was meant to attack the rising sentiment throughout Europe of the divine right of kings.3 Here Locke compares living under a monarch to slavery, as seen in the following:

“Slavery is so vile and miserable an estate of man, and so directly opposite to the generous temper and courage of our nation, that it is hardly to be conceived that an Englishman, much less a gentleman, should plead for it” (Locke, 1)

Opening a treatise on governmental authority by describing slavery in this way points to Locke’s use of the concept as one that is deeply political. The slavery that Locke presents is living a life under a monarch. Furthermore, the emphasis is on the lives of Englishmen under a system of government that treats them as slaves. (Farr, 269) This definition serving as more of a call to arms, so to speak, urging citizens not to accept oppressive governmental systems, rather than a discussion on the morality of racial slavery. When investigating the context of the work as a whole, there seems to be some indication that the slavery Locke refers to is the much broader notion of the conditions of citizens at the hands of a governing body.

This broader legislative conception of slavery is further developed within Chapter IV, “On Slavery”, as it places the use of the term in a largely governmental context. Flowing from the belief in natural rights, Locke states the “liberty of man, in society, is to be under no other legislative power, but that established, by consent in the commonwealth”. (Locke, 110) The discussion of slavery is centralized under the notion that human beings are not to be ruled over by an all-powerful master, but more specifically by a master with authority in the commonwealth. To boot, the distinction that Locke makes between “drudgery” and “slavery” when referencing other nations lies in the power of the master and further points to the political use of slavery. One becomes a slave under “absolute, arbitrary, despotical power”. (Locke, 110) The political nature of the slavery discussed in the chapter becomes more apparent because “master” is described as the very monarchs that Locke was arguing against in the First Treatise.

Along with this, the language of Chapter IV remains race-neutral, never once mentioning race as comprising the basis for who is to be the master and who is to be the slave. The chapter has no mention of race, religion, or even sex as components for who is considered a slave under the “just-war” theory. The silence on physical features playing into who is a “just” slave further indicates that Locke’s understanding of slavery within the Second Treatise as something that occurs to all citizens within a political association. Within Chapter IV Locke describes “just slavery” that occurs when a lawful conqueror takes captive an individual who has committed an act that forfeits that individual’s life. There is no mention of race as an aspect that would lead to the forfeiture of an individual’s liberty, seemingly expanding the scope of slavery to include all citizens of a commonwealth, not just specific members of a certain racial group. Some point to the “just-war” theory of slavery as evidence of Locke attempting to justify the type of enslavement as seen in the Americas; however, when one views the “just-war” theory of slavery alongside Chapter XVI, “Of Conquest”, it becomes clear this is not the case. (Hinshelwood, 563)

Describing how one might forfeit their life, and thus submitting oneself to the just conqueror, Locke makes it clear that “the miscarriages of the father are no faults of the children…[and are not to withstand]  the brutishness and injustice of the father”. (Locke, 181) Slavery, for Locke, is not meant to be an inherited condition. It is not that a group of people should be submitted unjustly to a form of continued political oppression based on qualities inherited by birth. No conqueror can use this inheritance of misdeeds argument to “dispossess the posterity of the vanquished, and turn them out of that inheritance, which ought to be the possession of them and their descendants”. (Locke, 183) The inheritance being one’s natural liberty. Children are not to be subjected to the chains and bonds of their parents or the form of government their parents potentially suffered under. In condemning hereditary slavery, it would seem as though Locke would be against slavery prevalent in the U.S. Colonies and that would develop throughout the south in the form of Chattel slavery. Although, this belief taken with his involvement in the drafting of the Carolina constitution complicates the issue. If Locke truly believed in this nonhereditary form of slavery, how could he have helped create a system that thrives on the continued domination of a group with specific, and arbitrary, genetic features?

While an in-depth analysis of Locke’s involvement in the drafting of the Fundamental Constitution of Carolina will not be included in this essay, it is interesting to briefly note and discuss. Setting aside whether the document reflects Locke’s personal beliefs on the subject, his willingness to participate in its construction does raise flags regarding his views on slavery as a moral issue. (Farr, 509) Perhaps this speaks to the nature of racism throughout the Seventeenth century and just how pervasive and corruptive it had been even to some of the most enlightened minds. Considering Locke’s theoretical views throughout the Second Treatise, which would seemingly condemn the practice of slavery, one might wonder whether Locke himself saw the issue in different ways.

Although British public opinion on slavery at the time Locke was writing may have been shifting toward the abolition of slavery, officially abolishing the practice in 1834, racism had and continues to be, something heavily ingrained in European thought. It may be the case that even Locke himself was not immune to the hypocrisies of racist thinking, as was the case for other Enlightenment-era philosophers, i.e. Kant. (Mills, 1) Noting the historical context in which Locke was creating and developing his theoretical views on government and consent, it might be the case that Locke made this distinction between his moral and theoretical views on the subject. Separating slavery into these two different categories, theoretical and moral, Locke can condemn political servitude in his political theories, while continuing his involvement in the slave trade of the American Colonies. Through recognizing this potential mental disconnect between theory and practice, one can begin to understand the complexities of Locke’s views on slavery and criticize them appropriately. This doesn’t excuse the moral flaws in Locke’s theoretical views on slavery if those views did support the enslavement of Indigenous and African individuals, but it does mean that one should take this into account whenever reading and analyzing philosophers such as Locke.

Works Cited

Farr, James. “Locke, Natural Law, and New World Slavery.” Political Theory 36, no. 4 (2008): 495-522. Accessed May 29, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/20452649 Accessed December 20, 2019.

Farr, James. “”So Vile and Miserable an Estate”: The Problem of Slavery in Locke’s Political Thought.” Political Theory 14, no. 2 (1986): 263-89. www.jstor.org/stable/191463 Accessed May 29, 2020.

Hinshelwood, Brad.  “The Carolinian Context of John Locke’s Theory of Slavery.” Political Theory 41, no. 4 (2013): 562-90. www.jstor.org/stable/23484595 Accessed May 30, 2020.

Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government and A Letter Concerning Toleration. Edited by Ian Shapiro. New York: Yale University Press, 2003.

Mills, Charles W. The Racial Contract. Cornell University Press, 1997. www.jstor.org/stable/10.7591/j.ctt5hh1wj  Accessed October 18, 2019.

Condemned to Exist: A Theory on Modernity & Our Inescapable Immortality

Elektra Jordan, Texas State University

Consider this: if you wanted to permanently do away with your existence, could you?

Americans are frequently advised to be mindful of what they post online because it never truly disappears – an electronic record of the post will always exist somewhere. However, our online interactions are not the only records being stored indefinitely. Americans themselves are now entangled in a similar type of unique identification system that guarantees permanent existence. In this essay, I advance my original philosophical theory of being “Condemned to Exist” – an acknowledgement of Sartre’s famous theory on freedom, yet a new and modern approach that aims not to necessarily dispute Sartre but to instead highlight a frighteningly real limitation to his theory that demands modern consideration. I begin by arguing that through the rise of modernity, each American citizen is and will continue to be permanently accounted for through social and governmental programs. Furthermore, I expand this realization within the framework of existentialist thought and focus specifically on the limitations that this new reality places on Sartre’s theory of radical human freedom. Lastly, I considered how this fundamental shift in modern existence will influence our understanding of the human condition, impact the universal ideals centered on legacy and immortality, and alter the long-standing philosophical debate on existence, choice, and free will.

German author Frederick Henry Heinemann writes vastly ahead of his time in his 1953 book Existentialism and the Modern Predicament where he proposes the theory of technological alienation, described as “that stage where technology dominates us instead of our dominating it” (Heinemann, 27). While this definition can lend itself to multiple meanings in a range of potential scenarios, Heinemann’s forethought and prediction would in time reveal itself to be true. Heinemann realizes that “the problem [of] how to master technology will therefore remain with us for decades and perhaps for centuries to come. It is existential in the true sense of the word, for the age of technology endangers the existence of the human person more than ever” (Heinemann, 29). Writing on the other side of the world with a likely limited knowledge of American social happenings, Heinemann’s theories in the early 1950’s about the future existential implications of technological advancement were, despite his (or other Americans) knowing, ironically beginning to take root in America.

The fundamental shift in modern American existence can be traced back to the advent of the Social Security Administration (SSA). Originally developed by FDR as a financial program in 1936, the overall goal of the program relating to workers’ benefit entitlements remains largely the same today. The SSA began distributing Social Security Numbers (SSN) to each worker that applied for the program as a way to track earnings and distribute benefits (Puckett). The program quickly became unexpectedly popular and began expanding beyond the initial estimates that “22 million SSNs would be issued immediately, with 50 million ultimately to be issued” but “in fact, 35 million SSNs were issued in the first 8 months of the registration effort” (Puckett). According to the most recent data available, “as of December 2008, the Social Security Administration had issued over 450 million original SSNs, and nearly every legal resident of the United States had one” (Puckett). Although the SSN was intended to keep track of earnings and not people, the utility of using the SSN as a unique personal identifier became evident. As more and more Americans acquired their own personal SSN, the “very universality” of the unique identifying number “has led to its adoption throughout government and the private sector as a chief means of identifying and gathering information about an individual” (Puckett). It became clear that the SSA was not waning in popularity by any means. As more numbers were distributed, more Americans became accounted for until nearly everyone had one – including children. As recent as the late 1980’s, the SSA implemented a new program called “Enumeration at Birth” (EAB) which enables children born in the U.S. to automatically receive an SSN (Puckett). This unique number assigned only to them will ultimately follow them for the rest of their lives – and therein lies the unescapable problem.

Every unique SSN that has ever been distributed is kept in a “numerically-ordered master file” called “the Numident” that is highly secure and classified by the U.S. government (Puckett). The Numident system was created in 1972 as an electronic file to compile “all assigned SSNs,” including numbers that were distributed before the electronic era (with all previous records being completely electronically converted in 1979) all the way to the numbers that are still being assigned this very day (Puckett). The unique numbering, ordering, and filing of millions of Americans’ names and numbers is quite a complicated process. Despite the seemingly overwhelming task, the SSA has had a remarkable success rate keeping all numbers accounted for and correctly filed, the process of which has gotten even better and more streamlined throughout the decades. While this permanent identification may appear as a major success for the SSA and the original goal of the benefits program, I believe it also represents a fundamental shift in how we understand our very existence.

At its origin, workers were assigned an SSN if they chose to register with the SSA and join the program to one day receive their benefits. However, because of the “Enumeration at Birth” program, that choice has now been stripped from those children that are automatically assigned their own unique number. Now, you might be wondering – what is so bad with receiving an SSN and receiving those eventual benefits? I believe that the answer lies in the fact that the rise of the SSN represents the first complete system of unique personal identification that is permanent and unescapable. For this reason, I have utilized the origin year of the SSA (1936) as the benchmark point for American modernity. Once Americans numbered themselves with unique personal codes, the utility grew rapidly and only eased the transition into an increasingly technological and mobile American society. What was once a major undertaking, workers could now change employers or even move cross country without losing their identities nor their earnings histories thanks to their SSN. As time went on, Americans continued to be permanently numbered and the SSN continued to be permanently popular. Today, that popularity has reached nearly every corner of our lives: almost any important document, transaction, purchase, or life event has our unique SSN attached to it. Perhaps alarmingly, “it is highly unlikely that use of the SSN as a unique identifier will cease entirely. In order to share data among government agencies or between commercial firms, a unique identifier to match records is critically important, and the SSN is the one unique tag that follows an individual throughout life . . . [t]he SSN is here to stay for the foreseeable future” (Puckett). As Heinemann predicts in his 1953 writing, the “truly existential question therefore remains: How can we free ourselves from the bondage of technology from which East and West suffer? We must be clear that we cannot go beyond technology in the sense of getting rid of it” (Heinemann, 26). Although unknowingly, I believe Heinemann predicted a turn of events very similar to the troubled future of the SSA while it was quite literally taking hold in America. Now that we have implemented this form of permanent identification, it is more than likely here to stay.

This unique identification is permanent – meaning that our very existence is now permanent too. If one has ever been assigned an SSN, then it is recorded permanently in the Numident system for the foreseeable future. With some SSNs now pushing 90 years old that date back to the very beginning of the program, they are tangible proof of those individuals existing at some point in time. While civilians do not have public access to the Numident or any type of catalog of SSNs, the records still remain there in the system and could one day theoretically be retrieved if certain files (ex; a deceased person) were ever declassified or released to the public.

At once, this idea of permanence is both enlightening and frightening. While these permanent identifying numbers have become an important aspect of our personal and professional documents, they also represent a fundamental lack of choice and free will. Highlighted perhaps best by the children who received their SSN at birth, they now without choice have this identifying number permanently connected with their name and existence. They can never ‘delete’ or erase their number or the record of its existing – every change to an SSN or the personal file attached with it (name changes, etc.) is also recorded in the Numident (Puckett). The maintenance of these records has become so advanced that unless of complete government or technological collapse, the choice and ability to change or erase your file of existence has been taken out of your hands. For this reason, you are quite literally “condemned to exist.”

Major existentialist thinker Jean-Paul Sartre proposes the idea of radical human freedom, culminated in his “condemned to be free” theory: “there is no determinism- man is free, man is freedom. . . [man is] condemned, because he did not create himself, yet is nevertheless at liberty, and from the moment that he is thrown into this world he is responsible for everything he does” (Sartre, 34). As Sartre points out, we did not create ourselves and have been “thrown into this world” without choice. However, the hallmark of his existential thought lies in the foundation of absolute freedom being at the core of the human condition – we are condemned to be free, for better or worse, and will ultimately be subject to the anxiety of our own freedom as well as the total responsibility for our actions for the remainder of our lives. The irony of being ‘condemned’ lies in the realization that although we are free and are constantly able to reinvent ourselves, we can never escape that act of choosing- and thus face the dizzying reality that we are “nothing else but the sum of [our] actions, nothing else but what [our] life is” (Sartre, 41).

Today, however, Sartre’s idea is faced with a major limitation. There is one thing that we are now fundamentally not free to do: erase our existence.

Through the rise of modernity and the secure technological documentation as seen in the Numident filing system, there is nothing you can do to destroy fully and completely your ‘paper trail’ of existence. Given these developments, I have evaluated Sartre’s idea and proposed a new, timely theory that involves nearly every single American and will continue to into the foreseeable future. While it is true that we have no control over our being “thrown into this world,” we now are fundamentally limited and partially unfree because we cannot alter the permanent record of our existence. Thus, we are “condemned to exist.”

Sartre’s wordplay of “condemned” and “free” creates an unlikely paradox that I have similarly utilized in my observations. “Condemned” and “exist” create a similar paradoxical situation, culminating in perhaps the same ultimate question: why is it a bad thing to be condemned to be free or to exist?

While Sartre responds to his respective theory in his own work, I believe that the answer lies in the fact that the lack of choice and control we now have over our own very existence highlights a fundamental lack of freedom. Further, I believe that this new form of permanent existence will alter our ideals and themes. Even as far back as The Epic of Gilgamesh, the universal ideal of immortality has been a consistent thread throughout global cultures and histories. Major cultural and political ideals revolve around the idea of ‘making history’ or keeping your legacy alive. However, now that the memory of our existence has already been permanently established for us, I believe that human persuasion to strive for remembrance may be in the process of changing.

Works Cited

Heinemann, Frederick Henry. Existentialism and the Modern Predicament. London, Adam and Charles Black LTD, 1953. archive.org/details/in.ernet. dli.2015.187792/page/n1/mode/2up.

Puckett, Carolyn. “The Story of the Social Security Number.” Social Security Bulletin, vol. 69, No. 2, 2009. http://www.ssa.gov/policy/docs/ssb/ v69n2/v69n2p55.html.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Existentialism and Humanism. London, Methuen & Co. LTD, 1948. (Note: English translation by Philip Mairet.) https://archive.org/details/Exist entialismAndHumanismBySartre1948EngTranslation Philip Mairet/page/n5/mode/2up.

G.E. Moore Vindicated? A Response to David Ross’s Criticism of Ideal Utilitarianism

Pranav Vijayan, The University of Texas – Austin

Ideal utilitarianism, as described by G.E Moore, holds that right actions are those whose consequences generate the greatest amount of intrinsic utility.  (Moore, 17) It differs from other variants of utilitarianism in that it is pluralist in its theory of value–it holds that not only pleasure, but other goods such as beauty or friendship, ought to be promoted as well. In The Right and the Good, W.D Ross criticizes this view in two ways. My thesis is that Ross’s two criticisms are insufficient in refuting Moore’s ideal utilitarianism.

Ross’s first criticism is that ideal utilitarianism reduces all personal relationships to those of mere utility. Ross writes:

[Ideal Utilitarianism] says, in effect, that the only morally significant relation in which my neighbors stand to me is that of being beneficiaries of my action. But they may also stand to me in the relation of promisee to promiser, of creditor to debtor, of wife to husband, of child to parent, of friend to friend, of fellow countryman to fellow countryman, and the like – and each of these relations is the foundation of a prima facie duty that is more or less incumbent on me according to the circumstances of the case. (Ross, 19)

 Additionally, Ross claims that, in reducing all relationships to those between benefactors, ideal utilitarianism ignores the real-world context in which ethics is applied. To Ross, special relationships distort our common-sense understanding of moral obligation in a way that ideal utilitarianism – holding that the duty to enact good towards others is irrespective of relationship–cannot account for. He writes:

If the only duty is to produce the maximum of good, the question of who is to have the good – whether it is myself, or my benefactor, or a person to whom I have made a promise to confer that good on him, or a mere fellow man to whom I stand in no such special relationship – should make no difference to my having a duty to produce that good. But we are all in fact sure that it makes a vast difference. (Ross, 22)

 I contend that Ross’s criticism of ideal utilitarianism ignores its pluralist value structure. Ross’s initial argument stems from the fact that ideal utilitarianism does not value special relationships intrinsically. However, G.E Moore articulates that ideal utilitarianism is non-hedonistic. Non-hedonistic utilitarians consider goods such as beauty or friendship, alongside pleasure, intrinsically valuable. If this is the case, it is easy to frame Ross’s criticism in ideal utilitarian terms. Ideal utilitarians may simply value Ross’s special relationships by adding them to list of intrinsically valuable objects that they must consider. An alternative reading of Ross’s thought experiment concerning the utility value of promises makes this re-framing clearer. Ross writes:

Suppose . . . that the fulfillment of a promise to A would produce 1000 units of good for him, but that by doing some other act I could produce 1001 units of good for B, to whom I have made no promise . . . . Should we really think it self-evident that it was our duty to do the second act and not the first? I think not. (Ross, 22)

 In this example, Ross claims that it would be immoral for us to renege on our promise to deliver 1000 utils to A if we had instead opted to deliver 1001 utils to stranger-B. To Ross, an ideal utilitarian is compelled to break our promise, as our duty would be to provide the most good to the most people. His claim oversimplifies the case, however. Moore’s understanding of ideal utilitarianism considers the type of relations we have towards others as morally significant in determining which actions are right. For instance, it is possible that we only make promises to those we consider special or valuable in some way, and that relation is intrinsically valuable. In that case, ideal utilitarians are not obligated to deliver 1001 utils to B, because they consider their special relationship to A to be an intrinsically valuable good that must be preserved. They must still deliver 1000 utils to A, because their duty is to promote all intrinsic goods, not merely satisfaction.

There is another solution to the above problem. Fundamentally, Ross’s issue with ideal utilitarianism is that it denies moral obligation its intimate character by viewing all individuals as equal recipients of our good will. To Ross, an ideal utilitarian must consult a hypothetical neutral observer to determine if the overall utility of an action outweighs its opportunity cost. It is this process of abstraction that Ross sees as alienating utilitarians from the personal nature of moral obligation. This does not have to be the case. We may choose to tweak our theory of value such that we eliminate the neutral observer altogether. (Sinnott-Armstrong) This agent-relative theory of value may more accurately describe our moral intuitions. In Ross’s example, agent-neutral consequentialists are obligated to break their promise to A to deliver 1001 utils to B. This is because, from the perspective of a neutral observer, the world in which we deliver 1001 utils to B has more aggregate utility value. If we adopt an agent-relative theory of value however, we do not consult this observer, but rather put ourselves in the shoes of the hypothetical promiser. To the person making the promise to A, keeping his promise has utility in a myriad of ways – he may preserve his friendship to A, or maintain his sense of integrity, for example. To that person, the world in which he provides 1001 utils to B has less aggregate utility because he has lost more utility in the long run by breaking his promise to A. (Broome, 32) An agent-relative version of utilitarianism would therefore prescribe that he ought to keep his promise, as that world, to him, contains more utility.

Unlike the previous solution, introducing agent-relativity to our theory of value requires that we change our principles. Traditionally, ideal utilitarians hold that the right actions are those whose consequences generate the most utility. This principle implicitly suggests agent-neutrality because it does not specify from whose point of view utility is assessed. An agent-relative principle might tell us that the right actions are those whose consequences promote the most utility from the agent’s perspective.

Ross’s second criticism involves criticizing the types of duties that ideal utilitarianism prescribes. Ross criticizes ideal utilitarianism because he sees that it prescribes actions that stray too far from our moral intuitions. For instance, Ross’s criticism of some ideal utilitarians’ reductionist theory of value ends in the assertion that the common person’s intuition tells us that it is wrong to break a promise to do good elsewhere. To Ross, any ethical theory that tell us otherwise gives us good reason to think that it is defective.

Furthermore, Ross claims that the fact that common-sense morality has been handed down for several generations is good reason to respect it. He writes:

The existing body of moral convictions of the best people is the cumulative product of the moral reflection of many generations, which has developed an extremely delicate power of appreciation of moral distinctions; and this the theorist cannot afford to treat with anything other than the greatest respect. (Ross, 41)

However, there are good reasons to be skeptical of our moral intuitions. Ross’ reasoning is faulty because we often find the moral reasoning of previous eras to be severely lacking. I am sure that Ross found chattel slavery in the early American South to be morally abhorrent. By his time, the British had long abolished the practice. However, to the average colonist, the practice of slavery was business-as-usual, and oftentimes religiously and economically justified. Those who fought for abolition were forced to contend with the slaveowners’ “common-sense” understanding of racial hierarchy. Similarly, today we find the racial theories of Ross’s time to be a moral stain on our history, in that we find racial segregation and police brutality unacceptable. If the turn of a century can reverse the tide on an issue as substantial as the freedom of non-whites in civil society, what ground can the reflections of the old masters provide to our current moral theorizing? The common-sense morality of the future could be drastically different than what we find acceptable today. The circumstances of the future may even give us good reason to act in a more ideal utilitarian manner. We may choose to provide good unto others regardless of their moral value or the promises we had made to another. We even may choose to de-prioritize the personal connections we have to family in favor of a more egalitarian and cosmopolitan morality. It would be short-sighted then, to rely on the common-sense morality of a particular time, geography, and culture to claim for instance, the transcendental wrongness of breaking a promise.

If we are skeptical of using common-sense morality as the arbiter of which moral theories are acceptable, we should also be skeptical of Ross’s arguments against utilitarianism. For instance, in Excerpt 2, Ross intuits that special relations are morally significant – he claims that “we are all sure that it makes a vast difference” who our obligations are directed towards. But if we cannot trust Ross’s intuition, there is no real warrant for this argument – it is simply an assertion. In the same way, if we doubt Ross’s intuition that it is self-evident to deliver on A’s promise rather than provide utils to B, the argument that ideal utilitarianism depersonalizes duty is also only an assertion.

Works Cited:

Broome, John., Weighing Goods: Equality, Uncertainty and Time, Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell, 1995.

Moore, George Edward. Principia Ethica, Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 1988.

Ross, William David. The Right and the Good, Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1930.

Sinnott-Armstrong, Walter, “Consequentialism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Summer 2019, Edward N. Zalta, ed. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2019/entries/consequentialism/ . Date accessed July 15, 2020.


Pedro Brea, University of North Texas


What effect has finding the Archimedean point in ourselves had on how we look at ethics? The modern era of philosophy began with Descartes finding within himself an unshakable point from which to pursue knowledge of the world and himself. This intellectual alienation from the world into the universal mathematical structures of the human mind has led to a reversal where, henceforth, production, rather than contemplation, of knowledge became epistemologically superior. Guided by Hannah Arendt’s discussion of the Archimedean point and Earth alienation in the Human Condition, I will argue that this scientific form of thinking made its way into ethical investigation in the age of modern philosophy. Furthermore, I will provide an analysis of Kant’s categorical imperative and John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism to show that despite modern science’s success in elucidating universal laws of nature, a scientific approach to ethics has not universalized our judgments of good and evil.

The Archimedean Point

Archimedes supposedly claimed that, given a long enough lever, a solid point, and a place to stand on, that he could displace the Earth. Theoretically, he was right, however he would have needed a very long lever. The Archimedean point is “a point ‘outside’ from which a different, objective or ‘true’ picture of something is attainable.” (Oxford) In Archimedes’ time, transcending the world and viewing it objectively from the heavens was only possible for humans in imagination and thought. For most of its existence, humanity was trapped in a world which it could not understand and could not depart. But this condition would not last forever. With the advent of modern philosophy and modern science, we finally found the Archimedean point—but not where we expected. Arendt quotes Kafka noting “[h]e [found the Archimedean point, but he used it against himself; it seems that he was only able to find it under this condition.” (Arendt, 248) We found the Archimedean point in ourselves, but how did this happen?

Modern philosophy began with René Descartes and his famous conclusion: “I am, I exist” —cogito ergo sum/I think therefore I am—in actuality ‘therefore’ does not appear in the Meditations  (Descartes, 43) In his Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes engages in radical doubt, questioning the foundations upon which he has built all of his knowledge. Going as far as throwing the existence of reality into question by considering the possibility that the world around him is just an illusion sustained by an evil demon, Descartes begins the Meditations with certainty of nothing. Descartes was in search of his Archimedean point, a point from which “great things are also to be hoped for if I succeed in finding just one thing, however slight, that is certain and unshaken. (Descartes, 43) Descartes realized that the truth he could not deny, no matter how radical his doubt, was that he was doubting, for even if there were a demon deceiving him about the existence of the world, the demon had to be deceiving someone, and that demon, no matter how clever, could never convince Descartes that he was not actually thinking and not actually doubting. Descartes realized that there was nothing that he could be more certain of than that he was a thinking being, and there, in the solitary recesses of his mind, did he drop the anchor for his Archimedean point.

Cartesian doubt foreshadowed the momentous transition that was to occur with the rise of modern science. Thirty-two years before Descartes published the Meditations, Galileo Galilei had built a telescope that could magnify objects twenty times. (Van Helden) He used it to observe the heavens and concluded, polemically, that the Ptolemaic geocentric model of the universe was incorrect. He found through his observations that, contrary to our sense experience and the accepted common sense of the Catholic Church, the Earth is in orbit around the Sun. Galileo “put within the grasp of an earth-bound creature and its body-bound senses what had seemed forever beyond his reach, at best open to the uncertainties of speculation and the imagination.” (Arendt, 260) This was the beginning of a revolution and reveals the “hallmark of modern science.” (Arendt, 264) Earth alienation. Galileo had finally made it possible to establish an Archimedean point from which to observe and “unhinge” our world. It was decisive for Arendt that this revolution was reined in by the toolmaker rather than the philosopher. Here began modernity’s retreat into the mind; the beginning of a rising conviction that “objective truth is not given to man but that he can only know what he makes himself.” (Arendt, 293) We began to understand that to know anything with certainty we had to produce the knowledge ourselves and examine it in the solitude of the mind.

The challenge to the credibility of our senses was further compounded, notably, by momentous achievements such as Newton’s unification of astronomy and physics and Einstein’s theory of General Relativity. Key to these monumental achievements was the use of mathematics. Arendt notes that while the idea that the universe had a mathematical structure had been around since Plato (and before him, Pythagoras), what was decisive and “un-Platonic” about the work of Newton and Einstein was the reduction of matter, its motion, and the substance of reality itself into mathematical symbols. (Arendt, 265) In a simple equation, Newton quantified the force with which all massive bodies in the universe attract each other and developed his own system of mathematics—calculus—to study the movement of stellar bodies. Einstein’s theory of General Relativity provides a mathematical description of the universe where space and time were unified into one fabric: spacetime, from which gravity emerges as a property of its geometric configurations. (Norton) We learned from relativity that any point or frame of reference that we may place our Archimedean point is just as valid for observing the universe as any other; we no longer needed an impossibly large lever to unhinge the world. The distance one needed to see the world, and in fact the universe, from above, could be found in the mind. At last, we found the Archimedean point and it was with us all along.

Before we were displaced from the center of the universe and reality had not been reduced to the mathematical structures of the mind, truth was to be found in contemplation. It is important to distinguish, as Arendt does, the difference between contemplation and thought.

Since Plato, and probably since Socrates, thinking was understood as the inner dialogue in which one speaks with himself… and although this dialogue lacks all outward manifestation and even requires a more or less complete cessation of all other activities, it constitutes in itself a highly active state. (Arendt, 291)

This highly active state prepared the soul for the stillness in which a truth that is arrhetōn, beyond speech, reveals itself. This placid state, in contrast to the tumult of thinking, is contemplation. In the absence of the instruments and mathematics that revolutionized our world and produces our knowledge, it was the philosopher in contemplation that claimed to know truth. For the philosopher, the world inspires thaumazein, a sense of wonder at everything that is. (Arendt, 273) They did not, like Einstein or Newton, completely withdraw from the outer world of the senses to investigate the nature of reality. Reality had to be seen and felt before the philosopher could let it inspire them and eventually arrive at truth in the stillness of contemplation. This is not to say that the ancients were all empiricists, because this is clearly false. It is to say that the absolute transformation of the universe into mathematics was more extreme than even Plato’s metaphysics, where reality as we perceive it is at least a semblance of the perfect world of forms. In the ancient world, humanity was the anchor for truth, and held a central role in a universe where all its celestial bodies seemed to revolve around that most wise and superior form of life.

It is also important to note the powerful influence of the Christian tradition in the West. In this tradition, God, the highest, most powerful and benevolent entity in existence, created Man in his image. Indeed, it was accepted as fact by most of the Christian world that humans were the stewards of life on Earth, and therefore above and distinct from it, and that the race created in the image of God could occupy nothing less than center stage in the universe. Cartesian doubt, inspired by Galileo’s survey of the heavens, compromised the foundations and legitimacy of academic philosophy as much as it carried doubt into the heart of modern religion. In large part, Arendt says, due to Søren Kierkegaard who arrived at faith not through knowledge but through doubt. (Arendt, 275.)

The existential shock that ensued was foreshadowed by the Church’s accusation of heresy against Galileo. How could humanity not be the center of the universe? There was much resistance against Galileo’s claims, but it was in vein, for the truth he glimpsed could be observed by anyone who could build or acquire a decent telescope. We see the immediate effects of this discovery on Western civilization embodied in Descartes, who, as a Catholic mathematician and philosopher, was uniquely positioned to personify the confrontation of religion, mathematics, and philosophy in his work. It is striking that in order to escape his state of solipsism and reclaim the world by ‘proving’ the existence of God, Descartes relied heavily on his certain and clear perception of numbers and geometry to produce his ontological argument for the existence of God. (Descartes, 59) Here we find that from the very beginning of the modern era not even God could escape subordination to the mathematical structures of the human mind.

Events, such as Galileo’s look into his telescope, which confirmed the Heliocentric model of the universe, and Sir Arthur Eddington’s observation of gravitational lensing, corroborating Einstein’s theory of General Relativity, reassured the modern person that “man’s thirst for knowledge could be assuaged only after he had put his trust into the ingenuity of his own hands.” (Arendt, 290) Only when we produced the experiments necessary to empirically confirm our mathematical theories of the natural world could we assure ourselves that we had produced rather than contemplated knowledge. Physics, combining mathematical theories with empirical observation, is, then, the modern scientific discipline par excellence. Contemplation, which before the modern era had yielded many “truths” that were blatantly at odds with the findings of modern science, “became altogether meaningless.” (Arendt, 292) Arendt notes that in this reversal of contemplation and production, philosophy suffered more than any other discipline of human endeavor, and that the philosopher no longer turns to the world around him or another world of eternal truths, but rather is forced to “withdraw into himself.” (Arendt, 293-294)

With the advent of modernity, the scientific model that we saw advanced in the theories of Newton and Einstein would infiltrate moral inquiry. It seems almost inevitable that utilitarianism—a science of morality based on the calculus of pleasure—and Kantian ethics—which develops a supreme concept of morality from universal principles—should have come about in this period. Yet for all our success in applying this model of investigation to the natural world, we find ourselves with no more certainty in the objectivity of our moral values now than we did four hundred years ago.

Modern Ethics

What effect has finding the Archimedean point in ourselves had on how we look at ethics? It is useful first to have an idea of what ethics is. In Applying Moral Theories, C.E. Harris, Jr. begins his discussion of the nature of ethics by focusing on the nature of moral statements. Harris notes that moral statements are also normative statements, as opposed to factual statements. First, let us define normative statements: “A normative statement expresses a value judgment of some kind, and its correctness is determined by reference to a norm or standard.” (Harris, 7) There are many kinds of normative statements we could make. We could say someone is a great artist, which refers to an aesthetic standard; we could say that it is illegal to steal, which refers to a legal standard; we could say it is rude to open a door without knocking, which refers to a standard of etiquette. Ethical statements, such as “it is wrong to commit murder” or “it is wrong to lie”, refer to a moral standard. On the other hand, factual statements are those that “can be confirmed or disconfirmed by experiment, observation, or research.” (Harris, 8) An example of a factual statement is a reference to an observations, informing us that the Sun is shining, or that upon conducting experiments in a lab with falling bodies that the gravitational acceleration on the surface of the Earth is 9.8 meters per second squared, referring to experimental results.

Harris notes that moral statements (normative), cannot be confirmed by factual statements (presupposing a fact/value dichotomy). Hume introduces what he called the is-ought distinction questioning how a normative claim—ought—can be deduced from any particular situation—is. (Hume, 469) Harris uses the following example to illustrate this point: “The wealth of the United States is at present unevenly distributed among its citizens. Therefore, the present distribution of wealth in the United States is morally wrong.” (Harris, 9) The first statement is a fact that can be confirmed by an economist by scientific means. The second statement, the conclusion, is an ethical one. This conclusion cannot be deduced without assuming a moral rule. In this case, we cannot say that wealth inequality in the United States is morally wrong without assuming that “an uneven distribution of wealth in a country is wrong.” We see here that while the first statement can be supported by reference to facts, the second cannot. The assumption that something is morally wrong requires some sort of underlying ethical system to support it. This is the object of ethics, succinctly, to develop and study normative systems that prescribe rules for how we should or should not behave in any given circumstance. We cannot look into our telescopes and search for ethics in distant galaxies or take a microscope and search for morality in our DNA—because, as I will show in my analyses of Kantian ethics and utilitarianism, we will not find any. We will see that the modern reversal of contemplation and production has problematized how we look at morality. Having turned to the coupling of mathematics and experiment for truth, modern ethics attempts to transform the normative nature of ethics into a factual one.

Before the period of modern philosophy—beginning in the early 17th century with Descartes (1596-1650) and ending with Kant (1724-1804)—ethical questions in the West were largely matters of Christian theology. Moral standards were rooted in the divine authority of God. This is what Harris calls the “Divine Command Theory”. Using God as the anchor for good and evil attempts to make morality objective; to characterize ethical statements as matters of —for what could be more objective than the command of an omniscient being? Before Christianity, we saw a similar conflation of what is good with the divine—the Good. In the Republic, Plato uses the Sun as an analogy for the Good. In a dialogue with Glaucon, Socrates points to how we speak of things as being beautiful or good, but that we also speak of the beautiful or the Good themselves, i.e. as having their own being. He distinguished the two by noting that “we say that the many beautiful things and the rest are visible but not intelligible, while the forms (beauty and the Good) are intelligible but not visible.” (Plato, 180) The Good for Plato transcends our physical world and renders the forms—which reside in a perfect and eternal realm—intelligible, much as the Sun makes our world visible. For Aristotle, eudaimonia is the end, or telos, of ethics. Eudaimonia, roughly translated to “happiness”, “is composed of two parts: “eu” meaning “well” and “daimon” meaning “divinity” or “spirit”.” (Kraut) Thus, to achieve eudaimonia means to have lived in a manner favored by a god. We will see how Cartesian doubt and the reversal of contemplation and production undermined the divine nature of morality.

Descartes’ philosophy asks us to doubt any truth claim that cannot be proven rationally. We cannot provide empirical evidence that the moral standards of the Bible are true, as much as we cannot conduct an experiment to prove the existence of God. This is not to imply that God does not exist, for this cannot be proved either, but merely that science, due to its empirical nature, can never experimentally prove the existence of purely metaphysical entities. With the success of the coupling of Cartesian doubt and the reversal of contemplation and production, it became clear that the foundation of our ethical systems could not be proven with the certainty that we can say that force equals mass times acceleration. Once our divine moral standards began to lose their legitimacy, we started digging a trench between truth and ethics.

Friedrich Nietzsche captured the spirit of the revolution of modern science in his declaration that “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.” (Nietzsche, 224) What Nietzsche is referring to is how we lost our air of divinity. Appeals to the divine or to the Good could no longer be used to understand the nature of the world or of humans. We unveiled “The unconscious disguise of physiological needs under the cloaks of the objective, ideal, purely spiritual.” (Chamberlain) With this damning verdict, Nietzsche looked to expose philosophers and Christians who had disguised their metaphysical claims under the veils of objectivity and divinity. However, despite the blows suffered by philosophy and theology in this scientific revolution, we could not throw out ethics altogether. As Arendt notes, the human condition is one of plurality (even a hermit is defined by their relation to others). It is in our nature to develop moral codes and pass moral judgments in our interactions with each other. Therefore, to find a trustworthy foundation for ethics, philosophers were “forced to withdraw into themselves” in search of more “scientific” moral arguments. Two compelling ethical theories emerged in the modern period: Kantian ethics and utilitarianism.

Kantian Ethics

With his formulation of the categorical imperative (CI) in the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Immanuel Kant attempts to derive a supreme moral law from universal principles, i.e. retreating, much like an Einstein or a Newton, into the human mind in search of nature’s most elusive secrets. However, as is already implied in the title of the Groundwork, moral science for Kant is metaphysical. Conclusions derived from moral inquiry will necessarily resist empirical re-production, since metaphysical cognition lies beyond experience. It is tempting, then, based on the argument developed thus far, to dismiss Kant’s attempt at universalizing ethics since the theory cannot be empirically investigated. However, this would be disingenuous. For Kant, it is only rational beings that are bound by moral duties, therefore it would be absurd to expect that we can somehow reproduce morality outside of our mental faculties—we must meet Kant on his own terms. Much like analyzing a geometric proof, when we inspect his arguments, we must be open to the possibility that Kant reaches conclusions that are logically irrefutable and are thereby produced through pure practical reason.

In the opening sentences of the Groundwork, Kant calls attention to the division of Ancient Greek philosophy into physics, ethics, and logic. Kant further distinguishes between formal philosophy – the domain of logic which concerns itself with reason in itself and the form of understanding – and material philosophy – the domain of physics and ethics which concerns itself with “determinate objects and the laws to which they are subject.” (Kant, 3) Physics and ethics concern themselves with the laws of nature and freedom, respectively, where the former investigates the laws governing how everything happens and the latter with how everything ought to happen. Our will determines our actions, therefore the laws of morality, of how we ought to act, concerns our willing.

According to Kant, the CI commands us to “act only according to that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.” (Kant, 34) For Kant, the will is the causality of a rational being. That is, our actions (effect) are determined by our wills (cause). While one could certainly question the validity of the concept of causality, Kant provides a solution to this question with what he calls synthetic a priori judgments. So, for the purposes of this work, we will accept the positive connection between cause and effect as a given. Since morality concerns how we ought to act and our actions are determined by our willing, for Kant it follows that a moral agent must necessarily be autonomous, i.e. possesses a free will, since it would not make sense to speak of how we ought to act if our actions were predetermined by the laws of physics. The validity of the CI as a universal law of morality hinges on whether rational beings have free will, so we must analyze Kant’s argument for accepting this proposition.

The third section of the Groundwork is devoted to an analysis of freedom and its relation to the autonomy of the will. Clarifying his definition of freedom, Kant states that,

Since the concept of causality carries with it that of laws according to which, by something that we call a cause, something else, namely the consequence, must be posited: freedom, though it is not a property of the will according to natural laws, is not lawless because of that at all, but must rather be a causality according to immutable laws, but of a special kind; for otherwise a free will would be an absurdity. (Kant, 56)

By immutable laws of a special kind, Kant is referring to the fact that the laws of physics cannot possibly govern the will of rational beings for this would a imply that our actions are predetermined and therefore not free. However, Kant does not mean that a free will is lawless. The will is a causality, and relationships of cause and effect are necessarily law-full, for if every cause had a random effect, we could not arrive at an idea of causality in the first place. Therefore, we must concede that the laws that govern the will cannot be random but must be fixed and applicable to the will of all rational beings if we are to preserve the causality of the will.  It then follows that free will is autonomy – “the property of the will of being a law to itself.” (Kant, 56) Therefore, a free will is the same as a will governed by moral laws, since the proposition that “the will is in all actions a law to itself, designates only the principle of acting on no maxim other than that which can also have itself as its object as a universal law.” (Kant, 56)

After defining freedom, Kant must show that this autonomy of the will is truly present in all rational beings. At this point, Kant appeals to a distinction he makes in the Critique of Pure Reason between the phenomenal and the noumenal world. The phenomenal world is the world with which we have acquainted ourselves with our five senses. [Kant, xxxi] As Christine Korsgaard puts it in her introduction to Groundwork, “We must therefore think of the world as generating, or containing something which generates, those appearances – something which is their source, and gives them to us.” [Kant. xxxi) We can think of this world of “things in themselves” which generates appearances as the noumenal world. The phenomenal world is the deterministic realm of physics, so, as was previously mentioned, we cannot possibly find freedom here. However, this does not mean that freedom is not a feature of the noumenal world. In fact, while we are members of the phenomenal world and are subject to its physical laws, we also regard ourselves as the authors of our own thoughts and actions, as the original cause of our actions. The existence of a noumenal world of things in themselves, where freedom exists, would therefore explain this discrepancy of being autonomous agents in a deterministic world. Therefore, insofar as we consider ourselves to be part of the noumenal and the phenomenal world, we have “an independent reason for regarding ourselves as free.” (Kant, xxxii)

While Kant’s argument is ingenious, the distinction between a noumenal and phenomenal world only provides the ground for us to think of ourselves as free. Kant does not affirm that freedom characterizes the noumenal world, only that it could, since Kant admits that we cannot know this world as it really is. The distinction between the noumenal and phenomenal world, then, is only a heuristic that enables us to understand how we could be free given the conditions that 1) this distinction is valid in the first place and 2) if freedom is a characteristic of the noumenal world. Therefore, while Kant provides the “the grounds for regarding ourselves as free,”(Kant, xxxii) providing grounds that we are free is not equivalent to an irrefutable proof that we are free, upon which the validity of Kant’s argument depends. I would like to clarify that I am certainly not arguing for a deterministic world. I agree with Kant that speaking of morality only makes sense insofar as we regard ourselves as possessing free will, but this is a pragmatic assumption from which the fact of free will does not necessarily follow. What I am arguing is that Kant’s CI, by the standards of modern science, cannot be considered “true”, since he is not able to produce a valid proof of the freedom of the will.

Next, we will examine utilitarianism which, as opposed to the categorical imperative, derives its strength from its being grounded on our experience of pain and pleasure.


According to Arendt,

His happiness, the sum total of pleasures minus pains, is as much an inner sense which senses sensations and remains unrelated to worldly objects as the Cartesian consciousness that is conscious of its own activity. (Arendt, 309)

Inevitably, questions of morality arise in our interactions with the world, and we find that what we can know with certainty is how these interactions make us feel. However, we could still say that our emotions are arbitrary and subjective, for what makes one person happy might bring despair to another. But what we can safely assume is that every human being at some point or another will suffer. Quoting Élie Halévy, Arendt notes that pain is an ultimate end, for if you press someone why they wish for good health they will say that sickness is painful; if you ask for a reason why they hate pain, it is impossible that they could ever give you one. (Arendt, 309) Arendt explains that

The reason for this impossibility is that only pain is completely independent of any object, that only one who is really in pain senses nothing but himself; pleasure does not enjoy itself but something besides itself. Pain is the only inner sense found by introspection which can rival in independence from experienced objects the self-evident certainty of logical and arithmetic reasoning. (Arendt, 309-310)

The solitary experience of pain provides a solid foundation upon which to rebuild ethics, and it is on this ground that utilitarianism was developed.

We find evidence for this claim in chapter IV of Utilitarianism titled “Of What Sort of Proof the Principle of Utility is Susceptible.” Like Halévy’s conclusion of the self-evident certainty of pain, John Stuart Mill affirms that “No reason can be given why the general happiness is desirable, except that each person, so far as he believes it to be attainable, desires his own happiness.” (Mill, 35) Furthermore, affirming that pain and pleasure are simply two sides of the same coin, Mill claims that one’s will can only be made virtuous if the person desires virtue, for

it is by associating the doing right with pleasure, or doing the wrong with pain, or by eliciting and impressing and bringing home to the person’s experience the pleasure naturally involved in the one or the pain in the other, that it is possible to call forth that will to be virtuous. (Mill, 40)

For Mill, the motivation to be virtuous is born from our experiences of pleasure and pain. If this is the case, and since happiness is an ultimate end in and of itself, it follows that our standard of morality should be to act in that manner that maximizes aggregate happiness, i.e. utility, for oneself and those affected by our actions, taking every individual’s claim to happiness to be of equal worth. Furthermore, in addition to its grounding in experience, Mill affirms the mathematical nature of utilitarianism in asserting that “the truths of arithmetic are applicable to the valuation of happiness, as of all other measurable quantities.” (Mill, 62)

Thus, the utilitarian moral standard, as opposed to the Kantian CI, does not derive its power from establishing a supreme principle of morality from universal (a priori) principles. Mill is aware that the power of the utilitarian moral standard is the ease with which any individual may assent to it. Little to nothing else is as evident in daily life as our suffering or lack of it, and we should not expect to find much controversy in the claim that a life with no experience of pain or pleasure cannot properly be considered a human life. However, while we might expect, like Mill, that the utilitarian moral standard can be widely assented to, it would require assent from every human being to prove that utilitarianism succeeds in establishing a universal theory of morality. Furthermore, in arguing for the ‘greatest happiness principle’ of maximizing overall utility, Mill has historically been accused of committing the fallacy of composition in assuming “that because the members of a collection all have some property, the collection must have it too.” (Miller) For example, it does not necessarily follow that, because one apple is spherical, that a bushel of apples will be spherical too. (Miller) Mill assumes that since the individual happiness of each person is a “good”, that the aggregate of everyone’s happiness is also good, but it is not clear how this necessarily follows and Mill does not give any proof for his assumption. This is not an argument against adopting the utilitarian moral standard, but rather to show that while the utilitarian ethic is grounded on empirical observation and numerical intuition, characteristics of modern science, the fundamental premises of utilitarian theory—that actions are right in proportion to the utility they promote and the ‘greatest happiness principle’—cannot be proven. Once again, the scientific approach to ethics has not yielded universal truths as it has in our investigation of the natural world.

Concluding Remarks

It is my hope that this paper has shown that the scientific approach to morality in the modern period of philosophy has failed to universalize our judgments of right and wrong in the manner which natural science has yielded universal theories of nature. What some of our most reliable scientific theories (heliocentrism, universal gravitation, General Relativity, quantum mechanics, among others) all share is how they unified theory with empirical observation. By modern scientific standards, only when we develop mathematical theories and corroborate them empirically with experiments produced by our own hands can we be certain that we have stumbled upon “truth” in the universal sense of the word. Kantian ethics, despite its ingenuity, cannot produce certainty of its fundamental proposition that humans are truly free. Utilitarianism, while providing compelling arguments that draw from our empirical and quantitative experiences of pleasure and pain, can only ever be universalized by the impossibility of obtaining assent to its moral standard from every individual that is and ever will be.

This is not a reproach against ethics. On the contrary, I believe that the arguments above reveal a boundary that modern science has not managed to, and might never, cross. The fact that a scientific approach to ethics has failed to meet the highest standards of modern science does not imply that morality itself is nonsense. If scientific objectivity were a prerequisite of ethics, any attempt at moral argument would be undermined. What this seems to imply is that we should not rely on science, which concerns itself strictly with facts, to answer all our normative questions about ethics. If normative ethics is a matter of human judgment, why would we expect science – which does its utmost to purge itself of human bias – to solve all our moral problems?

Works Cited

Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2018.

Chamberlain, Lesley. “The Political Message of Nietzsche’s God is Dead.” February 7, 2012. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2012/feb/07/political-message-nietzsche-god-is-dead. Accessed April 31, 2020

Descartes, René. Meditations of First Philosophy. Roger Ariew and Eric Watkins (eds.). Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2009.

Harris, Jr., C.E., Applying Moral Theories. Belmont: Thomson Wadsworth, 2007.

Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature. Lewis Amherst Selby-Bigge (ed.). Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1896. Online Library of Liberty. https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/hume-a-treatise-of-human-nature. Accessed July 27, 2020.

Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Kraut, Richard. “Aristotle’s Ethics,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, last revised June 15, 2018, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-ethics/. Accessed April 29, 2020.

Mill, J.S. Utilitarianism. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2001.

Miller, Dale E. “Mill’s Proof of the Principle of Utility”, 1000 Word Philosophy, Published 3 September, 2019, https://1000wordphilosophy.com/2019/09/03/mills-proof-of-the-principle-of-utility/.  Accessed July 27, 2020.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science. Keith Ansell Pearson and Duncan Large (eds.). Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006.

Norton, John D. “General Relativity.” University of Pittsburgh. https://www.pitt.edu/~jdnorton/teaching/HPS_0410/chapters/general_relativity/. Accessed April 30, 2020.

Oxford Reference. “Archimedean Point”. Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803095422175 . Accessed July 26, 2020.

Plato. The Republic. G.M.A. Grube (trans.). Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1992.

Van Helden, Al. “Galileo’s Telescope.” Rice University http://galileo.rice.edu/bio/narrative_6.html. . Accessed April 30, 2020.


Coles, Peter. “Einstein, Eddington and the 1919 Eclipse.” Nature. April 15, 2019. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-01172-z. Accessed April 29, 2020.

Applying Kantian Ethics to the Use of Drugs

Dustin Leenhouts, The University of Texas – Austin

In the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals Immanuel Kant lays out one of the most complicated and nuanced ethical theories in popular philosophy. The fact that this theory is so complicated makes it challenging to apply to moral questions.  One question that seems to be ever present in contemporary politics is the question of restricting drug use. Some point to drugs like marijuana and say it makes no sense to stop someone from consuming a product that is less harmful to you than alcohol. Others claim that drugs similar to marijuana have the possibility of pushing people to consume more dangerous substances. In this essay, I argue that Kant would say that for the consumption of a drug to be morally permissible, its consumption must not necessarily entail the user’s death or impair their ability to reason. I will then show that you should use this two-pronged test to determine if you ought to stop others from taking a drug.

Consequences of Taking Drugs

For the sake of determining what Kant would say about both using and restricting certain drugs, I will present the consequences of taking drugs in three separate parts: its benefits, its harmful effects, and the impairment of the ability to reason.

However, before moving into a discussion of the consequences of consuming drugs it is important to understand why doing so does not lead to a consequentialist ethical consideration. The Kantian project outright rejects consequentialism. Kant even seems to show disdain for the method. This does not mean however, that one must avoid talking about the consequences of taking an action if that action might violate a perfect duty. According to Kant, there are moral duties that must be followed in every instance without exception. These duties are perfect duties because there is no situation in which it is permissible to not act in accordance with them. One of these duties is the duty to humanity which says that people have the perfect duty to protect their rationality. (Kant, 41) When deciding if a maxim will violate a perfect duty, it is permissible to discuss the consequences of that action.

Now that we understand why considering the consequences of consuming drugs is consistent with Kantian ethics, I will move into a discussion of drugs that provide their users benefits. The clearest examples of this include Advil, vaccines, antibiotics, and antidepressants. There are also many newly discovered benefits of substances that were previously thought of as harmful. A great example of this is cannabidiol, otherwise known as CBD. CBD has recently been discovered as an effective treatment for childhood epilepsy syndrome, anxiety attacks, and there is some evidence it is an effective treatment for chronic pain. (Häuser) Another example is marijuana. Marijuana is now prescribed by doctors to treat patients who suffer from epilepsy, muscle spasms, nausea, and pain. (Joy) There are also uses for drugs that are considered much stronger. One example of this is the use of MDMA, which is the active ingredient in ecstasy or Molly. MDMA is now showing exciting results in clinical studies that are attempting to treat people for PTSD. A study in 2017 found that 54% of the patients who were given MDMA as a treatment for PTSD felt they “no longer fit” the diagnosis, which is far better than the 23% in the control group who said the same thing. (Mithoefer) Another possible benefit comes from psilocybin, which is the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms.” (Bleyer) New clinical studies have shown hopeful results in attempting to treat alcohol and nicotine addictions with psilocybin.

Drugs also have many harmful effects. As of 2017 approximately 19.7 million American adults suffer from a substance abuse disorder. (Thomas) One of the major contributors to this problem is opiates. Opiates can either occur naturally, as in heroin, morphine, and codeine, or they can be derived, as in hydrocodone and oxycodone. With continued use of opiates, you are considerably more likely to experience heart and lung infections and muscle pain. (Mind Matters) Additionally, more than 70,000 Americans died from an overdose in 2017 alone. (Overdose Death Rates) Two more substances that should be considered here are tobacco, consumed primarily in the form of cigarettes and marijuana. It is well-documented that the prolonged use of cigarettes or marijuana vastly increases the risk of lung cancer. (Aldington) According to the CDC, prolonged use of cigarettes is the leading cause of preventable deaths in the U.S. (Health Effects) These are just a few examples of the adverse effects of drugs. These effects should certainly be considered in a conversation about the moral permissibility of their consumption.

The last aspect of taking drugs that should be considered is the impairment, or total loss, of the ability to reason that accompanies their use. The ability to reason is the defining requirement to be under moral law according to Kant. This means that a consideration of the moral permissibility of consuming drugs must include a discussion of how they affect your ability to reason. There are clear cases in which taking certain drugs will obviously rob you completely of your ability to reason. Examples of this include consuming a large quantity of alcohol or heroin. In these cases, your body continues to function as if you were reasoning what you ought to do, but you are operating without the proper capacity to reason. On the other hand, there are examples of some drugs that appear to not rob you of your ability to reason in any way. Examples of this include taking Advil for headaches or using CBD to reduce your anxiety. There are also many cases in the middle where it is not clear if you are impairing your ability to reason. Examples of this include smoking cigarettes or a small quantity of marijuana. It is difficult to discern what happens to your ability to reason with these drugs so any consideration of morality which demands the protection of the ability to reason must account for these cases.

Why you ought not take certain drugs according to Kant

Now that the consequences of consuming drugs have been established, I will move into a discussion of when Kant would say it is morally permissible to take drugs. To accomplish this, I will present two tests to determine whether you are morally restricted from consuming a drug based on Kant’s philosophy: the risk to your life and the drug’s effect on your ability to reason.

Firstly, if taking a drug necessarily entails your death, it is clear any maxim that allows for the consuming of that drug would be prohibited because it goes directly against the duty “to preserve one’s life.” (Kant, 13) This duty can first be seen when Kant discusses the depressed man. This man is living a miserable life full of “adversities and hopeless grief.” (Kant, 13) Kant claims that this hopelessly depressed man still has the moral duty to preserve his life. From this we can conclude that it is your moral duty to avoid taking actions that will lead to your death simply to obtain enjoyment or lack of despair. If someone who has every reason to want to end their life is morally restricted from doing so, it seems very reasonable that someone who simply wants to get high must be restricted from doing so if this necessarily entails their death.

This restriction allows us to conclude that you are not allowed to take drugs that necessarily entail your death, but what does this say about consuming drugs that are dangerous but not necessarily deadly? To answer this question, we must begin by considering what Kant says about drinking alcohol in Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View. In this book, Kant claims that “all silent intoxication has something shameful in it” when discussing the use of brandy and opium but says that wine and beer serve as “social intoxication,” making people “cheerful, boisterous, talkative, and witty.” (Kannisto) Kant does not object to the consumption of a certain amount of beer and wine. This does not mean however, that Kant would claim it is morally permissible to consume a large amount of these alcohols. It is also a further question whether Kant would have changed his mind given contemporary research about the effects of long-term consumption of beer and wine.

Given Kant’s position on drinking alcohol, we can conclude that he would not object to the use of drugs whose consumption entails some risk to your life. Even if Kant did not know about the long-term side effects of consuming alcohol, he surely understood that drinking beer and wine changes your ability to walk and hence ensure that you do not trip and die from the fall. This conclusion is important because it allows us to show that Kant would not object to the use of drugs like Advil, whose chronic use in “older adults” increases “the risk of peptic ulcer disease, acute renal failure, and stroke/myocardial infarction” and exacerbates “a number of chronic diseases including heart failure and hypertension.” (Marcum) The duty to preserve one’s life is absolute, but this does not mean you cannot do anything that entails risking your life, which would restrict mundane actions such as going for a walk or driving to work.

The type of maxim to consume a drug that Kant would support can be better understood by referring to Bertha Manninen’s essay Medicating the Mind: a Kantian analysis of overprescribing psychoactive drugs.  In this essay, Manninen argues that the medical profession has been consistently prescribing an unnecessary amount of psychoactive drugs in violation of Kantian ethics. She describes her objection thusly:

“My chief concern is not with the fact that antidepressant medication is being used to treat those who really need it. Rather, my concern is that such medication is being used to “treat” people who really do not need it—people who simply wish to feel better quickly when faced with the commonplace problems that are bound to ensue as we all go through life.” (Manninen)

Her argument lays out two main considerations for this problem: the conflict with the perfect duty to rationality—which is referred to as the “formula of humanity”—and the perfect duty of self-development or “to cultivate our talents or capacities.” According to Manninen, when someone decides to unnecessarily take a drug to alleviate their depression, they are sacrificing an integral part of their rationality: “their ability to engage in introspection, achieve self-knowledge, and engage in personal development,” in the interest of alleviating their emotional pain, thereby using their rationality as a means rather than an end in itself. (Manninen) When you combine this with the Kantian claim that “failure to cultivate personal talents does not promote the goal of treating yourself as an intrinsically valuable being,” and is therefore morally impermissible, we can conclude that unnecessarily consuming psychoactive drugs to alleviate your depression is morally prohibited by Kant’s philosophy. (Manninen)

Once Manninen elucidates her objection to the over prescription of psychoactive drugs to unnecessarily treat mental conditions using Kantian ethics, she then reiterates the claim that “this critique is not meant to target all instances of psychoactive drug use.” (Manninen) She explains that there are some cases of mental illness that are so severe that they require the use of drugs. These cases require an individual to act according to the duty of self-improvement and consume the drug that will allow them to return to the mental capacity they had before their mental disorder. (Manninen) This contribution is arguably more important than her argument about the restriction of the unnecessary use of drugs. From this argument we can see that Kant would not object to the use of drugs that help people recover from illness. We are now in a better position to conclude that Kantian ethics would not prohibit the consumption of drugs that are intended to improve people’s lives so long as they meet all the other Kantian obligations.

Manninen’s essay leads us to the second moral restriction in my two-pronged test of permissibility: when consuming a drug impairs your ability to reason Kant would say you are morally prohibited from consuming it. According to Kant’s philosophy, supporting the ability to reason is a perfect duty. This means that any and every action that would impair your ability to reason is morally prohibited. To be under moral law one must be able to reason. For Kant this is the most important aspect of possessing moral responsibility. If you were to impair the ability to reason, you would be placing yourself in a situation where you cannot reason and would therefore be restricting yourself from acting morally. This perfect duty is intertwined with the categorical imperative. To not support reason is a blatant contradiction that cannot be willed to be a universal maxim. Any maxim that allows for you to take yourself away from reasoning would be taking away your ability to act morally, which in turn would be restricting your ability to will a universal maxim. This is a contradiction that allows us to conclude that you ought not consume a substance which impairs your ability to reason.

At this point, it is important to reiterate the fact that the consumption of drugs that would normally impair your ability to reason is not always morally prohibited. A person suffering from major depression, who has tried therapy to no avail does not possess the capacity to properly reason. They are likely fighting the urge to take their life—which, as we already know, is prohibited by Kant’s ethics—and lack the ability to properly reason. In this case, this person ought to do what it takes to restore their ability to reason. This allows us to conclude that those who are not properly reasoning can will a maxim that allows for the consumption of drugs that generally alter the ability to reason to restore their ability to reason, but, as Manninen argues, this person must first exhaust other options and only consume these drugs if they no longer have the ability to properly reason. (Manninen)

Determining who is morally prohibited from consuming what drug under this test is more difficult than with the first test. This is the case because it is difficult to ascertain exactly how drug consumption affects different people. While it is obvious that drugs like heroin or large amounts of alcohol completely remove your ability to reason, it is not so obvious that cigarettes or small amounts of marijuana do the same thing. It can be difficult to determine exactly what it means to impair the ability to reason and can be even more difficult to determine which drugs meet this standard. It is clear though that this question is not one that can simply be worked out through philosophy. In the end, this is an empirical question that must be answered by the sciences.

Additionally, at first glance, this test of permissibility seems to be less strict than the first. With this test there is no immediate reason to think a consideration of long-term side effects needs to be included in the discussion about the permissibility of consuming a drug. But when considered fully it should be concluded that if the long-term use of a drug results in the long-term impairment of the ability to reason its use would be morally prohibited. Since it is a perfect duty to protect the ability to reason if an action will cause that ability to diminish in the long run it would be morally restricted.

The best example of this is the long-term use of cigarettes or marijuana among those who will develop cancer. When smoking one cigarette or a small amount of marijuana is considered by itself it appears not to affect one’s ability to reason, but when the long-term impacts of smoking are considered it becomes clear that smoking does in fact affect your ability to reason. When someone smokes cigarettes or marijuana they are drastically increasing the likelihood that they develop lung cancer. If you have ever seen someone who is dealing with the side effects of cancer, then you know it is painfully obvious that they do not have their full capacity to reason. Additionally, the continued use of cigarettes causes a reduction in life expectancy of approximately ten years. (Health Effects) This means that the use of cigarettes can cause, on average, the loss of ten years of the ability to reason. When you apply this test to people who will not have time in their life to develop cancer, as is the case in people near death, this restriction does not apply. All of this considered, this permissibility test is an important aspect of determining whether you ought to be able to take a drug and that this test is not as weak as it first appears.

Objection: Happiness

A possible objection one could make to the restriction of the use of drugs I posited above is to point to the Kantian duty to “secure one’s own happiness.” (Kant, 14) This objector could reasonably assert that taking certain drugs would promote your long-term happiness and this is a reason to think it might be morally acceptable to consume certain drugs.

To respond to this objection, we must first understand what Kant means by the duty to “secure one’s own happiness,” and then attempt to apply this understanding to the use of drugs. (Kant, 14) This duty first arises in the example of the man with gout. Kant says that a person with gout could choose to eat what pleases him now, even though he knows that he will regret it later. According to Kant, you ought to act so that your overall happiness is maximized. This could cause a problem for someone who wishes to claim that you ought not take certain drugs according to Kant’s theory. It is not difficult to imagine that there are some drugs that promote long term happiness. The sparse use of marijuana is a great example of this.

This objector would be correct that the promotion of happiness must be a consideration of the permissibility of consuming drugs, but this consideration must be understood alongside the two-pronged test outlined above. If the consumption of a drug does not necessarily entail the user’s death or conflict with the perfect duty to support human reasoning, then the consideration of whether taking the drug increases your happiness comes into play. This becomes evident when you consider the Kantian distinction between perfect and imperfect duties. As noted earlier, a perfect duty must be followed in every instance for itself. An imperfect duty on the other hand is a duty that should be followed when it does not conflict with the perfect duties. The duty to promote happiness is an imperfect duty. This means that the duty to protect rationality outweighs the duty to promote happiness. From this we can conclude that if there is a person who is only happy when they completely lack the ability to reason, they would still be bound by morality to not impair their ability to reason. This person would likely claim that they are attempting to act according to the duty to promote their own happiness, but this would be misguided. To see this more clearly, we will look at the similarity between this situation and the depressed man situation discussed earlier. In the depressed man case, the man was acting to end suffering as opposed to promote happiness, but the action required of the man directly contradicted what he wanted to do. The depressed man case requires an action that is much more difficult than simply avoiding the consumption of drugs and yet Kant still required this man to continue his suffering, which lets us see that Kant has no problem requiring actions that are difficult and painful. This allows us to conclude that Kant would have no problem restricting the use of drugs using the tests I outline before, which in turn allows us to conclude that, when properly understood, Kant’s moral philosophy would require you to act in a way that both promotes your long term happiness and coincides with the perfect duties.

Additionally, when applying this two-pronged test to the use of a specific drug, you must consider the likelihood that the consumption of that drug lead to addiction. In the case of smoking marijuana, studies have linked its continued use to addiction. (NIDA) This addiction can increase the chance of developing lung cancer and thereby decrease your life expectancy and the years you can spend reasoning.

A drug that can pass the two-pronged test outlined above is Advil. Advil can promote happiness by getting rid of a headache, does not necessarily entail your death, and does not impair the user’s ability to reason. Any drug where it is unclear whether it passes the two-pronged tests must be studied to determine the answer before use. Once that empirical question is answered, the question of whether it is morally permissible to consume comes down to whether it promotes your happiness.

Objection: Temporary Suspension

Another way to object to this standard of the moral impermissibility of consuming drugs would be to claim that you ought to be able to take drugs that promote the long term ability to reason at the expense of the short term ability to reason. This argument would claim that if a drug allows you to reason properly in the long run but temporarily leaves you in a state where you are not capable of proper reasoning it would be morally permissible to consume. If you consider the benefits from psilocybin, for example, the case could be made that a person who is an alcoholic would have a more impaired ability to reason than someone who took psilocybin to get rid of their alcoholism. This objection would say that if you simply suspend your ability to reason for a short period of time you can increase your long term ability to reason and that this would fulfill the duty to promote the ability to reason.

This objection fails to refute my argument because this considers human reasoning as a means as opposed to an end in itself. As noted earlier, there are times when it is morally permissible to consume drugs that typically impair one’s ability to reason, but only when the person who is consuming the drug already lacks the ability to properly reason. Before consuming a drug like psilocybin to treat alcoholism, one would have to answer, “do I possess the ability to properly reason and, if not, will this drug restore this ability.” If the person answers yes or no respectively, then any maxim that allows for the consumption of one of these drugs would violate the second formulation of the categorical imperative: “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, but always at the same time as an end.” (Kant, 41) If you were to take psilocybin in order to increase your long-term ability to reason, after incorrectly answering either of these two questions, you would be treating your ability to reason merely as a means as opposed to an end in itself. This is the case because you are giving up—or using as a means—your ability to reason to achieve the end of obtaining more reason. This allows us to conclude that taking such an action is prohibited by the second categorical imperative.

Why you ought to stop people from taking certain drugs

The next step in developing what Kant would say about drug use is the question of when you ought to stop someone from consuming drugs. To answer this question I will begin by showing that there are certain drugs you should not restrict people from taking, move on to show that there are certain drugs you should stop people from consuming, and then respond to the main problem that arises from this conclusion.

Firstly, there are certain drugs that Kant would certainly say you ought not stop someone from consuming. Any drug use that does not break the universal law—to not take something that necessarily entails your death or impairs your ability to reason—ought not be restricted in its use. The consumption of Advil is a great example of this. Since Advil does not guarantee death and it does not impair the ability to reason it falls under the maxim that one need not restrict its use. Additionally, Advil is beneficial when used in the right circumstances. It can help people recover from injury and sickness, which helps them to abide by the duty to secure your own happiness and the duty to preserve life. Any drug that is similar to this example would fall into the same category. Other examples include vaccines, antibiotics, and antidepressants. It is important to reiterate at this point that there are some drugs where all these conditions have yet to be established. In these cases, the question of whether you ought to restrict someone from consuming it cannot yet be determined.

Now that it has been established when you ought not to stop someone from taking a drug I will move onto the more philosophically interesting question of when you ought to stop someone from consuming a drug. If a drug fails either of the two tests, you ought to stop people from consuming it. This becomes evident when you consider the definition of the perfect duty. A perfect duty is a duty that must always be obeyed and for itself. If it is your perfect duty to support human reasoning in all situations, then you must conclude that this applies not only to supporting reason in yourself but also in other people. The best way to secure human reasoning would be to ensure that humans are not taking substances that impair their ability to reason. This means that you have a duty to not only avoid taking drugs that impair your ability to reason but also a duty to stop other people from taking drugs that would impair their ability to reason.

Objection: Autonomy

The main objection to the notion that Kant would support the restriction of drug use would be his doctrine on autonomy. At first glance, restricting people from taking drugs would appear to be restricting their autonomy. If I am correct in asserting that Kant would say you are required to stop people from consuming certain drugs, then you would be required to force people to not make certain choices while allowing others. This seems to be a blatant violation of what we call autonomy. However, if you consider what Kant truly has in mind when it comes to personal autonomy, it becomes clear that there is no problem with restricting people from taking certain drugs.

Kant defines autonomy as “the property of the will through which it is a law to itself.” (Kant, 52) Moral autonomy also requires you to make informed decisions. To be autonomous you must be making informed decisions and writing the moral law for yourself, but what is this law? This is the distinction that allows us to respond to the objection above. Kant provides the reader with what he calls the “principle of autonomy,” which is “Not to choose otherwise than so that the maxims of one’s choice are the same time comprehended with it in the same volition as the universal law.” (Kant, 52) This means that when you are truly exercising your autonomy you are acting in a way that passes the categorical imperative test. To pass this test you must be acting rationally. This means that what Kant intended to show when he says you have the freedom to act autonomously is that you have the freedom to act in accordance with rationality. This in turn allows us to conclude that Kant would not have a problem with stopping people from acting if that action were not in accordance with rationality.

When you apply this proper understanding of the autonomy of the will to the question of when you ought to stop someone from consuming drugs, it becomes clear that Kant would say you ought to stop people from taking drugs that do not pass the two-pronged test I established in this essay. Anytime you are taking a drug that fails the two-pronged test I established earlier you are failing to act in accordance with reason. This means that anytime you take a drug that fails the either test you are not acting in accordance with the principle of autonomy and should therefore be stopped from doing so. When you apply this test to the use of cigarettes or smoking marijuana, in those who are young enough to develop lung cancer, it becomes clear that consuming drugs of this kind would be restricted by Kantian ethics.


The debate about whether government ought to stop people from taking drugs will likely continue for many years to come. If you wish to apply Kantian ethics to this question, it is clear that for you to will a maxim that allows for the consumption of a drug its consumption must not entail the user’s death or impair the user’s ability to reason. From this we can conclude that you must not consume a drug that entails your death or impairs your ability to reason and that you must stop people from consuming drugs that have either of these effects. When you attempt to will a maxim that allows for the recreational use of cigarettes or marijuana among those who will develop cancer, using this two-pronged test, it becomes clear that you cannot do so. This allows us to conclude that Kantian ethics would require you to prohibit the recreational use of cigarettes or marijuana among those who will develop lung cancer. To some, this may be a reason to reject Kant’s morality, but the deepening of the understanding of moral philosophies is likely to lead to better results in the application of that philosophy, so it is a goal to continuously aspire to.

Works Cited

Aldington, Sarah. “Cannabis Use and Risk of Lung Cancer: A Case-Control Study.” European Respiratory Journal. February 31, 2008. https://erj.ersjournals.com/content/31/2/280.long  Accessed July 29, 2020.

Bleyer, Jennifer. “A Radical New Approach to Beating Addiction.” Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, May 17, 2017. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/articles/201705/radical-new-approach-beating-addiction Accessed November 15, 2019.

Häuser W, Finn DP, Kalso E, et al. European Pain Federation (EFIC) position paper on appropriate use of cannabis-based medicines and medical cannabis for chronic pain management. Eur J Pain. 2018;22(9):1547-1564. Wiley On-line Library. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/ejp.1297. Accessed July 25, 2020.

“Health Effects of Cigarette Smoking.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. January 17, 2018. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. https://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/fact_sheets/health_effects/effects_cig_smoking/index.htm. Accessed November 15, 2019.

Joy, Janet E., Stanley J. Watson, Jr., and John A. Benson, Jr. (eds.) Marijuana and Medicine: Assessing the Science Base. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 1999. 4, The Medical Value of Marijuana and Related Substances. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK230711/ Accessed July 25, 2020.

Kannisto, Toni. “What did/would Kant say about soft drug use and alcohol use?” Quora. https://www.quora.com/What-did-would-Kant-say-about-soft-drug-use-and-alcohol-use?share=1 Accessed November 15, 2019.

Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, Allen Wood (ed.) New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. 2018.

Manninen, B A. “Medicating the mind: a Kantian analysis of overprescribing psychoactive drugs.” Journal of medical ethics. vol. 32,2 (2006): 100-5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2563334/ Accessed July 27, 2020.

Marcum, Zachary. “Recognizing the Risks of Chronic Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug Use in Older Adults.” The annals of long-term care. The official journal of the American Medical Director Association. August 19, 2011. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3158445/ Accessed July 30, 2020.

“Mind Matters: The Body’s Response to Opioids.” National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA); National Institutes of Health; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. https://teens.drugabuse.gov/teachers/mind-matters/opioids. Accessed December 8, 2019.

Mithoefer, Michael C., Feduccia, Allison A., Jerome, Lisa. et al. “MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for treatment of PTSD: study design and rationale for phase 3 trials based on pooled analysis of six phase 2 randomized controlled trials.” Psychopharmacology. 236, 2735–2745. May 2019. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00213-019-05249-5 Accessed July 25, 2020.

NIDA. “Is marijuana addictive?” National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2 Jul. 2020,        https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/marijuana/marijuana-addictive          Accessed 31 Jul. 2020.

“Overdose Death Rates.” National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), January 29, 2019. National Institutes of Health; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. https://www.drugabuse.gov/related-topics/trends-statistics/overdose-death-rates. Accessed November 15, 2019.

Thomas, Scot. “Addiction Statistics: Drug & Substance Abuse Statistics.” American Addiction Centers, November 11, 2019. https://americanaddictioncenters.org/rehab-guide/addiction-statistics. Accessed November 15, 2019.


Johnson, Robert and Adam Cureton. “Kant’s Moral Philosophy.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. July 7, 2016. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kant-moral/. Accessed July 25, 2020.