Ethical Theory Spring 2022

Kant on Famine


At the beginning of the term, we moved from discussion of a particular case, famine aid, to a theory about morality in general, utilitarianism. We have talked about deontological approaches to several problems: the right to life, how to weigh different people’s lives against one another, whether there are absolute rights (or, if you like, absolute duties), and whether there can be such a thing as moral luck. Today, we discuss a general theory on the deontological side attributed to Immanuel Kant (1724-1804).

Specifically, we are reading Onora O’Neill’s statement of what she takes to be the core of Kant’s moral theory and how she thinks it would be applied to the problem that Singer and Cohen took up: famine.

Kant’s Theory According to O’Neill

Kant contends that the fundamental moral principle, from which all the others are derived, is something he calls the Categorical Imperative. He also claims this can be expressed by three different “formulas” that, on the face of it, are quite different from one another. O’Neill avoids the problem by choosing the formula that, she believes, best expresses the main idea. Kant calls this the Formula of the End in Itself.

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

What does it mean to treat a person “simply as a means” or, in other words, as a “mere means”? That depends on what Kant calls your maxim and O’Neill calls, variously, your principle, policy, or intention.

An example is worth a thousand words of explanation. Suppose I have promised to pay you $20 for your water bottle. Having received your water bottle, I decide not to pay on the grounds that I already have what I want and I would rather keep the money than give it to you. Here, my maxim is something like “I may break a promise to benefit myself.”

I use others as a mere means if I purposely involve them “in a scheme of action to which they could not in principle consent” (O’Neill 1980, 286). My false promise to pay for your bottle is supposed to be such a case. My plan to get the bottle and keep the money depends on deceiving you. If you had known that I would not follow through, you would not have given me the bottle.

The other kind of example that O’Neill gives of using others as a mere means involves coercion and duress. When Don Corleone makes someone an offer he can’t refuse, he treats the recipient of his offer as a mere means because he does not leave him a choice.

Kant, according to O’Neill, draws a distinction between duties of justice and duties of beneficence. The duty not to act on a maxim that treats others as a mere means is a duty of justice. The duty of beneficence is a duty to help others achieve their ends. You only sometimes bear duties of beneficence: “Beneficence requires that we act on some maxims that foster others’ ends, though it is a matter for judgement and discretion which of their ends we foster” (O’Neill 1980, 288).

O’Neill does not explain how duties of beneficence are connected to the Formula of the End in Itself.

Topics for Discussion

I think there is room to inquire about what it means to say that you could not “in principle” consent to being lied to. What about the following cases?

  1. I don’t care whether you follow through: either it isn’t important to me or I would be equally satisfied with whatever I will get as compensation for your broken promise.

  2. I want you to cheat me: I want to expose you as a fraud or I want to hold it over you.1

I would not want to rest much on the idea that bad maxims are ones that rely on deception. The maxim, “I will surprise him because unexpected gifts make people happy,” relies on deception but it is hardly immoral.

Of course, we will have to talk about what a Kantian would say about famine aid. In addition to what O’Neill says in §§27-29, it might be worth our while to think about how her version of Kantianism would handle the drowning child case.


O’Neill, Onora. 1980. “The Moral Perplexities of Famine Relief.” In Matters of Life and Death, edited by Tom Regan, 260–98. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

  1. People can seek to occupy the moral high ground for very unpleasant reasons.↩︎