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What is morally wrong with discrimination? A Kantian analysis

We cannot arrive at any theoretical knowledge pertaining to freedom, according to Kant, because our knowledge is limited to the world of phenomena, or appearances. To the extent that our knowledge is bound by phenomena, nothing in the world including ourselves is free – as Kant observed: “[If] I were only a part of the world of sense [all my actions] would be assumed to conform wholly to the natural law of desires and inclinations, i.e., to the heteronomy of nature.”

But it is also because our knowledge is limited that we are allowed to think of ourselves as free; and indeed, for the sake of morality we have to. We do not know what we are in ourselves, so to speak: “Even as to himself, the human being cannot claim to cognize what he is in himself…” – for we cannot know things in themselves, or the world as noumena. And since we cannot know, it is possible that we are free as noumenal beings.

Autonomy and freedom

What then is morally wrong with discrimination from a Kantian standpoint? When we discriminate against persons what we are effectively doing is saying this person or group of people lack moral worth. We have moral worth because we have the capacity for autonomy or freedom. That is why one is to be treated always as an end-in-itself, because we are rational agents capable of acting on the basis of a law that reason itself legislates. When I am prejudiced against someone I am, consciously or not, denying their capacity for moral freedom.

But we have also seen that Kant denies that we can have any such knowledge about others or even ourselves. Therefore, when I deny another’s capacity for autonomy I am assuming a knowledge I do not possess. I have to assume that all rational beings are capable of freedom, and as such they possess infinite worth. Discrimination is morally wrong then because it is based on a false premise – namely, that I can truly know the other.

Kant teaches that we have to acknowledge the limits of human knowledge. When I recognize that the other as a noumenal being eludes me I have to admit that I can no more deny their freedom then I can deny my own. And if they are free then they possess infinite self-worth and must be treated as end-in-themselves and never simply as a means.

Infinite worth

From a Kantian standpoint discrimination based on race – or religion, or gender – is fundamentally wrong. It is wrong, first of all, because it is dehumanizing, a denial of human dignity. When I racially discriminate, I am denying the person’s intrinsic self-worth, I am, in fact, denying their very right to exist, whether I know it or not. The moral law demands that I treat every individual as a free person equal to everyone else. If the moral law grants each of us a kind of infinite worth, it does not grant someone greater worth than anyone else.

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