Kant’s Defense of Human Moral Status

Patrick Kain. Journal of the History of Philosophy. Volume 47, Issue 1. January 2009.

Kant insists upon a sharp distinction between dignity and mere price. Price is a kind of relative value, a value something has if it is related in the correct way to something else, in particular to the needs or desires of human beings. By contrast, dignity (Würde) is a kind of absolute and intrinsic value (G 4:434). In Kant’s theory there is a deep connection between dignity and moral obligation. It is our innate capacity (Fähigkeit) for autonomy, the capacity to “legislate” the moral law, and the predisposition (Anlage) to act out of respect for the moral law that gives us dignity and marks us out as ends in ourselves. Moral obligations can be seen as grounded in that very nature or endowment (Begabung) and articulated as demands to respect the dignity and autonomy of ourselves and others (G 4:428-36). The second formula of the categorical imperative demands: “So act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means” (G 4:429). On Kant’s view, we have moral obligations to and only to beings with dignity. Though our moral obligations to beings with dignity also entail genuine constraints on how we may treat beings that lack dignity, we have no obligations to such beings. Beings with dignity, persons, can be obligated and can obligate others. In Kant’s terms, they are capable of passive and active obligation-they can possess, in contemporary terminology, active and passive “moral status.”

Despite widespread agreement about these aspects of Kant’s theory, there is remarkable disagreement in the recent literature, in both English and German, about the scope and foundations of Kant’s conception of moral status. Commentators remain particularly divided about the possible connection between moral status and membership in the human species. There is, as some interpreters have emphasized, substantial textual evidence that Kant ascribed basic moral status to all human beings. Even so, proponents of a more restrictive interpretation claim that many human beings, including human infants and severely disabled adults, must lack Kantian moral status because, regardless of their species membership, they obviously lack the characteristics that Kant’s theory requires. These commentators tend to ignore Kant’s claims that all human beings possess moral status or to dismiss them as arbitrary or “speciesist” dicta unsupported by his theory. A third group of commentators has suggested that, on Kant’s view, the scope and application of “status concepts” may be guided by, but are necessarily underdetermined by, the features of the entities to be classified and must, therefore, be settled by pragmatic decision. A critical analysis of this recent work reveals, I shall argue (in section 1), the need for a careful examination of the content of Kant’s biological and psychological theories and its possible relation to his conclusions about moral status.

Although Kant claimed that moral principles must have a pure, a priori foundation, he also recognized that “a metaphysics of morals cannot dispense with principles of application” that must take into account “the particular nature of human beings, which is cognized only by experience” (MdS 6:217). A careful examination of Kant’s corpus reveals that his defense of universal human moral status relies upon a combination of elements from his biological and psychological (and anthropological), as well as his metaphysical and moral theories. I will argue (in section 2) that central features of Kant’s “naturalistic” biological and psychological theories commit him to the view that each human being, in virtue of being generated as a member of the human species, possesses a certain set of “predispositions” from the moment of its procreation and throughout its life. Kant’s doctrine of radical evil and his practical-metaphysical analysis of the origins of freedom (discussed in sections 3 and 4) help to reveal his commitment to a universally possessed practical predisposition that is the basis of moral status. I will argue that these disparate and oft-neglected elements of Kant’s “modest system,” taken together, provide a coherent “apology” for and defense of his inclusive claim that all human beings possess moral status, a defense which is more principled than the pragmatic decision interpretation suggests.

On the interpretation of Kant’s defense of human moral status proposed here, Kant’s arguments cannot, at least without modification, determine the range of contemporary “Kantian” options on questions of moral status. Insofar as aspects of Kant’s defense of universal human moral status will be shown to rely upon elements of his biological and psychological theory, some of which have been superseded by subsequent developments in those fields, there will be questions about the adequacy of Kant’s conclusion and his defense of it which cannot be settled here. Despite the interesting implications that the proposed interpretation may have regarding Kant’s position vis-à-vis the moral permissibility of specific human practices such as abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, capital punishment, physician-assisted suicide, and the treatment of non-human animals, these are well beyond the scope of this study. Nonetheless, the understanding of Kant’s defense of the moral status of all human beings that emerges does clarify a number of Kant’s central commitments in the natural sciences and in ethical theory, and one point of connection between them. This provides the basis for a better understanding of Kant’s ethical theory and his system more generally, and sheds new light on one important moment in the history of philosophical reflection on questions of moral status.

Three Approaches to Kant’s Account

There is substantial textual evidence indicating Kant’s judgment about human moral status: all human beings possess moral status. In the Groundwork, this conclusion appears to be fundamental to the Formula of Humanity:

Now I say that the human being and in general every rational being exists as an end in itself, not merely as a means to be used by this or that will at its discretion; instead he must in all his actions, whether directed to himself or also to other rational beings, always be regarded at the same time as an end … [R]ational nature exists as an end in itself … The supreme practical imperative will therefore be the following: So act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means. (G 4:428-29)

However, as we shall see, Kant often uses ‘humanity’ and ‘personality’ as quasitechnical terms that refer to certain capacities or predispositions; we should not jump to the conclusion that either designates a kind-defining property necessarily possessed by all and only human beings. In the passage just cited, for example, Kant allows that there may be rational beings with “humanity” and “personality” that are not human beings. Nonetheless, in The Metaphysics of Morals in a section devoted to “our duties to others,” Kant insists that “a human being is under obligation to regard himself, as well as every other human being [als auch jeden anderen Menschen], as his end” (MdS 6:410) and, at the close of his discussion of perfect duties to oneself, Kant argues that we have obligations only to human beings (MdS 6:442). Notably, Kant also specifically argues that human children are persons to whom their parents have obligations.

[C]hildren, as persons, have from procreation an original innate (not acquired) right to the care of their parents until they are able to look after themselves, and they have this right directly by law (lege), that is, without any special act being required to establish this right.

For the offspring is a person, and it is impossible to form a concept of the production of a being endowed with freedom through a physical operation. So from a practical point of view it is a quite correct and even necessary idea to regard the act of procreation as one by which we have brought a person over into the world without his consent and on our own initiative, for which deed the parents incur an obligation to make the child content with his condition so far as they can.-They cannot destroy their child as if he were something they had made (since a being endowed with freedom cannot be such a thing) or as if he were their property, nor can they even just abandon him to chance, since they have brought not merely a worldly being but a citizen of the world into a condition which cannot now be indifferent to them even just according to concepts of right. (MdS 6:280-81)

While such assertions demand additional scrutiny, they clearly support the proposition that Kant ascribed moral status to all human beings, including human children “from procreation” (aus der Zeugung). These passages constitute strong prima facie grounds for interpreting Kant’s moral theory in ways that support, or at least make intelligible, this inclusive conclusion. Recent commentary is deeply divided, however, about whether the fundamental commitments of Kant’s theory can support or even cohere with such an interpretation.

Several of Kant’s commitments about the nature of moral status emerge in the course of his dismissal of the possibility of human duties to non-human animals and to spirits. In an “episodic section” devoted to exposing “an amphiboly in moral concepts of reflection,” Kant argues that we have a tendency to misinterpret the genuine moral constraints upon our relationship to natural beauty, to plants and animals, and to God as if those constraints were grounded in duties to such beings. Kant maintains that moral constraints that may appear to be duties to such beings are in fact grounded in (applications of) duties to oneself.

As far as reason alone can judge, a human being has duties only to human beings (himself and others), since his duty to any subject is moral constraint by that subject’s will. Hence the constraining (binding) subject must, first, be a person; and this person must, second, be given as an object of experience, since the human being is to strive for the end of this person’s will and this can happen only in a relation to each other of two beings that exist (for a mere thought-entity cannot be the cause of any result in terms of ends). But from all our experience we know [kennen] of no being other than a human being that would be capable of obligation (active or passive). A human being can therefore have no duty to any beings other than human beings … (MdS 6:442)

Kant begins by specifying what it is to have a duty to a subject: a “duty to any subject is moral constraint by that subject’s will.” An obligator (a being to whom one can have a duty, a being capable of “active obligation”) must have a will that can impose a moral constraint upon the obligated, and the obligated (one capable of “passive obligation”) has a will that can be constrained by the obligator. This analysis leads Kant to articulate two conditions for genuine moral status: we can be obligated only to a being that is both (i) a “person,” a being with a (certain kind of) will, and (ii) is “given as an object of experience.” Kant claims that the former condition excludes objects “other than persons,” namely “(non-human) objects” such as “mere inorganic matter [der bloße Naturstoff] (minerals), or matter organized for reproduction though still without sensation (plants), or the part of nature endowed with sensation and choice (animals).” While these beings are given as objects of experience, Kant thinks they lack a will that can impose moral constraint upon us. Kant’s latter condition excludes “superhuman,” “absolutely imperceptible” spiritual persons (such as God, angels, and demons) “who cannot be presented to the outer senses” (MdS 6:442). Insofar as these beings cannot be given in experience, Kant argues, we are unable to cognize them or their needs, and we are unable to intentionally affect their condition through our actions or to regard them as the cause of effects upon us. Thus, we cannot consider ourselves to obligate or be obligated by them. Neither non-persons nor imperceptible persons are capable of actively obligating human beings or of being obligated to human beings. So, if all human beings are to possess moral status, they must all be perceptible and persons.

In the context of this “amphiboly,” Kant does not specify exactly what a person is (nor does he defend his assertion that non-human animals are not persons), though clearly a person must be a being with a will that can impose obligation. But earlier, in the introduction to the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant offers a “preliminary” exposition of the concept of moral personality:

A person is a subject whose actions can be imputed to him. Moral personality is therefore nothing other than the freedom of a rational being under moral laws (whereas psychological personality is merely the ability to be conscious of one’s identity in different conditions of one’s existence). From this it follows that a person is subject to no other laws than those he gives to himself (either alone or at least along with others).

A thing is not capable of having anything imputed to it. Any object of free choice which itself lacks freedom is therefore called a thing (res corporalis). (MdS 6:223)

This passage begins like a mirror-image of the foregoing one. It first characterizes personhood in terms of the capacities for responsibility and the freedom to stand under moral laws, which are found first and foremost in the obligated, rather than the obligator. Taken together, these two passages suggest that, while Kant draws a distinction between active and passive obligation, he considers the relevant capacities to be connected-persons are beings with free wills, standing under the moral law, whose wills can reciprocally obligate and be obligated by one other. Moral obligation is a relation between (perceptible) persons-between two distinct persons or of one person to him- or herself.

This conception of obligation and the basis of moral status fits well with each of Kant’s familiar formulations of the supreme principle of morality in the Groundwork. The Formula of Universal Law commands each of us to act only on maxims that we can simultaneously will to be universal laws of volition. Each will is constrained by the idea of what can be a law for all wills. The Formula of Humanity requires each of us to treat each person as an end-in-itself. The Formula of Autonomy and The Formula of the Kingdom of Ends have us conceive of the moral law to which we are subject as a law that we legislate as and for members of a kingdom of ends, a union of rational beings made possible by that law.

Recent commentators are deeply divided about the putative connection between this general conception of moral status, which focuses upon personhood, and Kant’s conclusion that all human beings possess moral status. Interpreters disagree about the nature and legitimacy of the putative connection between being a human being and possessing moral status. Defenders of an inclusive interpretation of Kant’s conception of human moral status must suppose that, since Kant thought that one must be a person to possess moral status and that all and only human beings possess moral status, Kant must have considered all human beings to be persons. Yet they have not isolated any independent justification from within Kant’s system for such an assertion. Advocates of a more restrictive interpretation contend that, on Kant’s personhood criterion, many human beings, including normal human infants and seriously (even if only temporarily) cognitively disabled human adults, must lack moral status. Construed most narrowly, Kant’s cited claim (MdS 6:223) about imputability or responsibility may suggest the following criteria for moral status: an individual is a person and has moral status if and only if it is reasonable to hold her morally responsible for some action. Since there is nothing for which we would hold human infants or severely cognitively disabled adults morally responsible, it is argued, such humans must lack Kantian moral status.

This initial argument for a restrictive conclusion comes up short, but it effectively brings into relief a problem for the inclusive interpretation of Kant’s theory. As Brandt has noted, this argument comes up short because Kant’s cited claim about personhood and responsibility does not entail that each person acts or has acted, or that each is always able to act; it only entails that when or if a person does act, she may be held responsible for her actions. Thus, while actual attributions of responsibility and an immediate capacity to act can provide a sufficient condition for the possession of moral status, they may not be necessary for moral status. This is one reason why Kant’s claim need not imply that sleeping adults, for example, are non-persons. What Kant emphasizes in the relevant passages is how the freedom possessed by persons is a prerequisite for any ascriptions of responsibility. It is the will and its freedom under moral laws that are definitive of persons and, hence, ground active and passive obligation, define the limits of moral status, and ground judgments of responsibility. Thus, a focus on present action and actual judgments of responsibility, rather than upon freedom itself, is misplaced. Yet, despite these shortcomings in the argument, a problem remains: human infants may not fare much better if Kant’s criterion focuses on the possession of autonomy or freedom under moral laws. After all, part of the reason we do not hold infants morally responsible for their behavior is that they fail to manifest an ability to control their behavior, much less to control it via a conception of the moral law. Two-month-old humans manifest a rational will as much as rodents do, namely, not at all.

In fairness to Kant, this point is acknowledged in his discussion of the distinction between mature (mündige) and immature (unmündige) persons. Immaturity, he explains, is the inability to make use of one’s understanding, or at least an inability to make use of it without the direction of another (“An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment” [“Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung?”] [1784], 8:35; APH 7:208). For example, an immature child is a “person” and a “being endowed with freedom” (ein mit Freiheit begabten Wesen) “from procreation” even though it is “not yet able [mächtig] to make its own use of its members or understanding” (MdS 6:280-81, 454). The clear implication of this distinction is that there are persons, beings endowed with freedom, that are, at least temporarily, unable to make effective use of that freedom.

Thus, Kant seems to hold that the individual manifestation of “freedom under laws” is not a necessary condition for moral status, so he can resist the conclusion that infants lack moral status. A brief consideration of Kant’s theory of freedom shows that this is far from an ad hoc evasion. On Kant’s theory, freedom is not something that can be empirically cognized. Kant argues that our cognition of empirical objects involves a commitment to causal determinism, but freedom involves an independence from determination by such causes-it requires a “faculty of determining oneself from oneself” in accord with reason (KrV A534/B562). Thus, “experience lets us cognize only the law of appearances and hence the mechanism of nature, the direct opposite of freedom” (KpV 5:29; cf. G 4:446; MdS 6:221, 226). Although this precludes the empirical cognition of freedom, Kant’s transcendental idealism allows him to claim that empirical causal determinism does not entail that freedom is impossible: “in freedom a relation is possible to conditions of a kind entirely different from those in natural necessity, the law of the latter does not affect the former; hence each is independent of the other, and can take place without being disturbed by the other” (KrV A557/B585). After experimenting with a variety of theoretical arguments to show that freedom is not merely logically possible but real, Kant ultimately concludes, in the Critique of Practical Reason, that all such theoretical arguments fail. Kant argues that the reality of our freedom can be established, but only by practical reason. We are each “immediately conscious (as soon as we draw up maxims of the will for ourselves)” of the moral law; the moral law is given to us as “the sole fact of pure reason” and this fact leads us to the concept of freedom and the postulation of its reality in us (KpV 5:29-31). These features of Kant’s theory of freedom impose significant constraints upon the conclusions that may be drawn about moral status-the empirical manifestation of freedom cannot be a prerequisite for the moral status of anyone. Thus, within Kant’s theory, the failure of human infants, for example, to empirically manifest freedom cannot itself count against their possession of moral status.

Taken by itself, this response to the restrictive interpretation only puts off the problem facing the inclusive interpretation, however. Recourse to Kant’s theory of freedom, one of the most controversial elements of his transcendental idealism, seems to be of little help in this context. If anything, attention to Kant’s theory of freedom seems to accentuate the apparent gap in Kant’s theory of moral status. The inclusive position is hardly vindicated if the inclusion of all human beings is, at bottom, fundamentally arbitrary. Kant’s theory of freedom may preclude straightforward empirical criteria for the ascription of freedom or “moral personality,” but that does nothing to suggest how the “fact of reason” could support or even allow any alternative criteria. In the light of these considerations, the lesson drawn by many commentators is straightforward: only the restrictive conclusion that many human beings lack moral status appears consistent with his theory. The ascription of moral status to all, and only, human beings appears quite “arbitrary” and “speciesist.”

A third set of commentators has suggested a way to bridge this gap, making a virtue of necessity and interpreting Kant’s own conclusion about human moral status as the product of an unavoidable pragmatic decision, rather than as a case of pure arbitrariness. Christine Korsgaard has argued that, on Kant’s account, moral concepts are “precise in themselves,” but lack a determinate application to “the things we find in the world,” because moral concepts are “ideals.” The nature of ideal concepts, she argues, gives rise to an ineliminable gap between the “ideal” content of “practical concepts,” including that of moral status, and the empirical evidence we can gather about individuals. To take one example: there is often a morally significant difference between children and adults, yet the process of individual maturation is continuous; here there can be no precise fit between an individual’s intrinsic features and the boundaries of moral classification. We are faced with a continuum of various degrees of inadequate fit between empirical and moral concepts. Yet, Korsgaard explains, despite the lack of fit, we cannot avoid employing moral concepts altogether because to do so would be to evade morality. We must ascribe freedom and moral status to ourselves as obligated “because the moral law commands categorically, and we recognize that we can do what we ought,” and we must ascribe it to ourselves and others as obligators, since otherwise duty would be “without content or application.” Insofar as the fact of reason requires us to apply status concepts, we are left with no choice but to do the best we can-to make some somewhat arbitrary pragmatic decisions, “to draw some lines that are not firmly grounded either in the theoretical facts about those persons … or in the moral law.”

Korsgaard suggests that, on the Kantian view, acceptable pragmatic decisions about the application of moral concepts can and should be guided by the theoretical facts and empirical investigation as far as possible, and should be responsive to the moral ideal of promoting a “kingdom of ends,” even though these considerations underdetermine such decisions. On this pragmatic decision interpretation, Kant’s decision to consider membership in the human species to be the mark of moral status, “to treat  … (almost) every human being as free and rational,” was a pragmatic solution to an unavoidable problem.

The pragmatic decision interpretation effectively highlights a crucial, yet undefended, assumption of the restrictive interpretation: the assumption that the connection between empirical concepts, for example, those of biology, and moral status concepts must be either immediate or fundamentally arbitrary. While Kant’s theory of freedom does entail constraints upon the way empirical concepts and moral concepts may be connected, it may not render all such connections completely arbitrary. As we shall see, there is also something fundamentally correct about the suggestion that the “fact” of moral obligation plays a particularly foundational role in Kant’s account of human moral status, and in his attempts to connect empirical concepts with judgments of moral status.

Yet there are problems with the pragmatic decision interpretation, particularly when it is applied to questions of basic moral status. First, while the pragmatic decision interpretation raises important questions about the content and potential relevance of empirical concepts within Kant’s theory, it fails to specify much of the content of the relevant empirical concepts and fails to clarify how and how far empirical investigation and the theoretical facts can and should inform judgments about basic moral status. More significantly, it is unclear how the moral law itself can serve as a guide to settling fundamental questions about the scope of basic moral status without lapsing into vicious circularity. The determination and application of special status concepts such as “child” can be guided by the ideal of realizing a kingdom of ends precisely because it is already assumed that all concerned, anywhere on the developmental continuum, are appropriate objects of basic respect. Precisely because it is assumed that all are persons entitled to basic respect as members in a kingdom of ends, we can use the ideal of such a kingdom of ends to help determine which developmental conditions are morally relevant obstacles to individuals’ full participation in such a kingdom, and as a guide to our treatment and compensation of those who, to some degree or another, face such obstacles. But how could this ideal provide any non-circular guidance for our judgments about the scope of personhood and basic respect itself? While the pragmatic decision interpretation attempts to mitigate charges of arbitrariness by suggesting that empirical concepts and the moral law could provide some guidance to pragmatic decisions about moral status, closer scrutiny raises questions about the adequacy of these sources of guidance.

Kant’s texts clearly indicate that he ascribes moral status to all members of the human species from procreation, yet our analysis of recent commentary reveals an explanatory gap between Kant’s general conception of moral status, which emphasizes the importance of personhood, and his assertions that all human beings possess moral status. To adequately grasp Kant’s position, it is crucial to pursue the suggestion of the pragmatic decision interpretation and the clues implicit in Kant’s use of biological terminology in these contexts. When we take into account some of the oft-neglected content of Kant’s theory of human beings, his inclusive conclusion can be seen to be more principled than the pragmatic decision interpretation suggests.

The Nature of Human Beings: Kant’s Biology and Psychology

Quite independently of his moral philosophy, Kant articulated conceptions of biology, psychology, and anthropology and, within these disciplines, in light of empirical evidence, he developed a theoretical and empirical conception of human beings that provided key elements for his defense of human moral status. Kant’s biological and psychological theories contain a conception of predispositions, reproduction, and ensoulment, and a manner of identifying the predispositions of the human species which provide part of the basis for his contention that each human being possesses, from his or her procreation, the features requisite for moral status. Within the context of his “naturalistic” theory of organisms, species, and organic reproduction and development, Kant contends that each human being, in virtue of being generated as a member of the human species, possesses a certain set of “predispositions” from the moment of its procreation and throughout its life.

Before proceeding to the relevant details of Kant’s biological, and then his psychological theory, it is useful to identify a few of the commitments that shape Kant’s contributions to the disciplines of biology and psychology. Kant insists that, in natural science, we must seek to identify a system of efficient or “mechanical” causal laws responsible for observable regularities, yet he also maintains that there are phenomena that resist such an understanding (KU 5:387-88, 372-76, 401-04). Many biologically interesting “appropriate regularities,” especially those observed in reproduction and development, while contingent with respect to the efficient causal laws of physics and chemistry, are more than the mere “work of chance,” “accident,” and “the simple play of nature” (GtP 8:166-68). A tree, for example, must be understood as capable of organic growth and of maintaining itself over time as a functioning whole of its kind, and of producing other members of its kind. Trees are simultaneously “cause and effect of themselves” insofar as they produce members of their own kind and organize themselves as they grow, and because of the way that the whole organism and its parts are causally interdependent (KU 5:371-72). Kant claims that we can never fully comprehend such “reciprocal” causal structures within the resources of the uni-directional efficient causation characteristic of physics and chemistry. What we need to bring these regularities “under laws” (VR 2:429), Kant contends, is a set of teleological concepts, including the concept of an organism, a “natural end” which is a teleologically organized and self-organizing whole, organized for life and reproduction. Yet the “warrant” to employ such teleological principles in natural science must be carefully specified and limited if we have any hopes for “real knowledge” or understanding (GtP 8:160, 162; VR 2:429). To avoid “straying into the desert” of fantastic metaphysics and personally “invented” forces (GtP 8:161, 179-80; cf. KrV A222/B269), we must observe the maxim that “in a system of natural science everything must be explained naturally” (GtP 8:178; cf. KrV A544/B572, A773/B801). Kant takes this maxim to have several implications for explanation within natural science. First, within natural science it is not “advisable to use theological language” (GtP 8:178; KU 5:361) or to appeal to direct or intentional supernatural intervention, which withdraws the events from nature and natural explanation (KU 5:375, 383). Second, Kant insists that the specific powers and laws appealed to in natural science should be “derived from the forces of nature as they present themselves to us” (GtP 8:161-62); invented or imagined powers must be eschewed. Third, explanations appealing to teleological principles must be “economical” or parsimonious, not positing complexity or multiplicity which fails “to secure the slightest bit more for rational comprehension” (GtP 8:169). “Reason will not, without need, proceed from two principles,” powers, or laws “if it can make do with one” (GtP 8:165). Fourth, the acquisition of genuine knowledge in natural science, especially in relation to the study of organisms, depends upon the contribution of a special science of “natural history,” which systematically investigates “the connection between certain present properties of the things of nature and their causes in an earlier time” so far as but “only so far as permitted by analogy” with the laws and powers derived from what we observe (GtP 8:161-62). This seems to be a particular application of the general demand of reason for unity and systematicity in a science. Fifth, Kant takes this maxim to entail that some questions are completely beyond the competence of natural science-for example, natural science “cannot ask where all organization itself originally came from. The answer to this question, if it is available to us at all, would obviously lie outside natural science” (GtP 8:179, 161, 169; KU 5:389).

As part of his attempt to “naturalistically” explain a number of important apparent regularities of organic reproduction and development, Kant advocated an epigenetic theory of the reproduction of organisms, a conception of real species, and a doctrine of original predispositions. Offspring appear to resemble their parents in regular ways-in rather predictable ways, they tend to resemble one and/or the other of their parents in many respects and may possess some mixed characteristics. Without arbitrarily positing some sort of pre-established harmony of bodies, strong individual preformation theories of reproduction have great difficulty accounting for such patterns, especially those involving mixed characteristics. Such considerations motivated Kant’s moderate version of “epigenesis” or merely “generic preformationism,” according to which adult organisms, rather than simply unfolding a preformed body contained in one of the parents’ bodies, produce a new organism endowed with the parents’ specific organization (KU 5:423). On Kant’s account, the specific organizing form of the offspring is present in both parents in advance, and the particular organizing form that a given individual begins with is a result of its parents’ activity, a result of their “mixing,” rather than the sole contribution of either parent. “The parents are the productive causes of the conception [Zeugung], and the young animal thus arises from the mixture [aus der Vermischung] of both sexes as a product” (“Metaphysik K3” [1794-95], KgS 29:1031).

Kant was impressed with how the “species in nature are really partitioned” (KrV A661/B689) from one another, how the “rungs are too far apart” to be conceived as a continuum (KrV A668/B696). Kant insisted that, if we are to avoid inventing powers and attempt to trace “the present properties of things,” such as this partitioning and its persistence, back to their causes as far as we can go by analogy with observed powers, natural science should focus on identifying the “real kinship” relationships between organisms, a kinship revealed by individuals’ reproductive origins and their capacity to produce fertile offspring with one another. The epigenetic reproductive power we observe, Kant suggested, is that of generatio homonyma-a power to produce, in cooperation with another, a new organism of one’s kind that fundamentally resembles its parents and other ancestors (KU 5:419n). Kant argued that this “historical” criterion of kinship, grounded as it is in the conception of the epigenetic reproductive power that we can observe, is the key to a naturalistic account of “real” or “natural species” of organisms and of the variations and developments within them (BBM 8:102; GtP 8:178). Kant’s proposal is that the characteristic features and capacities of the members of each species be understood in terms of an underlying common specific nature, a set of “predispositions” (Anlagen) and “germs” or “seeds” (Keime), originally implanted in the species and then epigenetically imparted to each of its members via the reproductive power of their parents:

I, for my part, derive all organization from organic beings (through reproduction) and account for later forms (of this species [Art] of natural thing) through laws of gradual development from original predispositions (of the kind that one frequently finds in the transplantation of plants). I assume that these predispositions were to be found in the organization of the line of descent. (GtP 8:179)

Kant argued that this doctrine of “predispositions incorporated originally in the line of descent” must be part of a “philosophically appropriate,” “naturalistic” explanation of the observed stability of, and variation and development within, biological species (GtP 8:168-69). Common, inherited original predispositions and germs of each species underlie, limit and structure the development and adaptation of the species (GtP 8:178-79). This power of organisms to develop and successfully adapt, in species-specific ways, to a range of new environments is not “invented,” Kant suggested; it is rather like the power “frequently” observed in the behavior of transplanted plants. Much of the variety of characteristics observed within a species can be understood as the effect, over generations, of the differential development, in a variety of individuals and environments, of the original, common fixed germs and predispositions implanted in each generation by the parents’ reproductive power.56 The stability of each species, its underlying unity, and the unity of the historical chain based upon observed powers rests upon the original implantation of predispositions in a species and its universal transmission within a species via reproduction.

In addition to providing a principle for the naturalistic explanation of the continuity and change Kant observed within a human or animal population, Kant’s doctrine of original predispositions also provides a crucial element of a properly naturalistic explanation of the development of an individual organism, from its point of origin and throughout its existence. Features of individual growth and development can be understood in terms of the characteristic development and exercise of the capacities and predispositions of its species and/or its particular lineage within that species (e.g., its race or variety) in a particular context. An individual’s anomalies and deficiencies can be judged and explained in terms of the effects of, and its responses to, accidental injury, defects, or obstacles to the normal development and manifestation of the common predispositions and other inherited characteristics (KU 5:372, 374).

By placing all of the predispositions, even those manifested only later or only in some members of the species, at the origin of each species and at the origin of each of its members, Kant’s theory provides a unified account of the aforementioned regularities that complies with his constraints upon naturalistic explanation. It provides a framework for explaining the connection between presently observable features of organisms and their causes in an earlier time, relying on powers derived from present observation and employing teleological principles in an economical manner, and all without appeal to theology. “With the least possible appeal to the supernatural, [it] leaves everything that follows from the first beginning to nature” (KU 5:424).

Now, within this explanatory framework, the actual identification of the distinct real species and the specification of their original predispositions, and of the relation of such predispositions to contingent features of organisms require the exercise of judgment performed in the light of empirical observation and investigation. Specific claims about the predispositions shared by the members of a species must be formulated in the light of the features and capacities that are characteristic of its normal, mature members. Conversely, the fact that normal, mature members of a species fail to manifest a capacity is strong evidence for supposing that the species lacks a predisposition for it. Within this explanatory framework and its doctrine of original predispositions-which Kant applied to species of dogs, horses, and humans alike-the empirical judgment that human beings can interbreed with one another supports the conclusion that all human beings are members of a single species and share a set of common predispositions, as Kant argued forcefully.

This biological theory provides an important part of the content, relevant for our purposes, of Kant’s empirical conception of human beings, but there is much of significance in Kant’s psychological theory, as well. Most of the fundamental endowments or predispositions of the human species that Kant chose to identify are of a psychological, rather than merely biological nature. These psychological predispositions seem more germane to the questions about moral status. Kant’s psychological theory also contains an important twist that necessitates some refinements to Kant’s basic theory of organic generation and has significant implications for his defense of universal human moral status.

Kant was rather skeptical of the possibility of a psychological “science,” in the strict sense, and more generally skeptical about how far the discipline of empirical psychology could go in systematically uncovering useful, reliable, and precise empirical laws or generalizations about many psychological phenomena. However, such skepticism did not prevent him from claiming that empirical psychological events follow deterministic laws, nor from developing an empirical model for the explanation of human thought and action which embodies his broadly “naturalistic” theory of explanation and employs elements and analogues of his biological theory. Observable behavioral patterns present themselves to us, and they have a similar form to empirical biological laws-human individuals characteristically manifest and develop, in regular, if also differentiated ways, the basic psychological predispositions that they share with their parents and other members of their species. Because of the strong “pragmatic” interest we have in developing reliable expectations about others’ behavior and patterns of thought, Kant suggested, we seek to identify characteristics of individuals, the two human sexes, different cultures, nations, and races, as well as of different animal species, understanding their behavior in the light of the psychological capacities, faculties, powers, and characters shared by the members of each group and their distinctive acquired inclinations and habits, features which are ultimately grounded in (though in some of these cases, not determined by) some of their essential, species-specific predispositions. The key to Kant’s explanatory model in empirical psychology is the way that certain predispositions and propensities, which underlie or manifest themselves in a variety of instincts, acquired inclinations, and habits, serve as causal grounds for the occurrence of certain thoughts, feelings, desires, and behaviors. As in biology, the fundamental psychological endowments or predispositions shared by the members of each species are to be judged in the light of the features and capacities characteristic of its normal, mature members.

If Kant conceived of psychology as nothing more than an application of general biological concepts and principles to psychological phenomena, his doctrine of original predispositions would entail that organisms are endowed with psychological predispositions, if at all, by their generation and according to their species. It would entail that every human being possesses the psychological predispositions of its species from procreation. However, a central feature of Kant’s psychology precludes such a direct connection between biological reproduction and the possession of psychological predispositions. While Kant insisted, as we have seen, that many biological phenomena are properly explained solely in terms of organized matter and its natural effects, he also insisted that although human actions and the appearances of “inner sense” can be cognized and explained, neither can be fully explained “materialistically.” Kant argued that, even if our mental representations and the actions that proceed from them can be correlated with specific states of organized matter and predicted on that basis, these mental representations cannot themselves be the object of “outer sense” (e.g., KrV A357, A379, B427). He also contended that the unity we are aware of in our mental representations can never be fully explained in terms of the states of infinitely divisible matter (e.g., KrV A352, B419). Kant held that we must conceive of the mental representations that are essential constituents of genuine psychological regularities to be states of an immaterial soul (though not necessarily a simple, substantial, or immortal one), something not fully explicable in terms of mechanical or material laws (KrV B419-20; KU 5:460). This is what Kant had in mind when he suggested that “the sole (presumably valid) object of the rational psychology is the ‘refutation of materialism’.” Insofar as this immaterialism implies that psychological predispositions are features of, or in relation to an immaterial soul, it raises significant questions about the relationship between an organism’s reproductive origins and its membership in its species, on the one hand, and its possession of psychological predispositions, on the other.

Before addressing these questions, it is important to emphasize that Kant’s immaterialistic psychological theory is intended to manifest, rather than abandon, his core “naturalistic” principles. Immaterialism is not an ad hoc assertion, nor is it asserted on the basis of or solely for the sake of moral intuitions. The concept of immaterial psychological entities is defended, rather, on the basis of a philosophical assessment of the limits of “materialistic” explanations of psychological phenomena, paralleling Kant’s defense of the introduction of teleological principles in biology. Empirical psychology, too, eschews theological language and explanation. After immaterial entities are admitted, empirical psychology proceeds with reference to allegedly observed psychological powers. Kant claims that we human beings can become aware from experience that we possess a capacity to represent objects external to ourselves because we have the power to reflect upon such outer representations and their unification in our thought. We can also be “immediately aware” that we act in accord with our representations (KU 5:457, 464n). Empirical psychology aims to capture regularities of animal behavior “under laws” through the systematic and parsimonious appeal to the observed powers of outer sense, inner sense, and the faculty of desire. This commitment to systematicity is evident in Kant’s explicit ascription of souls to all animals (including non-human animals, to which he denies moral status) and indeed to all “living” organisms, a class he takes to include zoophytes and polyps (e.g., coral, hydra, sea anemone) and some, but not all plants. Noting that animals can perceive and respond to changes in their immediate environment in ways that (most) plants cannot, Kant insists upon judging their behavior as a product of inner principles (even if less than conscious ones), and argues that animals are not “mere machines,” but have souls with a vis locomotiva, because the mental representations that guide their behavior cannot be realized in matter (KU 5:457, 464n). This is part of what Kant has in mind in the Metaphysics of Morals when he writes that non-human animals are more than merely teleologically organized natural ends, like plants. Their organization involves “endowments” for “sensation and choice” (MdS 6:442; cf. “The False Subtlety of the Four Syllogistic Figures” [“Die falsche Spitzfindigkeit der vier syllogistischen Figuren”] [1762], KgS 2:60). At the same time, it is Kant’s naturalistic commitments, combined with his understanding of observable differences in behavior between mature individuals of different species, that lead him to argue that there is a distinction in kind between the cognitive and volitional predispositions and capacities of human beings and those of all non-human animals with which we are familiar. Kant concludes, as a matter of empirical psychology, that human beings possess a power of inner sense and powers for reasoning and reflecting upon our desires that no other animals we know of do. While further development of the mental capacities present in other species is possible, such development, Kant thinks, could never yield our higher form of cognition and volition.

Keeping these judgments in mind, we can return to the questions about the possible connection between the reproduction of an organism and its possession of its species’s psychological predispositions. Kant maintains that ensoulment is simultaneous with the generation of any living organism:

When through procreation [Zeugung] an organized body comes to be, [the body] has the condition in itself to become ensouled immediately by the intelligible living principle.

[An] animal is living matter. All living matter is simultaneously [zugleich] ensouled.

He also claims that ensoulment occurs in accord with an organism’s species. Concerning the human case, for example, he wrote: “The human procreative faculty is the faculty of a human being, with a human of the other sex, to put a person in the world. The means to this, or the act through which this effect can occur is the bodily mixing [die fleischliche Vermischung] of those two.” This doctrine of original ensoulment makes sense given Kant’s biological theory and his conception of naturalistic explanation. Kant’s naturalism sets the task of parsimoniously explaining the “appropriate regularities” of animal life, including, if possible, ensoulment, in terms of the non-”invented” causal powers of empirical beings. Appealing to the power, well-established within his biological theory, that organisms have to generate, by mixing, offspring with their species’s predispositions, Kant can explain ensoulment. This suggests that an animal or ensouled organism possesses a closely analogous power to generate, by mixing, an animal or ensouled organism of its kind-that is to say, to generate an organism endowed from the beginning with a soul of its kind. The power to ensoul at the point of generation is closely analogous to the established power to generate an organism with original predispositions, and it makes intelligible the phenomena of regular and continuous psychological development within an individual, in roughly the same way as the doctrine of original predispositions does in biology. Such development is understood in a unified and relatively parsimonious way-what appears to be the continuous life of a single animal in a single organic body is treated as such. Confirmation that this is Kant’s approach can be found in his specific resistance to the postulation of a succession of distinct souls, or the accumulation of several souls in an individual over time to explain development and a multiplicity of capacities. Kant insists that a single original soul with a range of essential, if differentially manifested, capacities is to be preferred. Similarly, original ensoulment according to one’s species remains closely analogous to the established power to generate an organism of one’s kind and makes intelligible the significant psychological differences Kant recognizes between species (and especially between humans and non-human animals) and the significant psychological regularities manifested within each species. Kant’s judgment that we should ascribe to living organisms the power to produce living organisms of their own biological species, endowed from procreation with their kind of soul and predispositions, is intended as a “naturalistically” respectable theory that accounts for the relevant observable regularities.

Kant’s commitments may allow us to be slightly more specific about the meaning of his claims about ensoulment “from procreation.” Kant’s theory of reproduction takes generation to be constituted by the successful “mixing” of the parents’ gametes. On this theory, when such mixing succeeds, the result is a new organism endowed with its own predispositions. There is no mention of, and seems little room to interpolate, for example, the generation of some intermediate organism of a different kind or of some intermediate entity which is not an organism but which eventually produces or becomes an organism. Kant’s position seems to be, in many relevant respects, a rather close approximation to the contemporary idea that, normally, organisms come to be at the point of conception or completed fertilization.  Kant’s doctrine is that ensoulment is simultaneous with the successful generation of a new organism. If this interpretation of his theory of reproduction is correct, these claims entail that animals are ensouled at conception.

Taken together, Kant’s empirical assumptions, immaterialism, and restriction of legitimate naturalistic hypotheses to empirical beings and their non-invented powers provide persuasive arguments against many alternative explanations for the psychological regularities with which Kant was concerned. One could go beyond experience and “invent” a reproductive power of organisms to produce a living organism of its own biological kind ensouled with, say, a soul possessing only those powers that can or will be exercised in that particular body. Or imagine that parents possess a power of ensoulment, distinct from the power of reproduction, which may be exercised at some point after procreation. But such hypotheses would seem to flout Kant’s naturalistic principles and, as Kant says in the biological context, inappropriately add complexity without “securing the slightest bit more for rational comprehensibility” (GtP 8:169). Similarly, it would have been fanciful for Kant to imagine that an un-ensouled organism has a power to ensoul itself at some point in its development. While one could imagine that God might choose to ensoul organisms according to any of a number of principles, such musings violate the constraints of Kant’s naturalistic psychology. Subsequent discoveries of genetic mutations and of species change provide us with evidence for a weaker form of generatio homonyma, and the discovery of monozygotic twinning provides us with evidence for a different form of generation. They also, by extension, raise questions about some of the assumptions of Kant’s doctrine of original ensoulment. Perhaps other discoveries or theories about the genetic basis of psychological capacities may provide some support for aspects of Kant’s doctrine. Either way, Kant cannot be blamed for failing to anticipate all such discoveries.

From a historical perspective, there is another, more serious objection to Kant’s doctrine of original ensoulment. If ensoulment marks “the beginning of the interaction of the soul with the body,” as Kant suggests, it may seem puzzling or mysterious what “ensoulment” could amount to in the early stages of embryonic development. An initial response to such puzzlement could begin by recalling Kant’s judgment that rather rudimentary animal behaviors must be explained in relation to a soul. Insofar as activities, such as those of “living plants” and “zoophytes,” can be understood as manifestations of a soul, souls need not mysteriously “wait around” after procreation, completely idle until major organic developments facilitate their manifestation of their higher capacities. On Kant’s account, neither a brain nor a central nervous system need be a prerequisite for ensoulment; neither are they needed to provide a precise spatial location for a soul in organisms that do or can develop them. Yet all of this is compatible with Kant’s plausible idea that some of the higher capacities of some kinds of souls can only be exercised after certain bodily developments have occurred or certain organs or systems are in place. Kant is certainly not claiming that we can directly observe body-soul interaction in simple organisms or in embryos in early stages of development, and he need not deny that there could be informative physical or chemical explanations of their rudimentary behaviors. His doctrine only requires that immediate ensoulment is possible and that, from a systematic naturalistic perspective, the complete explanation of the behavior of such animals should include reference to a soul even at such stages. Given the state of eighteenth-century embryology, Kant’s general commitment to animal souls, and the systematic considerations that, from Kant’s vantage point, favor the doctrine of original ensoulment (and undermine its competitors), it is unsurprising that questions about the evidence for such interaction, especially at a particular stage of development, did not undermine his commitment to this doctrine.

It may seem “wasteful” or contrary to some criteria of parsimony to suppose, as Kant does, that even seriously, congenitally disabled animals, and each animal that dies during an early developmental stage, is endowed with a soul, most or all of whose capacities never can or will be exercised. Kant seems to accept this cost of his doctrine of original ensoulment according to species as a consequence of a systematic naturalistic theory of ensoulment. Many rational souls, he acknowledges, will never have the opportunity to exercise many of their capacities in this life because their life is “nipped in the bud,” or various obstacles prevent their exercise or development. As with Kant’s theory of original biological predispositions, systematic considerations purport to justify the judgment that specific psychological predispositions are present despite the failure of many individuals ever to manifest or exercise those predispositions or capacities in the characteristic way. While we could speculate about the reasons God would or would not choose to apportion predispositions or types of souls to organisms less “wastefully” by doing so in accord with the possible or likely exercise of capacities, these are not legitimate “naturalistic” hypotheses for Kant.

In sum, Kant articulated a principle of “naturalistic” explanation which eschews appeals to theological intervention and focuses on explaining phenomena in terms of laws based upon “the forces of nature” and powers of natural objects “as they present themselves to us” (GtP 8:161-62). Applying this principle to some of the fundamental regularities of biology and then psychology, Kant concluded that there are real species, one of which includes all human beings, and that the essential and characteristic features and capacities of organisms of a species should be understood as the manifestation of common specific predispositions present “from procreation” or conception. While Kant’s psychological immaterialism necessitates some additional complexities, in the end Kant maintains that all organisms, including all human beings, are members of fixed species with common original predispositions and that each living organism, including each human being, is, in virtue of its original ensoulment, endowed from its conception with its species’ psychological predispositions. It is this conception of predispositions, reproduction, and ensoulment, and Kant’s manner of identifying the predispositions of the human species that, I contend, provide crucial elements of his defense of universal human moral status. It is worth noting that, whatever the philosophical and scientific strengths or weaknesses of this theory, whether judged from the perspective of Kant’s contemporaries or that of the present day, at least this part of Kant’s defense purports to be “firmly grounded … in the theoretical facts.”

It is important to note that these elements of Kant’s biological and psychological theories do not and cannot, by themselves, yield sufficient theoretical grounds for settling questions about human moral status. On Kant’s account, moral status depends upon the possession of “freedom under moral laws,” and Kant famously argued that neither rational nor empirical psychology can establish that there is any absolute freedom. We lack theoretical grounds for claiming that any of us are beings that are living organisms or souls endowed with freedom (or immortality). Moreover, even if we had theoretical (or even other) evidence that some of us are living organisms endowed with freedom, absent a showing that freedom should be considered an essential feature or predisposition of our kind of soul, we would still lack warrant for Kant’s claim that all human beings possess freedom. To address these issues we must turn to Kant’s practical philosophy.

Personality as a Practical Predisposition: Anthropology, Radical Evil, and Moral Status

Kant’s moral philosophy is explicitly committed to a conception of “original” “practical predispositions,” which are alleged both to be the basis of moral status and to be shared by all human beings. The clearest expression of this conception is found in the Religion, where Kant argues that each human being is innately or “radically evil,” in virtue of possessing both an “original predisposition to good” and a contingent “propensity to evil” (R 6:28). Brief reflection reveals that this account of the practical predispositions is a presupposition, rather than a conclusion, of Kant’s argument for his controversial doctrine of radical evil. Thus, the account of radical evil in the Religion cannot provide independent philosophical support for Kant’s claim that the practical predispositions are original and universal in human beings. Nonetheless, before proceeding (in section 4) to the defense Kant does offer for such a claim, it is worth briefly considering both the connection Kant highlights, in this context, between moral status and the practical predispositions and the way in which his doctrine of radical evil reveals his commitment to their universal possession from conception.

Kant clearly identifies moral status with the presence of the predisposition to good. Kant analyzes the original predisposition to good into three practical predispositions, the third of which is the “predisposition to personality,” which involves “the susceptibility to respect for the moral law as of itself a sufficient incentive to the will” (R 6:26-28). He carefully distinguishes between this “good” predisposition to personality and good character:

The human being must make or have made himself into whatever he is or should become in a moral sense, good or evil. These two characters must be an effect of his free power of choice, for otherwise they could not be imputed to him … He has been created for the good and the original predisposition in him is good; the human being is not thereby good as such, but he brings it about that he becomes either good or evil, according as he either incorporates or does not incorporate into his maxims the incentives contained in that predisposition (and this must be left entirely to his free choice). (R 6:44)

Good character must be something acquired: it is the “incorporation” or adoption of respect for the moral law as of itself the supreme incentive of the will. The predisposition to personality, in contrast, is that in our nature which grounds the possibility of good character (R 6:27). It is because of this predisposition to personality that “the moral law is itself an incentive in the judgment of reason, and whoever makes it his maxim is morally good” (R 6:24, 36). Kant insists that dignity does not depend upon the possession of good character. What qualifies us for that special dignity as ends-in-ourselves, as beings that may possess moral status, is the predisposition to personality. Personality is what makes us “rational and at the same time responsible [der Zurechnung fähigen]” beings (R 6:28; cf. G 4:440). It is this predisposition that is the “one thing in our soul which if we duly fix our eye on it, we cannot cease viewing with the highest wonder, and for which admiration is legitimate and uplifting as well” (R 6:49).

[W]e, beings ever dependent on nature through so many needs, are at the same time elevated so far above it in the idea of an original predisposition (in us) that we would hold the whole of nature as nothing, and ourselves as unworthy of existence, were we to pursue the enjoyment of nature-though this alone can make our life desirable-in defiance of a law through which our reason commands us compellingly, without however either promising or threatening anything thereby … (R 6:49)

The second Critique’s rousing peroration on the “moral predisposition” of “personality” and its ode to the sublimity of duty and personality contain similar sentiments (KpV 5:161-63, esp. 163; cf. KpV 5:86-88). Kant’s defense of universal human moral status must rest on his claim that all human beings possess this practical predisposition.

The second point of note is that Kant’s discussion of universal radical evil provides clear textual evidence of his deep commitment to the idea that the basis of moral status is such an essential and original practical predisposition. Similar to the way in which teleological principles function in biology and psychology, the conception of practical predispositions and propensities is intended to render intelligible certain patterns in and assumptions of moral experience (and to mark the limits of such intelligibility). Kant was struck by the “multitude of woeful” deeds in human history and by the universal presence of an “innate guilt … detectable as early as the first manifestation of the exercise of freedom in the human being” (R 6:33, 38). Kant also insisted that the recognition of a propensity to evil is important for even the earliest stages of human moral education (R 6:48, 51). These features of moral experience are intelligible, Kant argued, if there is a universal human propensity to evil. “According to the cognition we have of the human being through experience … we may presuppose evil as subjectively necessary in every human being, even the best” (R 6:32). This innate characteristic is considered part of the “character of the human species” because it is possessed universally, even though each possesses it merely contingently-the “anthropological research” and “the grounds that justify us in attributing one of these two characters [good or evil] to a human being as innate are of such a nature that there is no cause for exempting anyone from it, and that the character therefore applies to the species” as a whole, not just to this or that member of the species (R 6:21, 25). Since the ascription of the propensity to evil is an ascription of moral evil, Kant argued, it must be imputable to the individual. This in turn presupposes that each individual with the propensity to evil (i.e., each human being) must be susceptible to respect for the moral law, i.e., must possess the predisposition to personality.

Because of the way that the propensity to evil presupposes the predisposition to personality, the doctrine of universal radical evil provides decisive evidence that Kant considers the predisposition to personality to be something possessed by every human being. On Kant’s theory, the predisposition to personality is the basis of moral status, and it is ascribed prior to and independently of its (individual) manifestation in individual character. But again, insofar as the doctrine of radical evil effectively presupposes this claim about universal human moral status, we must look elsewhere to isolate the metaphysical foundations of this presupposition.

The Origin of Free Beings: Kant’s Practical-Metaphysical Argument

Kant’s ascription of radical evil to every human being entails that every human being possesses personality and thus moral status, but investigation of the doctrine of radical evil fails to reveal the grounds for this position. Kant’s assertions in the Metaphysics of Morals about parental obligations to children “from procreation,” noted earlier, also explicitly commit him to a recognition of the personhood or moral status of human beings long before they individually exhibit any free or responsible action. Kant claims that the argument for this obligation requires, as he apologetically notes, an investigation “all the way back to the first elements of transcendental philosophy in a metaphysics of morals” (MdS 6:280n). A careful analysis of this seldom discussed “investigation” reveals some of the as yet missing elements in Kant’s defense of human moral status. First, the investigation identifies and defends the doctrine that freedom must be an original and essential predisposition of any being that can possess it. Second, in the light of this doctrine of original freedom, the investigation helps to clarify the role that Kant’s biological and psychological theories play in Kant’s defense of human moral status.

Kant argues that parents have rights to manage and to educate their children, and to take control of them when they have run away because such rights arise necessarily out of the duty that parents have to preserve and care for their children. Parents have an “obligation to make the child content with his condition so far as they can” because parents must, “from a practical point of view,” consider their child to be a person they have “brought over into the world without his consent and on [their] own initiative” (auf die Welt gesetzt und eigenmächtig in sie herüber gebracht haben) rather than consider him as a product, as “something they made” (ihr Gemächsel). Here, Kant is distinguishing between his theory of ensoulment (or of the embodiment of a soul) and an account of the origin of a soul. While living organisms possess the power to ensoul their offspring, Kant argues that it is logically impossible for “a person,” “a being endowed with freedom,” to be the product of a “physical operation” (MdS 6:280). We have already seen that it is a fundamental tenet of Kant’s conception of freedom that freedom cannot be empirically cognized, it cannot be considered as a physical or empirical psychological capacity, endowment, or predisposition. Physical and empirical psychological operations are governed by empirical causal laws, whereas freedom involves an independence from determination by such laws. Here Kant elaborates: freedom cannot be conceived of as a natural product or organic development either. If it were the effect of such a natural cause, it would be empirically cognizable, which it is not. Moreover, Kant insists that physical operations fully determine their effects, so any capacity produced by such an operation must be fully determined by its cause-a cause which precedes it in time-but such external pre-determination is incompatible with the nature of freedom.

In fact, Kant goes even further. Not only is it impossible to conceive of the production of a free being through a physical operation, but, as he emphasizes in an extended footnote, we cannot even conceive of “how it is possible for God to create free beings” (MdS 6:280n). In addition to general questions about whether genuine finite substances of any kind could come into being, Kant expresses particular puzzlement about the possibility of free creatures. Kant worried that the creation of free beings may seem impossible “for it seems as if all their future actions would have to be predetermined by that first act [of creation], included in the chain of natural necessity and therefore not free” (MdS 6:280n). Insofar as the inner determining ground of a creature’s action is placed in her by her creator, her action seems to be outside of her control, already determined, and not free (KpV 5:100-01; R 6:142). “Speculative reason is not able to comprehend, nor is experience able to prove how a creature can be free at all…”

Although Kant claims that it is logically impossible for free beings to be the product of any physical operation, he insists that it must be possible for finite beings endowed with freedom to come into being somehow, since “the categorical imperative proves for morally practical purposes” that “we human beings” are free (MdS 6:280n). Kant distinguishes two stages in the solution to this puzzle. First, one must address the logical problem and refute the assertion that the idea of a free creature is self-contradictory. Kant argues that the doctrine of the transcendental ideality of time was the key to solving this logical problem:

All that one can require of reason here would be merely to prove that there is no contradiction in the concept of a creation of free beings, and it can do this if it shows that the contradiction arises only if, along with the category of causality, the temporal condition, which cannot be avoided in relation to sensible objects (namely, that the ground of an effect precedes it), is also introduced in the relation of supersensible beings. (MdS 6:280n; cf. KpV 5:100-03)

If time is transcendentally ideal, merely a form of our sensible intuition, then the supersensible creation of free beings does not entail that they and their actions are pre-determined, and thus does not, on that account, contradict their freedom.100 While we cannot comprehend how we are created as free beings, Kant takes this to prove that the creation of free creatures is not logically impossible.

Of course, Kant famously insisted that there is a large distance between the logically possible and the philosophically respectable. Respectability requires, in addition to a showing of logical possibility, establishing that a concept is “really possible,” that there is some ground in reality to consider the concept applicable to a genuine object. The second stage of Kant’s solution to this puzzle calls our attention to the “fact” of our moral obligation. This fact of immediate consciousness of the moral law grounds the real possibility of our freedom. From a practical point of view, we must consider the logical possibility of free creatures to be a real possibility. Moreover, “the categorical imperative proves for morally practical purposes” that at least some of us “human beings” are free (MdS 6:280n). The fact of reason commits us to a postulation of the existence of free creatures.

Now it might seem that this strategy could also support the conclusion that a free being could be a product of his or her parents. Kant clearly rejects the possibility of parents producing free beings by any “physical operation,” but once appeals to “supersensible” or non-physical divine acts are allowed to mitigate concerns about theological pre-determination, one might feel entitled to suppose that parents could produce free beings by some supersensible free act of their own. Kant intends to reject such a possibility, however, when he asserts that human children must not be viewed as something “made” by their parents, but rather as persons merely “brought over into the world” by their parents. The outlines of his position can be found in his notes and lectures on the possible origin of souls:

Were the soul a product, then the parent souls would have to have a creative power. Each production of a substance is production from nothing [productio ex nihilo], creation; for before the substance, nothing was there. But a creature itself has not a creative, but rather a formative power, i.e., to separate or compose things which are there. Therefore nothing else remains than to view the soul as preformed, however it may stand with bodies. (“K2” 28:761)

If the soul is a substance, Kant suggests, it must, as any other substance, be created ex nihilo, something for which parents, as creatures, lack the power. Moreover, if souls are simple they cannot be produced from or proceed “by transference” from their parents’ souls, because those souls are themselves non-composite. In the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant emphasizes the particular logically impossibility of any finite being producing a free simple substance. Of course, Kant’s critique of rational psychology (for example, in the Paralogisms of the first Critique) purports to establish that we cannot have theoretical knowledge that we are or have simple, substantial, immortal souls. At first glance, this contention undercuts a key premise of such metaphysical arguments. But the practical point of view demands that we think of ourselves as free beings, restoring that premise for practical use. Thus, Kant reasons, we cannot conceive of ourselves from the practical point of view as products generated by our finite parents (and parents cannot consider their children to be their products), not even as non-natural products of some free act of theirs. Insofar as we must regard ourselves as beings endowed with freedom, we cannot regard ourselves as produced. Thus, the only thing shown to be logically and really possible is the “concept of creation” of beings endowed with freedom. Kant’s point is not that we have determinate theoretical knowledge of how it is that free creatures are created-he insists we do not. He insists that freedom or the predisposition to personality must be conceived of as something so fundamental and radical that it cannot be produced by finite creatures, cannot be acquired or derived or developed from some more fundamental power, and cannot come in degrees. It must, rather, be an original predisposition, part of the essence and original endowment of anything that can possess it.

Here the “fact of reason,” in addition to revealing the need for a workable conception of moral status (as the pragmatic decision interpretation suggested), plays a vital role in grounding a crucial element in Kant’s response to that need-what we might call his doctrine of original freedom. Whatever the generation or procreation (Zeugung) of a human being is taken to amount to in the context of empirical biology or psychology, Kant insists that we cannot regard it from the practical point of view as itself the production (Erzeugung) of a person by his or her parents. Kant suggests that the most appropriate way to think about the origins of a human being is to think that rational souls are created endowed with freedom and are embodied or “brought over into the world” by human parents when they generate and ensoul a human organism. This phrasing-‘brought over’-is more than just a rhetorical flourish. Kant is expressing some preference for the pre-existence of the human soul, even for the creation of all souls at the creation of the world, in part because of the apparent simplicity, lawlikeness, and dignity he finds in such a hypothesis. On this hypothesis, all free souls are created at once and independently of empirical events, avoiding ubiquitous “miracles” and the dependence of souls’ existence (as distinct from their embodiment) or nature upon the “contingencies of begetting.” (The basis and merits of this particular judgment need not detain us here, however.)

At first glance, Kant’s investigation into such “metaphysical” questions and his doctrine of original freedom may seem to imply that Kant’s biological and psychological theories about membership in the human species have no bearing on his claims about human beings possessing moral status “from procreation.” After all, the doctrine of original freedom itself is largely independent of the details of his biological and psychological theory, and it indicates that a soul’s freedom or predisposition to personality is essential and not ultimately attributable to an organism’s reproductive origins. Yet it is important to recall that, on Kant’s account, it is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for moral status that one be a person, a being endowed with freedom. For all we know, there may be legions of disembodied spiritual beings endowed with freedom; but even if there are, on Kant’s account, we don’t have any obligations to them. Kant insists that only persons of a particular sort or in a particular kind of state can obligate human beings. They must be persons that are “perceptible” or can “be given as an object of experience” (MdS 6:442). Thus, even though one of the necessary conditions of moral status, personhood, is not per se empirically cognizable, moral status is nonetheless tied to empirical events and objects. This transforms questions about moral status into questions about when, or in what circumstances, a being endowed with freedom is capable of being “given as an object of experience” or “brought over into the world” or, conversely, about which objects of possible experience are, or should be considered to be, the presentation in the world of such a being endowed with freedom. As suggested by the allusions to the procreation of human children found in the midst of Kant’s investigation of the origins of freedom, his defense of universal human moral status rests upon the conjunction of his doctrine of original freedom with his biological and psychological theories. Kant relies upon his biological and psychological theories to provide systematic and “naturalistically” respectable guidance about which objects of experience should be considered to be the presentation of the relevant kinds of predispositions. Absent sufficient justification to think that endowment and ensoulment occur in radically different ways with humans or with respect to the predisposition to personality than with other animals, this reliance seems both reasonable and in accord with Kant’s principles. In fact, the particularly strong claims Kant makes about the origins of free beings (created by God and “brought over” by their parents) provide a special reason to adhere quite closely, in this case, to his general theory of predispositions and original ensoulment. It fits quite well with Kant’s principle that, when theorizing does or must occur, one should seek a systematic and parsimonious account which relies upon analogies to observed powers and eschews unnecessary and unhelpful complexity. Once the fundamental limits upon our comprehension of this particular process are noted, Kant has reason to limit grounds for the introduction of significant disanalogies between the human and non-human processes of generation and ensoulment.

In light of Kant’s commitments, the basis for his conclusion that moral status ought to be ascribed to an organism from its point of biological origin is rather straightforward. Kant’s biological theory maintains that an organism can be considered to be the presentation of a being with predispositions, and, if we are to understand organisms in a non-arbitrary, naturalistically respectable way, we must consider them to be such presentations “from procreation” or conception. Kant’s psychological theory maintains that all animals are ensouled organisms and, on Kant’s naturalistic account of ensoulment, each living organism gets its soul at the point of its reproductive origin. The practical doctrine of original freedom entails that free rational souls must be essentially free rational souls. Taken together, these claims imply that freedom is present, in any organism that will possess it at all, from the point of its reproductive origin. The generation of such an organism involves “bringing over into the world” or embodying a person. As Kant put it in a draft of the 1798 appendix to The Doctrine of Right, “The human procreative faculty is the faculty of a human being, with a human of the other sex, to put a person in the world. The means to this or the act through which this effect can occur is the bodily mixing of those two” (“Vorarbeit” 23:357). Since, on Kant’s account, moral status is identified with the presence of a free rational soul in an organism, this implies that moral status attaches as soon as an organism endowed with such a soul is generated or conceived.

It is worth recalling the resources at Kant’s disposal for addressing concerns about the idea of ensoulment from conception. Since Kant distinguishes between the origins of free souls and their embodiment (even thinking it reasonable to suppose that souls pre-exist embodiment), the souls can certainly be ready for ensoulment at the conception of the organism. Since, on Kant’s theory, a soul can be considered responsible for rudimentary activities, such as those of polyps and living plants, souls need not be considered mysteriously yet idly present until complex organs or systems develop. At the same time, there is no difficulty explaining why there is no conscious thought in a human soul before the body reaches a stage of development suitable to such intuition since, on Kant’s theory, human thought is materially dependent upon and initially activated by sensible intuition. If one can accept that souls endowed with higher cognitive powers can be present from conception despite the fact that those specific powers may only be manifested at a later point in time, there is little reason to find anything additionally puzzling about embodiment at conception of a soul endowed with freedom.

On this account, a being endowed with freedom initially comes to be embodied as a possible object of experience, in the cases with which we are familiar, as a very vulnerable and dependent creature unable to exercise his or her own freedom. This is why Kant draws an analogy between the obligations of human parents to their children and the obligations of someone who “brings a sleeping human being to an unsafe location” (“Naturrecht Feyerabend,” KgS 27:1380). Short of discovering or “inventing” a reproductive power in parents that is somehow sensitive to a wide range of future contingencies, or positing divine interventions, it is to be expected on this account that there may be many organisms endowed with freedom that lack the opportunity to exercise it in this life because they are somehow or other “nipped in the bud” and “die at the earliest age” (“Mrongovius” 29:918).

If all beings with moral status must possess it from procreation and at least some human beings possess moral status, it follows that at least some human beings possess moral status from procreation. This part of Kant’s position seems to follow from the combination of his theoretical and empirical judgments about reproduction and ensoulment and his practical-metaphysical argument about the origins of freedom. While this part of his conclusion depends upon the “practical” demand to ascribe freedom and moral status to ourselves and some others, and while many of the elements of Kant’s defense may be open to criticism, at this point, there is little reason to think that Kant’s defense requires appeal to any additional, distinctively “pragmatic” decision, ungrounded in the alleged theoretical facts, empirical concepts, or moral law.

Kant’s defense of the stronger claim, that all human beings possess moral status, depends upon some additional claims. It is a doctrine of Kant’s general psychological theory that ensoulment occurs according to species-animals of a given species generate offspring that possess their kind of soul, i.e., a soul with the psychological predispositions of that species. Given this doctrine, the crucial question is whether the practical predisposition to personality should be considered a predisposition of the human species, as opposed to a predisposition of only some of its members. Kant’s doctrine of radical evil and his discussion of the origins of freedom leave little doubt about Kant’s considered judgment on this question. “The human procreative faculty is the faculty of a human being, with a human of the other sex, to put a person in the world” (“Vorarbeit” 23:357). While this seems to be the least explicitly developed part of Kant’s defense, the method and contents of Kant’s biological and psychological theories provide some support for his judgment. Methodologically speaking, if the predispositions shared by the members of each species are to be identified in the light of the features and capacities characteristically ascribed to its normal, mature members, certain regularities of human individual and social development would suggest that the practical predispositions are predispositions of the species. The mature offspring of putative human moral agents seem to characteristically manifest moral agency, for example. Behaviors that we view as successes or failures in the development of character, such as acts of promising, deception, and war, are widespread in the human species. Moreover, Kant argues that these and other similar characteristics are integral to the collective realization of the moral end or vocation of our species as a whole (APH 7:276, 331-32; IaG 8:20). These observations suggest that putatively free souls are not randomly distributed in the world, but that their presence may be considered an effect of the reproductive power of our species. In terms of content, Kant’s biological and psychological theories attribute psychological predispositions to all members of the species both in spite of and for the sake of making variations and disabilities within the species intelligible. If we grant, as Kant does, that biological and psychological anomalies are compatible with the presence of specific biological and psychological predispositions, these anomalies can provide little basis for denying specific practical predispositions.

From a contemporary perspective we may be inclined to consider at this point cases of serious genetic disorders or disabilities that prove fatal at early developmental stages or invariably preclude, from conception, developments integral to the manifestation of rather basic psychological capacities. Such disorders may suggest the possibility of a human organism incapable of ensoulment of any kind, and ipso facto incapable of embodying a soul with personality. Given the rather rudimentary basis Kant requires for the ensoulment of non-human animals, it is unclear how many, if any, human organisms could fall into such a category on his theory. Historically speaking, some of Kant’s own racist and sexist prejudices might suggest potential justifications for the denial of the practical predispositions to many human beings, but these are justifications which Kant himself clearly rejected. Such considerations raise significant questions about the adequacy of Kant’s defense of this stronger conclusion. But insofar as Kant’s method for settling such questions is fundamentally his general method for judging what are the predispositions of a species, and these methods appear to function without the addition of any distinctively “pragmatic” decision, ungrounded in the available facts, even this stronger conclusion is best described as a principled, rather than merely pragmatic decision.

Since Kant insisted that moral status is a feature of perceptible persons, persons “brought over into the world,” his biological and psychological theories and concepts must play a significant role in determining the scope of his account of moral status. Kant claims that when an organism of a species suitable for ensoulment by a soul endowed with a certain set of practical predispositions is brought into being by successful “mixing,” it is immediately ensouled by a soul with those predispositions. The implication is that an individual’s membership in a species, the mature members of which manifest the relevant predisposition, is a sufficient indicator of its moral status. If the fact of reason, our “immediate consciousness” of the moral law, proves that some of “[us] human beings” are free and that freedom must be an original endowment of the creatures that possess it, and insofar as reflection on the human species grounds the judgment that personality is a predisposition of the species, Kant has a principled defense of his contention that each human being is an organism possessing the predisposition to personality, and thus that each possesses moral status from its procreation or conception.


On Kant’s moral theory, obligation is a relation between beings of a certain kind (in a certain state), namely, between embodied beings endowed with a predisposition to personality. Each such being possesses moral status-their existence imposes rational constraints and demands upon how they and others may act towards themselves and each other. As the pragmatic decision interpretation suggested, theoretical and empirical investigations can play an important role in determining which beings possess moral status. The present study has identified a number of features of Kant’s biology and psychology that purport to do just that: Kant’s naturalistic account of organisms includes a conception of real species, the members of which share essential predispositions from procreation, and his psychological theory involves a commitment to souls with original psychological endowments, faculties, and predispositions. As the pragmatic decision interpretation also suggested, Kant insists that the demands of morality require us to ascribe moral status at least to some empirical beings. I have argued that Kant’s investigation into the origins of freedom reveals that the moral law anchors, from the practical point of view, the additional, crucial claim that freedom must be regarded as an essential endowment or predisposition of any being that can ever possess it. Taken together, these elements of Kant’s system yield a defense of universal human moral status significantly more principled than the pragmatic decision interpretation led us to expect. When Kant’s biological and psychological doctrines are combined with the practical grounds for considering freedom to be an essential predisposition of all those capable of possessing it, little room remains for an arbitrary or merely “loosely guided” pragmatic decision. Within Kant’s theory, existence as a living member of the human species is taken as a sufficient indication of basic moral status because membership in that species indicates the presence, in a perceptible being, of the status-grounding predisposition to personality.

Since, according to Kant’s Formula of Humanity, it is impermissible to treat any being with dignity as a mere means, Kant’s position entails that it is impermissible to fail to treat any human organism as an end-in-itself, which seems to entail a strong, though defeasible, presumption against, for example, the intentional killing of any human organism at any stage of its development. Such a presumption may serve as a useful starting point for discussions of Kant’s own commitments regarding the moral permissibility of specific controversial practices such as abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, capital punishment, or physician-assisted suicide. At the same time this presumption cannot, by itself, decisively settle Kant’s position on such matters. There are some recognized Kantian justifications for killing beings with moral status, just as there are restrictions upon the treatment of beings that themselves lack moral status.

The foregoing interpretation is not intended to establish that contemporary Kantians can or should accept Kant’s position. Kant’s defense of universal human moral status has been shown to depend, as it should, upon the details of his biological, psychological, metaphysical, and ethical theories, many of which are open to serious question and some of which have been clearly falsified. Kant’s conception of freedom and his psychological immaterialism are not generally accepted even among Kantians. While some developments in genetics and embryology might be considered partial vindications of Kant’s theory of reproduction and original predispositions, modern biology has clearly rejected the fixity of species and Kant’s strict conception of generatio homogena (both of which play a role in Kant’s defense of human moral status). Serious debate continues over the proper philosophical interpretation of these biological discoveries, and Kant’s commitment to scientific investigation and methodological naturalism would not have it otherwise. Even so, it is clear that Kant embraced the “inclusive” conclusion of universal human moral status and that this is neither a free-standing dictum, nor a reflection of arbitrary bias, nor a loosely guided pragmatic decision, but rather a principled, if fallible, judgment guided by the conjunction of many of Kant’s deep commitments in a range of relevant disciplines.