A Simplified Version of Kant's Ethics: Onora O'Neill


A Simplified Version of Kant’s

Ethics: Onora O’Neill

Normative application of Kantian moral theory.

Third Formulation of the Categorical

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

What is a maxim?

A maxim is a principle that underlies or informs an act or set of actions.

Several acts may satisfy the underlying maxim or principle.

Famine Example: “Try to reduce the risk or severity of world hunger”

Several possible actions/policies will satisfy the requirements of the principle

Individual contributions/government aid/volunteering

Using Others as Mere Means

We use others as mere means if what we do reflects some maxim to which

they could not in principle consent



Deception (actual maxim must be kept secret)


Treating Others as Ends in


Avoid using others as mere means.

Wholly rational and autonomous

– if such beings existed we would only need to avoid using them as mere means.

Justice and Beneficence

Perfect duties are those that we have in virtue of someone’s having a rights claim against us.

Imperfect duties generate obligations, but these obligations are to individuals in general and not to any specific individual.

Justice to the Vulnerable in Kantian


Justice requires action that conforms (at least outwardly) to what could be done in a given situation while acting on maxims neither of deception nor coercion.”(136)

Further discussion of famine and justice pp.137-138

“The basis for beneficent action is that we cannot without it, treat others of limited rationality and autonomy as ends in themselves.”(138)

Justice to the Vulnerable (cont.)

Extreme deprivation curtails one’s ability to engage in autonomous action.

Our beneficence is not intended to merely make others happy, though an increase in autonomy may make others happier.

“When famines were not only far away, but nothing could be done to relieve them, beneficence or charity may well have begun

—and stayed—at home. In a global village, the moral significance of distance has shrunk, and we may be able to affect the capacities for autonomous action of those who are far away.”(139)