Have you a moral duty to care for others?

Kant’s lesson for nursing home operators: people shouldn’t be treated simply as a means to an end

Immanuel Kant: ‘The duty of care includes care of oneself’

Immanuel Kant: ‘The duty of care includes care of oneself’

Fri, Jun 13, 2014, 01:00

The controversy surrounding the Tuam mother-and-child home has highlighted how societal values have changed in Ireland. We have a radically different concept today of what it means to treat people with dignity and respect.

The controversy also challenges us to ask questions today about the role of carers. Is caring primarily the responsibility of the state, families or individuals?

Manus Charleton, author of Ethics for Social Care in Ireland: Philosophy and Practice (Gill and Macmillan), and a lecturer in ethics and social policy at Sligo Institute of Technology, has reflected deeply on this question, drawing on philosophical thought through the ages. He provides today’s very Kantian idea: People shouldn’t be treated simply as a means to an end.


Is caring for people a moral option or a duty?

Manus Charleton: “There are different views. For Hobbes, our nature is to seek power to satisfy our own desires. This is facilitated through a social contract between the people and government in which caring is left as a choice. We should be fair and kind to others, but only because it helps make for a society suited to pursuing our own interests.

Kant saw caring as a duty that arises from universal moral laws. We could not rationally will a universal law that no care be provided to others because it entails that no care should have to be given to us. He’s not saying, ‘I’ll help you, provided you help me.’ He argues we would be in breach of our nature as rational human beings if we claim we have no duty of care.

“He calls it an ‘imperfect’ duty. This is because neither we (nor the State) can possibly care for everyone in all the ways needed. So we decide the amount and kind of care we give. But we become good people by how well we live up to the duty.

“In recent decades some moral philosophers have emphasised caring as a natural human emotion and disposition. They have pointed out that we need and benefit from care throughout our lives, from parents, family, friends and the State. On this view we should nourish and practise caring in all aspects of our lives – personal, social and work-related – to reduce misery and hardship and realise our humanity.”


How does a nursing-home manager avoid treating clients as a means rather than an end? 

“The manager has to respect their autonomy. This is what Kant meant when he gave as a moral law that we should always treat people never simply as a means but always at the same time as an end.

“Kant recognised we naturally treat people as a means to some need or desire of our own. The manager treats residents as a means for employment. However, the manager is wrong to treat residents simply for this means or some other.

“At the same time the manager has to regard each person as their own end, which is as a unique individual with a right to be consulted and involved in all aspects of their care.”

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