Kantian deontology’s formula of humanity version of the categorical imperative states that one must never treat another person as a mere means but rather must always treat them as an end in themselves. This paper will examine the actions taken by the Roth family to end the life of their child from the Kantian perspective, applying Kant’s formula of humanity iteration of his categorical imperative. Kant’s formula of humanity states that one must “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.” (DeGeroge, Feldman & Beauchamp, 2012, p. 95). The formula of humanity focusses on a moral beings’ intrinsic value as a moral agent as justification for treating them always as an end and never as a mere means.
Kantian deontology focusses on four core ideas when determining the morality of our actions; these four core ideas consist of dignity, autonomy, rationality and the moral law. The first core idea in Kantian deontology is the concept of dignity which describes the value a being has by virtue of being rational. In this case, the Roth’s child was born of sound mind and was clearly a rational being, therefore, deserved to be treated as an end rather than a mere means.
The concept of autonomy describes both a capacity and a right. As a capacity, it describes a persons’ ability to self-govern which means being able to choose the values they live by for themselves. As a right, autonomy describes the ability of a person to make their own decisions, free from interference by others. In Kant’s view, rationality describes the feature of human agency that causes us as a species to be driven by reason rather than inclination of desires or emotions. Kant theorizes that humans do not act randomly, but rather, act in virtue of reason. Rationality also describes the capacity of human beings to understand, acknowledge and respond to other people. Finally, Kant describes the moral law as doing the right thing out of respect for it being the right thing to do. The moral law is specifically relevant in this case as the Roth family ignored moral norms surrounding infanticide and prioritized their personal wants and needs over those of their daughter.
Kantian deontology’s focus on duty and intentionality set it apart from utilitarianism and serve as two of this theory’s primary strengths. Kant states that it is not enough to simply do the right thing but rather you must do the right thing for the right reasons. In the case of the Roth family’s deformed child, not only did Mr. and Mrs. Roth disregard the agency of their child by committing infanticide but they did it for selfish reasons. The child’s parents stated that they did not want their child to live and because of this desire they proceeded to mix the lethal dose of tranquilizer that ended her life. The child in this case was of sound mind and despite her physical deformities was a moral being with intrinsic worth and would have been capable of both contributing to society and living an emotionally fulfilling life. Kantian deontology’s view that all sentient beings are equal, and rational beings should be treated without allegiances supports this view’s strength as being both egalitarian and impartial.
Despite the above strengths, Kantian deontology is often described as being “morality for Spock” (Thomas, 2018, Lecture) due to the focus on duty over emotions. Human beings are not always rational and the focus on reason over emotion is challenged on the grounds of human nature and our tendencies to be irrational, emotional beings. According to Kant it is not enough to do the right thing but rather we must do the right thing for the right reasons.
When applying Kant’s formula of humanity theory to the Ross family case of infanticide I will start with the concept of treating others as a mere means rather than an end in themselves. The parents in this case did not want the child to live and acted out of their own self-interest without treating their child as an end in themselves. The physical deformities described in this case would impact certain aspects of their child’s life but were not life threatening and current medical technology and support services would provide for a reasonable quality of life for this child as they grew up. Respecting the dignity of their child and their child’s capacity for rational thought would require her parents to perform their duty as her parents to raise their child in a safe, loving environment and support their growth and development into adulthood.
The actions of the Roth family were not morally permissible according to Kant’s formula of humanity and amount to murder under our current laws. If the Roth’s actions were universalized and all parents of disabled children committed infanticide we can see the clear negative impact this would have on society as a whole as a large segment of our population would be killed and our civilization would be deprived of their significant contributions to science, technology.
Kantian deontology views a person’s autonomy as a right to self-governance. The Ross parents infringed on this right by deciding for their young daughter that she doesn’t have the right to live. The case does not state that their daughter’s birth defects would result in her imminent death or unreasonable sustained agony. Therefore, in order to respect their daughter’s autonomy, the Ross parents would be morally obligated to seek out medical treatment for their daughter including support services and therapy to support the family in dealing with her medical condition. By not seeking out these services and instead committing infanticide, the parents violated their child’s right to autonomy and self-governance.
In this case the rationality of their daughter isn’t in question. Her mother acknowledges that her daughter didn’t have a mental disability “if only she had been mentally abnormal, she would not have known her fate. But she had a normal brain” (Thomas, 2018, P. 1) therefore, she was both rational and capable of acting morally herself. Human history is filled with examples of remarkable contributions from individuals with physical disabilities. Where would the human race be without the contributions from Stephen Hawking, for example? By ending their daughter’s life they deprived her of the opportunity to grow, develop and contribute to society as a whole. By depriving their daughter of her right to pursue her own end in a productive and effective way her parents violated her right to rationality and committed an immoral act.
The moral law, describing not just the morally acceptable behavior but the importance of doing the right thing out of respect for it being the right thing brings up some important points in this case. The moral law applies equally to everyone, regardless of our own personal wants and needs. In the case of the Ross family the moral law calls into question their decision to commit infanticide out of a desire for their daughter not to live with her disabilities. The moral law is not externally defined or enforced but rather can be described as rational will to do the right thing out of respect for it being the right thing to do. As moral agents, Susan Ross and her husband were bound to follow the moral law and not violate the rights of their daughter.
Kant’s theory on ethical behavior differentiates two types of duty that are relevant to this case. Perfect and Imperfect duties, according to Kant, specify duties that you are either obligated to do in the case of perfect duties, or in the case of imperfect duties that you are not to ignore but that can be achieved in several different ways. Kant’s theory specifically applies the categorical imperative to define a perfect duty not to commit euthanasia, as was committed in this case.
There were many options available to her parents if they felt they were unable to raise their daughter, given her physical deformities including medical treatment, surgery, physical therapy and a custom curriculum in school to adoption or institutional support that would support her development as she grew up and would best support her needs and set her up for successfully contributing to society as an adult.
In order to respect the autonomy of their daughter as a rational being and her right to self-governance the Ross family is obligated to not commit infanticide. To the contrary, her parents have a duty to raise her as a rational being and seek out the best treatment available to help with her deformities. Their obligation to do this is born out of both a sense of duty to their child but also to their obligation to the moral law.