the formula for humanity

German philosopher Immanuel Kant came up with a simple formula for humanity: “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.”

He claims that if one person treats another merely as a means then his action is morally impermissible. This formula essentially means that we shouldn’t behave in a transactional manner and take actions that are right instead of doing things for our selfish gains. As the Minimalists point out, “Love people, use things. The opposite never works.”

Kant’s formula for humanity aligns beautifully with the concept of Karma Yoga, the Yoga of selfless action, because it guides us not to do things simply in the hope that our action will lead to a favorable outcome. Every action that we take is an end unto itself, and it’s performed without expectation of getting something in return. 

We don’t need to be kind to our sibling in the hopes of getting monetary help from them. Instead, we need to be kind as an end, because that’s the right thing to do. In a similar manner, we don’t need to donate large amounts of money to charity because we want to get good karma points, attain nirvana or go to heaven. Instead, we need to make contributions to charitable organizations, because it’s a noble thing to do. So basically, Kant’s message through his formula is to simply be a good human being under all conditions and circumstances.

We need to develop principles for ourselves that motivate us to perform the right behaviors and actions. Instead of pursuing pleasures blindly and doing what feels good in the moment, we need to focus on taking actions that align with our values and principles. We need to grow up and be okay with making hard choices if the need arises. As mature adults, we must accept that even if certain things may be difficult, uncomfortable and even painful, we need to go ahead and do them if they’re the right thing to do.