Mensch oder Vernunftwesen

15 December 2022

Written as post one of #100DaysToOffload.

I don’t feel exactly human. I’ve asked a few therapists why I’m entitled to dignity and rights and so forth. The explanation that I usually get — you have human rights because you’re human — has been unsatisfying to me for about twenty years, because I don’t feel human. I know it intellectually, but that feeling of common humanity that Kristen Neff likes to talk about is just absent.

As far as I can tell, all the self-.* qualities that pop-psych likes to talk about (self-compassion, self-esteem, self-efficacy, …) run through Kant, and Kant foresaw the exact problem I have, in a way. I don’t speak enough Deutsch to read him in the original, so here is a translation (emphasis mine):

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.

Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. Gregor & Timmermann

Rational is strongly associated with the AI crowd for me these days, and having it as a precondition bothered me, so I went digging for an alternative. As far as I can tell, “rational being” is translated from the German Vernunftwesen, and Vernunft itself is usually translated as reason, in the sense of reasonable people. This clicks! Kant says, effectively,

  1. Vernunft includes the capacity to set one’s own ends (i.e., goals.)
  2. Vernunftwesens are ends-in-themselves because they possess Vernunft.

More poetically: You are a child of the universe, and the universe wants to see what you do, and what you become.

I think this fills the hole. It has the same spirit without ever saying “human.” It makes me happy.