(This excerpt is from my Corrections Today piece. Apparently the powers that be did not feel that this was relevant—or necessary—when they published my article. I, however, like it and wanted to share.)
As a deontological ethicist—and relatively devoid of any organized religious background or affiliation—I try to live my life according to Immanuel Kant’s (1724-1804) categorical imperative that is commonly cited in two (paraphrased) parts: act as though every act should become universal law; and never treat people as a means to an end. The first part is relatively easy. I want to call someone a poopy-head. Should I call him a poopy-head? Would this be the ethical thing to do?
According to Kant, if I want to call someone a poopy-head then it should be alright if everyone calls whomever they want a poopy-head too (i.e. said action should become universal law). But since calling people poopy-heads is likely not to draw popular consensus then, no, it is not ethical.
This is in sharp contrast to the utilitarianism view of ethics: that which brings about the greatest utility and happiness for the greatest number of people is the ethical decision. So in the poopy-head example, if I want to call someone a poopy-head and all of my friends think that this person is, indeed, a poopy-head, then it is the morally-correct decision to do so.
Granted, calling others poopy-heads is a bit insignificant but it does, indeed, demonstrate the underlying point that one should always behave in a way that s/he would think it was copacetic if everyone behaved the same way. We are human beings. We have free will and the capacity for rational choice and those who specifically choose to act contrary to how he or she ought to act is cause for moral concern.
The second part of the categorical imperative is to never treat people as a means to an end. More simply, don’t use someone else for your own gain. While this may appear—at face value—to be a no-brainer, there are many poopy-heads who fail to grasp this simple concept including legislators who view “criminals” not as human beings worthy of respect and dignity but as commodities to be sold and traded, not unlike the abhorrent slavery of bygone days.
But who gets to define the parameters of morality? Those who make the laws, of course. The criminalization of the poor and increasingly harsher laws for relatively minor acts such as mere possession of drugs bypass all rational morality. There is no regard for the branded “criminals” who are subject to oftentimes erroneous and increasingly unforgiving legislation that labels, punishes, and disenfranchises them for life. What about their utility or happiness as American citizens, especially those who have paid their debt to society and have become productive and law-abiding members? It is painfully evident that they increasingly don’t matter and this is wrong and part of the reason that the US prison system is in the deteriorated shape it is today.
“He who opens a school door, closes a prison.” ~ Victor Hugo