Kant reminds us that we think of law as being universal and objective. Therefore, we need to think about what happens when we make a law, because that law applies to everyone universally, not just to the case we are thinking about.
I doubt that Immanuel Kant will be able to convince any of my conservative Catholic friends that the HHS mandate with the Hawaii exception is a workable compromise for an imperfect system.* (Well, maybe Kant himself could, but my use of Kant probably won’t convince anyone). At the same time, I am teaching Kant this week in my intro Ethics course and so I have the categorical imperative on my mind as the HHS mandate question rages on. Thus, I thought it might be helpful to apply Kant to this conundrum and see if there was not something to learn from the 18th Century German philosopher. I am by no means a Kantian, but I do think his emphasis on the universality of moral law is something we need to always keep in mind, and this case is a perfect example.
For those not familiar with Kant’s work, here is a quick and dirty summary: Kant said that ethics boils down to one’s duty to do uphold what he called the categorical imperative. That’s just a fancy way of saying a universal duty – a duty that applies to everyone, always. There is only one categorical imperative for Kant: that we should never do any action that we wouldn’t want everyone else to do. It’s a modification of the golden rule. So Kant says that we shouldn’t lie because if we lie when “it is necessary” then we would have to allow everyone to lie when necessary. If we allow everyone to lie when necessary, the we would never know if someone was telling the truth or lying out of necessity, and the whole institution of trust would break down. In short, our actions are only morally legitimate if we can say that we would want everyone else to do the same action.
So lets think about Kant in terms of the health care mandate. What is the maxim that is at stake here?
Catholics want to protect the right of employers to determine what medical procedure their funds pay for. Now let’s try to universalize that point: would we want all employers to be able to restrict the health care they provide on the basis of the religious beliefs of the employer? In a previous post, I suggested that, by the same logic that Catholic were arguing against contraception, Jehovah’s witnesses could argue that they would not pay for insurance that covered blood transfusions. Thus, in Kantian language, if we universalized the maxim that “employers should be able to determine what counts as health care,” then we would have to allow for a (radical) Jehovah’s Witness to restrict the health care of his/her employees on the same principle.
While I am not a thoroughgoing Kantian, I do believe he makes a useful point here, especially with regards to what we are asking our government to do. Contemporary Western governments are built on enlightenment thinking that has come from thinkers like Locke, Rousseau, and, yes, Kant. In this case, Kant reminds us that we think of law as being universal and objective. Therefore, we need to think about what happens when we make a law, because that law applies to everyone universally, not just to the case we are thinking about. We need to take a long view here and understand that while Catholics may want to restrict the health care law to not include contraception, the precedent set for allowing employers to define what qualifies as health care for their employees is a potentially dangerous one to set.
[*I hope to write on the current American health insurance system as both imperfect and unethical in a later post, but for now, I did not want to confuse the debate. ]