Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals

by Immanuel Kant
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Would a Kantian think that having unpaid internships as part of students’ courses of study is morally permissible? Why or why not?

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Kant argued that, in acting morally, we should always treat other people as ends in themselves, not as a means to an end. This means, among other things, that I should value other people for who and what they are, not for what they can do for me. That being the case, it seems likely that Kant would be opposed to unpaid internships, because one could argue that they treat interns simply as a resource of cheap labor, as an economic resource to be exploited for profit.

We should also bear in mind that another key element of Kant's moral philosophy is the so-called Golden Rule, which in the Christian religion is expressed as "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Kant argues that moral actions must be capable of being universalized—that is, applied equally to everyone—in all circumstances and under all conditions. It's difficult to see how unpaid internships could possibly fulfill such an exacting criterion. If the exploitative principle behind unpaid internships were applied universally, then the world would be in even worse shape than it currently is. In such a world, it would rapidly become the norm for people to be treated as means rather than ends in themselves. And for Kant, this would be morally unacceptable.

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If we look at Kant's Critique of Practical Reason (not his Critique of Pure Reason), then yes, under certain conditions, the practice of unpaid internships would be ethical or morally permissible.

Kant's ethics are based on universal applicability. In other words, the rules must apply to all people (or all the people impacted by the ethical rule), and the moral rule has to be sensible (not universal suicide, let's say).

An unpaid internship could be easily argued as a sensible way for a student to gain real-world experience.

Unpaid internships could also be made universal: this would be an important criterion for considering them morally permissible. It would not be fair, according to Kant, if some students were able to earn money and college credit for internships and others were deprived of that opportunity. At that point, unpaid internships would become highly problematic in the Kantian system.

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One could make arguments based on a Kantian deontological system of ethics either for or against internships, but the strongest are probably against internships due to their narrowly vocational nature. The main issue you will need to address for writing your paper about this is that Kant's system of ethics is rule-based rather than consequentialist. In other words, Kant would not, as this excerpt does, look at the outcomes of internships, but rather look at whether their existence was compatible with an ethical system based on rules and duty. 

Kant would begin by looking at the ultimate end of internships within the context of education. A good starting point would be to look at Kant's book on education. Kant believes that the central problem of education is how to develop moral character in a child without constraining moral freedom. Equally important is developing habits of discipline and especially self-discipline. Students, for Kant, should be educated with a view to the progress of humanity in the future, not for simply immediate or proximate goals. Rather than pandering to the desires of students and parents for narrow job training or easy and palatable edutainment, educators, according to Kant, should consider what is best for society as a whole. Thus for Kant, the sort of vocational training implied in internships (of any sort, paid or unpaid) distracts from the main purpose of education as moral and cultural formation to act as narrow vocational training; this would would be problematic. 

You could examine this in light of his notion of universalizing one's moral maxims. If everyone simply trained for immediate vocational goals, our civilization would have no people capable of complex political and ethical thought, and would lack artists, scientists, social activists, and others whose education needs to be broader and more global rather than narrower and more focused on specific jobs (which may well become obsolete in a few years due to technological change anyway). Education should be done by " enlightened experts" rather than outsourced to for-profit interests according to Kant. 

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