Kantian Case Study

Hello Everyone,

                      This is another case study I had to do for my class involving Immanuel Kant and applying his theories to the treatment of unpaid interns. This is based on three articles found here: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/03/business/03intern.html?_r=1&http://money.usnews.com/money/careers/articles/2011/07/19/the-ethics-of-unpaid-internships,http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/11/how-washington-abandoned-americas-unpaid-interns/281125/

Kantian Case Study


Summary of the Case Study Articles

Even though different people wrote all of the articles, they all touch on the same subject, the ethics of unpaid internships.  They all talk about the six-point test for unpaid internships issued by the Department of Labor and tell us how the points aren’t always followed. The article titled “The Ethics of Unpaid Internships” by Alexis Grant focuses on “The employer must not derive “immediate advantage” because of the intern’s work,” point of the test, questioning what “immediate advantages” truly means. While the article “The Unpaid Intern, Legal or Not” by Steven Greenhouse talks about the points that an internship should be similar to training given in a college or vocational school, an intern doesn’t displace a regularly paid employ, and the employer derives no immediate advantage from the intern and gives examples on how those points get violated in the United States. The article “How Washington Abandoned America’s Interns” takes a different path and talks about how the employee rights under the Fair Labor Standards Act should extend to include the rights of interns because interns work just as hard, and sometimes even harder, than the paid employees.

Discussion of Kantian Ethics

Immanuel Kant is a very controversial man with a controversial idea on ethics. To Kant, his idea of duty and rights do not depend on the idea of self-ownership or that they are gifts from God, but it depends on the idea that we are rational beings that are capable and worthy of respect and dignity. One of his arguments is against utilitarianism because he that morality isn’t about maximizing happiness but instead it is about respecting people as ends in them, or in other words treating a person likes a person and not just an object for gain.

In order to try and understand Kant’s theories of morality however, it may help to take a look into his ideas on freedom. He believes that we act as slaves to our own desires and needs, that when we act in a way to satisfy those things we aren’t true acting freely but acting according to outside factors. Kant uses two words to describe freedom, autonomy and heteronomy.  Acting autonomously to act according to a law that you give yourself and not the laws of nature, however acting heteronomous is to act according to outside sources and factors that don’t come from you. His last point with freedom is that if a situation has no autonomy, then there can be no moral responsibility because you weren’t acting freely when in the situation.

Kant has a different viewpoint on judging the moral worth of an action as well. According to him the moral worth of an action depends on the intention on which the action is done, or the motive, and not the consequences that happen because of it. He also believes that in order for an action to be moral good it must be done simply because it is the right thing to do with no other motives. In other words, only actions done out of the motive of duty have moral worth and not actions done out of the motive of inclination (actions the satisfy desires, wishes, preferences).

Now we go into Kant’s answer to what is the supreme principle of morality. He connects three ideas; the ideas of morality, freedom, and reason. When connecting these ideas, he uses three different contrasts. The first is a contrast of morality comparing duty and inclination, which was explained above. The second is a contrast of freedom comparing autonomy and heteronomy, which was also discussed in the paragraphs above. Now the third contrast is the contrast of reason comparing categorical and hypothetical imperatives

A hypothetical imperative uses instrumental, somewhat simple reasoning. It uses an if-then statement; if you want X then you do Y. It’s something that has been conditioned. A categorical imperative, however, is a little bit more complex. It is unconditional and it’s a command of everyone, everywhere with no exceptions. In other words if the action is good in itself and justifiable with reason then it is a categorical imperative. And Kant talks specifically about two categorical imperatives.

The first is to act on a personal maxim (individual code of conduct) whereby you will that to become universal law. In simplified terms, it means to act according to your personal code of conduct that you would want to become the code of conduct for all people to follow. The second is to act such that you treat people, whether in yourself or in another, never solely as means, but always as ends in themselves. To simplify that it means that you should treat people as people and never with the intention of using solely them as an object.

The strengths of Kantian ethics is that it does provide a way to make a generally good society based on true good intentions, where all people are generally helping each other simply because it is the right thing to do. However, the problem with this is that it is seemingly impossible for humans to have pure intentions like this. Everybody uses each other to get ahead or get what they want. But, as Kant would probably say, it may be impossible but we have to at least try.

Bullet Point List

  • Labor Departments Six-Point test for unpaid internships
  • Critics say that unpaid internships put students who can’t afford to work for free at a disadvantage
  • Federal and state regulators are worrying that more employers are using internships for free labor
  • Lance Choy (director of Career Development at Stanford) sees evidence that the number of unpaid internships are mushrooming, fueled by employers’ desire to hold down costs and students’ eagerness to gain experience
  • Many internships involve some unskilled work, but when the jobs are mostly drudgery, regulators say, it is clearly illegal not to pay interns
  • The rules for unpaid interns are less strict for non-profit groups like charities because people are allowed to do volunteer work for non-profits
  • In my experience, many employers agreed to hire interns because there is very strong mutual advantage to both the worker and the employer
  • A female intern brought a sexual harassment complaint and was dismissed because she was only an intern, not an employee
  • The Act doesn’t offer one word about the interns left to dredge the most unpleasant tasks
  • By withholding all compensation, unpaid internships both discriminate against low-income students who might benefit from the experience and skirt the basic principle of a minimum wage
  • At the moment, the Department of Labor isn’t even taking part in the movement to change the exploitative labor practices used on interns.
  • In other words, unpaid interns are not allowed to be useful, and yet they always are. This one provision makes illegal nearly all unpaid internships in the private sector

Application of Kantian Ethics to the Case

The articles all touch on the Department of Labors six-point test for unpaid internships and they all make cases for how they aren’t ethically right. Looking at it from a Kantian aspect it may not all be ethically right. If an intern is working based on this six-points, then they aren’t acting of there own will, they are acting according to the laws of outside forces, not the laws they have given themselves.

According to some critics, some students are put at a disadvantage because of an unpaid internship because they can’t afford to work for free. But when looking at it, we cannot be sure of the students’ true motive. They may not be in it for the money, they may be doing it simply because it’s a good way to get experience, however that is still giving into there desires. They may not even be working for that reason, for example I have a job on campus at media services and I am not working there because I need money or because of the experience it gives me, I’m doing it because I feel it is the right thing to do to help out students on campus in the best way I know how. To Kant that still may not be completely ethically, but the point is that we can’t judge whether they are at a disadvantage because we don’t know what the students’ true intentions or motives are towards accepting the unpaid internships.

Government at both the state and federal level are beginning to worry that employers are exploiting their unpaid interns, using them for free labor. The director of the Career Development Center at Stanford University, Lance Choy, is one of the men arguing that the number of unpaid internships is going up, which is fueled by employers’ desire to keep things cheaper and the students’ eagerness to gain experience. If this is the case, then they are violating Kant’s second categorical imperative. They aren’t treating people as people; instead they are treating them as objects for their own gain or success. The employers aren’t treating the interns as ends in themselves, as students who want experience and guidance, but instead they are treating them as not even a person. Even if the student is eager to gain the experience, that doesn’t give the employer the right to disregard that intern as a human being.

As some of the unpaid internships do give the students the experience that they are looking for in their field, with a few unimportant tasks, a lot of them are mostly made of those drudgery tasks that don’t give the student the experience they are looking for. For example, an NYU student took an unpaid internship at Little Airplane hoping to learn about animation, but instead was ordered to wipe the door handles every day to minimize the spread of swine flu. This would be a very clear violation of ethics and morality to Kant.  Not only are the employers not treating them respect or dignity, they are also using their influence as the boss to force these interns to act heteronomous, acting according to an outside force. Granted, it can be argued that all jobs are like that but there is a difference. At my job when I’m asked to do a job I’m, most of the time, asked nicely and I am not being forced to, however with the unpaid intern they are just directly being told to do these gross and demeaning task simply because the boss doesn’t consider them true employees. The employers are playing with the intern’s freedom to act accordingly. I am a paid employee, that is why I can act autonomously at my job when asked to do a task compared to the unpaid intern who doesn’t have that freedom and must act solely heteronomusly simply because they aren’t a paid employee.

One of the articles talks about the Fair Labor Standards Act and how it offers all of these rights and freedoms to paid employees, however it doesn’t once mention the unpaid interns, basically saying that interns are not allowed to be useful, however they are. This is just another example of not treating these interns like people and just using them as tools to advance. Then they degrade and disregard the female who filed a sexual harassment compliant because they ignored it since she wasn’t a paid employee, and I feel that Kant would believe that that is truly a violation because they are completely ignoring her existence as an actually human being just because she doesn’t get paid.

Now there is something else that needs to be looked at when discussing all of the important points to this case study, and that is the moral worth of all of these actions. And in order to determine the moral worth of all of these actions, according to Kant, we have to look at the motives behind the treatment of these unpaid interns and not the consequences of the treatment. This, however, seems near to impossible. We can’t see into the minds of the employer, or even the unpaid intern but we can clearly see the consequences of those actions. But as Kant clear says, the consequences don’t matter, so therefore we have to try and figure out the motives in order to figure out whether they are thinking morally or not.


Based on the articles used in this study the knowledge on the ideas and theories of Immanuel Kant, the conclusion that I draw is that unpaid interns are treated unethically, however we still cannot truly judge the motives of the employers. The reason I saw that is because the articles talk a lot about the consequences of the treatment of the interns but not the motives behind the treatment.  Kant’s theory clearly says that when judging the moral worth of an action we must look at motive. So based on Kant’s theory, it may be hard to tell right now whether these actions are moral or not, but many actions presented in the articles do go against many of his ideas and theories. But without a clear understanding of the motives, we cannot tell the moral worth of the actions against unpaid interns.


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