“Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and reverence the more often and more steadily one reflects on them, the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.” ― Immanuel Kant
Immanuel Kant is without a doubt my favorite philosopher. Cranky and inflexible- he embodies the true character of what it means to be German- Old School German that is. An old quote from a historic novel comes to mind when I think about Kant; “To be German - is to be Impartial.” Man of Straw by Heinrich Mann. (When I read that line in the novel I cackled LOUDLY. It describes me, and so many Germans to a T. It made me giggle, shake my head and consider that I man need to lighten up every now and again.) How true that statement sill is. I grew up in Germany with strict rules and was given a strong backbone of morality and ethics by my Mother and Father and my extended German Family. A constant stream of what one should do- for the sake of good in and of itself. It’s no surprise that Moral Philosophy has become my all time favorite.
Reason is what separates us from animals. The moral law within is derived from that very reason. This poses the question then- what is moral and what is not? How do we come to the conclusions that we do when we define goodness and morality. What moral compass do we use? Is it religion? Philosophy? Our upbringing?
Kant takes the question and uses a formula (similar to a mathematical formula) to indicate what is morally correct and acceptable. He believed that a rigorous application of this method of reasoning would yield success in dealing with moral questions.
It is a given that human beings have subjective impulses—desires and inclinations that may contradict the dictates of reason. As our reasoning often becomes questionable, Kant proposes his categorical imperative (an unconditional moral law that applies to all rational beings and is independent of any personal motive or desire. The unconditional moral principle that one's behavior should accord with universal maxims which respect persons as ends in themselves; the obligation to do one's duty for its own sake and not in pursuit of further ends.) :
“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law."
That is, each individual agent regards itself as determining, by its decision to act in a certain way that everyone, including itself, will always act according to the same general rule in the future.
“Consider, for example, the case of someone who contemplates relieving a financial crisis by borrowing money from someone else, promising to repay it in the future while in fact having no intention of doing so. (Notice that this is not the case of finding yourself incapable of keeping a promise originally made in good faith, which would require a different analysis.) The maxim of this action would be that it is permissible to borrow money under false pretenses if you really need it. But as Kant pointed out, making this maxim into a universal law would be clearly self-defeating. The entire practice of lending money on promise presupposes at least the honest intention to repay; if this condition were universally ignored, the (universally) false promises would never be effective as methods of borrowing. Since the universalized maxim is contradictory in and of itself, no one could will it to be law, and Kant concluded that we have a perfect duty (to which there can never be any exceptions whatsoever) not to act in this manner.“ “http://www.philosophypages.com/hy/5i.htm
This is to say that one should only act, in such a manner in which it would be appropriate for everyone else to act, thus making it a universal law. There are to be NO exceptions to this rule. One cannot make any exceptions to this rule for the sake that it may benefit the self. Each action we set forth should be a maxim that we would be ok with if it were to become universalized. If the action is not something that would benefit society- and if it would not be ok if everyone else were engaging in this action, than this action is to be considered morally wrong. If this is the case, than one should highly consider taking another action.
Kant provides a great moral compass here in my opinion. If there is ever any doubt regarding a moral action, this really should solve the issues rather quickly. It is an expanded version of the Golden Rule- do unto others as you would have done to yourself, with an additional application that each action should be something you would want others to be doing as well, universally. It causes one to ponder what kind of world it would be if we all acted in a manner that only benefitted the self. People do what they want to all of the time without any consideration of the consequences, but this is done solely with the lack of reason and forethought.
Having grown up this way, with my moral compasses set forth early in life, it brings me great satisfaction in doing the right thing. On occasion my reason does get clouded and I do fall off of the wagon, but a good reminder of Kant’s works on the subject quickly gets me aboard right away. Quite often, we do not want to do the right thing- as emotion clouds our reason. Just the other day I was with a friend pondering a moral question over breakfast- wondering what action I should take over a given situation. I told her I had no interest in doing the right thing- as emotion was clouding my reason on the subject. She of course gave me the lecture of “you’re going to do the right thing whether you like it or not….” In a temper tantrum like demeanor- I agreed and said that I would indeed do the right thing while shoveling a fork full of eggs into my mouth and bitching about how much I hated her for pointing out the right thing- which of course I knew but refused to look at in my childish temperament of the moment…Bitching -but thankful. One should surround themselves with friends and people who will cultivate you to do the right thing…and if there is no one around…there is always Kant to turn to.
Here's to a happy Monday filled with Good things! I hope it is a successful and productive one for each of you!