Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason
As Kant once said in the Critique of Practical Reason, he was very much interested on the starry heavens by which he meant positive science and the laws of human behavior from the ethical perspective. This was certainly not a coincidence that he puts these two concepts together, nonetheless, later in his life he revealed the laws of human moral just as firmly accurate as laws of physics and mathematics.
Kantian ethical theory is one of numerous moral systems that provide a method for deriving moral rules and reasoning for evaluating the ethical value of human actions. Kant wanted to establish a scientific approach to how human morality is shaped and particular actions can be assessed and classified in terms of moral legitimacy.
We should consider the context in which Kant formulated his structural approach to the morality in the 17th century when the age of reason and enlightenment began in Europe. Enlightenment brought the belief that all aspects of nature and life can be understood and explained by reason through empirical research. While his contemporaries like Newton and Pascal discovered the laws of nature by reason, Kant decided to conduct the same scientific method to explain the rules of morality. This structural and scientific approach eventually caused the morality to be secularized and also had a significant impact upon the relationship between the morality (moral faith and evil) and religion.
Kantian deontological theory is based around guidelines and duties, and considers moral to be unconditional, compulsory and universal. Kant says or should I say “he scientifically proves” that morality is grounded in reason not in religion, tradition, conscience and emotions. Well, wasn’t the age of reason at the end of the day?
Kant believed we all have a duty and that duty is to obey the “Categorical imperative”, that strange sounding term where he introduced with his book, “Groundwork of the metaphysics of moral”. I think we should pay attention to the definition he used for the imperatives: categorical which means unlike hypothetical, it doesn’t vary from one person or instance to another, it is always true under all circumstances, thus it is unconditional. Kant said an action can only be correct if we do it out of a duty. The moral worth of an action depends exclusively on the rule of obligation, not on the outcome of those actions. This can be quite interesting as according to Kant, if we don’t lie or steal because we are told to (in case of religion…) or because we are afraid of being caught and get punished, this is not moral. It is only moral not to lie or steal if we “reason” that we should not and we only act out of that duty.
The categorical imperative has three basic formulations:
o We should do something only if it would be acceptable and sustainable when the rest of the world would do the same. It might sound ok to steal the magazine from your neighbor’s post box every once in a while, but then we should think about what if everyone would do so. If we break a promise we should always think what the world would be like if everyone break their promises: there wouldn’t a concept called “trust” or there wouldn’t be a banking system for example. You can also extend the example like what if everyone steals….
o The concept of reversal: We should behave toward others as we would like to have them behave toward us; This golden rule is stated in almost every ancient writing about behavioral teachings (including the Old and New Testament, Talmud, Koran, and the Analects of Confucius).
o When we are in doubt whether an action is morally ok or not, when it is in the grey zone and we somehow feel that it might not be a good thing to do, we should always think that it is generally practiced and we are the victim of that action. How would we feel?
- Good Will
o We should act solely out of good will and duty, not for any other reason. Below is Kant’s famous “Shop keeper” case study:
§ A shopkeeper can give correct change to customers because he believes that a reputation for honesty will bring him greater profit in the long run, and he is honest in order to maximize his long-run profit. According to Kant, this is not moral as his motive is to maximize profit.
§ A shopkeeper loves his customers and is honest in his dealings with them because he wants to do nice things for those he loves. More surprisingly, Kant again says it is not moral because he just wants to be nice to the prople he loves, he doesn’t act out of duty.
§ A shopkeeper gives the correct change to a very naive and gunsel customer that he personally doesn’t like and he does it only out of a “duty”. In this case Kant says this is a moral action.
- Treat humans as an end within themselves rather than means:
o The idea here is that everyone, as long as he or she is a rational being, is intrinsically valuable; we should therefore treat people as having a value all their own rather than merely as useful tools by means of which we can satisfy our own goals. Or in simple and today’s terms, “don’t use people, treat them with dignity”
However what strikes me the most about Kant is from one of his other books: “What is enlightenment?” and it is not about religious ethics but indeed religion itself. Religion is a concept that I have thought and discussed a lot about till today but I believe Kant’s below argument is the most striking religion argument that I had ever encountered in my whole life. I even remember the exact moment when I first read the below paragraph as I got so excited, even shocked by the idea that I immediately called out my wife and read her the paragraph out loud to see her reaction.
“But should a society of ministers, say a Church Council, . . . have the right to commit itself by oath to a certain unalterable doctrine, in order to secure perpetual guardianship over all its members and through them over the people? I say that this is quite impossible. Such a contract, concluded to keep all further enlightenment from humanity, is simply null and void even if it should be confirmed by the sovereign power, by parliaments, and the most solemn treaties. An epoch cannot conclude a pact that will commit succeeding ages, prevent them from increasing their significant insights, purging themselves of errors, and generally progressing in enlightenment. That would be a crime against human nature whose proper destiny lies precisely in such progress. Therefore, succeeding ages are fully entitled to repudiate such decisions as unauthorized and outrageous”
And yes, I fully agree with Kant, considering it is not possible to commit to a single set of doctrines even for a single life time, what a serious crime against humanity that a generation forces all the following generations to commit themselves by oath to a certain unalterable set of doctrines. All possible future improvements of their thought system by the next generations are strictly prohibited. It sounds crazy, doesn’t it?
|Treat humans as an end within themselves rather than means|