What can Kant’s philosophy offer to modern people? The answer is: surprisingly much.
Immanuel Kant was born in 1724 in Königsberg, Prussia. His philosophical ideas thrived during the enlightenment period. This was an intellectual and philosophical movement that swept across Europe in the 18th century. A major component of this movement was the gradual decline of religious belief, hence, the growth of secularism.
Kant recognised this developing phenomenon in society and sought to remedy it. For many centuries, religion was the source of guidance and instruction for people on how to live a good and moral life. With the decline in religious belief, where would people find this guidance? Kant attempted to answer this question and concluded that people would be able to replace religion with one thing: reason.
If we use our intelligence, rationale and exercise our critical faculties, Kant thought that we are capable to determine such things like what is right and what is wrong. In an increasingly secular society in the 21st century, Kant’s philosophy is very relevant to the modern day. We can apply Kant’s ideas to many aspects of our lives, especially when considering morality.
Kant’s moral philosophy is a theory of deontological ethics. This sounds much more complex than it is. But in short, it is a theory that determines the morality of an action. It is based on whether the action being carried out is in itself moral, not based on the nature of the consequences of that action. What you do should be the way of determining a moral act, not the outcome of the act.
How do we determine whether an action is moral? Kant’s philosophy tells us that it is reason. Human beings are free and conscious beings who have the capability to rationalise whether or not an action is right or wrong. We all have the ability to do this. Kant believed that this would not only make you a better person but would also add value to the world.
A lot of the time, we will have to choose between duty (our responsibility to fellow man) and desire (what we want). To act dutifully, nobly and in an honourable way is how to carry out a moral act. We must resist our selfish wants in order to achieve this. But how do we determine what our duty or our responsibility is? For this, Kant gives us a principle to refer to and follow called The Categorical Imperative.
The Categorical Imperative
The Categorical Imperative is a term first coined in Kant’s work, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785). He summarises it in one phrase:
“Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law”
We can paraphrase this with much more recognisable and simpler terminology. Treat others as you would like to be treated, or do to others what you would want to be done to you. A similar phrase even appears in The Bible: “love thy neighbour as thyself” as well as in the Confucian Golden Rule.
It should be thought of in a wider sense as well. What would happen to society if everyone acted in the way that I am? It instructs us to detach ourselves from our own self-interests. We should approach the situation in a completely unbiased perspective – to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes.
The Categorical Imperative is a rational and decisive principle that we need to follow in order to determine what our duty is. At the same time, we should also separate ourselves from our selfish and potentially destructive desires. We can act morally and selflessly once we recognise this, improving ourselves (and society) in the process.
This code of conduct requires us to exercise our rational and critical faculties. Only then we will be able to determine between the right and wrong action. This is integral to Kant’s philosophy.
In Kant’s eyes, to act in a rational way is to act in a moral way. If everyone adheres to this, it would mean that we could all work towards a universal principle. This principle allows for not just the betterment of ourselves but also society as a whole.
Examples of Using Kant’s Philosophy and The Categorical Imperative
You are sitting for an exam.
You consider cheating, as a good grade in this exam would secure a place at university. And you think it is ok because there is a slim chance that you will get caught out.
However, how would you feel if you sat the exam in accordance with the rules and someone else cheated, dishonestly achieving a good grade and you didn’t? It would be unfair. What if everyone cheated on the exam? If this happened, people would dishonestly achieve what they don’t deserve. Thus, schools and colleges at large would become unfair and wrongful institutions.
You lie to a friend, saying you are busy because you don’t want to attend a party.
How would you feel if you found out a friend had lied to you? You would feel disheartened and betrayed. If everyone started lying to each other, then our interpersonal relationships would crumble. As a result of this, our communities and societies would become totally corrupt.
Perhaps you are walking in the street and someone just ahead of you drops some money without noticing.
You pick it up because you are short of cash. They haven’t noticed that they have dropped it and won’t know you’ve taken it. So you think little harm will be done. Yet, if you were the one to drop the cash, you would expect that if a pedestrian noticed they would have the decency to alert you and give it to you back. If everyone started taking what isn’t theirs, then society would become chaotic.
These scenarios demonstrate The Categorical Imperative in play. Thinking through the situation rationally will allow us to perform an act morally. Our reasoning, regardless of what we personally desire or want to achieve, drives our moral behaviour.
Acting on our duty to our fellow human beings and to society rather than acting on our desires would mean abiding by The Categorical Imperative. Hence, acting in a moral way.
How Kant’s philosophy can make you a better person
Kant’s philosophical ideas are relevant today because of the secular societies that we live in. These societies are without a religious authority and so may seem as if they lack guidance for a moral code of behaviour. Kant provides a solution to this.
Furthermore, he makes us aware of ourselves as intelligent beings who are capable of tackling difficult questions in life, and who are capable of individually recognising how to become honest, principled and ethical people.
Kant highlights the importance of acting in accordance with reason and in a universal way. By doing this, we improve ourselves as moral individuals but also contribute to a wider aim of moral social cohesion.
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