Live your life as though your every act were to become a universal law – Immanuel Kant

“The wish to talk to God is absurd. We cannot talk to one we cannot comprehend — and we cannot comprehend God; we can only believe in Him. “

This famous quote belongs to Kant who was an influential German philosopher in the Age of Enlightenment. In his doctrine of transcendental idealism, he argued that spacetime, and causation are mere sensibilities; “things-in-themselves” exist, but their nature is unknowable. In his view, the mind shapes and structures experience, with all human experience sharing certain structural features. He drew a parallel to the Copernican revolution in his proposition that worldly objects can be intuited a priori (‘beforehand’), and that intuition is therefore independent from objective reality.

Kant believed that reason is the source of morality, and that aesthetics arise from a faculty of disinterested judgment. Kant’s views continue to have a major influence on contemporary philosophy, especially the fields of epistemologyethicspolitical theory, and post-modern aesthetics.

 

Kant says,

“May you live your life as if the maxim of your actions were to become universal law. Live your life as though your every act were to become a universal law. Do not feel forced to act, as you’re only willing to act according to your own universal laws. And that’s good.”

Immanuel Kant has something to say about what makes someone a good person.  Keep in mind that Kant intends this to go along with the rest of his theory, and what one’s duty is would be determined by the categorical imperative.  However, one can treat this as a separate theory to some extent, and consider that one’s duty is determined by some other standard.  Keep in mind that what is said below has to do with how one evaluates people, not actions.  A person’s actions are right or wrong, a person is morally worthy or lacks moral worth (i.e., is morally base).  A person’s actions determine her moral worth, but there is more to this than merely seeing if the actions are right or wrong.

Kant argues that a person is good or bad depending on the motivation of their actions and not on the goodness of the consequences of those actions.  By “motivation” I mean what caused you to do the action (i.e., your reason for doing it).  Kant argues that one can have moral worth (i.e., be a good person) only if one is motivated by morality.  In other words, if a person’s emotions or desires cause them to do something, then that action cannot give them moral worth.  This may sound odd, but there is good reason to agree with Kant.

Imagine that I win the lottery and I’m wondering what to do with the money.  I look around for what would be the most fun to do with it:  buy a yacht, travel in first class around the world, get that knee operation, etc..  I decide that what would be really fun is to give the money to charity and to enjoy that special feeling you get from making people happy, so I give all my lottery money away.  According to Kant, I am not a morally worthy person because I did this, after all I just did whatever I thought would be the most fun and there is nothing admirable about such a selfish pursuit.  It was just lucky for those charities that I thought giving away money was fun.  Moral worth only comes when you do something because you know that it is your duty and you would do it regardless of whether you liked it.

A reason why Kant is not concerned with consequences can be seen in the following example.  Imagine two people out together drinking at a bar late one night, and each of them decides to drive home very drunk.  They drive in different directions through the middle of nowhere.  One of them encounters no one on the road, and so gets home without incident regardless of totally reckless driving.  The other drunk is not so lucky and encounters someone walking at night, and kills the pedestrian with the car.  Kant would argue that based on these actions both drunks are equally bad, and the fact that one person got lucky does not make them any better than the other drunk.  After all, they both made the same choices, and nothing within either one’s control had anything to do with the difference in their actions.  The same reasoning applies to people who act for the right reasons.  If both people act for the right reasons, then both are morally worthy, even if the actions of one of them happen to lead to bad consequences by bad luck.

Consider the case described above about the lottery winner giving to charity.  Imagine that he gives to a charity and he intends to save hundreds of starving children in a remote village.  The food arrives in the village but a group of rebels finds out that they have food, and they come to steal the food and end up killing all the children in the village and the adults too.  The intended consequence of feeding starving children was good, and the actual consequences were bad.  Kant is not saying that we should look at the intended consequences in order to make a moral evaluation.  Kant is claiming that regardless of intended or actual consequences, moral worth is properly assessed by looking at the motivation of the action, which may be selfish even if the intended consequences are good.

A careful reader may notice that in the example above one of the selfish person’s intended consequences is to make himself happy, and so it might seem to be that intended consequences do matter.  One might think Kant is claiming that if one of my intentions is to make myself happy, that my action is not worthy.  This is a mistake.  The consequence of making myself happy is a good consequence, even according to Kant.  Kant clearly thinks that people being happy is a good thing.  There is nothing wrong with doing something with an intended consequence of making yourself happy, that is not selfishness.  You can get moral worth doing things that you enjoy, but the reason you are doing them cannot be that you enjoy them; the reason must be that they are required by duty.  In addition, there is a tendency to think that Kant says it is always wrong to do something that just causes your own happiness, like buying an ice cream cone.  This is not the case.  Kant thinks that you ought to do things to make yourself happy as long as you make sure that they are not immoral (i.e., contrary to duty), and that you would refrain from doing them if they were immoral.  Getting ice cream is not immoral, and so you can go ahead and do it.  Doing it will not make you a morally worthy person, but it won’t make you a bad person either.  Many actions, which are permissible but not required by duty, are neutral in this way.

According to Kant a good person is someone who always does his duty because it is his duty. It is fine if he enjoys doing it, but it must be the case that he would do it even if he did not enjoy it.  The overall theme is that to be a good person you must be good for goodness sake.

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