Rules -Kant’s Rationalism

When passing my classroom on your way your first-period class, you see I have tons of espresso and I am out of my room talking with students down the hall. It’ll be easy to pop in and make an espresso, and no one will be the wiser. So, whether you can get away with stealing is easy to answer, but the moral question surrounds stealing itself is that which you need to weigh. If you say that stealing is bad, then it is bad as a rule, categorically. Otherwise, you stealing my coffee means that others can as well, then I have no coffee and rage on my classes when my caffeine levels drop. 

This particular philosophy post is not going to be concerned with just a single philosopher, but more a few with opposing viewpoints. Since civilization was created, we have been looking at controlling ourselves as well as others to curb vice and excess. We, as a people, have always struggled with doing the “right thing” as often as possible, or always, depending on who you talk to.

So, how do we do the right thing? What is the right thing? Why do we value integrity as a high virtue and not, say, manipulation or guile? Beyond the point that integrity is focused on the people outside of ourselves, and manipulation is focused on ourselves, or our own gain, beyond the religious reasons for being a good person, beyond even the satisfaction we gain when we help others, some philosophers–such as ours for today–have debated the nature of morality and rational decision making.

We may rely on religion or society to tell us it is wrong to kill others, and the rules may prevent us, but what about if you were presented with the need to kill in order to save many? What if stealing from the rich saves the poor?

Or consider this: Our societal rules say it is wrong to commit suicide, but we glorify those who sacrifice themselves to save others. Even though they are committed for various reasons, we could argue that you are putting yourself in danger of death in either instance. Why do we demonize one, and glorify the other? Socrates, the Ancient Greek philosopher you will remember from earlier posts was condemned to death by his peers and drank hemlock which led to an unpleasant and long death. This suicide, instead of being demonized, was upheld as an act of humility and sacrifice, even though he killed himself.

If you say that rules we (and you) make are meant to be kept you may agree with Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804). He postulated through his noted idea called the Categorical Imperative (it’s important to realize that something that is categorical is something that happens in every instance. It is universal and stable. An Imperative is a command.). The categorical imperative (or CI from here on out) is a way to reason through our rules and laws. It states roughly that we should not make a maxim or rule for our lives unless it is a rule that you can follow no matter what, in every instance.

The CI is universal and impartial. It does not change according to different places and different customs but stays constant or categorical. Note: to Kant, he did not suggest that we do live this way, or our state laws are organized into these rules, but that we ought to live in accordance with our CIs that we set for ourselves. the ought is important here. For example, if you want to go to college, you ought to do well in school, if you wanted money, you ought to get a job.

While these if-then statements are technically called hypothetical imperatives that are dependent on you and your desire, the following of them is dependent on you fulfilling you CI obligations. Naturally, these imperatives are not frivolously made or imposed on the spot but are made with lots of thought and questioning as to possible outcomes.

Kant was a rationalist, meaning he tried to impose reason and order to all facets of life, which more often than not become confusing. It’s important to realize that Kant may or may not have been an atheist. I have not found any mention of a God in his CI, and religion is hard to tangle with when we are talking about rationalism and what we can prove. Religion, by itself, is dependent on belief which revolves around mystery and acceptance without specific evidence. Kant probably found this hard to swallow since he sought out an explanation for it all. After all, that’s how philosophy was back in the 18th Century. More than all this, Kant took morality and doing good to do good pretty seriously. He knew that if we left morality strictly to religion, those rules are going to differ quite a lot depending on what religion we subscribe to. He wanted something more and a constant.

Certainly, rule-following changes per person. Some of us just love breaking the rules of society, but few of us have no internal rules that we subscribe to. Few of us also have little concern for others. We may posture to try and look tough or like stuff doesn’t bother us, but it is the rare person who truly doesn’t care about others, at least in some way. We know we ought to treat people well, but, darn it, sometimes it’s hard to treat bullies and jerks like people, but we know we have to because they are people. This is a moral law. The fact that we avoid them rather than spend time with those bullies that hurt us is an example of a hypothetical, or ought to internal rule.

Before I am done, I want you to understand the two ways that the CI is understood. Kant wrote about four, but I think two are the most popular and easiest to understand.

  1. We should act in accordance to that maxim or law (or rule) which we can at the same time as doing the act will (as in willpower) that it should be a universal law without contradiction (or categorical). So, we have to consider the particular rule we should follow for the action we are about to undertake. For example, you forget your coffee at home and need some. When passing my classroom on your way your first-period class, you see I have tons of espresso and I am out of my room talking with students down the hall. It’ll be easy to pop in and make an espresso, and no one will be the wiser. So, whether you can get away with stealing is easy to answer, but the moral question surrounds stealing itself is that which you need to weigh. If you say that stealing is bad, then it is bad as a rule, categorically. Otherwise, you stealing my coffee means that others can as well, then I have no coffee and rage on my classes when my caffeine levels drop.
  2. We should always treat humanity as an end and never a means.  To use something as a means is to use something/someone for your own benefit. Now, I use things as a means all the time. My coffee mug, though tiny, is a means to an end, which is getting espresso into my tummy. If it cracks, I would stop using it and grab an equally small espresso cup to replace it. I do not do the same thing with people, however. My cup is used only for espresso. You have free will and your own motives. You can’t be used for such.

Ultimately, Kant’s rules are hard to follow with larger issues. You may lie to help someone or save their life, even though we know you should not lie. But what the CI gives us is a framework to try and live a good life, hence the use of the word ought. 

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