Immanuel Kant is a philosopher who tried
to work out how human beings could be good and kind outside of the
exaltations and blandishments of traditional religions. He was born in
1724, in the Baltic city of Königsberg, which at that time was part of Prussia
and now belongs to Russia, renamed Kaliningrad. Kant’s parents were very
modest, his father was a saddle maker Kant never had much money, a fact he
dealt with cheerfully by living very modestly. It wasn’t until he was in his
fifties that he became a fully salaried professor and attained a moderate degree
of prosperity. His family were deeply religious and very strict. Later in life Kant did not have any conventional
religious beliefs, but he was acutely aware of just how much religion had
contributed to his parents’ ability to cope with all the hardships of their
existence and how useful religion could be in fostering social cohesion and
community. Kant was physically very slight, frail, and anything but good
looking, yet he was very sociable and some of his colleagues used to criticize him
for going to too many parties. When eventually he was able to entertain, he
had rules about conversation at his table. At the start of a dinner party he
decreed that people should swap stories about what had been happening recently,
then there should be a major phase of reflective discourse in which those
present attempted to clarify an important topic, and finally there should
be a closing period of hilarity so that everyone left in a good mood. He died in
1804 in his eightieth year in Königsberg, having rarely felt the need
to spend any time outside the city in which he was born. Kant was writing at a
highly interesting period in history we now know as The Enlightenment. In an
essay called “What is Enlightenment?” published in 1784, Kant proposed that
the identifying feature of his age was its growing secularism. Intellectually,
Kant welcomed the declining belief in Christianity, but in a practical sense he
was also alarmed by it. He was a pessimist about human character and
believed that we are by nature intensely prone to corruption. It was this
awareness that led him to formulate what would be his life’s project, the desire to replace religious
authority with the authority of reason, that is human intelligence. When it came to religion, Kant summed up his views in a book entitled “Religion within the bounds of reason alone”. Here he argued that although historical religions had all
been wrong in the content of what they believed, they had latched onto a great
need to promote ethical behavior, a need which still remained. It was in this context that Kant came up with the idea for which he’s perhaps still most famous, what he called the “Categorical Imperative”. This strange sounding term
first appeared in a horrendously named work “Groundwork of the metaphysics of
morals”. The Categorical Imperative states: What did Kant mean by this this? This was only a very formal restatement of an idea that’s
been around for a long time, something we meet within all the main
religions: Kant was offering
a handy way of testing the morality of an action by imagining how it would be
if it were generally practiced and you were the victim of it. It might be tempting
to filter a few pads of paper from the station recovered at work, it seems like
a small thing. But if everyone did this, the cupboard and society at large would
need a lot of guards. Similarly, if you have an affair and keep it quiet from
your partner you might feel that’s okay but the categorical imperative comes
down against this because you would then have to embrace the idea that it would
be equally okay for your partner to have affairs and not tell you. The categorical
imperative is designed to shift our perspective, to get us to see our own
behavior in less immediately personal terms and thereby recognize some of its
limitations. Kant went on to argue that the core idea of the categorical
imperative could be stated in another way: This was intended as a replacement for the
Christian injunction for universal love, the command to “love one’s neighbor.” To
treat a person as an end, for Kant meant keeping in view that they had a life of their
own in which they were seeking happiness and fulfillment and deserve justice and
fair treatment. The categorical imperative, Kant argued, is the voice of
our own rational selves. It’s what we all truly believe when we’re thinking
sensibly, it’s the rule our own intelligence gives us. Kant extended his thinking
about the categorical imperative into the political sphere. He believed that the
central duty of government is to ensure liberty, but he sensed there was
something terribly wrong with the ordinary definition of freedom or
liberty, it should not be thought of in libertarian terms as the ability to do
just whatever we want. We are free only when we act in accordance with our own
best natures, and we are slaves whenever we are under the rule of our own
passions or those of others. As Kant put it, So freedom isn’t an absence of government, a free society isn’t one that allows people more and more opportunity to do whatever they
happen to fancy. It’s one that helps everyone become more reasonable. The good
state represents the rational element in us all. It rules according to a
universally valid will under which everyone can be free, so
government ideally is the externalized, institutionalized version of the best
parts of ourselves. It might be a bit surprising at first to discover that in
1793, Kant published a major work on beauty and art, “The Critique of Judgment.” It might seem like a bit of a sideline for a thinker otherwise concerned with
politics and ethics, but Kant held that his ideas about art and beauty were the cornerstones of his entire philosophy As we’ve been seeing, Kant thought that life involved a constant struggle between our better selves and our passions, between
duty and pleasure. Beauty, Kant especially liked roses, vines, apple trees and birds, delights us in a very special and important way. It’s a reminder of
and goad to our better selves, unlike so much else in our lives, our love of
beauty is in Kant’s word “disinterested,” it takes us out of our narrow, selfish
concerns but in a charming delightful way without being stern or demanding. The
beauty of nature is a continual, quiet, and insistent reminder of our common
universal being. A pretty flower is just as attractive to the tired farm worker
as to the prince. The graceful flight of a swallow is as lovely to a child as to
the most learned professor. For Kant, the role of art is to embody the most important ethical ideas It’s a natural extension of philosophy.
Kant held that we needed to have art continually before us, so as to benefit
from vivid illustrations and memorable symbols of good behavior and thereby keep the wayward parts of ourselves in check Kant’s books were dense, abstract, and highly intellectual, but in them he sketched a very important project that
remains crucial to this day. He wanted to understand how the better, more
reasonable parts of our natures could be strengthened so as to reliably win out
over our inbuilt weaknesses and selfishness. As Kant saw it, he was engaged
in the task of developing a secular, rational version of what religions had,
very imperfectly, always attempted to do, help us to be good