Immanuel Kant (rhymes with “font”; b. Germany, 1724-1804) is among the most influential figures in western thought. He devised complex theories on topics ranging from metaphysics (the nature of reality) and epistemology (the nature of knowledge) to ethics and politics to aesthetics and religion. There is no way to summarize his philosophy in a single post, but I do want to briefly explain the central concept of his ethics–it’s provocative and relevant. For more info on Kant’s thought, a good overview can be found in the IEP.
Unlike Aristotle, who understood morality in terms of the practice of moral virtue (please see post on Aristotle and habit), Kant conceives of morality in terms of our duty to adhere to moral law. Moral law is discerned by the use of pure reason and cannot be based in any way upon individual purposes and plans because these are subjective and varied and cannot yield universal principles of right and wrong. Kant devises a “categorical imperative” for discovering the moral course of action in any circumstance. One must ask two questions.
(1) Could I will that this action be adopted by all human beings? For example, let’s say I’m considering whether or not to tell the truth in a certain situation. I cannot figure out the correct course of action by consulting my own needs and goals, according to Kant, because these are merely subjective. Rather, I must ask whether my proposed action would be correct for any other person in similar circumstances–the answer will reveal my moral duty. (If this sounds a lot like the golden rule, it should.)
(2) Does this action respect other human beings as ends-in-themselves, as opposed to treating them merely as means to my own ends? Kant viewed this as another way of asking the first question. Morality is universal, and we are all equally moral beings under the moral law. I am failing to grasp this if I propose an action which diminishes the moral stature of another person–say, by considering deceiving or using them in order to get what I want. Obviously such deception could never be willed as universal law.
These are profound questions to ask yourself the next time you face a moral dilemma, and they are a wonderful entré for helping children work through an ethical issue. Say that little Jane comes home frustrated with a fellow student for some reason. She is considering various possible responses. Try running through Kant’s questions with her. Ask her whether, if the tables were turned, she would say it was okay for the other person to behave in the manner she’s proposing to act. Also ask her whether this other child failed to respect her as a moral being, and whether the correct course could be to return the disrespect in response. I guarantee this will get her thinking and put her on the path of being a more reflective and responsible person.