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. [Read more…]