University of New Hampshire Department of Philosophy kant top twelve

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Nick Smith

University of New Hampshire Department of Philosophy

Kant is extremely difficult to read because any one of his sentences can include all twelve of these concepts. Each concept is not that difficult. One you understand each piece, it will come together like a puzzle. I hope the summary below helps.
1. REASON is the human faculty that enables us to see things FREE FROM BIAS and thus as they really are. Although we have all been told lots of things, much of it is biased, prejudiced, or intentional lies. Deception is common because so many people want us to follow them, support them, act like them, share their beliefs, or buy what they are selling. Reason allows us to determine what is really true. It enables us to evaluate all of the things we are told. It provides a window onto the actual truth of things, or what we can describe as the metaphysical nature of the universe. It is the tool that LIBERATES US FROM PREJUDICE, stupidity, and blind conformity. Our culture and indoctrination thus comes between us and the truth, and ENLIGHTENMENT is the process of thinking for ourselves.
How do we know reason exists? If someone believes that 2+2=5, we know that they are wrong. This is not a matter of opinion, such that I can think that 2+2=5 and you can have an opinion that 2+2=4. Only one of us can be correct. Someone who thinks 2+2=5 does not understand the laws of arithmetic. The same is true if they believe the Earth is flat because it looks flat from the surface or that skin color determines a person’s value because their Daddy said so—in both cases the reasons supporting the arguments are not good ones. The arguments just don’t make sense.
Consider also the example of Copernicus’ realization that the sun does not revolve around the Earth. His culture had been indoctrinated to believe that the Earth was the center of the universe, and because the Church claimed that this was a Biblical truth it went unquestioned. By making some observations and doing some math, Copernicus proved that everyone in the world was wrong except for him. His arguments were simply better than anyone else’s, and not even religious dogma could prevent the world form seeing that he was right. Not even the Church was more powerful than reason of one person, and the world sided with Copernicus’ arguments because they were convincing.
Also note that this power of reason puts us in a relationship with metaphysical and everlasting truths. WE CAN THINK ETERNAL TRUTHS. We become more like a god and less like an animals.
2. So you buy the idea that there might be some truths, and you are pretty sure that 2+2=4 and anyone who thinks otherwise must be doing something wrong. And you agree that science can tell us, really and objectively, whether the earth is flat or round-ish. But morality? Isn’t that something altogether more “fuzzy” or subjective? Not for Kant. Just as biases prevent of from seeing the truth about math or the nature of our universe (see Copernicus’ disagreements with the church), they also blind us to universal moral truths. The CATEGORICAL IMPERATIVE enables us to remove these blinders.
The famous CATEGORICAL IMPERATIVE STATES: “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become universal law” or “Act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will a Universal law of Nature.” Reason gives us the CATEGORICAL IMPERATIVE, just as it gives us logical, geometric, and mathematical truths. Why? Because the categorical imperative forces us to be OBJECTIVE about ethics. When we ask if our actions could be universalized (should everyone in the world act this way), we are stripped of all of our biases, prejudices, and self-interests. Usually our ethical choices are clouded by all of our personal desires and situations, for example our selfish desire to lie, steal something, or kill someone because they annoy us and our life would be so much more pleasant if they were dead. The categorical imperative forces us to get beyond all of these fleeting distractions and into the truth. If we think of a southern plantation owner in the pre-civil war South, she would have a great deal of personal incentive to enslave black Africans: she can make more money by exploiting them, do less work, compete with other plantation owners who are using slave labor, share values with the powerful in her community and not be outcast as a lover of slaves, and even make herself feel like she is special in her superiority to these undignified creature. She might even believe that slavery is supported by “scientific” evidence because slaves can’t read English. But all of these reasons are mere bias resulting from rather arbitrary cultural conditions. Some slaves can’t read English, for example, because they haven’t been taught. Once these biases are bracketed, she should be able to see that no good reasons justifying enslaving another human.
John Rawls’ famous use of the “veil of ignorance” or “original position” in political philosophy is another way to think about this: when making political decisions (such as how to tax and allocate funds), we should go behind the veil of ignorance and forget all of the things that divide as such as our gender, race, financial standing, etc. and become only generic humans. When we push all of our personal and cultural idiosyncrasies aside, we are left with human reason and what is just will become clear to all. Just as there is objectivity in math, there is objectivity in ethics. Ethical objectivity is harder to achieve, however, because we all have competing self-interests interfering with our ability to be objective.
So the categorical imperative then tells us what is a right and moral action by forcing us to be objective and ask whether our actions should be universalized: could I will that everyone did as I am about to do? Could I will that everyone cheat on their papers? Could I will that everyone lie when it was in their interest? Could I will that everyone kill themselves?
3. The WILL enables us to live by what is true. We may know what is true and right yet be too weak or cowardly to live by the truth. The will enables us to honor our DUTY to the right action rather than succumbing to our weakness, desires, and inclinations to avoid doing what is right. Kant often describes this as having the COURAGE to do what is right. It would have been much easier for Copernicus to bury his findings instead of confronting the Church. MLK would have not been killed it he had kept his mouth shut. For any white pre-civil war American, there life would be easier and more profitable if they owned slaves. For those who realize that arguments for slavery and white supremacy were wrong, they could either ignore this moral truth or have the courage to support abolition. Many fought and died for abolition simply because they believed it was the right thing to do.
4. Now contrast the categorical imperative with the hypothetical imperative. A HYPOTHETICAL IMPERATIVE is a MEANS to an END, or a TOOL. If I want an A, I have to stay up all night and work on this paper; if I want to go to heaven, I must be honest, give money to the church, etc.; if I don’t want a divorce, I shouldn’t cheat on my wife. We do all of these things to get something else.
For many, life is full of nothing but things done for the sake of getting somewhere else. Every day is lived for tomorrow, and when tomorrow comes we live it for the next day. Every moment is sacrificed to a future that never arrives. This is typical of our modern life: stay up all night to write a paper because you want a good grade, you want that good grade because you want a good grade in the class, you want a good grade in the class because you want a high grade point average, you want a high grade point average in order to get into law school, etc., etc., etc. As we fill our lives with these activities, they lead to nothing but more of these means to something else. THEN WE DIE. Our life is filled with means, tools, always going from Point A to Point B but with no idea ultimately where Point B will lead us. Life is FULL OF MEANS BUT WITH NO END. We describe this as the RAT RACE, because we’re not going anywhere although we’re moving very quickly from one place to the next.
5. Kant is searching for ENDS IN THEMSELVES, by which he means something with UNCONDITIONAL (OR INHERENT) VALUE. Something with unconditional value is not a means or tool to anything else but is rather simply good. It is, in other words, THE MEANING OF LIFE—what we live for. Think of things that you do for no other reason than because you love to do them. These have inherent value. Something has unconditional value if it has inherent value at all place and all times. You may love to play the piano simply for the love of playing the piano, and thus it has inherent value for you. It does not have unconditional value, however, because it is not good all the time: if the piano was on fire or if you sat playing the piano while your child was being tortured next to you.
We do things with inherent value simply because it is good and not because its gets us something or somewhere else (which would be the hypothetical imperative). Inherently valuable things wake us up from climbing the ladder to nowhere and filling our lives with all means and no ends. But note the difference between what is inherently valuable and what is unconditionally good. Inherent value is that which you do for its own sake, unconditional good is that which you do for its own sake and is always and at all times right and good. Unconditional goods are those things that we consider truly good, generous, and wise, like helping others. The categorical imperative tells us what is unconditionally good. Inherently valuable things can still be selfish and superficial even though they make you happy, while unconditionally good things are the essence of what is right.
6. The CATERGORICAL IMPERATIVE (see #2) is the means of determining unconditional value.
7. From the categorical imperative we get the PRACTICAL IMPERATIVE: never treat anyone as a mere means. For Kant, humans are the ultimate, unconditional, ends in themselves. Why? Because we are the only things free and able to give ultimate meaning to our lives. We are the only truly free things due to our ability to reason and see the metaphysical truth. Because humans are special in this way, he provides the practical imperative, telling us to never treat others merely as means, but rather always as ends. THIS IS WHY HUMANS HAVE DIGNITY. TREATING THEM AS MERE MEANS VIOLATES THEIR DIGNITY.
Consider how you will understand and treats other if they are a dignified end in themselves and bearing the meaning of life. Then consider how you treat them if they are a mere tool for your use. Consider your relationships with friends, lovers, family, and your servants (waiters, groundskeepers, check-out clerks, and teachers). Pause on how different sex would be with a person you afforded dignity compared with someone you treated as a mere tool for your pleasure.
When we call someone a “tool” we mean that they are they are not worthy of treatment as an end in this respect. They are mere objects (which is what we mean by “objectification”). We treat them like hunks of meat rather than as people with dignity. We merely use them.
8. Once each of us determines what is right (and according to Kant we will all agree and be persuaded by the best arguments and reasons), a DUTY is triggered to do what is right. Kant distinguishes DUTY from INCLINATION. An inclination is something you do out of habit or because you will receive some reward for doing it. Examples: I am inclined to eat ice cream because it tastes good; I am inclined to be nice to her because she controls how much I get paid; I am inclined to be faithful to my wife because I don’t want a divorce or to go to hell. Inclinations are self-interests. We act according to duty, on the other hand, when we determine what is right (see above Kantian idea of how we figure this out) and then do what is right BECAUSE IT IS RIGHT. What is right may often be against our self-interests, and thus duty and inclination can be in conflict. I may know that cheating on the exam is wrong, but that I won’t get caught and will receive all of the goods that come with getting good grades. In that example, duty and inclination conflict. It is possible, however, for our duties and inclinations to correspond.
9. Because we must act from our duty to what is right, Kant is only concerned with our MOTIVES AND INTENTIONS to do what is right. Consequences of our actions are morally irrelevant. Bentham and Mill base their entire philosophy in their dispute with Kant over the importance of consequences.
10. By (1) determining what is right for ourselves and from our own reasoning rather than from the authority of another; and (2) employing our will to raise us above the corrupting influences of culture and desire and perform the good; (3) we give ourselves our own law and become self-governing and FREE (autonomous (from our own law)) rather than heteronymous (from the law of another).
11. ENLIGHTENMENT is the process of achieving of freedom so conceived: thinking for yourself to determine what is right and living by it rather than blindly accepting what you have been told to do with your life. As Kant writes: “Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. Self-incurred is this tutelage when its causes lie not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! “Have courage to use your own reason!” That is the motto of enlightenment.”
12. Acting out of duty to your self-realized "MORAL LAW" makes you moral, while acting out of obedience to "POLITICAL LAW" given by other makes you a "dumb cattle." If you don't cheat on your exam for fear of punishment (by the University, your parents, or God) you have done nothing moral but rather are like my dog when he doesn’t pee in the house because he knows he’ll get in trouble if he does. If, however, you determine by your own deliberations about academic integrity that cheating is wrong and therefore you do not cheat, then you have acted morally. Not everything that is immoral (lying to your mother about what you did last night) should be illegal.
THUS MOST BASICIALLY: The meaning of life for Kant lies in our ability to treat each other with dignity and to honor each other as rational ends in ourselves rather than using each other as mere means. Anything that compromises our ability to treat each other as dignified ends or causes us to value something more than human life (for example hypothetical imperatives such as money, efficiency, or cultural traditions) is a bias that can and must be removed so that we can see the truth and have the courage to live by it. All arguments for treating others as mere means (such as killing or enslaving an innocent person) arise out of bias are therefore mistaken in the same sense that 2+2=5 is mistaken.

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