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Modernity is in trouble. From the menace of migrant crime in Europe to the sexual transgressions rife in modern-day Hollywood, the moral argument for modernity is quickly waning. How did things go so wrong? And how do we fix it? Perhaps a return to traditional values and ideals are in order.
The modern world developed over hundreds of years. The post-medieval period has seen the advent of tolerance as a social and political virtue, the rise of the nation-state, the increased role of science and technology in daily life, the development of representative democracy, the creation of property rights, urbanisation, mass literacy, print media, industrialisation, mercantilism, colonisation, the social sciences, modern psychology, emancipation, romanticism, naturalist approaches to art and culture, and the development of existential philosophy. From the computer to the mobile phone, the motor car to the aeroplane, the marvels of the modern world are all around us.
The modern world has replaced the Aristotelean and faith-based concept of human life that was popular in the Middle Ages with a worldview based on science and reason. Modern intellectualism, therefore, follows the example set forth by Cartesian and Kantian philosophy: mistrusting tradition and finding its roots in science and rationality.
Culturally and intellectually, the 21st century represents the postmodern era. Postmodernism can be difficult to define accurately because the various cultural and social movements that use it as their central philosophy define it for their own purposes. Jean-Franҫois Lyotard (1924 – 1998), who introduced the term in his 1979 book, The Postmodern Condition, defined postmodernism as “incredulity towards metanarratives.” Similarly, Encyclopedia Britannica defines it as a philosophical movement in opposition to the philosophical assumptions and values of modern Western philosophy.
Postmodernism came about as a reaction, indeed a rejection, to modernity. With its roots in the philosophies of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900), Martin Heidegger (1889 – 1976), Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939), and Karl Marx (1818 – 1883), the postmodernist rejects the philosophical theory of Foundationalism – the idea that knowledge is built upon a solid foundation – in favour of large-scale scepticism, subjectivism, and relativism.
The postmodernist likes to see himself as Beowulf fighting Grendel. That is, he likes to see himself as the mythical hero fighting the historical-critical monster. Inspired by doctrines of white privilege and toxic masculinity, and driven by an anti-capitalist (except when it comes to their I-phones), anti-racist (provided the person isn’t white), anti-imperialist (but only European imperialism), and anti-transphobic (because gender is a “social construct”) rhetoric, the post-modernist inspired neo-Marxists and social justice warriors have invaded the modern university and college campus.
Modernity and post-modernism have produced a swathe of existential and moral problems that the Western world has, as of yet, proved unable (or perhaps even unwilling) to solve. To begin, the modern world has abolished the central role that God, nature, and tradition has played in providing life with purpose. In spite of all its cruelty, the German sociologist, Max Weber (1864 – 1920) saw the Middle Ages as a highly humanistic period. Everything was considered to have a divine purpose. Even someone as lowly as a Medieval serf, for example, could feel that he had a role in God’s greater scheme. There was a sense of, as Martin Buber (1878 – 1965) puts it, “I-thou.” Modernity swapped “I-thou” for “I-it”. The human will replaced God as the ultimate arbiter of meaning.
This problem has been further exacerbated by the alienation of the human spirit to nature. Science, for all of its positive qualities, has had the effect of rendering nature meaningless. No longer is a thunderclap the voice of an angry God, nor does a cave contain a goblin or a mountain harbour a giant. Science may be an excellent means for understanding facts, but it is not a substitute for wisdom or tradition when it comes to determining human purpose. No longer does the natural world command the sense of reverential majesty that it once did.
The answer to the problems of the modern, and, by extension, post-modern, world is a revitalisation of the traditional beliefs, values, ideas, customs, and practices that have made the Western world great in the first place. We must reject the destructive ideas espoused by the postmodernists and work to revitalise our traditions. It is high time we started taking some pride in the traditions that have made our civilisation so great.
This is our weekly theological article
The German philosopher, Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804), is one of the most influential thinkers of the Enlightenment. His views on metaphysics, epistemology, and aesthetics have had a profound influence on virtually all philosophical movements that came after him. It was his views on ethics, however, that he is most remembered for.
Kant presented his works on ethics in two works. First, there was The Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, published in 1785, in which Kant sought to find and establish “the supreme principle of reality.” Then there was The Critique of Practical Reason, published in 1787, which detailed his moral philosophy. (This was the sequel to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, published in 1781, in which Kant explored the foundations and limitations of human knowledge.)
Immanuel Kant is one of philosophy’s most ardent defenders of deontological ethics (think of this as the study of duty). Put simply, deontology asserts that it is the motivation behind an action that determines its morality, not its consequences. Kant believed that human freedom was based on the fact that human beings are endowed with a conscience that makes them aware of the power moral law has over them.
Immanuel Kant believed that human morality was based on an absolute and objective moral law that he referred to as the categorical imperative. There are essentially two kinds of imperatives: hypothetical imperatives and categorical imperatives. A hypothetical imperative refers to commands that are conditioned by your own desires. Attending medical school is only imperative if you wish to become a doctor, for example. By contrast, a categorical imperative refers to an unconditional command. You cannot refuse to pay your taxes, for example. Kant believed that moral imperatives were categorical because the individual cannot decide they don’t apply to them.
Kant split his categorical imperative into three maxims:
First: “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” Put simply, this means that you should not engage in a behaviour unless you are prepared to will that everybody else does it all the time.
Second: “Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only.” In other words, it is immoral to manipulate others for any reason whatsoever.
Third: “Act as if you were through your maxim a law-making member of a kingdom of ends.” In other words, you must act as though you are the ultimate moral authority of the universe and that everyone was is duty-bound to emulate everything that you do.
Kant’s moral maxims, therefore, can be summarised in the following way: don’t do something unless you are prepared to tolerate everyone else doing it all the time, never manipulate people, and act as though others are duty-bound to emulate everything you do.