The Mission of Immanuel Kant via an entertaining animated film (8 min)
Philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is perhaps best known for his systematic philosophical ethics, conceived of as a post-religious framework for secular morality. His primary ethical mandate, which he called the “categorical imperative,” enables us—Alain de Botton tells us in his short School of Life video above—to “shift our perspective, to get us to see our own behavior in less immediately personal terms.” It’s a philosophical version, de Botton says, of the Golden Rule. “Act only according to that maxim,” Kant famously wrote of the imperative in his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, “by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”
This guide to moral behavior seems on its face a simple one. It asks us to imagine the consequences of behavior should everyone act in the same way. However, “almost every conceivable analysis of the Groundwork has been tried out over the past two centuries,” writes Harvard professor Michael Rosen, “yet all have been found wanting in some way or other.” Friedrich Nietzsche alluded to a serious problem with what Rosen calls Kant’s “rule-utilitarianism.” How, Nietzsche asks in On the Genealogy of Morals, are we to determine whether an action will have good or bad consequences unless we have “learned to separate necessary events from chance events, to think in terms of cause and effect, to see distant events as if they were present, to anticipate them….”
Can we ever have that kind of foresight? Can we formulate rules such that everyone who acts on them will predict the same positive or negative outcomes in every situation? The questions
It occurs to me that Kant’s approach is somewhat similar to John Rawl’s “veil of ignorance” that we assume as we define the roles, responsibilities, and rights of the various social groups without knowing beforehand which role we shall assume. It’s more or less the idea of fair sharing between two people: one cuts the portions, the other gets first choice: both are satisfied because the procedure ensures fairness.
UPDATE: See this good short video: