The Reasons of Motivations: Teaching Kant to Freshmen
For this semester I’ll offer my reflections on an introductory, freshmen-level course on western core texts that I am teaching.   What should students make of Kant’s categorical imperative: “act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law”? Before offering an answer, it… The post The Reasons of Motivations: Teaching Kant to Freshmen appeared first on VoegelinView.

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For this semester I’ll offer my reflections on an introductory, freshmen-level course on western core texts that I am teaching.

 

What should students make of Kant’s categorical imperative: “act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law”? Before offering an answer, it might be worthwhile to provide a brief account of the categorical imperative first. For Kant, a maxim is a rule of action that explains how one acts whereas an imperative prescribes how one should act. An example of a maxim is “it is permissible to steal,” where a person’s actions would be aimed for that goal. The next question is whether a person should steal. To answer that question, the person must turn to the categorical imperative for guidance, i.e., to see whether maxim should be followed.
As commandments of reason, categorical imperatives are moral laws: duties and obligations for any action to be necessary. Critical for the categorical imperative is the principle of universalizability, i.e., “act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” When consulting the categorical imperative, the person would need to ask whether the maxim, “it is permissible to steal,” should be applied universally. In other words, to assess the moral permissibility of a maxim, the person should ask whether everyone acting on it would not result in a contradiction. In this case, “it is permissible to steal” would result in a contradiction because the idea of stealing presupposes the existence of personal property. But if stealing were universalized, then there could be no personal property; hence, the maxim, “it is permissible to steal,” logically negates itself. Simply put, according to Kant’s categorical imperative, a person should not steal because it violates the categorical imperative’s principle of universalizability.
Another key element to Kant’s categorical imperative is always to treat humans as ends and never as a means. Other people’s reasoned motives must be equally respected as your own. Slavery, for instance, would violate the categorical imperative because it denies the status of the person as an end in himself or herself. The assumption here is that Kant claims reason motivates morality: it demands that we respect reason as a motive in people. A rational person cannot rationally consent to be used merely as a means to an end; therefore, the person must always be treated as an end. Because all rational persons treat themselves as ends and never merely as a means, it is morally obligatory that they are treated as such.
Underneath all of this is Kant’s belief that a person possesses freedom (autonomy) to follow the categorical imperative: to obey the moral law that arises from one’s own rational will. Rather than any outside influence, a person obeys the categorical imperative because it came one’s own rational will. This in turn requires people to recognize the rights of others to act autonomously and, when categorical imperatives are universalizable, all people must follow them. Such a situation implies that in a political community each individual would only accept maxims that can govern every member of the community without treating any member merely as a means to an end (this is Kant’s so-called “kingdom of ends”). While this type of political arrangement may be more aspirational than practical as Kant acknowledges, we should still act categorically as legislators of this ideal.
Thus, the categorical imperative calls for a person to constrain oneself when testing one’s maxims against the categorical imperative. The person is a type of self-legislator – one gives the law unto oneself – using one’s own reason which maxims will be universal. To accomplish this task, a person must rationally reflect upon the motivations of one’s action. Kant in essence is calling for a self-examination of conscience: a review of one’s past thoughts, words, actions, and omissions for the purpose of ascertaining their conformity with (or deviation from) the rationally self-given moral law. In his hands, the Christian practice of penance has become secularized in the enlighten categorical imperative.
In today’s world of cancel culture, online shaming, and instant communications, the rational introspection of our motivations is a retreat from outside influences to examine our moral self-worth. To create the time to do so is not a luxury or privilege, for philosophy is open to everybody. Such reflection therefore should be required for all of us, whether one agrees with Kant’s ethical theory. Students, who are at the beginning of their adult lives, are engaged in this practice constantly, even if they are not conscious of it – do I have the right major, what job should I want, what is the good life? But with the public pressures of social media and the parental push for careerism, students reserve little time for these thoughts. By reading Kant, we are reminded to take a pause in our lives to evaluate for ourselves – and by ourselves – whether we are leading the lives we want and should.

The post The Reasons of Motivations: Teaching Kant to Freshmen appeared first on VoegelinView.

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