“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”
The Categorical Imperative, perhaps more clearly defined as “an absolute, unconditional requirement that exerts its authority in all circumstances, both required and justified as an end in itself,” was articulated and developed by that gloomy looking chap to the left, Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant. He is considered by many to be the primary philosopher of the 18th century.
Whether you’ve heard of him or not is irrelevant for you’ve no doubt been influenced by his thinking in matters of morality, politics and theology. As one article states, “the work of Kant has drastically influenced Western thought. His contemporaries paid much attention to his thought, especially in the later part of his life. While much of the attention came from critics, he also positively influenced many late Eighteenth Century philosophers, such as Fichte, Hegel, Schelling, and Novalis. The philosophical movement referred to as German Idealism originated from the practical and theoretical writings of Kant. Nowadays, many people revere Kant, usually considering him one of the greatest philosophers to date.”
And lest you think his impact is diminishing, consider the latest critically acclaimed book by Susan Neiman titled Moral Clarity, in which no small amount of Kantian philosophy gets a modern spin. As one reviewer noted, Neiman unashamedly declares that Kant “deserve[s] to be cherished as what she calls [an] “enlightenment hero . . .””
By today’s standards, however, Kant, the intellectual giant and molder of universally influential ideologies, could easily be written off as a white supremacist, male chauvinist pig.
Consider the following regarding the “fair sex” from his essay Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime:
Nothing of ought, nothing of must, nothing of due. All orders and all surly compulsions are to women insupportable. They do something but because they are pleased so to do, and the art consists but in making that which is good pleasing to them. I hardly believe that the fair sex are capable of principles, and in this I hope I do not offend, for these are rare with men. Instead of which, however, Providence hath implanted in their breasts humane and benevolent sentiments, a fine feeling for becomingness, and a complaisant soul. Let not sacrifices and magnanimous self-compulsion be required.
Or this incendiary statement from the same essay:
The Negroes of Africa have by nature no feeling, which rises above the trifling. Mr. (David) Hume challenges every body, to produce a single example where a Negro has shown talents, and maintains, That among a hundred thousand Blacks, who are transported from their native home, though many of them are emancipated, not a single one of them has ever been found that has performed any thing great, either in the arts or sciences, or shown any other commendable property, though among the Whites there are constantly some, who raise themselves up from among the populace, and acquire consideration in the world by distinguished talents. So essential is the difference between these two races of men, and it appears to be equally great with regard to the mental capacities, as with regard to colour.
Philosopher Charles W. Mills, in his book titled The Racial Contract, claims that while Kant is “widely regarded as the most important moral theorist of the modern period, in a sense the father of moral theory, and – through the work of John Rawls and Jürgen Habermas – increasingly central to modern political philosophy as well, [Kant] is also the father of the modern concept of race.” Are Kant’s thoughts merely Alzheimer’s induced nonsense? Perhaps just some casual, parenthetical, back-burner rambling? Mills thinks not: “[Kant’s comment] only seems casual, unembedded in a larger theory, because white academic philosophy as an institution has had no interest in researching, pursuing the implications of, and making known to the world this dimension of Kant’s work . . . [I]n complete opposition to the image of his work that has come down to us and is standardly taught in introductory ethics courses, full personhood for Kant is actually dependent on race.”
And yet it is in an introductory ethics class that I’m learning this stuff. My professor is taking us beyond the standard interpretations of many revered texts and challenging us to consider classic notions of ethics and morality in light of modern feminist and multicultural paradigms. We are encouraged to consider, using a familiar metaphor, whether the babies that are the esteemed philosophical pillars of thought should be thrown out with the bath water.
He seems to think so.
At what point are we forced to abandon the concepts of some great thinker? Is there room for charity if only a small fraction of what someone says is considered inflammatory? Do such comments negate an entire body of work?
This is different from the Michael Richards, Don Imus and Isaiah Washington debacles. With the possible exception of Imus, all those guys are far from influential in regards to moral and ethical philosophy, and I have no difficulty in choosing never again to be entertained by their likes.
But Immanuel Kant? I’m a philosophy major for chrissakes! How does one grant Kant a charitable reading in light of such comments? Should we have to?
I’m beginning to wonder . . . and looking forward to your comments.