Finally! Kant’s Ethics in Two Pages

Kant says that pure reason can’t decide things like whether gods, freedom, or immortal souls are real. And if reason can’t say much about metaphysics, what can it say about ethics?

Kant’s most basic presupposition regarding ethics was his belief in human freedom. While the natural world operates according to laws of cause and effect, the moral world operates according to self-imposed “laws of freedom.” Here is his basic argument for freedom:

1. Without freedom, morality is not possible.
2. Morality exists, thus
3. Freedom exists.

The first premise is true because determinism undermines morality. The second premise Kant took as self-evident, and the conclusion follows from the premises. Kant also believed that freedom came from rationality. Here is his argument:

1. Without reason, we would be slaves to our passions
2. If we were slaves to our passions, we would not be free; thus
3. Without reason, we would not be free.

We now have the basis upon which to connect between reason and morality.

1. Without reason, there is no freedom
2. Without freedom, there is no morality, thus
3. Without reason, there is no morality.

Kant believed moral obligation derived from our free, rational nature. But how should we exercise our freedom? What should we choose to do?

Kant’s ethics is the study of our duty. Since we are free, rational beings we can choose between actions. unlike non-human animals who are guided by instinct. Moral actions are actions where reason leads rather than follows. Such actions must take into account other beings that act according to their own conception of the law. Put simply, to be moral we ought to conform our free will to the moral law; that is our duty. The moral law ultimately comes from God, but can be known by rational people. Reason can overcome our impulses, the non-rational parts of our nature.

Kant says that the only thing that is completely good is a good will—the desire to conform itself to the moral law. But what is the moral law? Kant assumes that there is a moral law, and he further assumes that there is some rational representation of the moral law that we can understand. And when he thinks about laws, one of the key characteristics of true laws of nature are that they are universal. So the moral law must be characterized by its universality. Just as an equation of the form a(b+c) = ab + ac is universally applicable and needs only to be filled in by numbers, the moral law must have an abstract formulation by which to test actions.

Kant had seized upon the idea of universalization as the key to the moral law. To universalize a principle of our action we ask, “what if everybody did this?” We should act according to a principle which we can universalize with consistency or without inconsistency. This is what he calls the categorical imperative. By testing the principle of our actions in this way, we determine if they are moral. If we can universalize our actions without any inconsistency, then they are moral; if we cannot do so, they are immoral. For example, there is no logical inconsistency in universalizing the maxim, whenever we need a car we will work hard to earn the money. However, there is something inconsistent about universalizing the maxim, whenever we need a car we will steal it. A world where everyone stole cars would be a world where there were cars to steal but no cars to steal—since they would all already be stolen! (This is the basic idea, this is actually quite complicated.)

Of course, we can act contrary to reason because we are free, just like we can say that 2 + 2 = 6 or we can say there are round squares. But we violate reason when we say these things just as, for example, bank robbers violate reason when they rob banks. Why?  A bank robber wills a world where:

  1. banks exists as the necessary prerequisite of the bank robbery intended and
  2. banks don’t exist as the obvious consequence of bank robberies.

Kant’s basic idea is something like this. If I say you can taste my wine, I should be able to taste yours. Moral actions are rational, immoral actions are irrational.

In short, we act ethically if we freely conform our will to the moral law which it understands as the categorical imperative. The imperative prescribes action that are rationally consistent. If we act in this way, we may not be happy, but we will be moral. We will have done our duty.

Will Durant on the Meaning of Life


In his book On the Meaning of Life (1932) Will Durant argued that we cannot answer the question of the meaning of life in any absolute sense, for our minds are too small to comprehend things in their entirety. Still he believed we can say a few things about terrestrial meaning. Here are excerpts from a great thinker and wonderful prose stylist:

The meaning of life, then, must lie within itself … it must be sought in life’s own instinctive cravings and natural fulfillments. Why, for example, should we ask for an ulterior meaning to vitality and health? … If you are sick beyond cure I will grant you viaticum, and let you die … But if you are well—if you can stand on your legs and digest your food—forget your whining, and shout your gratitude to the sun.
The simplest meaning of life then is joy—the exhilaration of experience itself, of physical well-being; sheer satisfaction of muscle and sense, of palate and ear and eye. If the child is happier than the man it is because it has more body and less soul, and understands that nature comes before philosophy; it asks for no further meaning to its arms and legs than their abounding use … Even if life had no meaning except for its moments of beauty … that would be enough; this plodding thru the rain, or fighting the wind, or tramping the snow under sun, or watching the twilight turn into night, is reason a-plenty for loving life.[i]

We should be thankful for our loved ones:

Do not be so ungrateful about love … to the attachment of friends and mates who have gone hand in hand through much hell, some purgatory, and a little heaven, and have been soldered into unity by being burned together in the flame of life. I know such mates or comrades quarrel regularly, and get upon each other’s nerves; but there is ample recompense for that in the unconscious consciousness that someone is interested in you, depends upon you, exaggerates you, and is waiting to meet you at the station. Solitude is worse than war.[ii]

Love relates the individual to something more than itself, to a whole which gives it purpose.

I note that those who are cooperating parts of a whole do not despond; the despised “yokel” playing ball with his fellows in the lot is happier than these isolated thinkers, who stand aside from the game of life and degenerate through the separation … If we think of ourselves as part of a living … group, we shall find life a little fuller … For to give life a meaning one must have a purpose larger and more enduring than one’s self.
If … a thing has significance only through its relation as part to a larger whole, then, though we cannot give a metaphysical and universal meaning to all life in general, we can say of any life in the particular that its meaning lies in its relation to something larger than itself … ask the father of sons and daughters “What is the meaning of life?” and he will answer you very simply: “Feeding our family.”[iii]

Durant too finds meaning in love, connection, and activity. “The secret of significance and content is to have a task which consumes all one’s energies, and makes human life a little richer than before.[iv] Durant found the most happiness in his family and his work, in his home and his books. Although no one can be fully happy amidst poverty and suffering, one can be content and grateful finding the meaning in front of them. “Where, in the last resort, does my treasure lie?—in everything.”[v]

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[i] Durant, On the meaning of life, 124-25.
[ii] Durant, On the meaning of life, 125-26.
[iii] Durant, On the meaning of life, 126-28.
[iv] Durant, On the meaning of life, 129.
[v] Durant, On the meaning of life, 130.

Reflections on a 30 Year College Teaching Career

I vividly remember walking into my first college classroom almost 30 years ago. I was nervous and excited at the same time. Was I the professor or an impostor? What would I say for 50 minutes, 3 times a week, for 16 weeks? Well, I found out I could easily talk that long. It was fun having a captive audience forced to as least pretend to listen to me.

For thirty years I tried to combine enthusiasm with command of my subject. I did some lecturing, as it is hard to generate discussion without there being something in a student’s mind, but I didn’t see my students as empty receptacles to be filled. Instead I tried to pull from what was already inside them, employing a more Socratic method. I didn’t learn from all of my nearly 10,000 students, but I did learn from many of them and for that fills me with gratitude.

The most influential advice that informed my teaching came from the Martin Heidegger.

Teaching is even more difficult than learning. We know that; but we rarely think about it. And why is teaching more difficult than learning? Not because the teacher must have a larger store of information, and have it always ready. Teaching is more difficult than learning because what teaching calls for is this: to let learn. The real teacher, in fact, lets nothing else be learned than—learning… The teacher is far ahead of his apprentices in this alone, that he has still far more to learn than they—he has to learn to let them learn. The teacher must be capable of being more teachable than the apprentices. His conduct, therefore, often produces the impression that we properly learn nothing from him, if by “learning” we now suddenly understand merely the procurement of useful information.  The teacher is ahead of his apprentices in this alone, that he has still far more to learn that they—he has to learn to let them learn. The teacher must be capable of being more teachable than the apprentices. The teacher is far less assured of his ground that those who learn are of theirs. If the relation between the teacher and the taught is genuine, therefore, there is never a place in it for the authority of the know-it-all or the authoritative sway of the official. It is still an exalted matter, then, to become a teacher–which is something else entirely than becoming a famous professor.

Still your students forget you, as one of my first mentors told me long ago. Thus you should focus on your own work; work that expresses or elaborates your being, work that is not alienated labor. So with many thanks to those thousands of students, now is the time to do less teaching and more learning. I so need and want to learn more.

Who Am I?

(Today is my 60th birthday.)

Who am I? This is surely one of the most fascinating questions we can ask. Am I an immaterial soul trapped inside a body, or am I just matter, or do I have “no self” as the Buddhists say? Am I a separate ego distinct from every other thing, or a window, vortex, or aperture through which the universe temporarily becomes conscious, or something else?

Or if I do have a self, is it just a social face I present to the world, what Jung called “a kind of mask, designed on the one hand to make a definite impression upon others, and on the other to conceal the true nature of the individual.”1 After all, the English word person derives from the Latin word “persona,” which referred to the mask actors wore in stage plays. Do I then have many masks, many persona? I just don’t know. 

Notice how language is deceiving? I ask “do I?” “Am I” “I have” “I think” assuming there is an I. If I say “I have a body,” that assumes dualism of self and body. If I say “I am a body,” that’s better, but it still sounds like the I exists. Perhaps, when pointing to myself, out of this mouth should come the phrase “bodying.” This points to an event rather than a substance—an event rather than a substance ontology. It is all so confusing. Perhaps some snippets of poetry might help.

Here’s the Italian poet Eugenio Montale:

I am no more
than a spark from a beacon. Well do I know it: to burn,
this, nothing else, is my meaning.

The Chilean Pablo Neruda began his poem, “We Are Many,” as follows:

Of the many men who I am, who we are,
I cannot settle on a single one.

The American poet Ezra Pound said it like this: “In the search for oneself, in the search for ‘sincere self-expression,’ one gropes, one finds some seeming verity. One says ‘I am this, that, or the other,’ and with the words scarcely uttered one ceases to be that thing.”2

In T.S. Eliot’s The Elder Statesman, a character says:

I’ve been freed from the self that pretends to be someone
And in becoming no one, I begin to live.

All this reminds me of Keats who talked of one’s need “to make up one’s mind about nothing, to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thought not a select party … to have no identity … no fixed character, no fixed opinions.”3

The Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz in the Estate of Poetry said:

The purpose of poetry is to remind us
how difficult it is to remain just one person.

I am not one person, but am I anything? You are not one person, but are you anything? If I pretend to be someone, who is doing the pretending? Could it be there is no one pretending, because there is no one or no(thing) behind the mask? Both the Buddhists and Hume said as much. (And the atheist Sam Harris argued for no self in his recent book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion.) But surely this is true. I am not a self/soul in a body, for my body is porous and needs the air which needs the trees which need water which needs earth which needs the universe … and the multiverses too if they exist. So is I just another name for everything?  We’ve come full circle to the same question. Who am I and do I exist?

Confusion reigns. Poetry reveals the mystery we live within, but it gives no answers.

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  1.  C. G. Jung, Two Essays on Analytical Psychology (London 1953) p. 190
  2. Michael Hamburger, The Truth in Poetry: Tension in Modern Poetry… p. 267.
  3. Michael Hamburger, An Unofficial Rilke, p 16.

Philosophy & Wonder

I have taught out of more than a hundred philosophy books in my career as a college professor. One textbook, Philosophy: An Introduction to the Art of Wondering, had a prelude with a futuristic photo of a spaceship or missile launching  or futuristic house (depending on the edition) along with a few words from the author. It set the tone for the exploration upon which my students and I were about to embark.

Those words were simple, although philosophy is generally believed to be a difficult, esoteric pursuit. They were no doubt written by a professor who wanted to communicate with his heart, not impress his students with his intellect. I always thought they wonderfully communicated the value of philosophy. Here is what he wrote:

The following pages may
lead you to wonder.
That’s really what philosophy
is—wondering.

To philosophize
is to wonder about life—
about right and wrong,
love and loneliness, war and death.
It is to wonder creatively
about freedom, truth, beauty, time
and a thousand other things.
To philosophize is
to explore life.
It especially means breaking free
to ask questions.
It means resisting
easy answers.
To philosophize
is to seek in oneself
the courage to ask
painful questions.

But if, by chance,
you have already asked
all your questions
and found all the answers—
if you’re sure you know
right from wrong,
and whether God exists,
and what justice means,
and why we mortals fear and hate and pray—
if indeed you have completed your wondering
about freedom and love and loneliness
and those thousand other things,
then the following pages
will waste your time.

Philosophy is for those
who are willing to be disturbed
with a creative disturbance.

Philosophy is for those
who still have the capacity
for wonder.

     Philosophy: An Introduction to the Art of Wondering