Immanuel Kant’s Life & Philosophy Introduced in a Short Monty Python-Style Animation

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 did not seem to per­son­al­ly dis­turb Kant, who lived his life in a high­ly pre­dictable, rule-bound way—even, de Bot­ton tells us, when it came to struc­tur­ing his din­ner par­ties. But while the cat­e­gor­i­cal imper­a­tive has seemed unwork­ably abstract and too divorced from par­tic­u­lar cir­cum­stances and con­tin­gen­cies, an elab­o­ra­tion of the max­im has had much more appeal to con­tem­po­rary ethi­cists. We should also, Kant wrote, “act so as to treat peo­ple always as ends in them­selves, nev­er as mere means.” De Bot­ton pro­vides some help­ful con­text for why Kant felt the need to cre­ate these eth­i­cal prin­ci­ples.

Kant lived in a time when “the iden­ti­fy­ing fea­ture of his age was its grow­ing sec­u­lar­ism.” De Bot­ton con­tends that while Kant wel­comed the decline of tra­di­tion­al reli­gion, he also feared the con­se­quences; as “a pes­simist about human char­ac­ter,” Kant “believed that we are by nature intense­ly prone to cor­rup­tion.” His solu­tion was to “replace reli­gious author­i­ty with the author­i­ty of rea­son.” The project occu­pied all of Kant’s career, from his work on polit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy to that on aes­thet­ics in the Cri­tique of Pure Judg­ment. And though philoso­phers have for cen­turies had dif­fi­cul­ty mak­ing Kant’s ethics work, his dense, dif­fi­cult writ­ing has nev­er­the­less occu­pied a cen­tral place in West­ern thought. In his defense of the author­i­ty of rea­son, Kant pro­vid­ed us with one of the most com­pre­hen­sive means for under­stand­ing how exact­ly human rea­son works—and for rec­og­niz­ing its many lim­i­ta­tions.

To read Kan­t’s work for your­self, down­load free ver­sions of his major texts in a vari­ety of dig­i­tal for­mats from our archive of Free Phi­los­o­phy eBooks. Kant is no easy read, and it helps to have a guide. To learn how his work has been inter­pret­ed over the past two hun­dred years, and how he arrived at many of his con­clu­sions, con­sid­er tak­ing one of many online class­es on Kant we have list­ed in our archive of Free Phi­los­o­phy Cours­es.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Philoso­phers Drink­ing Cof­fee: The Exces­sive Habits of Kant, Voltaire & Kierkegaard

Man Shot in Fight Over Immanuel Kant’s Phi­los­o­phy in Rus­sia

Philoso­phers Drink­ing Cof­fee: The Exces­sive Habits of Kant, Voltaire & Kierkegaard

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (3)
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  • felonius screwtape says:

    more point­less and super­fi­cial dri­v­el from alain de bot­ton, who has more affin­i­ty with oprah than he does with phi­los­o­phy

  • Bijay Agarwala says:

    Open Cul­ture is a great plat­form for fol­low­ers of enlight­en­ment like me . Ratio­nal­ism is the tool that keeps us free from junk and trash piled on our mind through cul­tur­al upbring­ing .

  • Jim Muncy says:

    Bra­vo, Alain! Thank you for post­ing an eas­i­ly under­stood expla­na­tion of a very dif­fi­cult phi­los­o­phy. Yes, it’s brief and nec­es­sar­i­ly shal­low, but most of us have very short atten­tion spans. What was I talk­ing about? Oh, yes, Kant: I’ve been read­ing Kant for 30 years, yet you still told me things that I did­n’t know. And for broad­cast­ing seri­ous, worth­while infor­ma­tion, I am very grate­ful. Just hear­ing this short work of yours moti­vates me to pick up where I left off with Kant. Keep up the good work.

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