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.