It’s customary to begin discussions of Kant with a quick run-down of his eccentricities. He was a solemn man – near puritanical in fact – and devoted to his work. He never travelled further than ten miles from his home town of Königsberg and stuck to his daily routine with military-like precision. Whatever the weather, he never missed his afternoon walk, which he took at exactly the same time each day. His neighbours in Königsberg set their watches by the time Kant set his foot out of the door.

These are great anecdotes. They make concrete the life of a man whose philosophy is forbiddingly abstract, so it’s a shame that none of them are true.
Apparently not as stern as he looks.
Kant was a determined man but not a solemn one. In fact, he was criticised by his colleagues at university for throwing too many parties. He spent much of his life in Königsberg but not all of it. He spent a few years working as a tutor in Judtschen (about 15 miles away) and a few years in Groß-Arnsdorf (about 90 miles away).

As for the neighbours-setting-their-watches one, this is the kind of fact that makes you wonder how you ever believed it. This is some ‘The-Great-Wall-of-China-can-be-seen-from-space’-level shit (Honestly, how?). First off, there are at least three different versions of Kant’s daily routine kicking around the internet: the directly-post-lunch walk, the 3:30pm walk and the 5pm walk. Secondly, what possible reason could Kant have for leaving at exactly the same time everyday? Remember that the neighbours are supposedly waiting by the window with their watches so it really does have to be exactly the same time. Is he supposed to have waited behind the door counting the seconds when he was ready early?

Even supposing Kant really did leave the house at exactly the same time everyday, who are these neighbours? Why are they both (a) so keen to know the exact time and (b) owners of such terrible watches? Who was the first to notice that Kant left the house at the same time every day? And how did they notice if they owned such an unreliable watch? How does Kant leave at the same time every day if all his neighbours’ watches are so faulty? How has this man come to own the only reliable timepiece in all of Königsberg?

I think the reason that these ridiculous stories have been passed down is because they fit so well with Kant’s philosophy. The picture of Kant as a serious man who abides by strict principles and admits no exceptions chimes perfectly with his ideas about ethics.

Kant’s major project in ethics was to base moral rules not on God or culture or human feelings but on reason alone. He wanted to build a system of moral rules that no rational being could ignore. These moral rules he called categorical imperatives. They apply to you no matter who you are, what you want or what the consequences might be.

What are our categorical imperatives? Kant gave us many different ways of finding out. I’m going to focus on two:

The Formula of Universality

“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”
– Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals

A maxim is just a way of describing what we propose to do. Say I wanted to steal something. My maxim would be ‘Steal when you want to.’ The Formula of Universality asks us to consider if that maxim would make sense as a universal law. If everyone stole then there could be no private property and so there could be no stealing. Making the maxim universal results in a contradiction so, Kant says, ‘Don’t steal’ is a categorical imperative. Reason requires that you abide by it.

The Formula of Humanity

“Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.”
– Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals

Here Kant is calling on us not to use our fellow human beings merely as tools to get what we want, as means to our ends. This doesn’t imply we can never use other people as means (We all use other people as means all the time. For instance, we use the bus driver as a means to get to our destination). It only implies that we have to respect their own ends while doing so (For instance, by paying the bus driver a fair price for their labour). We all have to respect each other as rational creatures with our own hopes and desires. This means not lying to others, not stealing from others and not parking each other outside the club like a Mercedes-Benz when you’re trying to get off with Kanye West.

Kant would very much not endorse Kanye’s suggestion. You can picture the two of them as the angel and devil on your shoulders as you linger outside the club. From your left shoulder, Kant tells you that if you choose to park your friends outside you’ll be failing to respect them as rational agents. From your right shoulder, Kanye tells you that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and your friends will get over it.

How do you decide? It might seem natural to weigh up the two options – possibly the best night of your life versus not disappointing your friends – but Kant’s ethical theory doesn’t permit this kind of cost-benefit analysis. His ethic is not consequentialist (concerned with consequences) but deontological (concerned with actions). He says it’s forbidden to act in certain ways regardless of consequences.

This attitude seems craziest when Kant discusses lying in ‘On a Supposed Right to Lie from Altruistic Motives.’ Lying is one of the actions he forbids absolutely. It (1) can’t be willed as a universal law and (2) means manipulating another human being and thus failing to treat them as an end, so ‘Don’t lie’ is a categorical imperative. This means that, according to Kant, it’s immoral to lie even when a murderer is asking you where he can find the person he wants to murder.

He writes:
“...if you have by a lie prevented someone just now bent on murder from committing the deed, then you are legally accountable for all the consequences that might arise from it. But if you have kept strictly to the truth, then public justice can hold nothing against you, whatever the unforeseen consequences might be. It is still possible that, after you have honestly answered “yes” to the murderer’s question as to whether his enemy is at home, the latter has nevertheless gone out unnoticed, so that he would not meet the murderer and the deed would not be done; but if you had lied and said that he is not at home, and he has actually gone out (though you are not aware of it), so that the murderer encounters him while going away and perpetrates his deed on him, then you can by right be prosecuted as the author of his death. For if you had told the truth to the best of your knowledge, then neighbours might have come and apprehended the murderer while he was searching the house for his enemy and the deed would have been prevented. Thus one who tells a lie , however well disposed he may be, must be responsible for its consequences even before a civil court and must pay the penalty for them, however unforeseen they may have been; for truthfulness is a duty that must be regarded as the basis of all duties to be grounded on contract, the laws of which is made uncertain and useless if even the least exception to it is admitted. To be truthful (honest) in all declarations is therefore a sacred command of reason prescribing unconditionally, one not to be restricted by any conveniences.”
 Immanuel Kant,On A Supposed Right To Lie From Altruistic Motives

A lot of people think Kant has shot himself in the foot here and I’m inclined to agree. It seems obvious to me that the right thing to do in this situation is lie to the murderer. In fact, it seems so obvious that I think Kant’s theory must be wrong. What Kant’s theory recommends in this case is so contrary to our intuitions that there’s no way it can be right.

Defenders of Kant have responses of course. They might argue that it is our intuition that’s wrong and not Kant’s theory or that the real categorical imperative is ‘Don’t lie except when a murderer is asking you where his intended victim is.’ But the first response is difficult to justify and the second one highlights a technical problem of Kant’s theory: how do we decide what our maxim is?

Imagine you won a croquet tournament last year and were awarded a trophy. Imagine that the trophy is sitting on your window sill right now and that you’re quite proud of it. Now imagine that you stumble across a Facebook post in which the awarder of the trophy is asking for its whereabouts so it can be awarded to the new winner of this year’s tournament. Imagine you’re a sick croquet player so would almost certainly win it again if you entered, but you can’t because you’re no longer a part of the institution that awards the trophy. Imagine that you’d really, really like to keep the trophy, so you decide to keep quiet.

What maxim are you acting on? ‘Don’t return trophies after you’ve won them’? ‘Keep quiet when you come across Facebook posts concerning you’? ‘Don’t surrender things you want to keep unless directly confronted’? All of these maxims describe your action but they’re very different in their universal form. It’s possible that one maxim could be willed to be a universal law and one couldn’t, meaning that determining the relevant categorical imperative is nigh on impossible. If there’s no way of determining which maxim is the correct description of your action, then all this talk of imperatives is useless.

To be very blunt, I think Kant’s ethical philosophy is bad. It’s needlessly complicated and gives the wrong answer in hypothetical situations like the murderer at the door. It seems totally implausible to me to say that the consequences of your action have no bearing on whether that action was moral or not. I believe that the only reason Kant’s moral theory has come to be widely known is because ethicists back in the nineteenth-century needed a credible alternative to utilitarianism to make all their deliberating seem worthwhile, kind of like how people in the nineties needed to pretend it was impossible to choose between Oasis and Blur (see this video for my nuanced take on that debate). Nevertheless, lots of philosophers still defend a modified Kantian view in which the cardinal sin is treating people as a means. I think this principle – don’t treat your friends like a Benz – is the most promising part of Kant’s theory but it remains to be seen whether it can work as the foundation of ethics.

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