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Ideals

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Imagine a man who says temptation overwhelms him whenever he passes what eighteenth century philosopher Immanuel Kant called ‘a certain house.’

No matter what he tells himself beforehand, when he reaches the house he has to go in.

He’d like to be prudent, he’d like to be faithful; perhaps he thinks sex is one thing that doesn’t belong on the market. But no tie of love, no fear of disease or shame is stronger than the claims of the flesh.

Can we understand him?

Easily, says Kant.

But what if he knew he would be hanged immediately upon emerging from the sin-sating depths – and a gallows installed before the brothel to remind him?

Suddenly he discovers he can withstand temptation very nicely, thank you.

For however bright ordinary desires may be – for sex or wealth or any other form of mortal pleasure – all of them pale before the desire for life itself.

This is almost a matter of logic: without life, no consumption. All the sweets of the world put together cannot weigh against it.

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A Choice

Let the same man be summoned before an unjust ruler, and given a choice. The ruler intends to execute an innocent subject fallen afoul of his regime, but demands the appearance of just procedures.

The summoned man must write a letter denouncing the innocent, bearing false witness to a capital crime. Should he refuse, the ruler will make sure he is executed himself.

As in the first case, Kant thinks it’s easy to imagine being in this fellow’s shoes. But unlike the first case, we waver: We do not know what we would do.

Kant always emphasised the limits of knowledge, and one thing we never know for certain is the inside of our souls.

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The Limits of Knowledge

None of us is so righteous as to be sure not to crumble in the face of death or torture. Most of us would.

But all of us know what we should do: Refuse to write the letter though it cost our own lives. And all of us know that we could do just that – regardless of whether we falter in the end.

In this moment, says Kant, we know our own freedom, in a breath of awe and wonder.

Not pleasure, but justice can move human beings to overcome the strongest of animals desires: The desire for life itself.

Contemplating this is as dizzying as contemplating the heavens above us: With this kind of power, we are as infinite as they are.

Kant says this sort of example is simple enough to understand. 10 year-old school kids can grasp it.

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Change the terms as you want to. He seems to be right. It’s a thought experiment anyone can make, and the answers are similar. You may want to vary the example.

Writing letters is easy – so easy, in fact, that desk murderer became the German word for Nazi bureaucrats like Adolf Eichmann. Putting marks on paper is far removed from the violence that takes life.

Many people could swallow their usual qualms about doing so even if they could not execute the violent act itself.

But are you certain, if ordered, you could kill children to save your own life? With machine guns? Machetes?

Only life-and-death examples can show us that action for moral reasons is possible: when we consider a hero we have to stop short.

“What’s absolute,” says Cornel West “is what I’m willing to die for.” 

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The leading Question

Kant’s example is the only answer the leading modern philosopher ever gave to the leading moral question philosophers are routinely asked: Is anything absolutely right, or absolutely wrong – and if so, how would I know it?

Kant offers the example at a critical juncture in the Critique of Practical Reason , his decisively influential work on morality and ethics, just when readers hope he’s about to give them a proof that there is a moral law that is true.

These hopes are bound to be disappointed. For moral principles are never true.

Truth is a matter of the way the world is; morality is a matter of the way the world ought to be.

Truth corresponds to a reality that is independent of anyone’s dreams and nightmares.

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Right

Strictly speaking, right cannot be something we know for sure, though it’s often the thing we want to know most of all.

Yet it is wrong to conclude that ideas of right are therefore unreal.

For ideals – ideas about what is right – can be practical: When we use them as orientation to guide us then we can change reality itself.

The distinction between is and ought is the most important one we ever draw.

If morality is never a matter of fact, trying to convince sceptics with proof is pointless. You’ll never be able to prove an ideal. That the world ought to be this way rather than that.

Nor should we act rightly because it is in our self-interest to do so. Such arguments leave us helpless whenever morality and self-interest part company.

The reason why Kant’s example is so important is that it does what others cannot. It shows beyond doubt that morality is possible.

Most ordinary questions mix ethics with self-interest. Kant’s example shows that we can be moral. We can choose the right thing to do, even if it costs us our life.

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Morality vs. Happiness

Do you pay your taxes because cheating on them is wrong, or because the revelation that you hadn’t could compromise your career? Paying up looks the same in both cases, and motives are the sort of thing we never know for sure.

Fortunately many things that are right will also make us happy. Self-interest and virtue coincide very often. Just not often enough to call them identical. Any good empiricist can count cases in which acting rightly does not further your interest.

To insure it all comes right in the end you must believe in a deus ex machine. A guiding hand patiently weaving the threads of history. Rewarding right actions in the end, even if at first is doesn’t seem so.

Reducing virtuous behaviour to self-interested behaviour requires so many extra assumptions that it’s easier to assume that it doesn’t, and simply be grateful when it does.

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Dignity

As part of the good life we want all kinds of pleasure, but we want something more: a sense of our own dignity that allows us to deny pleasure itself if it violates something we hold higher.

Of course wanting dignity isn’t the same as having it; many a sweet, lazy dream of something grander remains just that.

But if most of us can imagine wanting to be Kant’s hero, even for a moment, then a government that works to our best instincts can’t be dismissed out of hand.

If each of us envisions a moment in which we want to show our freedom by standing on the side of justice, each of us should work toward a world in which freedom and justice are paramount.

Ideals, in the end, are worth fighting for.

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This Essay draws on work by the philosopher Susan Neiman, particularly her book Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists. If you’re interested in learning more click here.


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