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Moral Reasoning


The Enlightenment disregarded differences by insisting that whatever else divides us we are united by our equal abilities to reason. Further, it ignored our immediate experience, which always involves details.

When it comes to matters of justice and decency, all the particulars that make individuals who they are should be put aside.

This is difficult, for it means you must disregard what makes you care most (or least) about the people you know.

This brings us to the basic rule of philosopher Immanuel Kant’s moral reasoning: However else I see you, I should see you as an end in yourself.

This is nothing other than a formal version of moral law. Do unto others as you would be done by.


The categorical imperative


Imagine you can put yourself in my shoes and recognize that I could step into yours. Perhaps you treat me as a means to your end today, but we both know it could be different. We treat each other with respect. Treating me as an end in myself even if you find the ends I have chosen silly or vulgar makes it likely that I will do the same for you. 

But even when the chances for reciprocity are close to zero, you may decide to do it because you think it’s what human beings deserve.

This is Kant’s main rule or, as he calls it, the categorical imperative.

It gives you a guideline to test the rightness of your own actions, not your motives for undertaking them. Since Kant thinks we’re inclined to self-deception, we’ll always incline towards endowing ourselves with better motives than the ones that really underlie our actions.

If we’ll never know for sure what moves us, it cannot be the thing that matters.


Your World

Young African American business woman looking away in a thought against a background

The categorical imperative directs you to take every act you wish to undertake and to ask: If you were designing a world and all its laws of nature, could you include a principle that lets everyone act in such a way?

If your act is in anyway immoral then the answer will be: Of course not: Such a world wouldn’t work.

Of course you are not designing a world, only trying to manage a little piece of it. 

You may think it immodest to act as if what you do makes a difference

Perhaps. But small things count. Adding up, for better or worse, to the shape of the world as a whole.




Enlightenment is less a matter of knowledge than courage. To depend on your own reason against all the forces that want to convince you it’s more convenient to depend on theirs.

‘What is Enlightenment?’ is the most famous Enlightenment essay ever written, and it says that maturity lies in the path between thoughtlessly accepting anything authorities tell you and thoughtlessly rejecting it.

It’s a course that demands considerable nerve, for it recognises that calibrating the right path is a matter of judgement, which cannot be learned by memorising a rule. Far from glorifying the intellect, Enlightenment signals awareness of its limits.

There are all sorts of arguments for treating people decently. Doing so makes it more likely you’ll be treated decently yourself. Acquiring a reputation for treating people well makes it less likely they will treat you badly.

One problem with such arguments is that they don’t always apply; there are always people in the world willing to take advantage of others good natures.




More problematic is that these are the wrong kind of arguments from the start. Behaving morally for your own interest is only so good as long as it works; when it isn’t in your interest to be decent, what can get you to do so?

On the other hand, a moral reason for being moral is circular. You should be good because you should be good, doesn’t mean anything if the question is why you should be good at all.

Kant’s rule makes a demand: to perform calculations that need both intellectual and moral strength.

How would you design a society if you didn’t know who you would turn out to be in it? You might be poor, so you shouldn’t design a society that favours the rich; you might be a man, so you shouldn’t design a society that favours a woman. If you force yourself to imagine that you might turn out to have any race, and hold any faith, the society you create will not privilege any of them.

In this just world, nothing we inherit counts. You no more earned your native intelligence than your neighbour earned his trust fund. Not only questions of where you come from, but everything else we are born with is irrelevant to moral and political decisions.

When thinking about justice you should imagine yourself inside any of these skins, or none of them. The principles you choose should be valid for all.

What matters are the two powers of reason with which we are born. 

The capacity to develop a sense of justice, and the capacity to form some idea of the good life – whatever we determine our own good to be.


Natural Contingency


Natural contingency dominates our lives. Whether it’s a matter of babies born with wounds that never heal, or the less tragic but more common fact that having the right friends in the right places at the right times can reward you in ways having nothing to do with your merit.

Moral reasoning is a way of fighting back against contingencies, from injustice to illness, that stand in the way of satisfaction and sense.

Will it always win? Of course not. But do you want to give up the contest from the start?


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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