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In this lesson, we explore the life and philosophy of arguably the German Enlightenment’s greatest philosopher, Immanuel Kant, and his theories concerning ethics.

Immanuel Kant

When you are faced with a tough decision, how do you decide what to do? Perhaps you weigh the pros and cons, or the benefits of each action. If it’s a moral problem, you likely try to piece out what is the ‘right’ thing and the ‘wrong’ thing to do.

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But how do you even decide what is right and what is wrong? Perhaps you are a practicing Christian or Muslim, and therefore you have an authority to turn to for that answer, or perhaps you simply do whatever you think your parents would have done. This question of how to decide what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’ has plagued philosophers for centuries, as it did one of the Enlightenment’s greatest thinkers, Immanuel Kant.

Bio

Kant was born in Konigsberg, the German state of Prussia (modern-day Kaliningrad, Russia), in 1724. At 16, Kant enrolled in the local university, intending to study math and physics. During his time at the university, his father died unexpectedly, and the peculiarities of 18th-century German inheritance laws left Kant virtually penniless.

He was forced to put his education on hold and supported himself through tutoring sessions for nearly nine years. After he completed his education, Kant gained a position as an uncompensated lecturer at Konigsberg. By 1770, after over a decade at the university, Kant gained the Chair of Logic and Metaphysics at Konigsberg.As an adult, Kant lived a somewhat eccentric existence. He never traveled like many of the other philosophers of the period, purportedly never voyaging more than 40 miles away from Konigsberg in his life. Kant possibly suffered from an unknown deformity, never growing taller than 5 feet tall. He never showed any interest in women and followed the exact same daily routines for decades.

He read voraciously, covering topics from history to travel, and he particularly enjoyed English history.While Kant may have seemed strange and reclusive personally, in the European philosophical community he was regarded as a genius. He did not publish his first work until 1781.

The highly philosophical work, Critique of Pure Reason, made Kant famous in Konigsberg as well as in Europe. He went on to publish several more works in the 1780s, mainly on topics pertaining to metaphysics and philosophy. Though all of these works are excellent in their own right, it was Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason which remains his most important and influential work. In the 1790s, Kant began scaling back his lecturing as he entered his 70s, and he retired from the university in 1797. He died in 1804 in Konigsberg, two months shy of his 80th birthday.

Philosophy

The philosophy Kant laid out in his teachings and writings, most notably in the Critique of Pure Reason, is some of the more theoretical, yet powerful writing of the Enlightenment era. Kant’s most important contributions to philosophy came in the field of ethics. Philosophers concerned with ethics in the Enlightenment era spent most of their time worrying whether there was a basis for human morality outside of the rules of the church where morality was based on the revealed truth of the Bible. Basically, philosophers like Kant attempted to reason out for themselves what was right and what was wrong – or if right and wrong even existed.Indeed, some philosophers questioned the very idea that some things could be right while others could be wrong.

Others believed in consequentialism, or the idea that actions should be judged by the results they have. For example, consequentialists could justify things you or I would consider bad if it resulted in the greater net outcome of ‘good.’ For example, while we all consider murder bad, under consequentialist theory going back in time and murdering Adolf Hitler in the 1930s could be considered right because it may have saved millions of lives.Kant was not one of these philosophers.

Kant believed that every action was either right or wrong irrespective of the action’s consequences. Kant believed that morality could be objectively discovered and all moral actions could be supported through rational thought. Taking this idea to its theoretical limit, Kant argued that all actions are inherently either right or wrong – context, consequences, and other environmental factors have no bearing on this judgment. To use our earlier example, murdering Adolf Hitler in the 1930s would still have been wrong because murder is wrong – no ifs, ands, or buts.

Kant called his fundamental moral law – whereby every action could be considered either right or wrong – the categorical imperative. As a result of Kant’s belief in a concrete morality, he developed a few ideas for how people should live in a just society. First, Kant claimed that all ‘right’ actions must be able to be considered ‘right’ in every circumstance, regardless of the context.

Second, Kant claimed that the manipulation of anyone else was inherently wrong – each person and their own feelings must never be treated as a ‘means to an end.’Finally, Kant believed that in order for a person to be a truly moral and just person they have to acknowledge the categorical imperative and act according to its decision on what is right and what is wrong at all times. Therefore, if your significant other asks if they look fat in that outfit and you say they do, now you can blame Kant’s morality of the categorical imperative for the slap in the face you get.

Lesson Summary

Immanuel Kant was one of the greatest philosophers of the Enlightenment, especially in the field of ethics. Ethics is the field of philosophy which attempts to decipher what actions are right and what actions are wrong and what theories should be used to determine this. Kant argued throughout his works, most notably in the Critique of Pure Reason, that there was a single, determinate morality which dictated whether actions are right or wrong.He called this ironclad moral law the categorical imperative. From it, Kant derived a series of ideas for how people should act.

He essentially stated that people should try to do the right thing all the time, which was categorized as only things which could be considered right in every circumstance and never manipulated anyone. Kant’s theories and writings made him famous across Europe and he’s still widely read by philosophers today – an exceedingly wide reach for someone who never traveled more than 40 miles from their hometown.

Learning Outcomes

When this lesson is done, you should be able to:

  • Recall Immanuel Kant’s life and times in Prussia during the Enlightenment
  • Identify one of Immanuel Kant’s works
  • Discuss consequentialism and the categorical imperative

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