What does it matter how a bland, routine-freak, heavy smoking, ethics-preaching Königsberg philosopher lived—or advised others to live? For instance, I was never introduced to Immanuel Kant until I began my postgraduate studies at Delhi University. Until then, Kant had remained an enigma to me. However, Kant’s philosophy has significantly influenced how I have come to think of morality in the world we live in. Although we may not always agree with him, we cannot disregard him or the ethical world he sought to create. In this essay, I seek to unravel what it takes to be a Kantian individual in today’s world.
Immanuel Kant: Who is he?
Kant was born in 1724 in Königsberg, Prussia (present-day Kaliningrad, Russia). His father was a saddler, while his mother belonged to a respectable aristocratic family in the city. Kant studied at the University of Königsberg and became a professor of logic and metaphysics in 1770 at the same university. Moreso, he would remain in the same university all his life, leaving the city of Königsberg only twice.
The two occasions are heavily contested. Some claim that he never left the city, while others note that he left for the position of a private tutor after his graduation. His best-known works are “Critique of Pure Reason,” “Critique of Practical Reason”, “Critique of Judgement”, and “The Groundwork for Metaphysics of Morals”. Kant died in 1804 at the age of 79.
What was Kant’s daily routine like?
Immanuel Kant is also popularly known as “the Königsberg clock”. He woke up at 5 a.m. and began his day with one or two cups of tea and a tobacco pipe. As he smoked his tobacco, he would meditate. Then, he took a cold shower. When he walked to the university in the morning, people would know it was exactly eight o’clock.
At ten, he would put on a hat. He would pick up his stick at five, and at eight in the evening, he stepped out of his door. After that, he would read and write until he went to bed at ten p.m. And this followed the next day. Another day. The day after that. He followed this routine until his death. While many of us find it difficult to follow the routine for a fortnight, Kant seemed to have thrived on it.
If there were even a minute change in his routine, his neighbours would know that there was definitely something amiss. Apart from routine, he was a neat freak. He would get angry if someone disturbed the order of his library and would reprimand them with a good old lecture. Immanuel Kant was well-known for his lonely life. He never really had many friends. But he found solace in Lily, a pet cat, with which he would occasionally talk and play—if he was not reading or writing. This life seems boring, isn’t it?
The new biographies present otherwise fewer known facts about Kant. Even though he was never married all his life, there were women in his life. He smoked heavily. Sometimes, he would smoke a pipe up to 12 times daily (and my smoking friends would know what that means—ECSTACY). On several occasions, Kant had drunk so much red wine that he could not find his way back home—like many drunkards portrayed in the movies. Beneath all that profound philosophy, some even say that he had a dry sense of humour.
What are the ideas Immanuel Kant propounded?
To be Kantian would mean subscribing to his philosophical ideas. His philosophy is complex, covering many concepts—from metaphysics to ethics and political philosophy. For Kant, moral actions are those actions that are motivated by a sense of duty rather than personal interest or desire.
In his Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, published in 1785, Immanuel Kant presents his ethical theory rooted in reason, universalizability, and the inherent worth of rational beings. He believed morality and moral principles (categorical imperatives) must be based on reason rather than emotions and desires. They must apply to everyone—by everyone, he meant all rational beings.
In the Metaphysics of Morals, Immanuel Kant divides his arguments into three parts:
Goodwill as a purveyor of Kant’s theory
First, the only thing that is good in itself is “goodwill”. For him, goodwill meant all actions motivated by moral laws, regardless of consequences. This means means justify the ends. You have to think of doing good, which will justify your actions. All good may not be goodwill. But all goodwill is inherently good.
What does it mean? It means if you think you are doing something good, with a presupposition that this good has its goodness from something else, then the act is good. Else, no. If you believe that wealth is good because it will cause the welfare of society, then wealth is good. But “welfare” is in itself a “goodwill”. If you think wealth is good because I can share it with my kith and kin, then it is bad. Because the act of wealth creation is becoming a self-regarding action. Kant writes,
A goodwill is not good because of what it effects or accomplishes, because of its fitness to attain some proposed end, but because of its volition, that is, it is good in itself.(Kant, The Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals)
Immanuel Kant identifies three propositions about goodwill, which will only become clearer as you read this essay further.
- Goodwill is a will that acts from duty.
- Goodwill secures its worth/value from its objective and maxim.
- To have duty means acting out of respect for the moral law.
The universalizability principle and the categorical imperative
Second, Immanuel Kant introduces us to what he refers to as a “categorical imperative”. A categorical imperative is a moral law binding on all rational beings, regardless of their desires and circumstances. He begins with commonsensical views of the morality of an individual—what they deem as right. Kant looks at concepts such as “duty”, “moral worth”, and “the good” to create his categorical imperative.
The categorical imperative sustains the “universalizability principle”—one should “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.” In other words, if you can do something, everyone else should be allowed to do that thing. This meant recognising every individual has an inherent moral worth and a moral compass through which they look at the world. Since a good act can only be universal law—and all the self-serving acts are non-generalisable—Kant argues that categorical imperatives guide societies.
The rule of judgement under laws of pure practical reason is this: ask yourself whether, if the action you propose were to take place by a law of the nature of which you were yourself a part, you could indeed regard it as possible through your will.(Kant, The Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals)
The logic of the universalizability principle in categorical imperative makes sense. For instance, let’s say that someone steals an item. If this action is replicable by everyone, then we are in perpetual threat of everyone stealing from each other. We don’t want a world of this kind, do we? Therefore, this is not a universal principle. What can be a universal principle to curtail this? It is the logical opposite of stealing. If there is a universal principle around not-stealing, then we would have a society where petty theft itself becomes morally wrong.
Applying categorical imperative in reality
Let’s now try this case in real life. What would a world be like with universal principles? The third part deals with the practical application of categorical imperative in specific cases. These cases include lying, suicide, promise-keeping, and charity.
If one lies, it is morally wrong—even if done with good intentions. He debunks Pablo Esobar’s quote in Narcos: “Lies are necessary when the truth is too hard to believe”. Kant says, NO. You should tell the truth, even if it is a lie, to save a marriage. Even if lying were to save someone, you should still engage in truth-telling.
Lying entails, for Kant, treating others as a means to one’s end. But, sometimes, this is tricky. It is not always as easy as it sounds. Let’s say your friend’s wife asks you about his affairs, and then you would either ruin your friendship or be morally wrong. In that case, Kant says: you can either tell the truth or refuse to answer the question. Well, this isn’t as easy as well!
Regarding suicide, Kant says: you don’t have the right to take away your own life. Doing otherwise would mean: treating oneself as a means to an end. He also notes that suicide is giving in to your impulses and emotions rather than your rational autonomy.
Immanuel Kant notes that promises must always be kept, even if doing so would be costly, difficult, and uncomfortable. By virtue of promising, you are committing to another rational individual—who is an end in themselves. Therefore, breaking a promise would mean violating the principles of humanity and universalizability.
Regarding charity, Kant says it is permissible—and acclaimed—if someone does so with a sense of duty rather than a desire for personal gains. For instance, if you help someone thinking that they would recognise it or they would favour you accordingly, then you are not morally right. Your act of helping becomes a self-regarding act.
Through the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant wanted to rid rational factories of individuals from the propensity to corruption. He wants us, rational, autonomous individuals, to follow categorical imperative—a sense of universalised principles of action guided by morality. To live as Kant would mean affirming a lifestyle practised by the philosopher. And to live as Kant would further mean that you would have to live up to his ideas on morality, practising universalized principles. We follow Kant implicitly in our everyday lives. He lurks beneath the naturalised ideas of duties, norms, values and morality in today’s world. However, the point is, how far can you go?
In the earlier version of this essay, the phrase “then you would either ruin their marriage” was mentioned instead of “then you would either ruin your friendship”. It has now been corrected.
Check out Immanuel Kant’s “Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals” here.
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