Why We Still Need to Talk about Immanuel Kant

You may not think so, but the present disharmony between American and European politics, and probably also between liberal and conservative citizens in our countries, is deeply rooted in the differences of people’s moral philosophy in the United States and in Europe although these philosophies often are not outspoken. These differences are best exemplified by people’s attitude toward the philosopher Immanuel Kant and his philosophy. Whereas in Europe most people cherish Kant as one of the greatest philosophers, in the United States popular politicians and psychologists let him look like “the most evil man in mankind’s history” (see G. H. Smith). Both are wrong.

Kant’s voluminous work is a challenge even for accomplished readers. In a nutshell, Kant’s moral philosophy emphasizes both individual freedom (autonomy, happiness) and duty (moral obligation, justice), not either … or. He argues that both are essential and both need each other. Without freedom, moral obligations are meaningless, and without moral obligations freedom would result in civil war, that is in a continuous fighting between egoistic, reckless individuals.

It is not surprising that many readers pick out some things, especially those things which resonate in their personal philosophy, but ignore other things which they have not been able to read or which do note make sense to them. Most (but not all!) Americans and Europeans have their own particular bias when quoting Kant.

Many continental European readers are fond of Kant’s concept of duty. But they often use this concept to justify an authoritarian government. They falsely believe that Kant’s concept of duty means a duty defined by society or its leaders. In other words, they believe that Kant had justified the subordination of people under social institutions and under autocratic rules set up by other people, e.g., parents, teachers, and politicians.

Nothing can be more wrong than such an interpretation of Kant’s concept of duty. Kant argues that our duty (or moral obligation) is defined by our moral principles, not by other people. Kant always fought for freedom and against the dependence of people on other people. “Saper aude!” is his famous advice. Trust your own understanding! Rather, he argued, we have to follow our own conscience, that is, our own moral maxims. But, and this is extremely important according to Kant, we  should follow only those maxims which apply to everyone and every time. So we should always ask ourselves: “Can I wish that everyone should act upon the very maxim which I have chosen for guiding my action?” Only if our moral principles are universalizable (Kant called this the Categorical Imperative) they can guarantee true freedom and prevent the rule of people over people. Kant made the most powerful argument in favor of democracy: All people are beasts who need a master. But where should we take this master — from other people who are also beasts? Hence, only  moral principles can be our true master.

American (including Anglo-Saxon) readers have not only overlooked Kant’s advocacy of individual freedom but also his multiple defense of the human right to happiness. Moreover, they seem to misunderstand the right to individual happiness as a moral obligation to happiness: Everyone MUST be happy, they seem to believe. They seem to believe that big success and big money is a virtue which everyone must strive for, although only a few can achieve it, especially since success and money by definition can be acquired only by few people. Trump, Bannon and other leading figures of the present US government rely on this false reading of Kant. Their reading is heavily influenced by the Russian-American writer Ayn Rand, who advocated moral individualism and capitalism, and hated Kant.

In contrast, Kant argues that nobody can be forced to be happy and nobody can be told how one should achieve happiness. In other words, people are free to choose whether they want to be happy and what happiness means for them. They can choose to define happiness as making big achievements in sports, science and business. They can also define happiness as leading a simple life in harmony with other people and with nature.

But there is an important restriction, Kant argues. All striving for individual happiness must not diminish the freedom of any other people. Otherwise the striving for happiness will inevitably lead to violence and deceit, and, in the end, to terrorism and war. Hence from a Kantian point of view, the popular “moral” philosophy behind neo-liberalism and unrestricted capitalism is dangerous.

In sum, we have to read Kant’s moral philosophy more carefully. Just think how those unbalanced, distorted or foolish views on freedom and justice have led to a reckless individualism and capitalism. This has provoked many counter-movements in the world. Many of them are violent, betraying the moral and religious ideals which they allege to pursue through their terrorism.

In the long run, only those movement can be successful which are peaceful, that is, which align their means to their ends. But we have also to talk about which peaceful means are effective. Criticism and jokes are not enough. Even passive resistance is not enough although sometimes it is the only possible means. What is needed is a truly moral-democratic curriculum at our schools, which not only teaches and mimics democratic institutions but which helps children to enhance their moral-democratic competence. Otherwise, democracy remains purely an ideal which can be abused as a slogan by power-seeking individuals, but not something people can really live by. Most, if not all people, desire freedom, but at the same time are afraid of it because they did not have the opportunity to learn how to cope with the dilemmas of life. Therefore, if we want to promote freedom for all we must also foster in everyone the ability to solve problems and conflicts through thinking and discussion on the basis of universalizable moral principles.

Kant has died about 200 years ago, but it seems that today he is more alive than ever. His unbroken topicality is also visible in the many new publications on Kant’s moral philosophy on both sides of the Atlantic. Some of them are not only very illuminating but also readable for non-experts, like the article by George H. Smith. Many of Kant’s original writings are available now in the public domain (Gutenberg Project, Projekt Gutenberg-DE). My favorites are “Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment?” and “Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View“.

Georg Lind