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Immanuel Kant and Enlightenment

Immanuel Kant and Enlightenment

One of the most important figures in the history of philosophy is the German thinker Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Kant is one of the leading philosophers of the Enlightenment, a man's work was revolutionary and is still profound today. In 1784, he wrote the essay Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment? The work was produced in response to an earlier essay by a German clergyman.

In the opening of his essay, Immanuel Kant declares:

Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-incurred immaturity.

For Kant, man's immaturity resulted from a lack of reason or wisdom without educated guidance. In the essay, Kant challenged his readers to "dare to be wise." In surveying the ways in which people could become more enlightened, Kant states that all church and state paternalism needed to cease, so that individuals could be free to use their own intellect. Kant also held up Frederick the Great as an ideal ruler in promoting enlightenment.

Kant wrote: "Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why such a large part of mankind gladly remain minors all their lives, long after nature has freed them from external guidance. In other words, people chose to remain dependent upon institutions, including religion, in order to be told what to think. Kant held that organized religion was actually counterproductive to truly serving God, and antithetical to enlightenment.

Immanuel Kant is known as one of the greatest philosophers of critical philosophy. He was born in Kšnigsberg in East Prussia in 1724. Kant was appointed to the chair of logic and metaphysics at Kšnigsberg in 1770 and taught mathematics and science for 15 years at the university. Kant's field of study gradually increased to include almost all branches of philosophy. Kant's famous works include the following:

  1. Universal Natural History And Theory On The Heavens(1755);
  2. The Critique of Pure Reason (1788)
  3. Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals (1785)
  4. Critique of Practical Reason (1788)
  5. Crituige of Judgement (1790)
  6. Introduction to the Metaphysics of Morals (1797)

Kant died in 1804 without ever marrying (Immanuel Kant, 2002). Kant has been categorized as a rule deontologist. In general rule deontologists believe that the standard of right and wrong consists of one or more rules like telling the truth, keeping promises, and ways in which one "ought to act" given certain situations. Perhaps the most famous theory put forth by Kant is the categorical imperative, "Act only on that maximum which you can at the same time will to be a universal law" (Frankena, 1973, p.30). According to Kant's imperative, an action is moral if and only if it can be acted out by everyone in a similar situation. Kant's categorical imperative is explained by Miller (1992) as:

[A] categorical imperative would command you to do X inasmuch as X is intrinsically right, that is, right in and of itself, aside from any other considerations--no "ifs," no conditions, no strings attached... a categorical imperative is unconditional (no "ifs") and independent of any things, circumstances, goals, or desires. It is for this reason that only a categorical imperative can be a universal and binding law, that is, a moral law, valid for all rational beings at all times (p.462).

Kant's categorical imperative provides one with the means for deciding whether an act is morally right or morally wrong. For example, before one decides to throw a candy wrapper out of their car window and onto the street, they should first consider whether or not everyone should throw their candy wrappers out of their car windows. Since such an action would cause mass liter on streets and highways, harm would come from the action. Therefore, since throwing a candy wrapper out the window cannot be condoned on a universal basis, the action is morally wrong.
Kant gives three formulations of the Categorical Imperative:

  1. "Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law" (Beck, 1969, p.422).
  2. "Act as though the maxim of your action were by your will to become a universal law of nature." (Beck, 1969, p.422).
  3. Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only" (Beck, 1969, p.429).

The third version of the Categorical Imperative is basic to Kant's moral theory. As human beings possess a rational will, they are set apart from the natural order of things. They are not merely subject to the forces that act upon them, nor are they merely means to ends. In fact, according to Kant, they are ends in themselves. Kant clarifies this viewpoint by pointing out that while means have a conditional worth (used merely to gain something else) human beings have unconditional worth due to their rational will. Further, the possession of rationality puts all human beings on an equal footing, "every other rational being thinks of his existence by means of the same rational ground which holds also for myself; thus it is at the same time an objective principle from which, as a supreme practical ground, it must be possible to derive all laws of the will" (Beck, 1969, p.429).

Inherent in Kant's philosophy is that people must always treat others as ends out of respect for human rationality. Kant viewed human beings as worthy of dignity and respect, and also as free agents capable of making their own decisions. In addition, human beings are guided by reason. To prove this point, Kant uses the example of lying. For instance, if one lies to a friend in order to secure something else, that individual is using that friend as a means to an end rather than as an end. He/she is denying that the friend is rational and capable of reaching the conclusion that he/she should give what is needed because it is rational and logical to do so. It is this type of manipulation that Kant was speaking out against with the third version of the moral imperative.

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