Kant: Self-Determination in the Age of Reason

The 18th century is often called the "Age of Reason" or the "Age of Enlightenment." In the Western world the 18th century was decisively shaped by the systematic efforts of the Enlightenment, a philosophical, cultural, and political movement that tried to institute the rule of Reason in all areas of life. Reason was to replace blind faith and superstition in religion, autocratic and arbitrary rule in administration and government, brute force and devious cunning in politics, the dead weight of tradition in social institutions and culture, and primitive instincts or uncontrolled feelings in personal relations and ethics.

The Enlightenment aimed at a future for humanity that is characterized by scientific rationality, self-critical awareness, ever improving technology, democracy, religious tolerance (including the freedom to not believe in any gods at all), universal peace, and the continuing improvement of people’s lives both in terms of physical comfort and intellectual sophistication. Gone in particular would be the fanatical wars fought in the name of religion, the self-righteous insistence on unexamined dogmas and inherited opinions, the persecution of so-called heretics and other free spirits, the rule of absolute monarchs and privileged aristocrats, and the general ignorance and backwardness of a population that had been kept in the dark by worldly and spiritual authorities for too long. Slavery would be abolished, torture and cruel punishment removed from judicial systems, and freedom of conscience enhanced by the separation of churches and state. Progress was the banner under which societies would abandon their benighted old ways and usher in a liberated and altogether happier future. Optimism and faith in the basic goodness of human beings were typical dispositions of Enlightenment thinkers.

Important philosophical impulses for this movement came from the writings of René Descartes and John Locke, thinkers of the 17th century. The practical application and further development of these impulses was largely due to the toils of a group of French intellectuals, however, a group generally known as les philosophes (“the philosophers”). They came together, for example, to write the first systematic encyclopedia of human knowledge—published between 1751 and 1772. Among them were such illustrious authors as Voltaire, Diderot, and Rousseau. Together they took on what they described as the forces of darkness—absolute monarchs, oppressive church establishments, irrational dogmas, thoughtless traditions, and all sorts of unexamined notions and customs embraced by ordinary people. They hoped to enlighten the general public by promoting independent thinking, scientific research, and improved systems of public education.

They designed and furthered numerous projects that exemplified their idea of making the world a better place: The draining of swamps improved health conditions and provided new land for agricultural production, the building of canals and better roads created the infrastructure for industry and commerce, the introduction of new crops secured richer and cheaper nutrition for whole populations, and so forth. The improvement of governance and administration was high on their agenda as well. Bureaucracies were modernized by subjecting them to the uniformity of impersonal laws; old systems of patronage and personal connections were abolished as inefficient and as forms of corruption. Life in enlightened societies was to be comfortable, safe, predictable, and just.

Toward the end of the 18th century the endeavors of Enlightenment thinkers and their followers had tangible results on a large scale: The political revolutions in America and France abolished monarchy and feudal privilege, and the unfolding Industrial Revolution began to reshape the economic basis of the entire Western world. These revolutions were the break-through events that ultimately resulted in the creation of our modern world. Democracy, secularism, scientific thinking, and the rapid development of a fuel-driven technology have become the typical features of this world, and they have established, for better or worse, the West as the most dominant civilization on the planet.

The over-all ideal and goal of the Enlightenment was rational self-determination. On a personal level it was the idea that every individual had the right to determine for himself or herself how to live and what to live for; a person’s own reason and conscience was the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong. On a social and political level it was the idea of democratic self-government: the citizens of an enlightened society do not feel that they need a monarch or some other father figure to do their thinking and governing for them.

On the level of physical survival it was the idea of taking control of the forces and resources of nature for the benefit of human beings that represented the ideal of self-determination. In the past nature had largely been experienced as a sovereign power above and beyond human control. Droughts, floods, storms, epidemics, pests, harsh environments, and other brute facts had rendered earlier humanity more or less helpless vis-à-vis nature. As science and modern technology began to change the face of the earth on an ever-increasing scale, human beings began to feel and rejoice in their newly found power. As nature was progressively reduced to a reservoir of resources that could be used at will, ever more people felt that eventually humans could be in total control of everything that was essential for their lives, and that humanity had reached the threshold of their ultimate emancipation. Science and technology, according to this thinking, would not just be ever improving tools with which to harness and exploit the forces of nature, but would ultimately lead to the wholesale replacement of the natural cosmos by a human-made world. The ideal of self-determination would thus culminate in a humanism of a most radical and comprehensive kind.

Writers and other artists availed themselves of the Greek mythological figure of Prometheus to express their enthusiasm for self-determination. Prometheus had stolen the fire from the gods, and had given it to humanity to enable them to develop their own independent existence. (In anthropological terms, mastery over fire was a crucial step in the development of human technology, civilization, and independence from natural forces.). As punishment for the theft, Zeus, as the head of the Olympian gods, had Prometheus chained to a rock in the Caucasus Mountains. Every day his eagles would visit the prisoner and eat from his liver, which always grew back over night. For the classical Greeks as well as for 18th century Europeans Prometheus represented the defiant idea of self-reliance and human sovereignty--the idea that ultimately human beings had no good reason to humble themselves before any power or lord.

While the most active center of Enlightenment culture was France, numerous writers and intellectuals in other countries shared its aspirations. Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, for example, were typical Enlightenment figures, and the United States as a whole was in several ways a concrete realization of Enlightenment ideals. Germany, although woefully backward in economic and political terms, produced some influential Enlightenment thinkers. Among these Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was the most famous. It was Kant who formulated the often-quoted definition of the philosophy that gave the century its name. His 1784 essay "What is Enlightenment?" starts out with the programmatic declaration:

Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. Self-incurred is this tutelage when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! Have courage to use your own reason! --that is the motto of enlightenment. (1)

Kant is best known for his theory of knowledge, formulated in The Critique of Pure Reason of 1781. In this work he developed his influential system of Transcendental Idealism, a theory according to which our knowledge of the external world is not a representation of reality as it is in itself, but a sort of construction that is to a large degree the product of our own minds. All we get from the world around us, according to this theory, are raw data--a medley of incoherent sense impressions--which have to be organized and put together by our rational faculties in order to become knowledge. Knowledge is thus a function of our active mental faculties, not a passive reflection of what exists "outside,” independently of our minds.

It is not Kant's Idealist theory of knowledge, however, that connects him to the Enlightenment. (With respect to knowledge most Enlightenment thinkers were, in fact, Materialists according to whom knowledge is the reflection of an independently existing reality.) What makes Kant an important Enlightenment thinker is his moral and political philosophy, together with his deep sympathy with all the tendencies that led up to the French Revolution. In his Critique of Practical Reason and other treatises Kant applied the idea of the inherently active and productive nature of the mind to the analysis of ethics. He argued for a position according to which valid ethical rules and standards cannot come from outside a person, but have to originate from a person's own active reason. A truly moral person, according to him, cannot passively accept the customs and values of any society, the rules and decrees of any established authority, or even the deeply felt impulses of his or her own non-rational intuitions or spontaneous reactions. Such passive acceptance of directives from outside one’s own reason would be a sign of immaturity and moral irresponsibility. A moral person has to determine rationally and for himself or herself what is right and wrong; an adult moral person has to be "autonomous." Autonomy is the ability to live by one's own laws. It is the importance that Kant attributes to personal autonomy--to individual self-determination--that makes him a typical and leading Enlightenment thinker, and that finds expression in his definition of enlightenment as “the release from self-incurred tutelage.”

The guiding metaphor of this definition is that of leaving behind one’s childhood and dependency, and of becoming a self-reliant and responsible adult. As a minor one cannot help being guided and shaped by precepts and directives that come from established traditions and authorities outside. A child has yet to learn how to think for himself or herself. At the point of reaching adulthood, however, a person has to consciously come to terms with guidance from without. Passively accepting the rules and norms of one’s youth will not do, according to Kant; doing so would amount to remaining a mental minor. A mature individual has to critically reflect on what is offered as moral, and decide on the basis of his or her own analyses whether an established morality is actually valid or not. Only moral idiots— people who have failed to inform themselves and critically think about relevant pros and cons--would leave such important decisions to others or to chance.

Such a philosophy of personal autonomy or individual self-determination could easily be understood (or rather misunderstood) as an ideology of subjective or egotistic arbitrariness--as an excuse, in the end, for self-centered recklessness and social irresponsibility. If a person is not bound by anything except by his or her personal idea of what is right and wrong, how can ethical relativism or downright nihilism be avoided? If every individual is beholden only to himself or herself, how can society escape a disguised or open war of all against all? Kant avoids the anti-social implications of certain kinds of individualism by designing a system of ethics which emphatically defines human beings as rational beings, and which explicitly makes the consideration of the interests of others an integral part of being rational.

As merely emotional beings most people tend to be narrow-minded and self-centered. By nature most people have a hard time putting themselves into other people's shoes. It is only through the discipline of reason that they are able to look at a situation from different points of view, i. e., to take a step back from their own feelings, and to take into consideration the interests and feelings of others. It is as rational beings, in other words, that people are able to think as social beings, and not just as isolated individuals with their one-sided desires and goals. It is the faculty of reason that most plausibly connects human beings with each other, and which turns a merely natural society of competing individuals into a human community with common ground. In a society where all people base their important judgments on reason, where everybody makes an honest attempt to see things also from other people's point of view, there will not be many unsolvable disagreements. It is only where people are ruled by their unacknowledged drives and unexamined feelings that consensus and cooperation eludes them.

Now, the mere presence of a sharp intelligence in an individual may not make such a person a truly social being. Some people, after all, use their rational faculty to make their anti-social sentiments and behavior particularly effective. They can be very intelligent individuals who have complete mastery over their emotions, and who use that intelligence and mastery to manipulate the ignorant, to take advantage of the weak, or even to commit crimes with impunity--all in pursuit of the gratification of strictly personal desires. Reason, one could argue, can make a person anti-social as well as social, and is thus not relevant for social ethics.

Kant, keenly aware of this possibility, argues therefore that a person is not truly rational if he or she simply uses reason to more effectively pursue non-rational goals, such as sensual gratification or the obsessive accumulation of material goods. People who are just clever in the way they gratify their mundane desires are still under the dominance of nature, not of reason. They basically are animals who use their capable brains in the way other creatures use their teeth or claws. Reason is not in over-all control in their case, but is reduced to be a mere "slave of the passions," as the philosopher David Hume put it at the time. When Kant says that human beings ought to be rational, that their true nature is to be rational, then he means that reason cannot be just a means to better achieve non-rational goals, but that rationality must be an end, a desirable goal in itself. Human communities cannot be intelligent animal kingdoms, but must represent a state of civilization in which freedom from and sovereignty over mere natural drives is a way of life. Only such a rule of reason and freedom from nature accords with the dignity that human beings should have in a state of enlightenment, according to Kant. Only such a way of life represents genuine rational self-determination.

The single most famous item in Kant's system of ethics is his "Categorical Imperative." The function of this Imperative is to test whether any particular judgment or action is morally alright or not. Kant’s main formulation of the Imperative is: "Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law." (2) A maxim is a personal rule that someone might follow in his or her life, such as "Always pay your debts” or "Never cheat on your lover.” The moral test of the validity of such a maxim consists in asking whether one could accept it as a universal law, i. e., as something that every rational being would follow. If the answer is yes, then the rule of conduct in question is morally alright. If the answer is no, then the rule is morally irrelevant or even immoral. If my maxim is "Always cheat others if you can get away with it," then I have a rule which I cannot very well want to be a universal law, as I may too easily become a victim of cheating. Society, indeed, could not survive if everybody tried to cheat all the time. My maxim thus would not pass the test of the Categorical Imperative.

The test of the Categorical Imperative insures that an autonomous person thinks of himself or herself as a social being, not just as a solitary individual. Kant's moral philosophy is thus both individualistic and communitarian. It is individualistic because it falls on the individual to decide what is right and wrong. It is communitarian in so far as that decision is not made with respect to one's own interests alone, but by way of a rational deliberation which involves consideration of others. In summary, Kant's Enlightenment individualism is not as anti-social as it might appear at first glance. It is not an ideology that places the individual's personal interests and convictions recklessly ahead of the interests and opinions of everyone else. It is an individualism that is embedded in a community of other individuals who are all equally autonomous and beholden to the consideration of the interests of others. Through the definition of the self as reason, and the installation of the Categorical Imperative in the operation of this reason, Kant insures that there is no contradiction between individual liberty and social responsibility. In a community of reason the two are not only compatible, but essentially the same.

The Categorical Imperative, incidentally, is also Kant's way of meeting the challenge of ethical relativism. Ethical relativism is based on the indisputable fact that different cultures as well as different individuals often have quite different conceptions of what is morally right or wrong. Kant does not deny this fact. What he denies is that there is no remedy for this potentially problematic situation-no way of finding a solution to moral problems and conflicts among communities and individuals with differing moralities. It is exactly because people differ in their moral outlooks that they have to take a step back from their naturally or culturally acquired positions and to ask how they can resolve their differences. In order to resolve any dilemma, people have to transcend what is dictated to them by feelings, inclinations, drives, upbringing, social pressures, tradition, etc., and they have to find a basis that is more solid than such accidents of personal psyche and cultural background. This basis is reason, the faculty shared by all human beings, and the sort of self-critical scrutiny that the Categorical Imperative prescribes. Rational individuals who honestly search for valid answers to moral questions neither should nor have to stop their search at the first primitive reactions they may have, or at the traditional responses that may have been drilled into them by their culture or their authorities. Reason will replace automatic and dogmatic responses with a search for more information and an honest consideration of other points of view.

This does not mean, of course, that all moral problems can be satisfactorily solved by reasoning, let alone by the application of the Categorical Imperative. Sometimes (but not all too often) situations are genuinely tragic in the sense that equally good reasons can be offered for and against a certain decision. Still, much has been gained for ethics by the idea that reason is to undermine the primitive emotionalism and cultural narrow-mindedness of those who never question the validity of their heartfelt convictions. Visceral self-righteousness and thoughtless dogmatism are rarely compatible with genuine morality. The critique of unexamined views and handed-down rules is usually a first necessary step toward anything that can be called moral wisdom or justice. It prepares the way for what in the end is more decisive than any inherited rules or emotional gratification--compassionate consideration and dispassionate analysis.


(From Jorn K. Bramann: Educating Rita and Other Philosophical Movies)

"The Cider House Rules"