Immanuel Kant was born April 22, 1724 in Königsberg, East Prussia. What is known today as Kaliningrad and is part of Russia. Despite this Kant was a German philosopher. Kant was born into an artisan family, his father was a harness maker and his mother the daughter of a harness maker. Kant was not considered to have grown up in destitute, however he describes living through scarce times during his childhood. Kant’s parents were Pietist and he attended a Pietist school, the Collegium Fridericianum, from ages eight through fifteen. Kant resented the religious teaching of the Collegium and focused his devotion to Latin classic literature until attending college at the University of Königsberg, known as the Albertina, where his interest in classicism was quickly superseded by philosophy, mathematics and physics (Schellekens, 2012).
The death of his father had a strong effect on Kant, he left the university and earned a living as a private tutor. However, in 1755 he accepted the help of a friend and resumed study, receiving his doctorate in 1756. He then taught at the university and remained there for 15 years, beginning his lectures on the sciences and mathematics, though over time he covered most branches of philosophy and began to earn a reputation as an original thinker. As students started to come from far and wide to hear his unorthodox approach to religious texts, the Prussian government and Kant was banned from teaching or writing on religious subjects in 1792. For five years Kant obediently followed the King Fredrich William II’s order until The year following his retirement, he published a summary of his views on religion. Kant died in 1804 (Schellekens, 2012).
Immanuel Kant is universally regarded as the central figure in modern philosophy. Known for his synthesizing of rationalism and empiricism, Kant set forth terms for much of nineteenth and twentieth century philosophy. To this day, his life’s works continue to serve as a significant influence in fields such as metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, politics and aesthetics. Kant argues that the human understanding is the source of the general laws of nature that structure all our experience; and that human reason gives itself the moral law, which is our basis for belief in God and freedom, or “human autonomy” (Franke, 2013).
Immanuel Kant majorly pioneered the groundwork for modern thinking and developed several ethical models. Perhaps his most first and foremost formulation being the “categorical imperative” which refers to the responsibility of every able minded individual to act in each circumstance as a moral agent, and so as it would be appropriate for every individual to act that way all of the time separate from race, gender and religion. Kant argues that reason based thinking should be a deciding factor behind all decisions (Schellekens, 2012).
Kant wet on to derive four further formulations based upon his categorical imperative:
Universalizability: “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”
Humanity as an end in itself: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means.”
Kingdom of Ends: “A rational being must always regard himself as giving laws either as member or as sovereign in a kingdom of ends which is rendered possible by the freedom of will.”
Formula of Autonomy: This principle requires people to recognize the right of others to act autonomously and means that, as moral laws must be universalizable, what is required of one person is required of all.
All of these models were set forth and published in Kant’s original work Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, 1785 (Franke, 2013).
Standards set forth by Kantian ethics have influenced descendant formulations of other world-renowned philosophers. German philosopher Jürgen Habermas credits Immanuel Kant for inspiring his theory of discourse ethics which proposed that action should be based on communication between those involved, in which all parties can pronounce and protect their interests when settling conflict (Proops, 2015).
Also, the social contract theory of famous political philosopher John Rawls, developed in his work A Theory of Justice, was influenced by Kant’s ethics. Social contract theory says that all individuals have an obligation to sacrifice some of their freedom to protect the rest of society as well as their remaining rights (Habermas, 1987).
To apply Kant’s categorical imperative to a hypothetical, real life situation I will consider the possibility that a person, person A, discovers a backpack filled with $50,000 in a public place. It is broad daylight and many people are on the scene. After watching for a few moments, nobody seems to be tending the bag. Concurrently, person A has a close family member in need of a kidney transplant that the $50,000 will surely cover. Does this person leave the bag due strictly due to the fact that it is not their property and it would be wrong for them to take what is not theirs? Or does this person’s moral obligation lie with the ends, her family member’s new kidney and health. Perhaps the $50,000 is far more valuable to person A than it is person B, however where and how does rationality apply to this situation? Would it be universalizable of an action? Should everybody in the world act with this self-preservation in all similar circumstances? Is it more just for the bag to go where it is more needed or where to it belongs? Surely we want to see the money go to the hands of person A, however would this compromise Kant’s famous ideology of “live you life as though every act were to become a universal law”?
Franke, M. (2013). A Critique of the Universalisability of Critical Human Rights Theory: The Displacement of Immanuel Kant. Human Rights Review, 14(4), 367-385.
Habermas, J. (1987). Knowledge and Human Interest. Oxford: Polity Press/ Basil Blackwell.
Proops, I. (2015). Kant on the Ontological Argument. Nous, 49(1), 1-27.
Schellekens, E. (2012). Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). In A. i. Giovannelli (Ed.), Aesthetics (pp. 61-74). New York, NY: Continuum.