Following Kantian Ethics Politically….Across The Political Spectrum In A Plethora Of Ways
The ethical philosophies of Immanuel Kant are usually dismissed by political progressives and this is understandable. He holds a deontological ethical theory called the categorical imperative—where ethics are formulated into rules that cannot be broken, and these rules reflect traditional moral codes in a lot of ways. Nevertheless, several left-leaning political figures and philosophers have been sympathetic to Kantian ethics because when you understand it, you see that it is not conservative or even political in itself. By the same token, some right-wing figures have been very opposed to Kantianism. The aim of this article is to educate people of all political persuasions on Kantian ethics just because it’s good to know.
Why Many Conservatives Like Immanuel Kant
The most basic scepticism of conservative politics is: what are your conservative values based on? If family, freedom and Christianity are your values, then on what basis should these be conserved rather than just: It’s always been this way, so this is the way. (appeal to antiquity). Conservatism itself doesn’t answer this question; it is the conservative who has his own personal reason for his values.
One of the bases that many conservatives hold for their values is Kantian Ethics. It is a strong basis because of the logical rigour through which he justifies the axioms in his moral system. It is a cohesive system of moral rules, where everything works in relation to everything else and the axioms themselves have a logical basis. Basically, he has a small number of Universal Laws, and from these are derived the moral rules that must be followed.
The Universal Rules are:
- Only do something if it would be ok if everyone did the same thing
- Treat people as ends and never as means
- Following the Universal Rules is only moral out of autonomy, not out of forced will
- Follow the principles that a rational community has agreed are the rules of that community
These rules themselves are not overly political, and this is the reason why the topic of this article—of the conservativeness of Kant’s Ethics, would probably not be considered valid by most of the philosophical community. We’re not delving into the ontology of whether Kant’s ethics are themselves political, because we are talking about how they are used. These are the moral rules that generally are derived as outcomes of the Universal Rules:
- No lying
- No cheating
- No stealing
- No sexual voyeurism
- No paedophilia
- No killing people
- People should always have liberty and freedom
These basic, well-agreed upon Kantian rules are still not overly political, but they do seem similar to the 10 Commandments. Christians have definitely used Kant to try to justify their 10 Commandments, and they pretty much succeed (if you believe in Kant’s Ethics).
But also, there is an inflexibility to these laws, an absolutism that appeals to conservatives because it really is the basis to conservative politics. It’s when independent of conditions, something is always right or wrong. Conservatives to some extent want or believe their beliefs to be universal and timeless. This may be because they were brought up with those values when they were younger, or simply because they believe in something strongly. An example of a belief that is strong enough for many people to hold an absolutist, conservative opinion is that abortion is wrong. If Kantian ethics are used to oppose abortion, then that say that abortion is never ever ok under any circumstances. Even if a very young girl were pregnant with a baby that was going to be born with serious birth defects, then it would still not be ok to abort. Of course, we’re not talking about all conservatives here, we are talking about those who subscribe to Kantian ethics. If one is a hard conservative, then Kantian ethics are a good basis for which to hold an unwavering hard-line view. If one is a soft conservative, then maybe one would argue that Kantian ethics does not forbid abortion, because the fetus is not a person yet, so killing it isn’t taking away its freedom (because a non-person cannot have freedom in the first place).
Why Many Progressives And Left-Wingers Also Like Kant
Many on the other side of the spectrum are also sympathetic to Kant’s morality because it endorses libertarianism. If there’s one thing that most people in the Western world agree on, it’s libertarianism.
But, more specifically, it can be used to promote the egalitarianism that is essential to the left-wing way of thinking. Treating people as ends means exploiting them through capitalism; only doing what it would be ok for everyone to do can mean avoiding gratuitous living and donating to charity.
But how can a set of rules so rigid and strict ever lead to people being progressive? Some progressives follow Kant’s morality because they hold strongly idealistic moral views. For instance, some anarchists may borrow from Kant in forming their beliefs that all government control is immoral. When people don’t have a choice, they can’t hold accountability for their own actions, and this defeats the essential reason for morality—which is to be good. Therefore, a Kantian anarchist would say that people should have freedom over every choice, and that if society breaks down, it’s because people were bad.
Why Some Right-Wingers Really Dislike Kant
There are a lot of followers of the philosophy of Ayn Rand. There are many public figures who are fans including Steve Dikto, the creator of Spiderman. There is even the Ayn Rand Institute, dedicated to advancing her philosophy. This philosophy called ‘Objectivism’ is based on absolute self-determination. It’s absolutely libertarian and you would expect it to be paralleled to Kantianism. But, Ayn Rand called Kant “the first hippie in history”, and her devout followers uphold this view
The reason why Rand speaks so derisively of Kant is probably to distinguish herself from him quite firmly. She would have realised that the parallel could be drawn and the distinction between Kant and her confused. The reason she disagrees with Kant is probably because Kant’s Universal Rules endorse egalitarianism also. She is strongly, strongly opposed to egalitarianism and altruism, because people should just make their own way according to her. The problem is that she didn’t ever really engage in philosophical debates seriously or research the areas relating to her views. Therefore, it is questionable whether she really understood Kant. But….these articles are never ever politically weighted, so this definitely isn’t one of the many instances of Ayn Rand-bashing on the internet. There is enough of that already.