Monthly Archives: December 2009
Mistrust and suspicion are on the increase in our society; and confidence in our institutions is in decline. To understand why a “crisis of trust” is so serious, we must take account of the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, who placed honesty and trustworthiness at the heart of his theory of how we should live.
During his lifetime Kant produced some of the most profound works of philosophy ever written, in metaphysics and aesthetics as well as in ethics, and is generally regarded as the most important philosopher since Aristotle. He wrote several works of moral philosophy, but the best-known is the short but enormously influential Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals (1785), which has inspired many contemporary philosophers, including Onora O’Neill. His influence can also be seen in the wider world, in the everyday recognition of the moral importance of informed consent and of human dignity.
The most important features of Kant’s ethical theory are his conceptions of human worth, and of the ideal moral community. Kant believes that all people have absolute value, or dignity, because they can be autonomous and rational, and that they should be treated in ways that recognize these capacities. Kant gives two accounts of how to treat other people. First, he thinks that when you decide what to do, you should act on a principle that others could adopt and act on; you should not treat yourself as an exception to the rule. This is Kant’s version of the Golden Rule, “do as you would be done by” that is found in many different religious and ethical systems.
Secondly, Kant thinks that you must not use other people in ways to which they could not consent. You ought to respect others; you should not use or manipulate them simply as a means to benefit yourself. People should be treated as having dignity, as “ends”, not merely as means. Kant develops a picture of the ideal moral community using this conception of how people should be treated. The ideal community is a “kingdom of ends” in which people are never merely used by others, and no one acts on principles to which others could not consent.
According to Kant’s system, there are certain ways of acting that are always wrong, categorically wrong for any person, at any time, in any society. For example, it is always wrong to make a false promise, a promise which you do not intend to keep. When you make a false promise, you are acting on a principle that could not be adopted by everyone. It is absolutely impossible for everyone to adopt and act on a principle of making false promises; if everyone did, no one would trust anyone else, or believe that they would honor their promises. False promising would be impossible, because no one would accept your promise. When you make a false promise, you are relying on other people honestly keeping their promises; you are treating yourself as an exception.
I am a firm believer in the theory that we are as culpable for the pain we experience when we are let down by the false promises of others. Too many times we tend to endow people with those qualities we wish them to have instead of looking objectively at the qualities they actually possess. Our dissapointment always seems to stem from a failing of others to live up to the expectations we have created inside of our own minds about how things will be done and when and how those events will make us feel about ourselves. Isn’t that what love is? “How a person makes us feel about ourselves when we are with them”