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Saturday, September 24, 2011

KANT: Conscience 2011

How should we live? That’s one of the questions philosophy has to answer from one generation to the next. John Stuart Mill thinks each generation needs to decide for itself the best way to live. Not only that, but each individual person in each generation should decide the best way to live. What works for one generation may not work for another generation. And what works for one person may not work for somebody else. Mill puts the emphasis on our freedom to choose. Immanuel Kant agrees with Mill, but only up to a point. Here’s where they agree. Kant says that enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one's own understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another. Sapere Aude! (dare to know) "Have courage to use your own understanding!" that is the motto of enlightenment. That’s something Mill would have no trouble agreeing with. We need to exercise our freedom to choose for ourselves what we think and how we live. But Kant believes this freedom to choose isn’t quite as free as Mill might have us think. Kant poses this question: what if we choose badly? What if we choose not to live right? For Mill there’s no “right way” to live. We’re the only ones who ultimately can determine what makes us happy. So we keep experimenting until we get it right. But Kant believes differently. He thinks that human lives aren’t just some kind of experimental laboratories so we can explore various modes of living. We weren’t born into a world of our own making. We were born into a certain kind of world with certain kinds of laws governing it. Just as there are laws of physics governing the physical universe, Kant thinks there are moral laws governing the ethical universe. If we break those laws there will be consequences. “Conscience” is the tool that nature has given to us to determine those consequences. When we make choices our consciences act like Geiger counters to let us know when something’s gone wrong. We’ve either made a bad choice or we’re fixing to make a bad choice. Again the question comes up: what if we choose badly? How do we know if we’ve chosen to do good or to do bad? Kant says that We have the faculty to judge ourselves logically…but conscience has the power to summon us against our will before the judgment seat… In other words, we really don’t have a choice in the matter. Our personal freedom to choose isn’t what’s at stake here. What’s at stake here is a question of right and wrong. Many people have a hard time using rigid categories such as “good and evil” or “right and wrong.” Even in Kant’s time he acknowledges that many have argued that conscience is a work of art and education… And Mill was one of those arguing that we’re formed by our upbringing, the neighborhoods we live in, the schools we attend; these are the things that develop our individual consciences. Not so, says Kant. Conscience isn’t a “work of art” developed by human beings. Conscience is an instinct to pass judgment upon ourselves in accordance with moral laws. These moral laws stand apart from our mental abilities to create them. They’re more like the law of gravity that functions whether or not we fully understand why. That’s how we come to know right from wrong and good from bad. Our little Geiger counters go off and our consciences summon us before the judgment seat. Our first instinct may be to plead ignorance and claim: but I didn’t know. Kant (our conscience) will reply: oh yes, you did. That’s because natural moral laws must be known to all; they are contained in our reason…with positive laws we can have innocent errors…in respect to the natural law there are no innocent errors. Conscience doesn’t make mistakes. This fact is either reassuring, or troubling, depending on the person and on how they’ve been living. How then should we live? Mill says “choose what makes you happy.” Kant adds “but first, check with your conscience.”


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