Kant’s Categorical Imperative

drvtowk1Years ago before I had kids I was in Boston taking the T with my brother and the turnstile was broken. There was a long line to buy tokens and I didn’t feel like waiting.

“Let’s just jump it,” I said impatiently.

“Absolutely not,” my brother answered. “If everyone went through a busted turnstile, where would that leave the public transit system? You have to think about the Categorical Imperative.”

That was the first time I was introduced to Kant’s concept of the Categorical Imperative.

The way my brother explained it, Immanuel Kant believed that you should evaluate any individual action by what would happen to society at large if everyone did that same action, and you should act in a moral way accordingly.

I know two people — one in Ashland, Oregon and one in St. Paul, Minnesota — who live so carefully, deliberately, and consciously that if we held them up to the standard of the Categorial Imperative and we all lived the way they do, overnight the world would be a better place.

The friend here in Ashland started a Saturday farmers market, made her house so air tight that she only needs to turn the heat on for an hour in the morning, bikes everywhere with her two kids, drives a beat-up old Mercedes that she runs on biofuel, has been spearheading a farms-to-school program to get healthy, organic food into the public schools, and is a master seamstress. Trace makes reusable bulk bags that you can buy at the Ashland Food Co-op instead of using plastic or paper. Her house is amazingly uncluttered and since most of her food comes directly from local farmers, she doesn’t have those annoying little stickers on them (I’ve never figured out what to do with those.) She also line dries her laundry, which is something I aspire to.

My friend in Minnesota is a political cartoonist. He’s never owned a car. He decided in his twenties not to have children because he was worried about overpopulation. He and his wife start seeds in every sunny window in their house. When they lived in Boston they grew food at a community garden that was half a mile away across a busy street. If you ever get a chance to see Andy wash the dishes, you know you’re in the presence of a man whose example, if we all followed it, could change the world. He takes his time. He uses a tiny amount of water. He gets the dishes clean. It’s really amazing.

Those two friends inspire me to be a better, more conscious, and more aware person. That’s what we all need: not to feel guilty about what we’re doing wrong but to be inspired to change our unsustainable habits.

James was a philosophy major. James likes to talk about Kant who, apparently, was a strange and reclusive man. He lived in the same house his entire life and slept in a twin bed.

I don’t know if this story is true but the way James tells it is that Kant did not like to sweat. A man of routine, he went walking every morning. But he only walked a few paces before he would stop and rest. Step, step, stop. Step, step, stop. He did this to avoid sweating.

Our car culture drives me crazy. The sweat I don’t mind.

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11 thoughts on “Kant’s Categorical Imperative”

  1. Jennifer,

    Love that philosophy. So simple – but really not. It takes time and effort and a real awareness to live this way. It’s akin to treating others the way you’d want to be treated (unless you want to be treated poorly :)…maybe the message will be carried forth.

    Thanks for a great message – and what friends you have!
    .-= sheryl´s last blog ..You’re Invited to an Exclusive Event =-.

  2. I wish I were sophisticated enough not to think of Monty Python’s “Philosophers’ Sketch” whenever I come across Kant. But I’m not and I now have the song sung by many Australian Bruces ringing in my head.
    .-= Frugal Kiwi´s last blog ..First Thursdays =-.

  3. Kant’s philosophy reminds me of the Golden Rule. And yes, if we took the time to think more about our actions, the world would be a lot different.

  4. I like that your friends do not make you feel bad about what you’re doing but instead inspire you to do better. It’s actually quite amazing because so often we just beat ourselves up when we see someone who we perceive as doing better than we do. Kant sounds like a bit of a kook, but I do like his philosophy about this.

  5. I remember the first time I heard about Kant’s Categorical Imperative. I thought, “oh man, why did he have to give it such a complicated name?”

    Yes, that’s what happens when you explain Kant to a 14 year old.
    .-= Stephanie – Wasabimon´s last blog ..Winner of the

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