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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