Immanuel Kant: A Philosopher of Ethics, Morality, and Progress

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Immanuel Kant (18th century)

Regarded as one of the greatest philosophers in history, he came up with a brilliant set of ideas which formed his philosophy. He made a distinction between material ethics and formal ethics. Material ethics try to change how humans are for what they ought to be using virtue as a tool for such a goal. The problem here for Kant is that humans do not usually agree on what they should be. Some humans look for happiness while others for saintliness, heroism, or pleasure. It is virtually impossible to reach a consensus on this matter. To solve this problem, Kant tries to provide a formula which he calls categorical imperative. He takes this imperative from the gospel: treat others the way you want yourself to be treated. Ethics and morality should overcome the conditional state: for him, morality is unconditional. Morality must therefore be independent from third parties such as religion or politics.

During his life, the French Revolution was very present in almost every European State: they feared the revolutionary movement spreading into their states. Kant considered history to be progressive. History moves to an end which he named perpetual peace: this end is achieved in a process of moral progression. For Kant, politics ought to be guided by morality. He had a very positive vision of the French Revolution in this manner; he thought it was an important step in this process: thanks to citizenship, we are all equal according to the law. Previous political thinkers came up with a principle called Reason of State: moral should not interfere in acts necessary for the survival of the state. Kant thought this principle had to disappear. He thought that enlightenment was the adulthood of humankind: humans should be autonomous, laws should be given to oneself. Enlightenment consists of consciously making progress: the goal is to be morally self-aware. Immanuel, like Hobbes, was also a social contract theorist. He developed a concept which he called private right: an agreement between individuals. The creation of a state partially consists of the transformation of private right into public right. The biggest issue with private right is that it is unenforceable. The driving force for the creation of the state is consequently somehow utilitarian due to its usefulness. This step is a necessary condition for moral and human development being one of the first in this process: it’s a necessary precondition for the human moral life.

For Kant, the state of anarchy between states should disappear with the creation of a civic state between states, the creation of a society between states. This was a fundamental step in the moral progress of humanity. For realists, there is no connection between domestic politics and international politics: this last one consists of survival and national interest, there isn’t really a wide range of choices. Kant, as a liberal, was somehow the grandfather of the democratic peace theory: democratic states do not go to war between themselves. Democratic republic states have freedom, equality, and independence. The definition of freedom for Kant was the public use of reason. For liberals, rulers are responsible for war. With public reason influencing foreign policy, states behave more peacefully (e.g., Vietnam War). In contrast, realists think that foreign policies must not be completely open to the public. Kant comes up with three exceptions in which the public use of reason is of no use. Firstly, in the army, where it would be logically suicidal: commanding and fast action is greatly more convenient. Secondly, if you are a priest or a religious figure: there has to be a religious authority. Third of all with tax collectors: it is unreasonable for one to collect money and speak his mind of the unfairness of the amount. One of the key elements to overcome international anarchy states must become democratic states: a league of republics. Kant is considered one of the founding fathers of the United Nations. For the full development of moral life and the overcoming of the state of nature, there is a necessity to create a civic state between states. He came up with three ideas to overcome this situation: 1. International Institutions: he called this a Republican League of States (modern-day UN). 2. International Trade: with trade, states become interdependent. 3. Democratic Peace Theory: republican states as he called them or democratic ones are more peaceful than other governments.

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