The famous categorical imperative!
Kant was the most famous philosopher of he Enlightenment, and he had some truly remarkable contributions to the human civilization. One of his most notable achievements is the creation of an ethical framework based purely on rational thinking. Previous ethical frameworks, at least in Western civilization, were all based on god.
The categorical imperative is the one fundamental rule that defines what it is to be a good person. It has several different formulations, all meaning the same thing. Here is one formulation:
Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.
Kant chose preciseness over clarity in his formulation, so it takes some time to digest what he is saying.
Let me try to simplify his words (and by doing so, choose clarity over preciseness):
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
My personal value system is very much in line with Kant’s… I’d say it’s 99% the same. Why not 100%, you ask? Only because of this: Kant’s value system is based on rules and not on consequences of one’s actions. I firmly believe that there are situations in life where blindly following rules – no matter how smartly defined those rules are – is not the right thing to do. One always has to be mindful of the potential consequences, and apply good judgement before following any rule.
Rules or consequences – this is a well known debate among philosophers: it’s called the deontological vs the consequentialist ethical system. Kant was representative of the deontological school of though. Nietzsche was representative of the consequentialist school.
In the middle ages, Thomas Aquinas constructed the Natural Law Theory for ethics… In his view, human beings are pre-loaded with some instincts/drives that make them good.
The natural laws are:
- Preserve life
- Make more life
- Educate one’s offspring
- Seek god
- Live in society
- Avoid offence
- Shun ignorance
I personally agree with this value system in ~80%. Let me explain why…
In my value system the point: “Seek god” does not have a place. In my view ethics and divinity are completely separate things. What is good and what is bad does not come from some higher consciousness… but rather from a deep understanding of who we, humans, really are.
There is one other point where my value system differs from that of Thomas Aquinas, and that is the point: “Make more life”. This is indeed a strongly wired instinct in all animals, and consequently in all humans. But I would not go as far as to give it a prominent place in my value system, because doing so would imply that those who are not having children – either for health or for social reasons, or simply because they choose not to – are somehow less valuable people.
In his book, The Republic, Book IV, Plato wrote down what the ancient Greeks called the four cardinal virtues.
These virtues are:
I took the liberty of using a different words, more accessible to the 21th century thinker, to describe these virtues:
- self control
This list is very useful…. Because it is concrete! In all my readings about ethics, philosophers go to a great detail in setting up frameworks and defining concepts, but they rarely have the guts to come up with practical useful guidance. This is a rare exception.
I personally agree with these values in 100%.