The Sage of Königsberg

The Sage of Königsberg

Life has taught me to watch what people do more than simply to listen to what they say. I have spent a good part of my career roaming the world in search of thousands of people with things to show me and experiences to share, as I conduct historical and biographical research, produce radio documentaries and also my feature film The Blinding Sea, and teach throngs of university students.

So, in reading works of philosophy on ethical issues, I find it disconcerting to see a fundamental disconnect between abstract armchair theorizing and the way human actions play out in reality.

For example, when I read Aristotle, for whom “freedom is obedience to self-formulated rules” (The Nicomachean Ethics, c. 335-322 BC), I detect the risk of a proud moral tyranny in the making, even though that tyranny may be self-imposed.

And when I read the eighteenth-century systematizer of ethics Immanuel Kant, the sage of Königsberg, I note he spent a lifetime in virtual isolation, reading, writing and teaching in a Prussian provincial capital, his daily existence regulated like clockwork. This is definitely the armchair view of human behaviour, and it is something to which I do not subscribe.

Immanuel Kant, the sage of Königsberg, built vast systems of thought sitting in a gilded armchair

For example, in Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785), Kant articulates three principles of ethics which together form what he calls the “categorical imperative.” He does this first by stating the fundamental rationality of humans, then by abstracting or secularizing a few basic principles of the Christian religion. (By the way, he also says non-human animals are wholly irrational.)

First, he says, “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”

Second, “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.”

And third, “Thus the third practical principle follows [from the first two] as the ultimate condition of their harmony with practical reason: the idea of the will of every rational being as a universally legislating will.”

But wait a second! My experience of life does not suggest people are by definition fundamentally rational: on the contrary, I see people as occasionally rational, but also subject to misunderstandings, ignorance, dream logic, wishful thinking, delusions and the influence of malevolent agents. Besides, many of our most important decisions are based on intuition rather than reason.

And in my encounters with non-human animals, I often see enabling, endearing, mothering, fathering, protective behaviours – sometimes between species – which strike me as rational and moral in their own way.

I don’t believe non-human animals act merely on the basis of instinct. They are also capable of observation and judgment, and therefore of moral actions

Then again, how can I believe in a single universal reality within us or “out there” that can be reduced to a series of clear-cut maxims?

We are encouraged to learn from our experience. Suppose we form judgments, then act, on the basis of what we observe. In so doing, we are reasoning about life. But according to Lucretius, “what is food for one man may be bitter poison to others.” Not everyone perceives or experiences the same thing. The trained mind of a philosopher or lawyer sees one reality; the eye of an artist or radiologist another; the trained ear of a musician or speech therapist hears something else again; I remember having a legally blind student at SUNY who learned a great deal through the sense of touch, and taught us about that in class.

Our point of view is based on many factors, including our proximity to events, our health, age, prior experiences, education, social status, expectations, not to mention our personal, gender, ethnic and linguistic identity.

Moreover, each person’s point of view is liable to change over time. We may wish to live up to the ideal of treating others as we would have them treat us – but what if we learn, over time, that our actions have had unintended and even catastrophic effects? How can freedom lie in obeying what we once took for self-formulated rules (Aristotle), if those rules have since turned out to have been destructive? Maintaining those rules against all odds is obstinacy, not freedom.

We are not abstractions, nor can our behaviour be reduced to a series of crisp maxims

Broadly speaking, I see seven approaches to ethics, based on the way people actually behave.

(1) First come Kant’s virtue ethics, based on abstract moral principles. Kant has dreamed these up while living a protected life in an armchair in Königsberg. Then there are (2) transactional ethics, which I understand as seeking a balance between public and private interests, taking into account power dynamics and what we are able/unable to do in given transactions, based on our limitations. A relativist view frequently met with is that (3) ethics are in the eye of the beholder, so key concepts like equity, fairness, integrity and transparency are actually fluid.

Then again, if I were to secularize one of the main principles of the Christian faith, the way Kant has done, I could imagine (4) the ethics of self-sacrifice as if there were no tomorrow. For example, John 3:16 says: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Many religious authorities encourage the faithful to sacrifice themselves following Christ’s example of freely accepting death on the Cross, as if virtue were its own reward … as if harming oneself, while trying to help others, were a moral judgment cast on the evil of the world. I remember a well-meaning but misguided professor telling me to trust people in order to make them more trustworthy, which actually proved to be the recipe for disaster.

But then, what should we make of the gap lying between what people say in public, and what they do in private? This brings me to (5) ethics as lip service or a public diversion, enabling people to shield from view that they are acting unethically in private, while they publicly promote a higher good, at least verbally. If we consider responsibility as one of the foundations of ethical behaviour, what are we to make of public organizations, governments and churches that shirk responsibility for their own unethical and even illegal actions? Related to this, I can think of (6) either/or ethics, based on a false dichotomy or face-value assumption that public institutions are more likely to be ethical (since they claim to be acting in the public interest) than private ones.

And lastly, I come to (7) ethics as a survival guide for individuals because there is little point in creating across-the-board systems of thought (like those promoted by Aristotle or Kant). I don’t believe we can change the behaviour of other people, nor can we unilaterally change society or the impacts of technology: we can, however, protect ourselves from harm, while making sure we do so in a way that doesn’t mistreat, manipulate or exploit others.

The last of these approaches, ethics as a survival guide for individuals, may not be as intellectually satisfying as some vast armchair system like Kant’s, but it works in practice, and it can improve the quality of life.

After all, it is not just what we do that is important, but the way we do it.



Mosaics of Meaning

April 9, 2023


April 9, 2023

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