I’ve been listening to Michael Sandel’s Justice lecture series while I’ve cooked dinner this past week. And most recently, he was discussing Kant and he provided the following example. Suppose that a simpleton walks into a shop and buys something. The shopkeeper could shortchange the customer. But she doesn’t because she thinks it might get around and hurt her business. According to Kant, this would not be a moral act, because the reason that she isn’t shortchanging the customer is only because of the practical considerations of her own self interest. She should, instead, not shortchange the customer because the customer is a fellow human being who deserves dignity.
I have my problems with Kant’s moral reasoning, in as much as I understand it. In a general sense, I don’t think there is any real distinction between doing something because it is “right” and doing it because it is self serving. The problem that I have with it is not theoretical — I would never go head to head with Kant on that level! But I have seen in my life a whole lot of people who delude themselves into thinking that they are morally superior to others. But what I see are people who have an addiction to the feeling of superiority.
A good example of this is the non-drug addict who feels superior to the junkie. They are both addicts — just to different states of mind. Obviously, Kant is dealing with this on a higher level. But ultimately, he fetishizes rational thought. And his entire system becomes little more intellectual tinkering that is at best useless. It also has a certain tautological aspect to it where it assumes what it is trying prove: the intellect must conquer the will because the intellect is the greater good. We know this because Kant deems it so.
Just the same, I do think that there are better and worse reasons for doing things. Valuing fellow human beings as equals who deserve dignity is a greater good than valuing them as mere means to some end. I will take that as a given. I’m not a philosopher. In fact, I think philosophy is largely a farce: a way of justifying what we are going to do regardless for purely mechanical reasons. Had we evolved in such a way that cannibalism was important to our survival, Kant would have used his remarkable mind to come up with a very different moral philosophy.
But I’m interested in the shopkeeper example as it relates to what I see as modern Christian ethics. I’m not talking about the big brained thinkers at the Vatican, who take this stuff seriously. But the right wing Christians, who are forever on our television sets telling us what God does and does not want, are not acting as the good shopkeeper who doesn’t cheat the customer out of respect for her humanity. Rather, they are like the bad shopkeeper who doesn’t cheat the customer simply because of the negative reputation that it might generate — in their case because God will punish them.
I’m not a Christian, so I probably shouldn’t care. But I care about life as a serious endeavor. So the idea that one just follows along with a set dogma and everything is okay strikes me as so wasteful. It’s rather the opposite of Kant’s moral reasoning. His is useless because it is theoretical, without practical guidelines. But following dogma is all practical without theoretical guidelines. And that leads to the very common situation where Christians are easy marks for charlatans who fill in the endless gaps in the Bible. Is abortion is in the Bible? No, but there are plenty of “experts” who will explain to you why abortion is murder — as though it were dogma, right there in the Bible — the Eleventh Commandment: thou shalt treat a fertilized egg as though it were a fully formed human.
Ultimately, we need both practical and theoretical notions about how best to live our lives. The greatest thing we seem to be missing is humility and an acceptance of uncertainty. I would hope we are all agreed that the simpleton should not be cheated. But of course, we aren’t.