What Kant Can Teach Me…And You

By Shlomo Maital

Immanuel Kant 1724-1804

    My friend R. James Breiding’s excellent blog provides a timely reminder of my Philosophy 1 studies at Queen’s University, Canada, in 1960…many many years ago.   A dense philosophy tome from 1785 by Kant proves up-to-the-minute relevant.

       Our instructor at Queen’s,  A.R.C. Duncan, a clear-thinking prickly Scot, taught us logic, ethics and metaphysics, all of this in one demanding semester. Everything I learned in those few lectures, I remember and use.  Nothing is more practical than philosophy, despite what many believe.

       For instance, Kant.  How can we know what is right and what is wrong?  Kant told us.   His principle, the “categorical imperative”, is simple and highly relevant.  And it applies everywhere, to everyone, at all times. Here it is, from 1785, when Kant was a wise 61-year-old:

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

    In other words —  if I refuse to be vaccinated or wear  a mask,  would I be happy if everyone else did the same? 

    Am I happily going without a mask because I can do so since everyone else wears one? 

     Breiding notes that the US Supreme Court, in an earlier day when it was not yet polluted with five Trumpist hacks, invoked this principle: 

     “The U.S. Supreme Court may have decided similarly in Jacobson v. Massachusetts (197 U.S. 11; 1905) when it ruled “It is within the power of a State to enact a compulsory vaccination law . . . for the prevention of smallpox and the protection of the public health”. Similar reasoning underpins rules against drunk driving where one’s freedom can be devastating to another.”

  One’s freedom CAN be devastating to another.  So civil society limits that freedom.  Personal freedom is not unlimited.   It never was. 

   Why is this so hard for so many to understand?