At the top of my reading pile is a Wall Street Journal op-ed in which Prof. Paula Marantz Cohen argues for Kant’s Categorical Imperative in “easing the civility crisis.” The first imperative of the German Enlightenment philosopher “suggests that how you want to be treated should be generalized for everyone.” The problem with this rule is that right and left have their “own concept of moral righteousness and no ability to find common ground.” For this reason we’re asked to focus on the second imperative, of treating others with respect. As stated by Kant:
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.
Prof. Cohen favors Kant’s pedagogical system, which she explains, could be utilized as easily by agnostics as by theists. Contrary to the educational assumptions of the 1960s, which focused on the freedom and autonomy of the self, “Kant’s moral theory centers on the freedom of others.” It begins with “negative” (yet necessary) proscriptions – knowing when to tell a very young child “no” without attempting to prematurely, and rather futility, reason things out. It is important for the child to know that “there is an authority beyond the self.” This is the foundation for the “positive” education of later years when people are taught to apply moral and rational analysis to real life situations.
The article summarizes the benefits of civility as a way to conduct a less vituperative dialogue over tough issues. The problem with the ideological approach is that it demonizes opponents and makes us assume the worst about others. Hence we violate Kant’s stricture of not treating people as “subjects” but merely as “objects,” or means to an end. To that way of thinking, if people can help us get what we want, great; and if they don’t, they must be silenced or pushed aside.
I think no decent person could disagree with this analysis, though perhaps left to itself the reasoning is circular. Without some higher, transcendent sanction (e.g. God), there is actually no imperative to follow Kant’s rules. Well-meaning attempts to patch up the crumbling Enlightenment cultural framework appear lacking. The post-modern debacle ultimately came about because we neglected some very important pre-modern truths. That said, unless we adopt a measure of good will, as Prof. Cohen proposes, we may never get a chance to politely discuss what those truths are.