There are many different ways to resolve ethical questions. Two ways in particular appear similar. We can identify them by their golden rule;
- “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” or;
- “Act only in accordance with what you would want to be a universal law.”
The similarities are there because the first is credited to Jesus and the second to Immanuel Kant, a Christian philosopher, whose main goal was to show a rational foundation to all things including Christianity. Although he was almost eighteen centuries after Jesus, Kant did not see his rule as borrowed from Christianity. Instead he saw Jesus’ golden rule as derived from his categorical imperative (as Kant called his rule). Before we scoff at this hubris, Kant was only saying that he was articulating a more fundamental principle in the background of all human rationality – not that Jesus copied him! Kant also felt his categorical imperative gave clearer direction to more ethical problems than Jesus' golden rule.
It can be difficult to apply “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” to problems like environmental damage. In most cases dropping a piece of rubbish on the ground or pumping out smog from car use has a very diffuse effect. We can ignore that it is somehow affecting any “others” because it only has a tiny effect on any specific other person. The concept of “others” is also confused because the effect on others is usually shared with the polluter themselves.
Kant’s rule does seem to be a better way of expressing the spirit of what Jesus was talking about for problems like environmental damage. Early Kantian’s concerns weren’t the same as the green movements of today. However Kantian ethics is likewise concerned with promoting social behaviour that can govern large groups of people living together without external authority. Kant wrote in the infancy of the modern nation state. His ethics describes the internal policeman that we expect national citizens to carry with them. This inner cop reminds us not to drop litter, or speed, or steal by asking us to imagine what our town/country/world would be like if everyone did the same.
Many professing Christians would agree with Kant that his rule is merely a clearer expression of Jesus’ former one. There is no culture war with Kantians on one side and Jesusians on the other. To have ethics grounded in Kant’s rule is so common now that it can be difficult for some people to imagine that it is not the only possible way to discuss ethics even if they are Christian. However Kant has not merely clarified Jesus’ rule with his own. He marks a significant departure.
Firstly, the two rules are addressed to different audiences. Imagine a person who is about to be hung for theft and is trying to escape. Jesus’ rule makes more sense if we say it to the hangmen. It doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense to apply it to the person trying to avoid punishment. If we ask the thief to do unto others as they would have done to them they could well reply “ok” and keep escaping. They thief could be happy not to have to hang anyone in the hangmans place.
On the other hand “do unto others…” has great implications for the hangman. They are being asked to sympathise with the thief and to put themselves in their place. That’s going to spell the end of the hanging, I would guess.
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is power leveling. If a King and their subject required this of themselves they would end up like equals because if the King was mistaken for a commoner they would still want respect. If the wealthy and the poor required this of each other they would end up more like equals too. The implications of this commandment were far more costly for the men of Jesus’ time than the women. It asks more of judges than prisoners and conquering armies than the vanquished. This is Jesus primarily directing his moral discipline to those in power or rather to each of us in our positions of power whatever they may be, parent over child for example.
Kant’s categorical imperative works differently. Kant’s message is deliberately indifferent to the power or other circumstances of the audience. “Act only in accordance with that maxim which you would want to become a universal law” makes sense when spoken to our condemned thief and the hangman both. It is indifferent to their relative positions. Kant asks all equally, hangmen, thief and cook whether we think all thieves everywhere should escape. If the answer is no then the thief should stop escaping.
At first we might think that it also equalizes people. After all if a person should hang someone then this, universalized, would lead to hanging everyone, which no-one would want. The hangman, specifically, by not wanting the good of hanging people to be a universal law is thus restrained from hanging anyone. So the same result can be achieved by Kant’s rule as by Jesus’. However it’s easy to have the maxim say all convicted thieves, not all people, should hang. This rule allows the hangman to practice hanging with moral consistency under Kant’s law while they would have difficulty doing so under Jesus’ rule.
Although it is indifferent to power, Kant’s rule is often more costly to those without power. Refugees for example suffer when we apply Kant’s principle of universalism. We cannot cut one family a break because there are millions behind them who we would then have to give the same break to. In Australian migration debates we are regularly asked to imagine “what if every single person who wanted to come into Australia was let in?” That is a very Kantian question.
Refugees fare much better under Jesus’ rule where we are asked to do unto them as we would have them do unto us. I believe I would have them make room for me if our situations were changed and they were (as I am now) sitting on a quarter-acre block. Jesus rule doesn’t speak to me and the refugee equally. It speaks to us in our positions of power which I clearly hold over the refugee.
Kant’s rule seems to operate in a conservative fashion. It preserves the status quo more effectively than it delivers justice through change. It is more power maintaining than power leveling. Amongst modern and unwitting Kantians this is actually the defense of universalism that they put forward. Kant’s rule is seen as pragmatic, reasonable, workable and so on in comparison to what Jesus’ rule requires of us. Jesus is a radical while Kant makes common sense. Again that can be heard in refugee policy debates in Australia; not the specific mention of Immanuel Kant but the ideas.
However Kant was no conservative or pragmatic person. He saw himself as an opponent of pragmatism and once wrote “let justice be done though the world perish.” His ethics have very radical implications which we are seeing in their application today.
One of the most commonly cited examples of the logical and radical implications of Kant’s rule is the dilemma of the hangman and the thief on an island. Kant held that if it is right to hang the thief (in his example it was a murderer) in a city of millions then it is also right to hang them when there is no-one else around. If the hangman doesn’t hang their only companion on the island then they are also saying that all hangings of all thieves are wrong everywhere else too. Kant is radically indifferent to circumstances. That is in fact the pride of his ethics.
This thinking, (enforced by a global military alliance for profit), is what is creating many millions of economic refugees the world over by trapping countries inside spiraling debt. The argument is that people must repay debts because if we were to universalize defaulting on a debt then we would have no basis for borrowing in the first place. Hence under Kant’s rule no country can default regardless of the insanity of their economic situation. Even if a country’s debt was created by a previous dictator who used it to torture their people those very people must service that debt. Even if a country’s debt is only able to be serviced by unsustainable strip mining that must be what is done. Otherwise, under Kant’s rule, all debts, even all contracts of any kind would be meaningless. The circumstances of individual cases cannot be taken into account.
This is leading to an untenable world order. Whole nations of people are in debt prisons and if they attempt to flee then they are placed in life-long limbo in refugee camps. This is generating massive profits for a few. Kant however wouldn’t care. He never proposed that his rule would produce a better society. In fact his main opponents were utilitarians whose ethical philosophy evaluated actions by their benefits and harms. Kant appears to be reasonable and even pragmatic with an emphasis on conservativism but his ethics is in fact profoundly uninterested in any of that. His ethical system is a system of absolutes. And it’s killing many of us.
It probably seems odd to suggest that any solution to the world’s refugee crisis needs to challenge Immanuel Kant. That’s only the sort of irrelevant suggestion a philosopher could make. However I believe everything we do is ethical and that our ethical philosophy ultimately decides how this world works. (That’s another blog post I’m working on at the moment).
Ask yourself, how differently would just your next day be under Kant’s golden rule or Jesus’? Ask yourself soon what difference each rule would make when applied to our world economy and our treatment of refugees? As melodramatic as it sounds it is true that many millions of people are extremely and endlessly suffering under Kant. What would we have them do unto us if we were in their position?