We don’t have a very high opinion of ourselves these days. We’re getting by, and in the process of getting by we accept injustice, poverty, hunger, exploitation, and the destruction of the planet — as long as it doesn’t affect us personally. Among politicians, presidents, and industry leaders worldwide, it becomes increasingly hard to find one who is not openly corrupt and self-serving, presenting ruthlessness as the virtue of being able to take care of one’s own interests. Egotism and carelessness don’t seem to cause embarrassment or shame any more: they are accepted features of the character make-up of a successful start-up founder, or a successful US president. — In this situation, it can be funny and instructive to look back to times in which people had very different opinions on how one should live one’s life. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is an extreme example: the word at the core of his moral philosophy is neither fun, nor gain, nor happiness — but duty.
There is a small convenience shop in the village where I live, in the outskirts of Hong Kong. The owner is also the only employee, and he sells everything one might want while going about one’s day in the village: small snacks, drinks, paper towels, newspapers, pen and paper, toys for the kids. He also really dislikes foreigners. One day I found out that I was regularly paying double the price for a can of coke than what my (local) wife was paying. Now one could ask, purely hypothetically, what reasons might this shopkeeper have to charge some of his customers a higher price and some less, for exactly the same article?
Let’s be charitable. Perhaps he does it in order to promote social justice. Everyone should be able to afford a can of coke. Since this is a small village, many of his customers will not be very wealthy. Perhaps some are positively poor, retired people living on meagre pensions. Me, the foreigner who lives there, is not likely to be one of them. Foreigners, especially white men, tend to get high salaries at their specialist jobs. So perhaps the shopkeeper thinks: Let’s charge the foreigner double (which he can afford and won’t even notice), and in exchange I give a cheaper or free coke to someone of the poorer people who might come into my shop.
Now let’s try another thought. What if the shopkeeper wasn’t such a good man? What if he only did it out of a desire to get the most money he can out of his customers? Realising that the foreigner won’t notice, he charges a higher price. But if he did the same to one of the poorer local customers, he might lose a customer (not good). So this would be another motivation for him to charge different prices, but he’d do it only in order to maximise his own profit. — How does this look in comparison to the previous motivation? Obviously much worse. Same action both times. There’s no difference in what the shopkeeper actually does. Both times he charges a local person less, and the foreigner more for the same thing. But one time we would say that he is an exceptionally good man, with a keen sense of social justice; while the other time he’s just a crook, trying to maximise his own personal gain.
Take another example: Say you are a student. You went to a very early lecture and took notes, and now two people who were too lazy to get up and attend the lecture ask you to copy your notes. One is your best friend. The other is someone you really hate, someone who’s always talking badly about you to others, who never greets you in the morning, and so on. Whom do you give your notes to, and what does this say about you?
What is your motivation to give your notes to your best friend? Well, obviously you will feel good about it, because that’s your best friend. You might also want to make sure that in future your best friend will help you in return, when you will need that help. These are all good reasons to give the notes to her. What if you give your notes to your enemy, the one who hates you? One thing you know for sure: there’s nothing to be gained there. This person hates you so much that giving them the notes will make no difference in your relations. You can never expect anything good from them in return. But then, why would you even consider giving them the notes? Kant says: because you realise that it’s your duty.
We have a duty to help others (among many other duties), and actually doing so, fulfilling our duty, makes us praiseworthy. But who is more praiseworthy? The one who gives the notes to her friend, or the one who benefits her enemy? Clearly, the more you hope to gain for yourself from your action, the less praiseworthy you are. If you profit yourself, then why should we praise you? It’s obvious why you act that way, and everyone else would do the same under the same circumstances. But if you do something exceptionally good (like giving the notes to your enemy, or charging different prices because you care for the poor), then you would deserve praise. Then people would be justified in calling you a morally good person.
Kant says: the good will is to do what it right, for no other reason than that it is right. Read this slowly: “to do what is right.” Doing the morally right action is the prerequisite to be considered as a good person at all. It is not itself praiseworthy. You do not only have to do “what is right,” you also have to do it for the right reasons: namely only because it is right. If you have any other reasons, like friendship, or the desire to benefit yourself, then you are not praiseworthy any more. Then you are just one more self-serving person like everyone else.
Look at what high standard of behaviour this is. If we embraced this thought, we would have to benefit our enemies more than our friends. We would immediately reject the self-serving attitude of many politicians as cheap and morally bad. Someone who becomes US president would not only be bad if we can establish that he actually did something immoral while in office, but he would cease to be praiseworthy the moment we could even think of a single reason for him to be in that office that is different from: because it is morally right to be the president. If he could, even theoretically, have any gain from the office, then he would immediately be considered morally inferior, someone not worth praising, someone not worth taking seriously as a good human being.
Of course, today this seems hopelessly out of touch with reality. But when we see that there were times, not so long ago, where this was seriously thought to be the standard of moral behaviour by the greatest philosophers of the age, it is hard not to feel that we have lost something very precious. A belief perhaps that man can be good, really good, much better than it even seems possible to us today. But then, we still are the same people, the same humans Kant is talking about. We still have that power to be good, to be praiseworthy, to make choices and do things just because they are the right thing to do; and for no other reason. And perhaps we just need to realise this, and give it a try, even if it’s unfashionable. Because we owe it to ourselves to be the best we can be, rather than to give in to the mediocrity and the selfishness of those who seem to rule the world around us.