Thursday, December 15, 2011

Christmas and Immanuel Kant

These two topics do not normally come together but I think there is good reason to consider what Immanuel Kant might have to say about Christmas. Or what Christmas might have to say about Kant.
Christmas is a time when family come together and celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. I know of no evidence in Immanuel Kant that he celebrated Christmas with his family, but we do have lots of evidence that he loved his family. At his baptism as an infant he was given the name Emanuel, which he later changed to Immanuel (which Christians know means “God with us”). His mother gave him a term of endearment and called him “Manelchen” which means ‘little Manny,” which was short for Immanuel. He was also endeared to his mother and said later in life: "I will never forget my mother, for she implanted and nurtured in me the first germ of goodness; she opened my heart to the impressions of nature; she awakened and furthered my concepts, and her doctrines have had a continual and beneficial influence in my life." We see the seeds right here to his conclusion in the Critique of Practical Reason (1788) where he wrote: "Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.
But it was the moral law within Immanuel Kant that gave rise to his formalistic moral theory which does not give much credence to moral sentiments. Nonetheless these sentiments seem to have served him well not only in his remembrance of his mother but also in the development of his philosophy. It seems that the seeds of his philosophy were already planted by the love that he received from his mother.
Still the categorical imperative is universally valid precisely because it is not derived from sentiment. His mother may have given rise to sentiments in him but he had to transcend these sentiments in order to develop a moral philosophy that had universal validity for all people.
Just consider the first formulation of the categorical imperative: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” You can’t universalize a sentiment but you can universalize a maxim and Immanuel Kant is saying only maxims that can be universalized ought to count as moral. This procedure makes it impossible to act on feelings, rather one must act on reason and act in ways that all people could act. Immanuel Kant is accused of formalism for this reason. Such a procedure for determining morality would make it impossible to act in preference for one’s family members since our preferring family over other people would be linked to our feelings for them.
It is not that we love the family less but that we love others more. Kant is saying that we need to love because love is something we can universally will to do. We can't universally prefer everyone. Preferences narrow down our love. The categorical imperative broadens out our love.

Where I think we can narrow down our love is where we know people better. We know our families better and for that reason we may be able to love them more effectively than a stranger. But we love them not because we prefer them (they give us something) but because we are more aware of their needs and they are nearer to us so we know more about them. And we might be more in a position to help them than to help a stranger in India.

But I think that in order to overcome our selfishness we have to learn to love the way Jesus teaches us. Love your neighbor as yourself. You know you love yourself more because you know more of your needs and because you are affected by yourself. So to love others as yourself is to extend that love to more people.
The second formulation of the categorical imperative says this: Treat the humanity in yourself and others as an end and never as a means only. And I think that is very similar the golden rule. But the main thing is that it refers to all human beings and not just to a person's family members. So that too leads us to universalize our love.

So what does all this have to do with Jesus?
Jesus too loved his mother yet he also said this: “If any one comes to me without hating his father* and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). This statement by Jesus makes Christians uncomfortable for good reason. Jesus teaches that the greatest of all commandments is to love God and then to love your neighbor as yourself and yet here he is saying the Christian must hate his family and himself. How can we make sense of this? Is it possible that Jesus was saying that in order to be moral we have to give up and hate our sentiments and feelings of preference that we give to members of our family. He goes on to say “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” So is he saying what Immanuel Kant is saying that we need to crucify our sentiments and feelings of preference we have for our families and for ourselves in order to be truly moral? I would suggest that he is. Jesus is surely using hyperbole when he says we need to “hate” our families and ourselves, because he doesn’t mean we should hate other people or ourselves, but he means we should hate the feelings that are so strong in us that lead us to give preferences to our families and to ourselves. We should hate our selfishness. And it is selfishness because we often love our families more than other people because they give us more love in return. They give us presents at Christmas time and so it is natural to love them more than people who give us nothing in return.
But then the Christmas spirit is to give to those who have nothing to give to us in return. I know a family who packs up Christmas presents with their children, makes a home cooked meal, and then on Christmas morning brings it to homeless people because they feel called by Christ to do so.
In such a family where thought is given to people who have needs that are not met, one could grow up with the sentiment that it is good to help others and that sentiment would help them overcome their selfishness, but such a person would always love their family not for what the family members have to give them but for what they inspire in him, namely the love of others and even strangers.
Is that not the Christmas message? Maybe Kant has more to do with Christmas than we originally thought. Reflect on that some and let me know what you think.

No comments:

Post a Comment