Influence of Philosophy: The Categorical Imperative

I am often asked why I teach philosophy. I give a variety of answers depending on the circumstances of the question. One I give more frequently than not is to present how ideas have consequences (whether the ideas and/or the consequences are beneficial or detrimental). We see this in history. Take Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. who cites German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, in an essay. King writes,

There must be a recognition of the sacredness of human personality. Deeply rooted in our political and religious heritage is the conviction that every man is an heir to a legacy of dignity and worth…

Segregation stands diametrically opposed to the principle of sacredness of human personality. It debases personality. Immanuel Kant said in one formulation of the Categorical Imperative that ‘all men must be treated as ends and never as mere means.’ The tragedy of segregation is that it treats men as means rather than ends, and thereby reduces them to things rather than persons…

But man is not a thing. He must be dealt with, not as an animated tool, but as a person sacred in himself. To do otherwise is to depersonalize the potential person and desecrate what he is.

For those unfamiliar with Kant, his Categorical Imperative is the fundamental principle of morality. It is a criterion by which one can ensure actions are moral and thus motivated with good intentions and brought about by duty. With this short background in mind, in addition to its implementation by Rev. King, consider the implications. King writes on how segregation blasphemes the sacredness of humanity. No person ought be treated as a tool, or a route to attain some end. The person, in all its sacredness, is an ends. According to Kant’s Categorical Imperative, one must “act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only.”

The impact of King (and thereby also Kant’s influence) is still ongoing. But humanity has also failed drastically. One can shift focus to the segregation of the unborn. Each abortion takes a life. I will not address the issue of personhood, although I am an advocate that each fetus is a unique identity, and thus not a mere part of what is called “humanity.” The sacredness that King speaks of is not limited to racial issues (although that issue remains extremely pertinent), but also corresponds to the unborn – those who lack a voice and whose sacredness is ignored. King’s words, based on Kant’s moral philosophy, need be reacquainted with society. Abortion treats individual human beings as a means to some end rather than the end in themselves. I am very sympathetic to the pregnant, single woman who finds herself with an unexpected pregnancy. People ought support her in whatever capacity possible. Yet, no circumstances deny the unborn the sacredness that it intrinsically possess. The method about how a person came into existence does not determine the value of its existence. If it exists, it is sacred.

Let philosophy once again see its impact practically on humanity. Let an idea, such as Kant’s influence on King, impose  duty to value, respect, and care for the sacredness of other human beings.

2 thoughts on “Influence of Philosophy: The Categorical Imperative

  1. billy says:

    For anyone stumbling upon this, the quote he uses is NOT by King. It’s from “In the Name of Law: Rhetorical Constructions of the Law in Civil Rights” by Robert Betts.

    1. billy says:

      Oops! The copy of Betts I drew this from had some icky formatting. The quote is actually by King, from “The Ethical Demands
      for Integration.” Sorry Mike 🙂

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