By Naseer Ahmed, New Age Islam
9 August 2012
In his essay the ‘Supreme principle of morality’, Kant rejects the philosophy of Utilitarianism as a moral philosophy and speaks about the supreme principle of morality in which actions flow from a sense of duty or from reverence for the moral law, irrespective of the utility value or even negative utility.
We often think of freedom as simply consisting of being allowed to do what we want to do or absence of obstacles from doing what we want to do. For Kant, seeking pleasure and avoiding pain is not freedom but bondage to one’s animal instinct since the animals do the same. Drinking when thirsty and eating when hungry is not choice but giving in to our creature needs. Freedom is absence of necessity.
For Kant, our rational capacity sets us apart from creatures with appetite and allows us to be autonomous. We are all rational, autonomous beings acting and choosing freely. To act freely and autonomously is not to choose the best means to an end but to choose the end itself. The end is important by itself. This man alone is capable of.
What gives an act its moral worth has to do with the motive, with the quality of the will or doing the right thing for the right reason. A good will isn’t good because of what it effects or accomplishes, it is good in itself. “Even if by utmost effort the good will accomplish nothing, it would still shine like a jewel for its own as something which has its full value in itself.” –Immanuel Kant
The Better Business Bureau’s slogan “Honesty is the best policy” is based on the recognition that it is also the most profitable since repeat business is what makes the business profitable, and a cheated or dissatisfied customer will not come back. It is a perfect example of action lacking moral worth. The business is rewarded for pursuing the policy in terms of its sales and profit. Doing the right thing for the wrong reason has no moral worth.
By acting autonomously, we become the instruments of a higher purpose and become as ends in ourselves. This capacity to act freely, to rise above self interest, inclination, prudence and to act from a sense of duty or reverence for the law is what gives human life a special dignity that deserves our respect. Rational beings are persons who have an absolute intrinsic value, they have dignity, they are worthy of reverence and respect. We need to therefore regard humans not as a means but as an end in themselves.
For Kant, suicide is on par with murder. Humanity that commands respect resides undifferentiated in all of us. We violate that dignity when we take a life for other than just purposes. What we violate when we take a life is that we use a rational person, we use humanity as a means to satisfy our anger, greed or whatever, and so we fail to respect humanity as an end.
Kant’s respect for life is unlike love, sympathy, altruism, solidarity or fellow feeling or who they are in particular. Not killing for any of these reasons is only a means to an end and lacks moral worth.
We have a duty to preserve ourselves. If a person does not commit suicide in spite of an extremely miserable and painful existence and out of a sense of duty, there is moral worth in the person’s choice to live and in his struggle. If the old and the aged and those who are nothing but a burden on those on whom they are dependent are loved and cared for, there is moral worth in what they do for them.
As far as treatment of other people is concerned, it should be consistent with respect for their dignity.
If an action is good solely as a means to something else, the imperative is hypothetical. If the action is solely out of a sense of duty and reverence for the moral law, then the imperative is categorical.
Islamic principles of morality
Man is the best of God’s creation capable of exercising autonomous free will and a rational person capable of learning by reasoning. The exalted position of man is demonstrated by asking the Angels to prostrate to Adam. Freedom to choose and autonomy is established when Adam is free to eat any of the fruits in paradise except from one tree. There are no obstacles to his freedom.
Belief and acting out of reverence for God’s law or in submission to his Will, is the categorical imperative or the end in Islam and without belief, good works have no value in the hereafter. Man is however invited to belief on a rational basis. He is asked to consider the fact that the Quran invites him to only good things and prohibits him from harmful things and from shameful conduct. The conduct that he is invited to is in accordance with man’s position as the best of creations worthy of reverence.
All other creatures including Angels are lower in rank to man. Man is next to God and is meant to live with a dignity consistent with that position and worship none except God. By worshipping other objects including Angels or spirits or idols, a man abases himself to become the lowest of the low since even the beasts and inanimate objects do not worship anything except God (live in accordance with their nature given by God). Such a person is cast into hell.
There is no compulsion in religion in accordance with the principle of autonomous free will of man since truth has been made distinct from error. There is no obstacle to the freedom to choose how one wishes to live and what one wishes to believe in. The believers are prohibited from fighting peaceful disbelievers. God also promises disbelievers plenty in this life as long as they do not fight God or the believers or in brief, do not spread mischief and live otherwise a good life.
Good actions of the disbelievers emanate from hypothetical imperatives and have no value in the hereafter. They have value in this world however, and man is rewarded according to the reason for their good behaviour. Good actions for the love of God or for reverence of the moral law of God or as submitting to the will of God alone have value in the hereafter and the believers are therefore rewarded in the hereafter with heaven.
Murder and suicide are equated with crime against all humanity and saving of a life is equated with saving of entire humanity.
Kant’s philosophy of supreme morality is considered to be the highest and also the most difficult to understand. We have seen above that Islam’s principles are consistent with it. As a matter of fact, Kant’s philosophy of supreme morality is Islam without divinity. The absence of divinity is what makes Kant’s philosophy difficult. People can easily comprehend utilitarianism but for what reason should they follow a philosophy which is higher than utilitarianism? The concept of the categorical imperative therefore makes little rational sense without divinity.
Naseer Ahmed is an Engineering graduate from IIT Kanpur and is an independent IT consultant after having served in both the Public and Private sector in responsible positions for over three decades. He is a frequent contributor to NewAgeIslam.com.