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Immanuel Kant for Dummies

The most fundamental of all the liberal principles handed down to us from the Enlightenment and the very cornerstone of our civilization is the “categorical imperative” of Immanuel Kant: namely, that one cannot act on that maxim which one cannot will to be universal. In other words, if it’s OK for me to do it, it has to be OK for everybody to do it. If it’s not OK for everybody to do it, then it’s not OK for me to do it either. This principle is so deeply ingrained in us, along with the contempt we feel for what we call ” hypocrisy” when people violate it, that we take it for granted. I was having dinner the other night with a learned and cultured man, an internationally famed historian of somewhat conservative tendencies, when the conversation turned to the North Korean nuclear test. “What I just can’t get past,” this man said, “is that we are saying it’s OK for us to have nuclear weapons, but it’s not OK for the North Koreans or the Iranians.”

Glen Suarez of London writes in a similar vein to the Times: “How can we condemn North Korea for seeking to acquire nuclear weapons when we possess them and say that we wish to upgrade them? How can Tony Blair condemn the North Korean regime for ‘disregarding the concerns of neighbours and the wider international community’ when he and George Bush did the same when invading Iraq?” Neither of these men mention Kant, but of course it was the Kantian principle they were appealing to as an absolute bar against efforts by leaders in America or Britain to prevent potential terrorist states or backers of terrorists from acquiring nuclear weapons or doing other things which might pose a threat to their countries.

A moment’s thought will show us that the Kantian principle cannot apply in international relations, at least not unless we are prepared to adopt a thoroughgoing pacifist and (I would say) suicidal policy by disarming and disbanding our armed forces and refusing to fight against those who wish us harm. So long as we admit that a nation has the right to defend itself, we must also admit that it is necessary to adopt a different standard for ourselves and for our enemies. It is OK and probably unavoidable for us to bomb them, for example, while it is very definitely not OK for them to bomb us. Leave aside for the moment the question of whether or not it can be right to bomb them, if we are to fight them at all and so preserve ourselves, our people and property and our way of life, we must be prepared to do things to them that we should not hesitate to deplore if and when they did them to us.

The Kantian principle really has its origins in the revolutionary Christian notion that it is wrong for us to consider ourselves ahead of other people. We should put our duty to others first — or at least treat them no worse than we treat ourselves. Under the old Christian dispensation, it was recognized that this kind of saintliness had to be reserved for, well, saints, and those who chose to live lives that were not of this world. They belonged, to use the Augustinian imagery, to the City of God rather than the City of Man. But the Enlightenment began with the idea that that kind of saintliness ought not to be reserved for a special few but ought to be expected of, even required of, everybody. That’s hard enough to live up to in our personal lives. To live up to it in matters of war and peace and international relations is impossibly utopian — unless, of course, you’re a pacifist and are prepared to give up the right of self-defense.

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The Nobel Prize for literature given this year to the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk caused some of his fellow Turks great annoyance. “The prize was not given to Pamuk for being a writer, nor to his works,” said the conservative Kemal Kerincsiz who advocated prosecuting Pamuk “for directly insulting the Turkish nation” over the wish to acknowledge genocide practiced by the Turks against the Armenians in 1915. When Pamuk was prosecuted (he got off on a technicality), he denied that he had insulted Turkey. “But what if it is wrong?” he said. “Right or wrong, do people not have the right to express their ideas peacefully.” Ah! But in an honor culture of the sort that still holds sway in Turkey and other historically Islamic nations, the insult is not dependent on right or wrong. This is a question subordinate to that of honor or dishonor, and the charge itself, irrespective of its truth or falsity, brings dishonor on the nation. In such a culture, it remains true as it once was in ours, that if a bad act is not made public to the shame of the doer, then it didn’t really happen.

I wonder, too, if Mr. Pamuk’s profession makes him vulnerable to this kind of misunderstanding. The novelist almost by his very existence must privilege the individual psyche over the demands of the group when they come into conflict. A novel without psychological reality — as opposed to the honor culture’s demand for conformity with which that reality is bound to come into conflict — is not really a novel at all. Novels and novelists naturally belongs to our Western, post-honor world, which is why there are so few novelists in the Islamic one and why those there are, like Mr. Pamuk or the late Naguib Mahfouz are so often in trouble and even risk their lives merely to continue doing what we take it for granted novelists should do — that is, in Mr. Pamuk’s own phrase “to express their ideas peacefully.” It sounds reasonable to us, but not to those whose world-view is formed by honor in this basic, even primitive form.

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