Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Categorical Imperative

During the last two weeks I’ve been on vacation with my family. Although most of my posts have been the details of the vacation I did find several things that caused me to wax philosophical.
We spent a lot of time waiting in line for one thing or another. Most of the time this wasn’t a problem for everybody. But occasionally there were people who felt that a line was only a suggestion and that they were too special to have to wait in any line. At one time I was waiting to turn left and I was passed on the left and the right at the same time by people who felt I was just being to polite to the oncoming traffic who, incidentally, had the right of way. This similar thing happened several time when for one reason or another a lane was closed and we were forced to merge left or right. Typically most of the people would merge and then the selfish one would seize the open lane and zip up to the front of the line and push their way in front of everybody who had patiently and obediently merged.
In sharp contrast to these events we had exactly the opposite happen in West Virginia. Appearantly the truckers on their CBs were able to tell that the lane was going to be forced to merge left about a mile before we actually saw the signs. The truckers merged left and most everybody else followed. Once we saw the signs everybody, without exception merged left and the traffic kept on moving at a very reasonable pace considering the lane closures. After the many other experiences I had during the last weks this renewed my faith in humanity.
Immanuel Kant came up with what he called the Categorical Imperative. In full philosopher-speak it states ,"Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it become a universal law." In plain English this simply means that you should act the way we’d like everybody else to act. Unless you think it would be acceptable for everybody to act a certain way then that behavior is unethical and immoral. For instance, cutting in line: If everybody cut in line the whole concept of a line would disappear and there would be chaos. Even people who cut in line still would like most of the people to not cut in line. We witnessed this first hand many times while in traffic. If everybody lied then the whole concept of communication would break down. If everybody thought it was okay to steal the concept of property would disappear. According to Kant these behaviors are unethical since they would not want everybody else to behave that way.
I’ve had a little bit of success with my children in changing their behavior by referring to Kant’s imperative. When I would catch my kids misbehaving I would simply ask them something to the effect of, “What kind of a world do you think this would be if everybody did what you just did?”
I’d like to thank those drivers on I-77 in West Virginia who demonstrated that in spite of the behavior that most of the world accepts it still possible to treat other people with the respect that they expect of others.

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