WSJ December 29, 2018

Kant in Kindergarten Could Ease the Civility Crisis

His Categorical Imperative steers us away from both selfish and zealously idealistic behavior.

By Paula Marantz Cohen | 804 words

We’ve recently witnessed a lot of vituperation, self-righteousness and bad behavior on both sides of the political spectrum. Is there a remedy? I suggest we ignore pundits and psychologists and instead consult the philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). In “Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals” (1785), he proposed what he called the Categorical Imperative.

Kant gave the imperative three formulations, two of which are relevant here. The first: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” This is similar to the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

The second formulation: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.” In other words, never treat other people as objects. Martin Buber later put forth a similar idea with his “I-Thou” dictum, which sees subject-to-subject relationships leading ultimately to a relationship with God as the eternal Subject.

In extricating us from our current moral morass, the first formulation alone will not do, since it suggests that how you want to be treated should be generalized for everyone. That’s precisely what the right and the left are attempting to do now: Each side has its own concept of moral righteousness and no ability to find common ground. The second formulation, however, puts a brake on the first. It forbids us from treating others as the means to impose our own ideals on the world.

To live according to the two formulations of the Categorical Imperative is often difficult, and there can be circumstances in which it must be overruled (the famous example is lying to protect someone hiding from the Nazis). But using these formulations as a litmus test for good behavior seems the only way back to sanity and civility.

Kant supplied a map in his 1803 treatise, “On Education.” What he termed “negative education” is associated with a child’s earliest training. It involves teaching that there is an authority beyond the self. This idea—which could, but need not, dovetail with religious instruction—lays the groundwork for a later “positive education,” which employs reason to examine and judge difficult situations that occur in life.

Since the 1960s, society has generally embraced a view of childrearing that focuses on the child’s freedom and autonomy. Kant’s moral theory centers on the freedom of others. If children are to develop into rational, moral adults, they must eventually come to see right action as a duty beyond the self.

Parents would begin this process of moral training, and teachers would continue it from kindergarten onward, following a curriculum that inculcates the Categorical Imperative and analyzes situations in light of its two formulations. This would require teacher-education programs to develop case studies, geared to different age groups, in which students would practice and hone moral judgment. It would mean inserting moral education into the training of teachers at all grade levels. This would help promote ideas traditionally covered by religion in a society in which religious exposure has diminished.

I believe moral teaching of this kind would make society more compassionate as well as more moral. If we also acknowledge that, even with Kant’s aid, determining what is right is difficult and often incremental, we can become better at understanding the frailties and blind spots of others. Treating moral character as an ideal to strive for, alongside treating people as ends rather than means, is a recipe for forgiveness and empathy rather than severe judgment.

What is now occurring in our nation reflects both a profound lack of moral rigor and a failure to understand when those around us appear to fall short of our personal or collective ideal of righteousness. The resulting hypocrisy and meanness are on display at every turn. Those who pillory one day, find themselves pilloried the next. Having just taught Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” which he meant as a metaphor for the McCarthy hearings during the Red Scare of the 1950s, I see how closely the play conforms to our current climate. A fanatical desire to hunt out moral corruption has supplanted the difficult work of being morally upright.

But a society that abandons moral education and fails to pursue the Categorical Imperative will be a debased and untrustworthy one. No one will be believed. No profession of friendship or love will be free of suspicion. By the same token, anyone unmasked as less than a moral paragon will be vilified.

Integrity and forgiveness are not mutually exclusive but mutually reinforcing. Society needs an approach—devoted to moral rigor but comprehending of human frailty—that understands this.

Ms. Cohen is a dean and English professor at Drexel University.■