I’m between semesters (one year to go in this degree program I’m enrolled in), and have been holidaying – an Alaska cruise, and today, aboard our family boat – Lovable – enroute from Quadra to Vancouver Island.  Haven’t been writing much the last few weeks as I’ve been enjoying not having any essays to hand in, and just relaxing w/ novels I’ve been yearning to indulge in.  That being said, a few friends have asked to read my philosophy essays, so here’s the last one I submitted.  (prof liked it – he gave it an A).

Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.– Immanuel Kant

As a parent, I am in an ongoing search for information that can guide me in the challenging role of raising my teenage son with a respectable sense of morality.  Over the years, when I’m not quizzing other parents for their insights, I have turned primarily to the field of psychology for guidance.  I now look to philosophy to address some of my parenting concerns, reflecting specifically as to whether the thinking of Immanuel Kant, who died in 1804, has any relevance to the challenges I face as a parent in 2010.   Kant is the “primary historical exponent of deontological ethics”, a philosophical tradition that focuses not on the consequences of one’s actions, but the “features of the action itself” and how that determines whether an action is right or wrong (Price, 478).

Professionally, I am a leadership consultant and I have embraced parenting as a leadership journey.   In my own parenting, and in dialogue with other parents, I remain curious and all too often concerned about what our leaders of tomorrow are learning today about morality and ethics.

At the 2008 International Leadership Association (ILA) Conference, I attended a session led by Professor Terry Price, a Board member of ILA, who had written a book on Leadership Ethics, drawing on Kantian philosophy.  It was my first introduction to Kant, and I left the session thinking that the points presented, while interesting, seemed a bit too rigid and overly prescriptive to be relevant and applicable to today’s western society.  In this researching this paper, I attempt to open my mind to the possibility of including Kant in my philosophical framework, both in my professional consulting practice, and more importantly, in my parenting.

Kant puzzled over whether there is a possibility that any of us have the free will to make either good or bad choices.  He viewed determinism as having significant plausibility, partially based upon what he saw as the increasing success of science.  As Kant progressed through his logically structured arguments, he determined that the will is free, and that reason is not a slave to the passions, as previous philosophers such as Hume would have had us believe.   Christopher Falzon writes in Philosophy Goes to the Movies, that Kant thought that “self determination is fundamental to human dignity, and individuals should be respected as the originators of their own life-plan”(127).   Price claims that,  “respect for the development of other people—particularly their development as rational, autonomous agents—is central to Kantian ethics” (2008:  480).  It is our free will, our ability to choose with a degree of autonomy that is unique to humans, but according to Kant, needs to be guided by reason and informed by a strict moral code.

How then, is that moral code determined?  According to Kant, the method that should be used in developing moral ethics is a priori. Kant argued that it wasn’t observable actions that mattered as much as the inner principles, which could not be seen.

According to Kant, “moral requirements are based on a standard of rationality he dubbed the “Categorical Imperative” (CI)”(Stanford, web).  For Kant, the CI was a moral law that applied to all rational beings and was not associated with desires or personal motive.  From his perspective, each rational being should act as if any of his actions could apply to any other human being.

One of the primary challenges of parenting is to encourage our children to think of others, as their perception of the world revolving specifically around them takes, at the least, a couple of decades to dissipate.   I parent a teen that has been assessed as having Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), which typically is associated with particularly impulsive behaviour.  My son is reflective enough to sometimes realize that he impulsively acted in a way that is going to cause him to experience consequences, and as a result, often lies to attempt to cover up for the impulsive act.  The ADHD assessment is why I have read so much neuroscience and psychology research, but perhaps philosophy and specifically Kant’s thinking could possible play a role in guiding my slowly maturing teen into exhibiting more socially acceptable behaviour, reflecting moral substance rather than just a utilitarian avoidance of consequences.  All too often the actions of my son, and other teens, even those without compulsive disorders or ADHD would support the “notion of the human being as a subject that formulates moral rules for itself” (Falzon, 152).  And Terry Price, in Leadership Ethics, an Introduction, observes that, “leaders often act as though they have their own code of ethics” (15).  Perhaps we don’t need an academic to point that out to us, as the ethical shortcomings of so many leaders, particularly political and corporate, are far too apparent, but it is of interest that Price, a ‘philosopher with a grounding in psychology’ who focuses on ethical leadership draws heavily on Kantian philosophy as a remedy to today’s leadership failures.  As I have embraced parenting as a leadership journey, and aim to guide my son to be the sort of leader I want in the world, this view has significant relevance for me.

Kant broke from the utilitarian view that humans act, focused upon consequences, motivated only by the pleasure they may receive, or the pain they may avoid as a result of their actions.   He argued that it was wrong to lie,  cheat or break promises.  No exceptions.  The famously discussed Kantian scenario, presented in a lecture available online by Harvard Professor Michael Sandel, explores whether it is right to lie even when a murderer shows up at your door, seeking your friend, who is hiding in your house.  Kant would say that lying goes against the CI, even in this drastic situation.  Even when challenged on his position on this, Kant adamantly defended it, stating that once you begin making exceptions, focusing on consequences, the entire moral framework has been abandoned.  When Sandel challenged his Harvard students to come up with a way they could avoid telling a lie, without giving up their friend to the murderer, some had ingenious suggestions.   One suggested that if you tell your friend to hide somewhere, and tell the murderer that you don’t know where your friend is, you are telling the truth because your friend could be in the closet, or could be in the basement.  You don’t know.  Sandel probes further, asking whether there is a difference between an outright lie, and a misleading truth.   He states that from Kant’s perspective, there is a difference.  Both might have the same consequences, but Kant bases his theory upon adherence to the moral law, not upon consequences.  Sandel claims that although Kant wouldn’t endorse a ‘white lie’, but a misleading truth could possibly be accepted.  He brings this issue into the realm of current leaders by introducing the Clinton/Lewinsky affair.  We clearly recall the ‘misleading truth’ that Clinton put forth.  As a parent, I have maneuvered my way through a multitude of misleading truths that my son offers when confronted regarding questionable actions.  In the case of both Clinton and my son, I don’t see that they were in any way adhering to a moral standard, but more likely were manipulating truth to avoid consequences.   But Sandel, aligning with Kant, puts forth that a misleading truth pays homage to duty.   If my son doesn’t tell an outright lie, should I take the view that he’s at least aware of his moral duty to align with truth?   If you asked my son whether or not he’s an honest person, he would adamantly tell you that he is, and is highly indignant when accused of dishonesty.  So perhaps Sandel has a point, and my son genuinely does ‘pay homage to duty’.

Sandel continues the lecture,  illustrating Kant’s moral philosophy by putting forth that there is always a gap between what we do, and what we ought to do.   He also states that no science could deliver moral truth because morality is not empirical.  Several of Sandel’s students appeared to be unsatisfied with this, but that is where the lecture ends, leaving his students and I to ponder this point.  The Stanford online Encyclopedia of Philosophy delves into further depth on this, claiming that it should be “in one sense obvious why Kant insists on a priori method”(Stanford, web).  They claim that the questions posed to develop a moral code:  “what is a duty, what kinds of duty are there, what is the good, what kinds of good are there” are primarily metaphysical questions and that “metaphysical principles are always sought out and established by a priori methods” (Stanford, web).

When it comes to Kant’s position on moral worth or value, and the good will, I question the validity of his thinking in relevance to today’s world.  While Kant thought that “humans are the source of all value” and that “non-human things of value are only instrumentally valuable” I wonder if he would hold to that position had he lived long enough to witness the human destruction of so many species of life and our degradation of the planet (Barthelemy, 1).  I have personally embraced the Buddhist outlook on the sanctity of all life to such a degree that I find Kant’s position on this point questionable.  I appreciate that Kant in no way advocated for hurting or torturing animals, but I wonder what his response would have been to the reality we face today of so many species of life being swept from the planet while we humans continue to hold strong to our belief that we “hold a central place in reality” (Barthelemy, 1).

Kant’s view on rational agents being capable of acting from reasons and not just inclinations, sentiments or self-interest is an interesting one to ponder from a parenting perspective.  While I was reflecting upon Kant and writing this essay, my son was being disciplined for stealing beer from our boat fridge and had his freedom restricted for a few days as a result.  He had been forced to get out of bed early to accompany me on a day-long boating excursion as I took his female cousin and three of her friends for a trip up the Indian Arm.  He offered to row them to shore in our dinghy, to give them an opportunity to swim in the cool waters of Granite Falls.  My sister remarked on what a ‘good boy’ he was, providing this excursion to the girls.  But was he acting from good will alone?  Kant would say that my son was not in any way acting from a sense of moral duty as when he returned to the boat with the very happy teenage girls, he sidled up to me and asked if he had now earned the right to go out with his friends that night.  I appear to have failed miserably in instilling any semblance of Kantian moral duty in my teenage son.   My son is more of a utilitarian, as he quite often does the right thing, but rarely out of a Kantian respect for moral law.  In this situation my son may have chosen the right action, but Kant would say he chose the action based on “heteronomous influences” in contrast to “autonomous behaviour which is done out of respect for the moral law” (Price, 480).   Price points out that,

“Although Kant contrasts behavior based on these influences with autonomous behavior which is done out of respect for the moral law, he cannot claim that we are responsible agents only when we act autonomously in this strong sense. This claim would entail our being responsible agents only when we behave morally!” (481).

I have often told my son that my role in the first ten years of his life was to care for him, and my role in this second decade of his life is to fully focus in teaching him to care for himself and others.  Is Kant’s Categorical Imperative worthy of being one of my parenting tools, one that I want to equip my son with, as he increasingly becomes a citizen of the world?  I have tried to teach him critical thinking.  When he is contemplating possible actions, is it even possible for a teenage boy to access the sort of reason that Kant would prescribe, releasing desire and emotion?  Today’s neuroscience tells us that the teenage boy’s brain does not fully develop until it is 18 to 24 years old, and that the frontal cortex which actually controls judgment and reason is one of the areas most under development during those years.  How does that mesh with moral philosophy, if a teen, particularly one of the male variety, is more caught up with emotion and desire?  How do we motivate, inspire and encourage our teens to shift from asking themselves, “what do I want to do?” to “what should I do?”, filtering their thought processes and ultimately their actions through a moral framework?

Falzon writes about the “various social and cultural influences” that as adults we are often overwhelmed with, requiring “a capacity to be critical, to critically weigh up the claims and arguments we are presented with” in order to, as he states, “maintain a degree of independence” (203).  If even as adults we struggle with the overwhelming distractions of our modern culture, how do teens maneuver the barrage of information and influences coming from the internet, peer pressure, media and films?   And where does Kant’s Categorical Imperative fit in when we’re navigating such confusing new territory as social media?  How is it possible for my generation to instill a sense of morality in the way teens communicate and represent themselves on their Facebook pages and the photos they quickly snap and share widely with their cell phones?   The technology our teens rely on for their social interaction is a territory that isn’t yet close to having an ethical principle that all can agree upon.  Schools, teachers, parents and even the courts are struggling to keep up with the rapid expansion of technology and to develop guidelines to conform to.  Even in his time Kant noted,  “virtue does not ensure wellbeing, and may even conflict with it” (Stanford website).  So, given the sense of self-entitlement that so many of our teens default to, and the rapidly changing world we live in, is trying to encourage them to adhere to a Kantian sense of virtue even possible?

As adolescents step out into the world to become leaders themselves, or to be informed followers of leaders, what criteria do we provide them for a moral code?  Price points out that while for followers, feelings of respect and loyalty can be rational, that autonomy can be threatened when we act “primarily on the rational agency of others” (481).   Instilling a deeply held moral code into my teen seems to me to be important in a time when there are so many charismatic, but questionable ‘leaders’ that a teen driven by utilitarian motives could be swayed by.  On a small scale, on a few occasions I’ve heard the stories of older teens that work in the corner grocery, or in the cafeteria at our local ski mountain slipping my well-liked and impressionable son a free pop.  When my son has told me about these incidents, I realize that I have been calling on Kant’s philosophy when I ask him to think what would happen to the employer of that teen if all his employees were giving away free goods.  I want my son to be able to question the actions of those he admires, and have an inner guidance that allows him to choose well who to follow, and who to emulate as he embraces his own leadership.  He is a charismatic boy, and I often observe his friends running small errands for him in our home.  When Price explores Kant’s second Categorical Imperative, he asks whether it is wrong for a “leader to ask a follower to carry out a task because doing so treats the follower as a means” (480).  I often find myself asking my son a similar question when his friends are doing his bidding.  Price’s interpretation of Kant’s second CI is that “consent is what is critical to any discussion of using people”(480).  So how I understand this, is that if my son is treating his friends as rational agents with value, then I should not be concerned that they are scooting up the stairs to bring me things I’ve asked my son to deliver.  Now if he were to threaten his friends with bodily harm, then Kant would say that my son is removing choice from the boys and coercing them into acting as he wishes them to act.

In re-examining Kant’s philosophy I am finding that his thinking does have more to offer me than I had thought when initially introduced to him, both a parent, and as a consultant who guides leadership exploration and thinking in the corporate sector and the nonprofit sector.

Bibliography

Etzioni, Amitai.  The Parenting Deficit. Demos UK.

Barthelemy, Bill.  “Lecture Notes, June 18, 2010.

Falzon, Christopher.  Philosophy Goes to the Movies. Routledge, NYC, New York.  2002.

Price, Terry, L.  Leadership Ethics  An Introduction. Cambridge University Press.  2008.

Price, Terry, L. “Kant’s Advice For Leaders – No You Aren’t Special” The Leadership Quarterly, 2008, 478 – 487.

Sandel, Michael, “Lying and Principles”   http://academicearth.org/lectures/lying-and-principles Academic Earth

Pinker, Steven, “Language and Thought”  http://www.ted.com/talks/steven_pinker_on_language_and_thought.html Ted Talks

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kant-moral/

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