Where is Kant when we need him? In a culture that seems to have a watered-down version of John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism as its default position, personal liberty and happiness are the moral mantras.
Kant would say that happiness and utility have nothing to do with moral worth. Duty does. Kant does give high priority to liberty or personal autonomy (self-rule); but by his account such freedom may never be used to violate our fundamental duties, expressed in his great categorical imperatives. Such imperatives oblige us never to treat persons as mere means or things and always to act in such a way that our maxim could be a universal law. If it is permissible for me, it must be permissible for all.
It is this principle of universalizability that seems lost in contemporary discourse. About the only place it is practiced, at least ideally, is in sport contests—perhaps because it is only sport that we really take seriously. But in matters of the nation, the church, the economy and the world, moral exceptionalism holds sway. We seem unable to extend the rules we live by to others.
Imagine yourself a university student in Tehran. You hear from U.S. leaders that Iran must never be allowed to have nuclear weapons. This principle is posed by a country that has more nuclear weapons than the rest of the world combined and is allied with the states of Israel, India and Pakistan, all of which hold nuclear weapons. Does that compute? Might you come to distrust, even hate anyone who would hold such a personal “exception” for oneself and one’s friends? The same self-exemption applies to other countries. Is it permissible for the leaders of Gaza to operate under Israel’s principle of “overwhelming force” wherein half of the 1,300 Palestinians killed were women and children? Is it permissible for Israel to use the tactics of directly targeting civilians in the same way that Hamas has done?
Or imagine yourself someone who supports women’s ordination in the Catholic Church. You have seen a prominent priest excommunicated for supporting women’s ordination and a religious sister, noted for her service, generosity and love for the church, similarly excommunicated with a full page of condemnation in her diocesan newspaper. Then you read that the Holy Father has lifted the excommunication of illicitly ordained bishops in the Society of Saint Pius X. This is a group in formal schism, insisting that Vatican II was a handmaid to heresy and false religion. The canon law spin is that those who support women’s ordination do not admit that they are wrong. But look at the letter that the superior general of the Pius X Society wrote. There is not one admission that they were wrong. In fact, it is an assertion that the church was wrong: “Catholic tradition is no longer excommunicated.” This incident triggered outrage because one of the bishops denies the Holocaust. One might also be troubled by the Vatican’s selectivity in the use of excommunication and reconciliation.
Our politics is a parade of exceptionalism. The Republicans are staunch in their resistance to the near trillion dollar package requested by President Obama. Is that based on principle? Then where were their principles when so many of them joined President Bush and the Democrats in giving $700 billion to the banking and Wall Street moguls, all without oversight or transparency? The money seems to have disappeared into thin air.
Former Senator Tom Daschle, a man to be admired in many ways, has wisely stepped away from the Health and Human Services nomination. He said he was “embarrassed and disappointed” that he failed to pay $128,000 in taxes. Perhaps he thought that would work for him. Does it work for you when you fail to pay taxes? What is more troubling, Daschle made $5 million in the last two years, some of it from the health care industry that he would have been overseeing.
“We will have no lobbyists,” President Obama has said. But now we know there are “waivers.” Daschle was only one. William Lynn, named to serve as deputy secretary of defense, was the top lobbyist for Raytheon, which made a nice $10 billion from armament sales last year. And Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner not only failed to pay income taxes for five years; as the head of the New York region of the Federal Reserve, he was also one of those in charge of the banking crisis in which we now find ourselves mired.
“Waiver,” of course, is another word for exception to the principle of “no lobbyists.” Immanuel Kant would say that if you are going to announce a principle, you should follow it; and if you do not follow your principles, do not expect others to follow theirs.