Friday, March 14, 2003

Camus & Kant

This is a short paper I had written for my philosophy class. Since I'm lazy and didn't have anything else to post, have fun reading it!

Lucidity, Order, Rules, and Meaning—An Examination of Kant and Camus

Every day we have to make decisions as to how we are supposed to live. Many of them are inconsequential and uncontroversial, but many decisions that have to be made affect us, as well as the people around us. How should we guide how we live? We have to have some reason for doing what we do; there must be sound grounding or regiment that we follow, but what mode of living is the best one? Do we openly indulge ourselves in the world? Do we follow a god’s commands? Should we put others before ourselves? What rules do we follow? These questions are very central to how we conduct ourselves in our lives. Being as important to us as it is, living a good life should be guided by some overarching principle in our lives. I would like to look at two very different principles of morality to illustrate how we could possibly live by two completely different moral codes based on what we would choose to follow. Which is better, however, I cannot concretely tell you, but I am hoping that I can illustrate which I believe to be a better guide for our lives.

The two different types of morality that I would like to look at come from the philosophers Albert Camus and Immanuel Kant. Each has a very distinct way in which they believe we should live our lives. Before I decide which I prefer to use as my guide to living, I would like to illustrate their main principles so that it can be seen what positives and negatives they both possess.

First, I would like to glance over what Camus has to say about morality and how we should be living. From my experience with his work, the key concept for Camus is that of the Absurd. It may seem odd that a key concept to morality is something called absurd, but it makes a lot of sense when you look at how Camus describes it. The Absurd will come about from a contrast, or battle, between two opposing forces.
Camus says that we need to live in this state of the Absurd, this contrast between two very different things. Often people look to the universe for meaning. They think that everything that happens has a part in a much bigger plan in the scheme of the universe. After looking to the universe for meaning, Camus sees that there are no concrete answers as to what our purpose is; there is no set grand plan for us. The only thing that he sees is the cold, uncaring indifference of the universe. It cares not for any of us and it has no bigger plan for us, it is simply there and we are in it.

This is in heavy opposition to the fact that we actually do live our lives every day abiding by a given routine, living by morals that we think come down to us from some outside source, and trying to find our meaning and place in this overwhelmingly large universe. Our search for meaning in life and our everyday routines gives us a sense of reason as to why we are living and it gives us a sense that our lives have a purpose. We are not overcome by the huge weight of an unresponsive universe because we don’t realize it is cold and unguiding.

When someone comes to the realization that the universe does not care about him/her, and they see the somewhat senselessness of our existence, they must see that their everyday life routine is meaningless when compared to the cruel coldness of the universe we are in. Because of this contrast, we must continue living the way we do every day, abiding by our routines that we think have a purpose, but always keep in mind that our life does not have a greater purpose and that our universe does not have a set plan for us.

Since we have no real greater purpose in this universe and we now realize it, to lead a truly good life, we have to live every moment we have in lucidity. By living in lucidity, I mean that we have to take every moment of our lives and experience it to the fullest, no matter what the situation or circumstances. We are only allotted so much life, and since we only have so much time before we inevitably pass away, enjoying every second of what time we do have on this earth is essential to living well. Every person is allotted so many experiences in their amount of years that they have on this earth, and everyone can enjoy their experiences equally lucidly. Because of this, the only way we can truly measure who has had a better life is by who has lived longer, and to a small extent, more lucidly.

Immanuel Kant, on the other hand, has a completely different way of living laid out for us to follow. Kant’s morality, in its most basic form, gives us one main “rule” that we should live our lives according to: the categorical imperative. This rule can be described in the following way: Whenever you are confronted with a decision, you must universalize your decision so that everyone in existence would do the same thing. If that would lead to no contradictions in the world’s state of affairs, or if it would not lead to a breakdown of some part of society, then it is not morally wrong to do that action. One other thing that goes along with this rule is the idea that you cannot use a person as merely a means to an end—all humans have to be respected as ends in themselves. What this means is that you cannot simply use another person for your own personal gain.

I think the best way to get a better handle on what Kant says with his categorical imperative is to use examples to illustrate it. Let us say that you need to lie to get money to pay for your new car. Your inclinations tell you to do it, but before you do you must examine the consequences of your decision. Now if you universalize the concept of lying you will see the significant consequences that will bring about—no one will ever be able to trust anyone because the whole concept of honesty breaks down. If everyone were willed to lie to get what they wanted, no one would ever have to tell the truth again, and if you don’t have to tell the truth, how can you ever trust anyone? Because of what would come from following your inclinations, you must not do that action. Your duty is to not lie because it would break the categorical imperative.

Now let me use another example to illustrate the concept of how a person could be used merely as a means to some end. If you were to take on a person as a slave in your household to till your garden in order for you to have food to eat, you would not be respecting that person’s human dignity as being an end. In this case the slave is only being used as a means for you to get food—that slave is playing the same role as a hoe or spade used in farming. We cannot put people on the same level as a tool (which we use as a means) that we would use to achieve some end.

From these two different types of morality, we could live our lives in two very contrasted ways. If we lived by Camus’s moral code, we would have no actual set of rules or a singular rule to live by. We would be living our lives for the sheer thrill of living them. Our lives, no matter what we did (within some reasonable guidelines), would be the same as any other, and we should live every moment with our senses open, experiencing everything we can while we are alive. The only consideration we should have is with the maximization of the lucidity of our every moment, since we only have so much time on this earth. The phrase “live for the moment” would seem to best embody the spirit of how Camus would want us to live.

On the other hand, Kant lays out a morality grounded on a universal rule described above—the categorical imperative. We should always live according to this rule. Our lives should be based upon the application of this rule, which is very much in contrast to what Camus says about living in the moment without any regard as to how we should actually live. By having the categorical imperative, we appear to have meaning (we are and end in ourselves, and Kant seems to point to a heaven of sorts that he calls “The Kingdom of Ends”), and we are also given a set way to live our lives. These seem to be two completely different ways of trying to live, so which would seem to be better?

I can see how Camus’s thinking would be a lucrative way for us to live our lives because it puts all styles of life on an equal footing, and it pushes for us to really try to experience life above all other concerns. Is this really the best thing, though? When I look at two different types of lives, say that of a poet and that of a gas station attendant, I want to be able to see one type of life as being better than another. With Camus, though, those two lives are equal as long as they both live lucidly. For me, this concept suppresses the motives of self-improvement and ambition in our lives. Why would you aspire to be a poet when it is no more grand than being a gas station attendant? Just experience what you have, where you are at, and you will be living a good life according to Camus.

Another thing that I do not like about Camus’s philosophy is that we recognize that we have no greater purpose in this universe. We lack a deeper purpose, and since we do, all we can do in this life is experience it to the fullest. I’m glad that he thinks we should enjoy our lives to the fullest, but how can I truly enjoy my life if I am constantly confronted with the idea that I have no greater purpose and that this giant, cold, uncaring universe has no plan for me. Does this not make all of the enjoyment that I do take away from living my life seem pointless, meaningless, and altogether shallow? I would be living a somewhat hedonistic lifestyle simply because the universe presents me with no other choice. I think it is a frightening thought that I would be living without a deeper meaning driving the actions in my life.

Kant, however, presents us with a set way of living and a rule to live by. He also presents humans as possessing a deeper meaning—we are all ends in ourselves and not just mere specs in an uncaring universe. He gives us a reason to live, somewhat indirectly, that I like in his Kingdom of Ends. It is described as a place where all humans are never used as means and every decision we make will be in line with duty, never going against the categorical imperative. This perfect place can be seen, and I definitely see it, as his description of Heaven. We should all strive, in our everyday lives, to obey the categorical imperative and one day we can experience a truly perfect, unconflicting society.

I know I may be stretching what Kant says in his writings to make it suit what I need in my life to go on living, but when I compare how Kant wants us to live to how Camus tells us we should live, I have to choose Kant because he at least has that small notion that there is something greater out there to look forward to, and because of that, our lives have meaning. He also presents us with the notion that all humans possess dignity by being ends in ourselves, which is also a comforting fact. Camus somewhat frightens me in saying that we must just live our life how it comes to us, and do it lucidly. He does not lay out any particular guidelines, which leaves the door open for performing evil acts in the name of lucid experience.

I cannot say that I would change my life from the way I am living it now in favor of either of these two philosophies, but if presented with having to make a choice between the two, as I am here, I would easily choose Kant’s philosophy for the reasons I have stated above. Every moral theory that we read and study gives us more to think about in how we ought to live our lives, and these two philosophies have definitely forced me to reexamine my mode of living. After this reexamination, for the time being, I would have to wish that I would be able to emulate Kant’s thinking in my everyday life over Camus simply on the basis of me wanting to know my life has meaning.

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