Depending on your perspective, the philosopher Immanuel Kant was either the most boring person who ever lived or a productivity hacker’s wet dream. For forty years he woke up every morning at five o’clock and wrote for exactly three hours. He would then lecture at the same university for exactly four hours, and then eat lunch at the same restaurant every day. Then, in the afternoon, he would go on an extended walk through the same park, on the same route, leaving and returning home at the exact same time. He did this for forty years. Every. Single. Day.¹
Kant was efficiency personified. He was so mechanical in his habits, that his neighbors joked that they could set their clocks by when he left his apartment. He would depart for his daily walk at three thirty in the afternoon, have dinner with the same friend most evenings, and after working some more, would go to bed at exactly ten every night.
Despite sounding like a colossal bore, Kant was one of the most important and influential thinkers in world history. And from his single-room apartment in Königsberg, Prussia, he did more to steer the world than most kings, presidents, prime ministers, or generals before and since.
If you’re living in a democratic society that protects individual freedoms, you have Kant partially to thank for that. He was one of the first to argue that all people have an inherent dignity that must be regarded and respected.² He was the first person ever to envision a global governing body that could guarantee peace across much of the world (an idea that would eventually inspire the formation of the United Nations).³ His descriptions of how we perceive space and time would later help inspire Einstein’s discovery of the theory of relativity.⁴ He was one of the first to suggest the possibility of animal rights.⁵ He reinvented the philosophy of aesthetics and beauty.⁶ He resolved the two-hundred-year-old philosophical debate between rationalism and empiricism in the span of a couple of hundred pages.⁷ And as if all that weren’t enough, he reinvented moral philosophy, from top to bottom, overthrowing ideas that had been the basis of Western civilization since Aristotle.⁸
Kant was an intellectual powerhouse. If Thinking Brains had biceps, Kant’s Thinking Brain was the Mr. Olympia of the intellectual universe.
As with his lifestyle, Kant was rigid and uncompromising in his view of the world. He believed that there was a clear right and wrong, a value system that transcended and operated outside any human emotions or Feeling Brain judgments.⁹ Moreover, he lived what he preached. Kings tried to censor him; priests condemned him; academics envied him. Yet none of this slowed him down.
Kant didn’t give a fuck. And I mean that in the truest and profoundest sense of the phrase.¹⁰ He is the only thinker I have ever come across who eschewed hope and the flawed human values it relied upon; who confronted the Uncomfortable Truth and refused to accept its horrible implications; who gazed into the abyss with nothing but logic and pure reason; who, armed with only the brilliance of his mind, stood before the gods and challenged them . . .
. . . and somehow won.¹¹
But to understand Kant’s Herculean struggle, first we must take a detour, and learn about psychological development, maturity, and adulthood.¹²
How to Grow Up
When I was, like, four years old, despite my mother warning me not to, I put my finger on a hot stove. That day, I learned an important lesson: Really hot things suck. They burn you. And you want to avoid touching them ever again.
Around the same time, I made another important discovery: ice cream was stored in the freezer, on a shelf that could be easily accessed if I stood on my tippy toes. One day, while my mother was in the other room (poor Mom), I grabbed the ice cream, sat on the floor, and proceeded to gorge myself using my bare hands.
It was the closest I would come to an orgasm for another ten years. If there was a heaven in my little four-year-old mind, I had just found it: my own little Elysium in a bucket of congealed divinity. As the ice cream began to melt, I smeared an extra helping across my face, letting it dribble all over my shirt. This was all happening in slow motion, of course. I was practically bathing in that sweet, tasty goodness. Oh yes, glorious sugary milk, share with me your secrets, for today I shall know greatness.
Then Mom walked in—and all hell broke loose, which included but was not limited to a much-needed bath.
I learned a couple of lessons that day. One, stealing ice cream and then dumping it all over yourself and the kitchen floor makes your mother extremely angry. And two, angry mothers suck; they scold you and punish you. That day, much like the day with the hot stove, I learned what not to do.
But there was a third, meta-lesson being taught here, one of those lessons that are so obvious we don’t even notice when they happen, a lesson that was far more important than the other lessons: eating ice cream is better than being burned.
This lesson was important because it was a value judgment. Ice cream is better than hot stoves. I prefer sugary sweetness in my mouth than a bit of fire on my hand. It was the discovery of preference and, therefore, prioritization. It was my Feeling Brain’s decision that one thing in the world was better than another, the construction of my early value hierarchy.
A friend of mine once described parenthood as “basically just following around a kid for a couple decades and making sure he doesn’t accidentally kill himself—and you’d be amazed how many ways a kid can find to accidentally kill himself.”
Young children are always looking for new ways to accidentally kill themselves because the driving force behind their psychology is exploration. Early in life, we are driven to explore the world around us because our Feeling Brains are collecting information on what pleases and harms us, what feels good and bad, what is worth pursuing further and what is worth avoiding. We’re building up our value hierarchy, figuring out what our first and primary values are, so that we can begin to know what to hope for.¹³
Eventually, the exploratory phase exhausts itself. And not because we run out of world to explore. Actually, it’s the opposite: the exploratory phase wraps up because as we become older, we begin to recognize that there’s too much world to explore. You can’t touch and taste everything. You can’t meet all the people. You can’t see all the things. There’s too much potential experience, and the sheer magnitude of our own existence overwhelms and intimidates us.
Therefore, our two brains begin to focus less on trying everything and more on developing some rules to help us navigate the endless complexity of the world before us. We adopt most of these rules from our parents and teachers, but many of them we figure out for ourselves. For instance, after fucking around near open flames enough, you develop a little mental rule that all flames are dangerous, not just the stove ones. And after seeing Mom get pissed off enough times, you begin to figure out that raiding the freezer and stealing dessert is always bad, not just when it’s ice cream.¹⁴
As a result, some general principles begin to emerge in our minds: take care around dangerous things so you won’t get hurt; be honest with your parents and they’ll treat you well; share with your siblings and they’ll share with you.
These new values are more sophisticated because they’re abstract. You can’t point to “fairness” or draw a picture of “prudence.” The little kid thinks, ice cream is awesome; therefore, I want ice cream. But the adolescent thinks, ice cream is awesome, but stealing stuff pisses my parents off and I’ll get punished; therefore, I’m not going to take the ice cream from the freezer. The adolescent applies if/then rules to her decision making, thinking through cause-and-effect chains in a way that a young child cannot.
As a result, an adolescent learns that strictly pursuing her own pleasure and avoiding pain often creates problems. Actions have consequences. You must negotiate your desires with the desires of those around you. You must play by the rules of society and authority, and then, more often than not, you’ll be rewarded.
Child —> Pleasure
Adolescent —> Principles —> Pleasure
A child thinks only about his own pleasure, whereas an adolescent learns to navigate rules and principles to achieve her goals.
This is maturity in action: developing higher-level and more abstract values to enhance decision making in a wider range of contexts. This is how you adjust to the world, how you learn to handle the seemingly infinite permutations of experience. It is a major cognitive leap for children and fundamental to growing up in a healthy, happy way.
Young children are like little tyrants.¹⁵ They struggle to conceive of anything in life beyond what is immediately pleasurable or painful for them at any given moment. They cannot feel empathy. They cannot imagine what life is like in your shoes. All they know is that they want some fucking ice cream.¹⁶
A young child’s identity is therefore very small and fragile. It is constituted by simply what gives pleasure and what avoids pain. Susie likes chocolate. She is afraid of dogs. She enjoys coloring. She is often mean to her brother. This is the extent of Susie’s identity because her Thinking Brain has not yet developed enough meaning to create coherent stories for her. It’s only when she’s old enough to ask what the pleasure is for, what the pain is for, that she can develop some meaningful narratives for herself, and establish identity.
The knowledge of pleasure and pain is still there in adolescence. It’s just that pleasure and pain no longer dictate most decision making.¹⁷ They are no longer the basis of our values. Older children weigh their personal feelings against their understanding of rules, trade-offs, and the social order around them to plan and make decisions. This gives them larger, sturdier identities.¹⁸
The adolescent does the same stumbling around the young child does in learning what is pleasurable and what is painful, except the adolescent stumbles around by trying on different social rules and roles. If I wear this, will it make me cool? If I talk like that, will it make people like me? If I pretend to enjoy this music, will I be popular?¹⁹
This is an improvement, but there’s still a weakness in this adolescent approach to life. Everything is seen as a trade-off. Adolescents approach life as an endless series of bargains: I will do what my boss says so I can get money. I will call my mother so I don’t get yelled at. I will do my homework so I don’t fuck up my future. I will lie and pretend to be nice so I don’t have to deal with conflict.
Nothing is done for its own sake. Everything is a calculated transaction, usually made out of fear of the negative repercussions. Everything is a means to some pleasurable end.²⁰
The problem with adolescent values is that if you hold them, you never actually stand for something outside yourself. You are still at heart a child, albeit a cleverer and much more sophisticated child. Everything still revolves around maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain, it’s just that the adolescent is savvy enough to think a few moves ahead to get there.
In the end, adolescent values are self-defeating. You can’t live your entire life this way, otherwise you’re never actually living your own life. You’re merely living out an aggregation of the desires of the people around you.
To become an emotionally healthy individual, you must break out of this constant bargaining, endlessly treating everyone as a means to some pleasurable end, and come to understand even higher and more abstract guiding principles.
How to Be an Adult
When you google “how to be an adult,” most of the results focus on preparing for job interviews, managing your finances, cleaning up after yourself, and not being a total asshole. These things are all great, and indeed, they are all things that adults are expected to do. But I would argue that, by themselves, they do not make you an adult. They simply prevent you from being a child, which is not the same thing.
That’s because most people who do these things do them because they are rule- and transaction-based. They are a means to some superficial end. You prepare for a job interview because you want to get a good job. You learn how to clean your house because its level of cleanliness has direct consequences on what people think of you. You manage your finances because if you don’t, you will be royally fucked one day down the road. Bargaining with rules and the social order allows us to be well-functioning human beings in the world.
Eventually, though, we realize that the most important things in life cannot be gained through bargaining. You don’t want to bargain with your father for love, or your friends for companionship, or your boss for respect. Bargaining with people into loving or respecting you feels shitty. It undermines the whole project. If you have to convince someone to love you, then they don’t love you. If you have to cajole someone into respecting you, then they will never respect you. If you have to convince someone to trust you, then they won’t actually trust you.
The most precious and important things in life are, by definition, nontransactional. And to try to bargain for them is to immediately destroy them. You cannot conspire for happiness; it is impossible. But this is often what people try to do, especially when they seek out self-help and other personal development advice—they are essentially saying, “Show me the rules of the game I have to play, and I’ll play it,” not realizing that it’s the very fact that they think there are rules to happiness that is preventing them from being happy.²¹
While people who navigate life through bargaining and rules can get far in the material world, they remain crippled and alone in their emotional world. This is because transactional values create relationships that are built upon manipulation.
Adulthood is the realization that sometimes an abstract principle is right and good for its own sake, that even if it hurts you today, even if it hurts others, being honest is still the right thing to do. In the same way that the adolescent realizes there’s more to the world than the child’s pleasure or pain, the adult realizes that there’s more to the world than the adolescent’s constant bargaining for validation, approval, and satisfaction. Becoming an adult is therefore developing the ability to do what is right for the simple reason that it is right.
An adolescent will say that she values honesty only because she has learned that saying so produces good results. But when confronted with difficult conversations, she will tell white lies, exaggerate the truth, and become passive-aggressive. An adult will be honest for the simple sake that honesty is more important than her own pleasure or pain. Honesty is more important than getting what you want or achieving a goal. Honesty is inherently good and valuable, in and of itself. Honesty is therefore an end, not a means to some other end.
An adolescent will say he loves you, but his conception of love is that he is getting something in return, that love is merely an emotional swap meet, where you each bring everything you have to offer and haggle with each other for the best deal. An adult will love freely without expecting anything in return because an adult understands that that is the only thing that can make love real. An adult will give without seeking anything in return, because to do so defeats the purpose of a gift in the first place.
The principled values of adulthood are unconditional—that is, they cannot be reached through any other means. They are ends in and of themselves.²²
Child —> Pleasure
Adolescent —> Principles —> Pleasure
Adult —> Principles
An adult is able to eschew his own pleasure for the sake of his principles.
There are plenty of grown-ass children in the world. And there are a lot of aging adolescents. Hell, there are even some young adults out there. That’s because, past a certain point, maturity has nothing to do with age.²³ What matters are a person’s intentions. The difference between a child, an adolescent, and an adult is not how old they are or what they do, but why they do something. The child steals the ice cream because it feels good, and he is oblivious or indifferent to the consequences. The adolescent doesn’t steal because he knows it will create worse consequences in the future, but his decision is ultimately a bargain with his future self: I’ll forgo some pleasure now to prevent greater future pain.²⁴
But it’s only the adult who doesn’t steal for the simple principle that stealing is wrong. And to steal, even if she gets away with it, would make her feel worse about herself.²⁵
Why We Don’t Grow
When we are little kids, the way we learn to transcend the pleasure/pain values (“ice cream is good; hot stoves are bad”) is by pursuing those values and seeing how they fail us. It’s only by experiencing the pain of their failure that we learn to transcend them.²⁶ We steal the ice cream, Mom gets pissed off and punishes us. Suddenly, “ice cream is good” doesn’t seem as straightforward as it used to—there are all sorts of other factors to consider. I like ice cream. And I like Mom. But taking the ice cream will upset Mom. What do I do? Eventually, the child is forced to reckon with the fact that there are trade-offs that must be negotiated.
This is essentially what good early parenting boils down to: implementing the correct consequences for a child’s pleasure/pain-driven behavior. Punish them for stealing ice cream; reward them for sitting quietly in a restaurant. You are helping them understand that life is far more complicated than their own impulses or desires. Parents who fail to do this fail their children in an incredibly fundamental way because it won’t take long for the child to have the shocking realization that the world does not cater to his whims. Learning this as an adult is incredibly painful—far more painful than it would have been had the child learned the lesson when he was younger. He will be socially punished by his peers and society for not understanding it. Nobody wants to be friends with a selfish brat. No one wants to work with someone who doesn’t consider others’ feelings or appreciate rules. No society accepts someone who metaphorically (or literally) steals the ice cream from the freezer. The untaught child will be shunned, ridiculed, and punished for his behavior in the adult world, which will result in even more pain and suffering.
Parents can fail their children in another way: they can abuse them.²⁷ An abused child also does not develop beyond his pain- and pleasure-driven values because his punishment follows no logical pattern and doesn’t reinforce deeper, more abstract values. Instead of predictable failures, his experience is just random and cruel. Stealing ice cream sometimes results in overly harsh punishment. At other times, it results in no consequences at all. Therefore, no lesson is learned. No higher values are produced. No development takes place. The child never learns to control his own behavior and develops coping mechanisms to deal with the incessant pain. This is why children who are abused and children who are coddled often end up with the same issues when they become adults: they remain stuck in their childhood value system.²⁸
Ultimately, graduating to adolescence requires trust. A child must trust that her behavior will produce predictable outcomes. Stealing always creates bad outcomes. Touching a hot stove also creates bad outcomes. Trusting in these outcomes is what allows the child to develop rules and principles around them. The same is true once the child grows older and enters society. A society without trustworthy institutions or leaders cannot develop rules and roles. Without trust, there are no reliable principles to dictate decisions, therefore everything devolves back into childish selfishness.²⁹
People get stuck in the adolescent stage of values for similar reasons that they get stuck with childish values: trauma and/or neglect. Victims of bullying are a particularly notable example. A person who has been bullied in his younger years will move through the world with an assumed understanding that no one will ever like or respect him unconditionally, that all affection must be hard-won through a series of practiced conversation and canned actions. You must dress a certain way. You must speak a certain way. You must act a certain way—or else.³⁰
Some people become incredibly good at playing the bargaining game. They tend to be charming and charismatic and are naturally able to sense what other people want of them and to fill that role. This manipulation rarely fails them in any meaningful way, so they come to believe that this is simply how the whole world operates. Life is one big high school gymnasium, and you must shove people into lockers lest ye be shoved first.
Adolescents need to be shown that bargaining is a never-ending treadmill, that the only things in life of real value and meaning are achieved without conditions, without transactions. It requires good parents and teachers not to succumb to the adolescent’s bargaining. The best way to do this is by example, of course, by showing unconditionality by being unconditional yourself. The best way to teach an adolescent to trust is to trust him. The best way to teach an adolescent respect is to respect him. The best way to teach someone to love is by loving him. And you don’t force the love or trust or respect on him—after all, that would make those things conditional—you simply give them, understanding that at some point, the adolescent’s bargaining will fail and he’ll understand the value of unconditionality when he’s ready.³¹
When parents and teachers fail, it’s usually because they themselves are stuck at an adolescent level of values. They, too, see the world in transactional terms. They, too, bargain love for sex, loyalty for affection, respect for obedience. In fact, they likely bargain with their kids for affection, love, or respect. They think this is normal, so the kid grows up thinking it’s normal. And the shitty, shallow, transactional parent/child relationship is then replicated when the kid goes out and forms relationships in the world, because he then becomes a teacher or parent and imparts his adolescent values on children, causing the whole mess to continue for another generation.
Once older, adolescent-minded people will move through the world assuming that all human relationships are a never-ending trade agreement, that intimacy is no more than a feigned sense of knowing the other person for the mutual benefit of each one, that everyone is a means to some selfish end. And instead of recognizing that their problems are rooted in the transactional approach to the world itself, they will assume that the only problem is that it took them so long to do the transactions correctly.
It’s difficult to act unconditionally. You love someone knowing you may not be loved in return, but you do it anyway. You trust someone even though you realize you might get hurt or screwed over. That’s because to act unconditionally requires some degree of faith—faith that it’s the right thing to do even if it results in more pain, even if it doesn’t work out for you or the other person.
Making the leap of faith into a virtuous adulthood requires not just an ability to endure pain, but also the courage to abandon hope, to let go of the desire for things always to be better or more pleasant or a ton of fun. Your Thinking Brain will tell you that this is illogical, that your assumptions must inevitably be wrong in some way. Yet, you do it anyway. Your Feeling Brain will procrastinate and freak out about the pain of brutal honesty, the vulnerability that comes with loving someone, the fear that comes from humility. Yet, you do it anyway.
|Rules and roles
|SEES RELATIONSHIPS AS . . .
|Narcissistic: wide swings between “I’m the best” and “I’m the worst”
|Other-dependent: externally validated
|Independent: largely internally validated
|IN ORDER TO GROW, HE/SHE NEEDS . . .
|Trustworthy institutions and dependable people
|Courage to let go of outcomes and faith in unconditional acts
Adult behaviors are ultimately seen as admirable and noteworthy. It’s the boss who takes the fall for his employees’ mistakes, the mother who gives up her own happiness for her child’s, the friend who tells you what you need to hear even though it upsets you.
It’s these people who hold the world together. Without them, we’d all likely be fucked.
It’s no coincidence, then, that all the world’s great religions push people toward these unconditional values, whether it’s the unconditional forgiveness of Jesus Christ or the Noble Eightfold Path of the Buddha or the perfect justice of Muhammad. In their purest forms, the world’s great religions leverage our human instinct for hope to try to pull people upward toward adult virtues.³²
Or, at least, that’s usually the original intention.
Unfortunately, as they grow, religions inevitably get co-opted by transactional adolescents and narcissist children, people who pervert the religious principles for their own personal gain. Every human religion succumbs to this failure of moral frailty at some point. No matter how beautiful and pure its doctrines, it ultimately becomes a human institution, and all human institutions eventually become corrupted.
Enlightenment philosophers, excited by the opportunities afforded the world by growth, decided to remove the spirituality from religion and get the job done with ideological religion. They jettisoned the idea of virtue and instead focused on measurable, concrete goals: creating greater happiness and less suffering; giving people greater personal liberties and freedoms; and promoting compassion, empathy, and equality.
And these ideological religions, like the spiritual religions before them, also caved to the flawed nature of all human institutions. When you attempt to barter for happiness, you destroy happiness. When you try to enforce freedom, you negate freedom. When you try to create equality, you undermine equality.
None of these ideological religions confronted the fundamental issue at hand: conditionality. They either didn’t admit to or didn’t deal with the fact that whatever you make your God Value, you will always be willing, at some point, to bargain away human life in order to get closer to it. Worshipping some supernatural God, some abstract principle, some bottomless desire, when pursued long enough, will always result in giving up your own humanity or the humanity of others in order to achieve the aims of that worship. And what was supposed to save you from suffering then plunges you back into suffering. The cycle of hope-destruction begins anew.
And this is where Kant comes in . . .
The One Rule for Life
Early in his life, Kant understood the Whac-A-Mole game of maintaining hope in the face of the Uncomfortable Truth. And like everyone who becomes aware of this cruel cosmic game, he despaired. But he refused to accept the game. He refused to believe that there was no inherent value in existence. He refused to believe that we are forever cursed to conjure stories to give our lives an arbitrary sense of meaning. So, he set out to use his big-biceped Thinking Brain to figure out what value without hope would look like.
Kant started with a simple observation. In all the universe, there is only one thing that, from what we can tell, is completely scarce and unique: consciousness. To Kant, the only thing that distinguishes us from the rest of the matter in the universe is our ability to reason—we’re able to take the world around us and, through reasoning and will, improve upon it. This, to him, was special, exceedingly special—a miracle, almost—because for everything in the infinite span of existence, we are the only thing (that we know of) that can actually direct existence. In the known cosmos, we are the only sources of ingenuity and creativity. We are the only ones who can direct our own fate. We are the only ones who are self-aware. And for all we know, we are the only shot the universe has at intelligent self-organization.
Therefore, Kant cleverly deduced that, logically, the supreme value in the universe is the thing that conceives of value itself. The only true meaning in existence is the ability to form meaning. The only importance is the thing that decides importance.³³
And this ability to choose meaning, to imagine importance, to invent purpose, is the only force in the known universe that can propagate itself, that can spread its intelligence and generate greater and greater levels of organization throughout the cosmos. Kant believed that without rationality, the universe would be a waste, in vain, and without purpose. Without intelligence, and the freedom to exercise that intelligence, we might as well all be a bunch of rocks. Rocks don’t change. They don’t conceive of values, systems, or organizations. They don’t alter, improve, or create. They’re just there.
But consciousness—consciousness can reorganize the universe, and that reorganization can add upon itself exponentially. Consciousness is able to take a problem, a system of a certain amount of complexity, and conceive and generate greater complexity. In a thousand years, we went from twiddling sticks in a small cave to designing entire digital realms connecting the minds of billions. In another thousand, we could easily be among the stars, reshaping the planets and space/time itself. Each individual action may not matter in the grand scheme of things, but the preservation and promotion of rational consciousness overall matters more than anything.
Kant argued that the most fundamental moral duty is the preservation and growth of consciousness, both in ourselves and in others. He called this principle of always putting consciousness first “the Formula of Humanity,” and it kind of explains . . . well, like, everything, ever. It explains our basic moral intuitions. It explains the classic concept of virtue.³⁴ It explains how to act in our day-to-day lives without relying on some imagined vision of hope. It explains how to not be an asshole.
And, as if that weren’t enough, it explains all of it in a single sentence. The Formula of Humanity states, “Act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means.”³⁵
That’s it. The Formula of Humanity is the single principle that pulls people out of adolescent bargaining and into adult virtue.³⁶
See, the problem with hope is that it is fundamentally transactional—it is a bargain between one’s current actions for some imagined, pleasant future. Don’t eat this, and you’ll go to heaven. Don’t kill that person, or you’ll get in trouble. Work hard and save your money, because that will make you happy.
To transcend the transactional realm of hope, one must act unconditionally. You must love someone without expecting anything in return; otherwise it’s not truly love. You must respect someone without expecting anything in return; otherwise you don’t truly respect him. You must speak honestly without expecting a pat on the back or a high-five or a gold star next to your name; otherwise you aren’t truly being honest.
Kant summed up these unconditional acts with one simple principle: you must treat humanity never merely as a means, but always as an end itself.³⁷
But what does this look like in day-to-day life? Here’s a simple example:
Let’s pretend that I’m hungry and I want a burrito. I get in my car and drive to Chipotle and order my usual double-meat monster that makes me oh so happy. In this situation, eating the burrito is my “end” goal. It’s ultimately why I’m doing everything else: getting in the car, driving, buying gas, and so on. All these things I do to get the burrito are the “means,” i.e., the things I must do in order to achieve my “end.”
Means are things that we do conditionally. They are what we bargain with. I don’t want to get in my car and drive, and I don’t want to pay for gas, but I do want a burrito. Therefore, I must do these other things to get that burrito.
An end is something that is desired for its own sake. It is the defining motivating factor of our decisions and behaviors. If I wanted to eat a burrito only because my wife wanted a burrito and I wanted to make her happy, then the burrito is no longer my end; it is now a means to an even greater end: making my wife happy. And if I only wanted to make my wife happy so I could get laid tonight, now my wife’s happiness is a means to a greater end, which in this case is sex.
Likely that last example made you squirm a little bit, made you feel that I’m kind of a dirtbag.³⁸ That’s exactly what Kant is talking about. His Formula of Humanity states that treating any human being (or any consciousness) as a means to some other end is the basis of all wrong behavior. So, treating a burrito as a means to my wife’s end is fine. It’s good to make your spouse happy sometimes! But if I treat my wife as a means to the end of sex, then I am now treating her merely as a means, and as Kant would argue, that is some shade of wrong.
Similarly, lying is wrong because you are misleading another person’s conscious behavior in order to achieve your own goal. You are treating that person as a means to your own end. Cheating is unethical for a similar reason. You are violating the expectations of other rational and sentient beings for your own personal aims. You are treating everyone else who is taking the same test or following the same rules as a means to your own personal end. Violence, same deal: you are treating another person as a means to some greater political or personal end. Bad, reader. Bad!
Kant’s Formula of Humanity doesn’t only describe our moral intuition into what’s wrong; it also explains the adult virtues, those actions and behaviors that are good for their own sake. Honesty is good in and of itself because it’s the only form of communication that doesn’t treat people merely as a means. Courage is good in and of itself because to fail to act is to treat either yourself or others as a means to the end of quelling your fear. Humility is good in and of itself because to fall into blind certainty is to treat others as a means to your own ends.
If there were ever to be a single rule to describe all desirable human behavior, the Formula of Humanity would probably be it. But here’s the beautiful thing: unlike other moral systems or codes, the Formula of Humanity does not rely on hope. There’s no great system to force onto the world, no faith-based supernatural beliefs to protect from doubt or lack of evidence.
The Formula of Humanity is merely a principle. It doesn’t project some future utopia. It doesn’t lament some hellish past. No one is better or worse or more righteous than anyone else. All that matters is that conscious will is respected and protected. End of story.
Because Kant understood that when you get into the business of deciding and dictating the future, you unleash the destructive potential of hope. You start worrying about converting people rather than honoring them, destroying evil in others rather than rooting it out in yourself.
Instead, he decided that the only logical way to improve the world is through improving ourselves—by growing up and becoming more virtuous—by making the simple decision, in each moment, to treat ourselves and others as ends, and never merely as means. Be honest. Don’t distract or harm yourself. Don’t shirk responsibility or succumb to fear. Love openly and fearlessly. Don’t cave to tribal impulses or hopeful deceits. Because there is no heaven or hell in the future. There are only the choices you make in each and every moment.
Will you act conditionally or unconditionally? Will you treat others as merely means or as ends? Will you pursue adult virtue or childish narcissism?
Hope doesn’t even have to enter into the equation. Don’t hope for a better life. Simply be a better life.
Kant understood that there is a fundamental link between our respect for ourselves and our respect for the world. The values that define our identity are the templates that we apply to our interactions with others, and little progress can be made with others until we’ve made progress within ourselves.³⁹ When we pursue a life full of pleasure and simple satisfaction, we are treating ourselves as a means to our pleasurable ends. Therefore, self-improvement is not the cultivation of greater happiness but, rather, a cultivation of greater self-respect. Telling ourselves that we are worthless and shitty is just as wrong as telling others that they are worthless and shitty. Lying to ourselves is just as unethical as lying to others. Harming ourselves is just as repugnant as harming others. Self-love and self-care are therefore not something you learn about or practice. They are something you are ethically called to cultivate within yourself, even if they are all that you have left.
The Formula of Humanity has a ripple effect: your improved ability to be honest with yourself will increase how honest you are with others, and your honesty with others will influence them to be more honest with themselves, which will help them to grow and mature. Your ability not to treat yourself as a means to some other end will in turn allow you to better treat others as ends. Therefore, your cleaning up your relationship with yourself has the positive by-product of cleaning up your relationships with others, which then enables them to clean up their relationships with themselves, and so on.
This is how you change the world—not through some all-encompassing ideology or mass religious conversion or misplaced dreams of the future, but by achieving the maturation and dignity of each individual in the present, here and now. There will always be different religions and different value systems based on culture and experience; there will always be different ideas about where we’re going and where we’ve come from. But, as Kant believed, the simple question of dignity and respect in each moment must be universal.
The Modern Maturity Crisis
Modern democracy was invented under the assumption that the average person is a selfish and delusional piece of shit, that the only way to protect us from ourselves is to create systems so interlocking and interdependent that no one person or group can completely hose the rest of the population.
Politics is a transactional and selfish game, and democracy is the best system of government thus far for the sole reason that it’s the only system that openly admits that. It acknowledges that power attracts corrupt and childish people. Power, by its very nature, forces leaders to be transactional. Therefore, the only way to manage that is by enshrining adult virtues into the design of the system itself.
Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, guarantees of privacy and of the right to a fair trial—these are all implementations of the Formula of Humanity in social institutions, and they are implemented in such a way that they are incredibly difficult to threaten or change.
There’s really only one way to threaten a democratic system: when one group decides that its values are more important than the system itself and it subverts the religion of democracy with some other, likely less virtuous, religion . . . and political extremism grows.
Political extremists, because they are intractable and impossible to bargain with, are, by definition, childish. They’re a bunch of fucking babies. Extremists want the world to be a certain way, and they refuse to acknowledge any interests or values outside their own. They refuse to negotiate. They refuse to appeal to a higher virtue or principle above their own selfish desires. And they cannot be trusted to follow through on the expectations of others. They are also unabashedly authoritarian because, as children, they are desperate for an all-powerful parent to come and make everything “all right.”⁴⁰
The most dangerous extremists know how to dress up their childish values in the language of transaction or universal principle. A right-wing extremist will claim she desires “freedom” above all else and that she’s willing to make sacrifices for that freedom. But what she really means is that she wants freedom from having to deal with any values that do not map onto her own. She wants freedom from having to deal with change or the marginalization of other people. Therefore, she’s willing to limit and destroy the freedom of others in the name of her own freedom.⁴¹
Extremists on the left play the same game, the only thing that changes is the language. A leftie extremist will say that he wants “equality” for all, but what he really means is that he never wants anyone to feel pain, to feel harmed, or to feel inferior. He doesn’t want anyone to have to face moral gaps, ever. And he’s willing to cause pain and adversity to others in the name of eliminating those moral gaps.
Extremism, on both the right and the left, has become more politically prominent across the world in the past few decades.⁴² Many smart people have suggested many complicated and overlapping explanations for this. And there likely are many complicated and overlapping reasons.⁴³
But allow me to throw out another one: that the maturity of our culture is deteriorating.
Throughout the rich and developed world, we are not living through a crisis of wealth or material, but a crisis of character, a crisis of virtue, a crisis of means and ends. The fundamental political schism in the twenty-first century is no longer right versus left, but the impulsive childish values of the right and left versus the compromising adolescent/adult values of both the right and left. It’s no longer a debate of communism versus capitalism or freedom versus equality but, rather, of maturity versus immaturity, of means versus ends.