Kant Stop, Won’t Stop: Climate Action and the Categorical Imperative

Immanuel Kant was a German philosopher who is now famous for his concept of the ‘categorical imperative’. Similar to the ‘golden rule’ found in many religions (do unto others as you would have them do unto you), the categorical imperative works as a kind of handbook for determining whether an action is moral or immoral. In this piece, I’ll be looking at some lifestyle decisions which are relevant to climate change through the lens of this rule to find out what Kant might have thought about climate action.

Immanuel Kant was a German philosopher who is now famous for his concept of the ‘categorical imperative’. Similar to the ‘golden rule’ found in many religions (do unto others as you would have them do unto you), the categorical imperative works as a kind of handbook for determining whether an action is moral or immoral. The idea is that you should consider an action moral only if you could sensibly wish that all people in that situation would act in the same way. In other words, before you make a moral decision, you should ask yourself whether it would make sense for everyone to make the same decision.

This is known as the ‘test of universalisation’. If you can wish that a ‘maxim’ (a rule of conduct) be universalised, then that maxim is moral. If the universalisation of the maxim results in a logical inconsistency, however, that maxim should not be followed. This sounds like a complex idea, but once you start to analyse a few examples it becomes very clear. In this piece, I’ll be looking at some lifestyle decisions which are relevant to climate change through the lens of this rule to find out what Kant might have thought about climate action.

Consider the open-and-shut case of the maxim ‘I should kill people who irritate me in order to better society’. So what happens when this maxim is universalised? If everyone who was irritated resorted immediately to murder, society would break down. If irritation were a just cause for murder, I would’ve already killed several people today and I’m sure several people would’ve killed me. This is a society that is in no one’s best interests. More than that, it is the disintegration of society itself. The universalisation of the maxim ‘I should kill people who irritate me in order to better society’, then, is self-defeating, since it results in the breaking-down of the very thing it originally sought to improve; society.

Another example is that of lying. Kant thought that if everyone lied all the time, then truth itself would become meaningless. This generated what he thought of as a logical inconsistency. Usually people lie to gain some sort of advantage over the person they are lying to. If everyone lied all the time, that advantage would disappear and the reason you were lying in the first place would become null and void. A common criticism of Kant is that his rule is too strict and emotionless. People take the categorical imperative to mean that no one can lie at any time for any reason, since lying fails the test of universalisation. I think that this is a misinterpretation of Kant’s views. Consider this example:

Your friend knocks on your door, terrified. They tell you that a murderer is after them and ask for somewhere to hide. You agree. Sure enough, moments later a man wielding an axe shows up at the door and asks if you know where your friend is. People say that according to Kant, it is immoral to lie to the murderer because the categorical imperative forbids it and you must therefore tell the murderer where your friend is. I disagree with this interpretation. For me, the categorical imperative can be more specific than ‘should I lie’ or ‘should I kill’.

Consider the maxim ‘I should lie if it saves my friend’s life from a murderer’. I don’t think Kant would have any problem saying that a sensible person could wish that maxim to be a universal law. If everyone lied all the time, a logical inconsistency would be generated since truth would become meaningless. If everyone lied only to divert murderers from their victims, however, the only result would be a better world. Even if this interpretation misrepresents Kant’s actual views, I see no reason why this simple revision should not silence many of his critics.

Ok, now that we have a basic understanding of Kant’s idea, let’s try to apply it to climate action. Consider the maxim ‘I should drive to work every day’. Let’s universalise that. If everyone drove to work every day, the resulting emissions would have catastrophic consequences for the planet. Climate change would soon reach a tipping point and set off feedback loops that we would be powerless to halt. This would cause the economy to collapse, likely leading to the loss of your job.

As in the case of lying, the universalisation of this maxim defeats the purpose of what the maxim was trying to achieve in the first place. It is not helpful to get to work quickly and hassle-free if your job no longer exists. What’s more, if everyone drove every day then we would soon run out of petrol and then nobody would be able to drive to work at all. Those sound like logical inconsistencies to me.

What about ‘I should eat meat every day’? This falls into the same problem. If everyone ate meat every day, the resources and land required to supply all this meat would most likely exceed the resources and land available on planet earth. Already, one third of all ice-free land is used to raise livestock and we are nowhere near everyone eating meat every day. More than that, the methane emissions from the livestock would greatly accelerate climate change, leading to desertification of land and rising sea-levels, further reducing the land available to raise livestock. The ultimate effect of everyone eating meat every day is that it would quickly become impossible to eat meat every day, thus defeating the original purpose of the maxim.

I think you probably get the point but I’ll do another one anyway. What about the maxim ‘I should leave my lights on when I’m not in the room’? The net result of universalising this maxim is that the resources required to generate the electricity to keep that light on would quickly run out. In addition, the increase in the severity and frequency of natural disasters that would occur would greatly increase the chance that your home would be destroyed by a hurricane or flood, thus rendering your lightbulbs kaput. The effect of everyone leaving their lights on is that pretty soon no one will be able to turn their lights on at all.

You may be thinking at this point that universalising any maxim at all will lead to logical inconsistencies. Not true. If you go back and try to universalise the opposite maxim to the examples above, you will find that none result in such an inconsistency. I can wish that no one drives to work every day, since this would only result in cleaner air, less global warming and ultimately a better world.

Universalising the maxim ‘I should not drive to work every day’ is logically consistent, since the maxim can still be followed in the world brought about by the universalisation. In other words, in a world in which no one drives to work every day, it still makes perfect sense to say ‘I should not drive to work every day’. This does not mean that there can’t be exceptions made for people with disabilities or no other means of transport. As in the case of the murderer at the door, we can simply alter the maxim to be more specific. For example; ‘I should not drive to work every day if a viable alternative is available to me’.

What about the maxim ‘I should not eat meat every day’? If no one ate meat, the planet would be far better for it. We would increase the food available to us, since crop agriculture is far more efficient than animal agriculture when it comes to land and resource use. If you give 100 grams of protein to a cow, the meat that you get back will contain only 10 grams of protein, since the cow will use up the rest by walking, breathing and maintaining its body temperature. In a world in which no one eats meat, it still makes perfect sense to say ‘I should not eat meat’. There is no logical inconsistency there, since the universalisation of the maxim does not cause it to fall apart.

I won’t bother re-analysing the last example, since I’m sure you have the gist by now. I will, however, take this time to head-off an objection that I’m sure people will have. You may argue that it is not the actions of normal people which are causing global warming, but rather the actions of a select few who are producing emissions on an industrial scale. It is true that 70% of all emissions since the industrial revolution have been produced by just 100 companies, but this line of reasoning only gets you so far. Who do you think corporations are producing the emissions for?

Corporations only stand to profit from polluting the earth because we continue to pay them for it. To go back to Kant for a second, if everyone made a conscious effort to reduce their energy usage, then the companies who generate that electricity from fossil fuels would have no reason to continue ramping up their operation. It’s really very simple; supply and demand. So long as the demand for things like electricity and beef remains high, it is still profitable to burn as much fuel and raise as many cattle as you possibly can.

If the demand were to drop by, say, 50%, then the only way to keep the operation profitable is to reduce the supply by 50% too. This is because it is expensive to produce electricity and beef, and there is no financial incentive to make that initial investment if no one is willing to pay for the finished product. So while corporations carry the responsibility for producing the emissions, every individual in the western world has facilitated these crimes against humanity by providing a financial motivation for their continuation. It is for this reason that we cannot simply dismiss the impact of individual actions.

Anyway, my point here is that according to one of the greatest moral philosophers who ever lived, every action which contributes to or accelerates climate change should be considered immoral. To be clear, I am not saying that everyone who drives to work every day, eats meat or leaves their lights on is a terrible person. Necessity, cultural norms and misinformation have created a world in which climate-damaging actions are seen as morally-neutral standard practice. What I am saying is that given some reflection, those people should come to the conclusion that taking the bus, eating plants and turning the lights off would be better moral choices. No one is inherently good or bad. Our moral value is determined not by who we are, but rather by the thousands of tiny choices we make day to day.

People have a tendency to become defensive when it comes to their morality. They are not willing to accept that what they have been doing their whole lives was immoral, since the implication would be that they themselves are an immoral person. Consider the person who does and says blatantly racist things, but recoils in anger and disgust when they are accused of racism. The truth is that there is something wrong with the way we have been living our lives in recent decades, as evidenced by the fact that if we continue on our current path, life will become a daily struggle for survival before you can say ‘drive-thru cheeseburger’. What is needed now is for us to put our pride aside and accept that we fucked up, rather than retreating into a tortoise-shell of denial. Why? Because by the time we finally come out of our shells, it may be too late to change course.