Reading Kant in China

Went to Edwin’s courtyard school yesterday for his lesson on Kant, and it was a truly interesting experience for the insight into what Chinese teenagers think about morality. These were smart eighteen year olds on a break between their high school and entering top American universities, from top schools like Dulwich college (one of the most expensive private schools in China) and No. 4 Middle School. Their English was excellent – they were talking about Kant and understanding it – and it was clearly an enjoyable class for them.

What became very obvious from the beginning was that any appeal to God as a final arbiter of morality held no credence for them. “Did Kant believe in God?” asked Jenny, a younger girl. She was disappointed to hear that he did. “How could he believe in both God and reason?” – she found the two mutually incompatible. “What if God said one day that torture is OK, how would that be reasonable?”

They also found it difficult to get their heads around the categorical imperative. The idea of an embedded moral law  seemed not to appeal to Harry, a student who seemed to have the most experience reading philosophy. “My categorical imperative is that I want to be happy,” he said. “My genes make me seek my own happiness. I call it personal utilitarianism.”

His “personal utilitarianism”, or strategic selfishness, is based on seeking his own happiness and ensuring other people’s happiness to the extent that it does not interfere with his own. When it is pointed out that his imperative is hypothetical instead of categorical, because it is caused by something (i.e. his genes), he is profoundly dissatisfied, convinced he has come up with a completely workable system of ethics, informed, it seems to me, by a combination of evolutionary theory and Adam Smith’s invisible hand. He even illustrated it on the white board with the title “Harry” over it, in place of “Kant”.

Edwin remarked that they seem natural Republicans  – believing strongly in the need for free markets because self-interest would ensure individual efforts lead to wealth and success. In fact there is little consideration given to ethics at all. When asked if there was even a need for an ethical system, Harry paused and seemed to seriously consider whether there was a need for such a thing.

“Kant would have said that, if he observed your actual behavior, you would still follow a moral law,” says Edwin. Harry seems unconvinced that such a thing could live within him. “Perhaps tonight as you walk home and look up into the starry heavens above, you will find the moral law within you,” Edwin adds at the end of class, a little sardonically.

I wondered later what Kant would have made of Chinese teenagers in 2015. Would he have been so certain of himself about the universality of the moral law found within us if he had met them? I am a Kantian myself; I believe in the moral law. But in the face of the deeply self-assured, cheerfully amoral teenager perfectly happy to prioritize his own happiness and cynically keeping others just the right amount of happy in order for them to leave him be, I have to question whether this is truly something universal.

This is not to say that the students’ instincts are so different from my own. They don’t see the point in not lying to a murderer who would track down his victim to their door – “that’s a white lie, so the universal maxim for that is that it’s OK to tell white lies,” said Eric, another boy in the class. They would prefer to consult a dying person missing one vital organ before donating his four other organs to other dying people in need of organs; they wouldn’t kill him without asking him first. As for the famous trolley problem, they would probably pull the lever to direct a runaway trolley to kill one person rather than four, but would not push a fat man off a bridge to save them. Perhaps this speaks of a universally shared set of instincts? But of course each of these thought experiments are meant to manipulate one into thinking in a particular way.

There is definitely a sense of impatience at the abstract quality of philosophical puzzles. “Why can’t we just talk to them?” asks Harry of both the dying patients and the murderer at the door. “I don’t have enough information to make a decision.” The theoretical is dismissed as irrelevant because it doesn’t have any bearing on everyday situations, in which a decision would depend on many more factors. A certain flexibility and pragmatism is reflected in these responses.

I asked Edwin if any of them seemed at all influenced by Marxism, which is after all, taught to all students in school. “Their interaction with Marxism is only in the most superficial way. There is definitely no concern for equality of outcome whatsoever. When was the last time you ever heard a Chinese person complain about inequality?”

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