in: Character, Knowledge of Men, Podcast

• Last updated: March 27, 2023

Podcast #881: A Kantian Guide to Life

If you’ve had some contact with the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, there’s a good chance you found it abstract, heady, and hard to understand. But my guest would say that it’s full of rich, usable insights on how to become better people, and, fortunately for us, she’s got a true knack for making Kant’s wisdom really accessible.

Karen Stohr is a professor of philosophy and the author of Choosing Freedom: A Kantian Guide to Life. Today on the show, she brings Kant’s ethical system and categorical imperative down to earth and shares how it can be applied to our everyday lives. We discuss Kant’s belief in our great moral potential and duty to improve ourselves, and how his insights can help us make right choices. Karen explains Kant’s ideas on the difference between negative and positive freedom, the importance of treating people as ends and not just means, the tension between love and respect, why ingratitude could be considered a “satanic vice,” how practicing manners can make us better people, and more.

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Read the Transcript

Brett Mckay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. If you’ve had some contact with the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, there’s a good chance you found it abstract, heady and hard to understand, but my guest would say that it’s full of rich, usable insights on how to become better people. And fortunately for us, she’s got a true knack for making Kant’s wisdom really accessible. Karen Stohr is a professor of philosophy and the author of Choosing Freedom: A Kantian Guide to Life. Today on the show, she brings Kant’s ethical system and categorical imperative down to earth and shares how it can be applied to our everyday lives. We discuss Kant’s belief in our great moral potential and duty to improve ourselves and how his insights can help us make right choices. Karen explains Kant’s ideas on the difference between negative and positive freedom, the importance of treating people as ends and not just means. The tension between love and respect, why ingratitude could be considered a satanic vice, how practicing manners can make us better people and more. You Kant miss this episode. Sorry, I had to do that. Out of the show’s over check out our show notes at

All right, Karen Stohr. Welcome to the show.

Karen Stohr: Thank you, thank you for having me.

Brett Mckay: So you are a professor of philosophy who has written and researched a lot about the Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant and you wrote a book about his philosophy called Choosing Freedom: A Kantian Guide To Life, which is… It’s a very reader-friendly introduction to Kant’s ethics, because I think if you took a college ethics course, you’ve definitely covered Kant, but you probably, like me, found Kant to be kind of abstract and hard to understand but you did a really good job of making his ethical system really accessible. So if people aren’t familiar with Kant, why do you think this philosopher of the 18th century is still relevant today in the 21st?

Karen Stohr: Yeah, so I think Kant gives us an incredibly powerful ethical theory that’s capable of illuminating all kinds of human problems that are still very important to us and also giving us guidance on how to maybe think about solving them, and that’s because his theory has these robust concepts like things like autonomy and respect and dignity and equality, and he has really useful things to say about all of those.

Brett Mckay: And why do you think… In my experience in the popular culture, I think stoicism gets a lot of play, maybe Aristotelian virtue ethics, Nietzsche, people like to talk about Nietzsche. But Kant gets overlooked, why do you think that is?

Karen Stohr: Yeah, well, I think this is partly Kant’s own fault. He’s really hard to read, and I think for a lot of people, it can seem kind of dry or disconnected from their lives in ways that Aristotle, the Stoics don’t. But I think it isn’t. I think that part of the problem is that there’s a tendency to read through small bits of Kant’s work, but we get a better sense of who he was and what he cared about if we read a wider array of things that he wrote. And once we do that, both sometimes the reading gets a little bit easier and we can kind of see what Kant was about in ways that we can’t always by just focusing, for instance, on his famous ground work.

Brett Mckay: And how would you describe how Kantian ethics differs from other ethical systems, for example, Aristotelian virtue ethics, ’cause I know that’s another area of your expertise.

Karen Stohr: Yeah, so I think Kant actually probably has more in common with both Aristotle and the Stoics than it might seem. He was actually very influenced particularly by stoicism, and he’s often talking in ways where it’s clear he’s responding to the ancients. So one of the hallmarks of Kant’s theory is his emphasis on reason, that’s something that is absolutely present in Aristotle and the Stoics too. Kant also emphasizes an ideal in ways that Aristotelians and Stoics do as well. In Kant’s case, the ideal in question is what he calls a person with a good will. So there’s many ways in which the structure of Kant’s theory is very much in line with other ethical theories. But Kant’s theory is also very modern in other ways, he’s an enlightenment philosopher, and this is reflected in the kinds of things that he cares about focusing on things like individual rights, political liberty, problems about coercion and consent, religious tolerance. These are all problems that Kant saw in the world around him that he also wanted to solve. So it’s a different spin on ethical problems than you’d find in ancient philosophers, but there’s I think actually more in common across them than there is that separates them.

Brett Mckay: And what do you think are the biggest misconceptions people have about Kant? ‘Cause as you said, he’s hard to understand, he’s hard to read sometimes. So that can cause a lot of misconceptions. What are the biggest ones you’ve seen in your career?

Karen Stohr: So I think probably the biggest one is that Kant only cares about us as rational beings, that he’s uninterested in actual problems of actual human life. I think that’s a common portrayal of Kant, but I think it’s just false, and I think it’s… You can see that it’s false if you read into other things that he wrote, he had a lot to say about moral psychology and about the complicated conditions of actual human lives. So that’s probably the biggest. There’s also a tendency to treat Kant as very focused on individuals and not at all on communities, I think this is also a mistake, I think that he does actually have lots to say about how we live with other people in communities. And then I think the third one, and maybe this is the most damaging one of all for people who studied him at all in school, is that thinking of Kant as being incredibly rigid and dogmatic about things, particularly people often think of him as someone who had an absolute prohibition online and that actually, I think is his views online are misunderstood, they’re actually much more nuanced than people realize. But I think that all of those are not quite right, there’s…

Karen Stohr: Not that there’s no truth to any of them, but they are an over-simplification or kind of a caricature that the full picture of Kant’s work is way more interesting, way more focused on how we make sense of the problems that we face as real, normal frail, embodied human beings than people realize.

Brett Mckay: Yeah, I had that last misconception. I always thought as Kant as he’s a deontological philosopher, which he is, it’s about duty, but his idea of duty isn’t totally rigid and you had to stick… No matter what, here’s this rule and you gotta follow the rule. He is, like you said, Aristotelian. There’s instances where you have to use some discretion and judgment to figure these things out.

Karen Stohr: Yes, absolutely. There’s no question that Kantianism presents us with certain kinds of absolute prohibition. So most people are familiar with trolley problems and may be familiar with the version that says, hey, can you push the guy off the bridge in order to stop the trolley? Kant’s answer to that is gonna be, no, that’s just not a thing you can do. So there are some absolute principles, but not really as many as people think, and they don’t have quite the form that people think. He’s not really trying to create a rulebook for us about how to live, instead he’s trying to call our attention to certain crucial features of us and the way we relate to other human beings that are gonna guide the way that we act.

Brett Mckay: So you start out the book saying, to understand Kant’s ethical system, you have to understand his idea of human nature, and I guess the telos of humans. You can say this about any philosopher, if you wanna understand Aristotle, you need to understand what he thought humans were made for, their ends or even Nietzsche or whatever. So how did Kant view humans and what was his telos? You mentioned is that idea of an ideal human is someone with good will. Flesh that out a little bit more for us.

Karen Stohr: Yes, oh, I love to do this because of course, people do think, rightly so of Aristotle is a theorist who’s grounded in human nature, and people often don’t think of Kant that way, but in fact he is. And one of the things I find so interesting and actually quite appealing about Kant is that Kant thinks that as a matter of human nature, we’re basically pretty much a mess, we’re prone to all kinds of wickedness and frailties. We’ve got all these issues ourselves, but he also thinks we are capable of being so much more than we are. So there’s a pretty big gap for Kant between what human nature is like and what human beings are capable of being.

So it’s both pessimistic and optimistic at the same time, if that makes sense, but the point about the teleology and about the direction of humanity. This is really controversial within Kant, ’cause it’s kind of hard to know how he was talking about it, but there’s a general idea behind it that Kant thinks that we are oriented both naturally and actually morally, we’re drawn toward improvement and progress. And this is true of us as individuals and also true of us as communities of people. So Kant thought that progress is something we can do and that we’re oriented toward doing as a matter of nature, but it’s also not just gonna unfold on its own, we have to do things, we have to act to make sure that we are becoming better and that our communities are becoming better. And Kant’s ethics is very much about how to take that action, how to become better, how to progress.

Brett Mckay: No, and he even says because we have that natural orientation to wanna get better, he says we have a duty, that’s one of our duties in life is to make ourselves better, primarily ethically. Become more moral people.

Karen Stohr: Yes, absolutely. He does think it’s a duty. So Kant sees us as creatures who could go either way. We have tendencies that take us in the direction of evil or at least failures of various kinds, but he also thinks we have the capacity to choose otherwise and that capacity to choose what is right or what is good, is for Kant, what is so central about us. And on Kant’s view, we do have a duty to do that and to make ourselves into the kind of people who will be better and who will make good choices and help move our communities toward better versions of what they are now. And so it is… That’s our main moral goal is to try to make some progress as best we can.

Brett Mckay: I think people listening might have that metaphor that Kant made about our human nature, he called us crooked timber basically. And our job as, and we say carpenters of ourselves is to make something beautiful out of this crooked timber we’ve been given.

Karen Stohr: Yes, yes. To straighten ourselves out, basically, as best we can. Kant also recognizes that we are never gonna fully succeed, at least not in this life, because it’s just not possible, but we can always be trying, we can always be attempting to make something better out of the kind of mess that we are. And this is the goal of our striving in many ways, but he’s also really hopeful that we can do it, we’re not fated to stay crooked in a sense, we can make ourselves better, we can straighten ourselves out.

Brett Mckay: So a lot of ethicists, particularly Aristotelian virtue ethicists, they focus on the types of virtues people should develop to live a good life, and Kant does that too and we’ll talk about some of that today, but you point out that Kant, he actually spends a lot of time talking about vices, and the language he uses about vices is really delicious. He calls things satanic and just really great words. So why does Kant spend a lot of time focusing on vice in his work?

Karen Stohr: So Kant does spend a lot of time on vice, and even more than I realized. I’ve read Kant’s works more times than I can count, and it wasn’t until I was far in that I realized how much of his discussions about us are framed in vice terms. So Kant, it’s not that he doesn’t care about virtue, he does care about virtue, he thinks of virtue as a kind of strength in doing what’s right in the face of obstacles and challenges of different kinds. So he recognized that some of these obstacles are outside of us, but he also thinks a lot of them are inside of us, and the challenge is to recognize the things that are getting in the way of our own moral progress and vice is… He talks about individual vices, and he also talks about vice as kind of a catch-all. But vice is a way of thinking about ourselves in relationship to other people. That warps our reasoning, at one point he calls the vices monsters that we have to fight, which I think is funny language, but vices have a tendency to block us from doing what we need to progress. And the reason why he emphasizes them so much, I think is that he thinks that when it comes to being better, getting a grip on our vices and our character is probably the most of the battle. He doesn’t think that the challenge necessarily is in figuring out what to do, sometimes it is.

Of course, there are really difficult moral problems, but in many cases, the real problem is getting ourselves to do the thing that we already know is right, and that’s where the fighting vice comes in.

Brett Mckay: No. I think people can probably understand this, if you can just go through your life avoiding vice, you’re probably gonna have a good life. If you just follow the Ten Commandments, don’t kill people, don’t lie, don’t commit adultery, what else? Don’t covet or whatever. You’re probably gonna have a decent life, and then anything above that with that, the virtue of those strengths you develop is gonna be like icing on the cake. But even if you know people who they lie, and they’re constantly philandering and they’re constantly just worried about what other people have and they’re comparing themselves, they’re usually not having a great time.

Karen Stohr: Yeah, and they’re also gonna be thinking about things in the wrong way. So for Kant, vices often arise out of our desire to put ourselves first in a variety of ways, it could be put our own interests, desires above the desires and interests of others or to want to claim a standing for ourselves that we’re not willing to grant to others, we wanna feel sometimes superior to people, sometimes we tend to feel inferior to them, and so these are all ways that shape our interactions with the world. Like the person we feel entitled to stuff, we feel angry or resentful when we don’t get our way, all of those for Kant are types of vices, and they block us from living happily and having good friendships and all those things, but they also just interfere with our capacity to reason well, Kant thinks. So we’re gonna be getting the world wrong if we have vices, we’re gonna be getting our relationships wrong if we’re vicious. And so for Kant it’s the first step is to know thyself and as best one can try to rid oneself of the vices to which we’re prone.

Brett Mckay: All right. Start straightening that crooked timber.

Karen Stohr: Yes.

Brett Mckay: Okay, so let’s dig into his ethics a little bit more. Let’s talk about his famous categorical imperative. This is a really complex nuance, it took you several chapters to walk people through this. So before I dedicate a whole podcast to this, but what is the categorical imperative and how does this help us achieve more freedom in our lives?

Karen Stohr: Yes. So this is really very much the heart of what Kant is about in many ways, although in the book, I also say that I think sometimes the focus on the categorical imperative can distract us from other things that Kant wants to do, but it’s definitely central. So let me just start quickly with idea of freedom. So Kant has this interesting view, he has lots to say about freedom, but he thinks of freedom in a couple of different ways, one way is in terms of what he calls negative freedom, negative freedom is based not being determined by anything else. And Kant interestingly thinks, we can’t actually know for sure whether or not we’re free, we don’t really know, maybe the world is really determined, maybe we don’t really have an ability to make choices, but he thinks that we can’t help but think of ourselves as being free because when from the inside or what philosophers might call a deliberative perspective, we have to think of ourselves as capable of making choices. That we can’t just think of ourselves as something that’s pulled along by fate or by nature in some way. So we have to think of ourselves as capable of making choices, but for Kant, there’s another kind of freedom that matters more in some ways, which is about using that freedom to choose well, ’cause we all know that it’s possible to choose badly, ’cause we all do it all the time, if we think about…

Look at the world around us and we see people as choosing, making bad choices, but they’re choosing them sometimes because they’re caught up in their desires for things like money or power or whatever it is, and those desires can take hold of us in a way, so this is really well-exemplified in The Lord of the Rings, the desire for the one ring. People become almost enslaved by their own desires, their own… Themselves in a way, and this is an old idea, ’cause it goes back to Plato’s Republic, it’s actually where that idea of the ring comes from, where Plato makes this really interesting claim that the life of a tyrant is the worst possible life, because the tyrant is the most enslaved person of all. So Kant’s idea of freedom, and this is getting to the categorical imperative, but his idea of freedom is kind of in this same vein, this idea that I have this power of choice, but I can use it well or badly. To use it badly is to use it in ways that don’t really reflect my nature and my capacities as a rational being. And so one of the ways we can see this is when we all procrastinate, which of course everybody does. So when you procrastinate it’s a strange phenomena because in some sense you are choosing like you’re doing.

You’re sitting there on the couch playing video games or something instead of exercising or doing your work or sleeping, and no one’s making you do this, no one’s holding a gun to your head, but you’re still doing it. And Kant would say that there’s a sense in which that’s free, but also a sense in which it’s not. Because to be free in this, what Kant calls a positive sense is to use your reason well, to choose wisely, and sometimes that’s gonna mean constraining yourself. And to choose wisely is to choose and act on principles, this is Kant’s view, that are rationally defensible in our own eyes, and in the eyes of others. And this is the heart of the categorical imperative, because Kant thinks that when we’re exercising our positive freedom, when we’re choosing well, he thinks that we are going to employ a principle of reasoning to which he gives this name, the categorical imperative.

Brett Mckay: Okay, that’s a great set up. Yeah, so let’s dig into the categorical imperative.

Karen Stohr: All right, categorical imperative. The categorical imperative Kant thinks, is basically a principle of common sense in many ways. It is, he thinks already how a good person thinks about their choices, but he has this sophisticated structure. So it’s an imperative and that means it’s a command, but it’s a command of reason, not a command that somebody else is giving us, and it’s binding on us and binding on everyone, every rational being universally. And it doesn’t depend on what we want or what we care about, but on how we think about ourselves as rational beings, so there’s a bunch of different… Well, there’s at least three formulations of it, the one that people often know the most about is what’s called the universal law formulation. So on this one, Kant says that we should always act on maxims that we can will to be a universal law. So what does that mean? Well, it’s kind of like when people think, well, what if everybody did that? Or something like the golden rule, although it’s a little bit different for Kant, because the idea here is that to act well is to act on principles that are kind of rationally defensible in a community of rational agents. And by that, it’s a kind of principle that you could will that other people also have as their own.

So here’s an example that I think makes this clear, it’s not in Kant, but it’s similar, think about cutting in line. Not everybody has lines, different cultures think differently about lining up, but in a culture that does use lines as a way of getting people to behave fairly, when someone cuts in line because they just don’t feel like standing in line, they’re treating themselves as a kind of exception, like, okay, I’m gonna operate according to a rule that I don’t want other people to operate by, because if everybody cut in lines, there’d be no lines. So I wanna act on a maxim or a principle, I’ll cut to the front of the line when I don’t feel like waiting, that I don’t want other people to act on. So I’m making a rule for myself that puts me at the center of the universe, in some sense, and not others. And Kant thinks that this is actually irrational because there’s nothing about me that makes me so special that I get to cut to the front of the line, and so in doing this, I’m claiming a status for myself that I don’t really have that I’m not everybody is equal.

And Kant thinks this is irrational, and so the categorical imperative in that form serves as a kind of check on us to be like, are we actually thinking of us as equal to everybody else here? And a categorical imperative is a way of seeing when we’re doing that and when we’re not.

Brett Mckay: Okay, I like the example of cutting in line, it really does explain it. And I think you’ve probably seen this in other areas of our life on a day-to-day basis, whenever you think, why I’m the exception here. Kant will say, well, maybe not, because as you said, not only are you putting yourself in a position of as the center of the universe, which he thinks is irrational and it’s gonna hurt the community, but it’s also in the end it could end up hurting you. If everyone decided to follow that exception that you wanted to make for yourself, then it’s probably gonna hurt you eventually. If you decide, well, if everyone could just cut in line, well then when you need to get something, you’re probably not gonna be able to get it because it’s just chaos, and you end up hurting yourself eventually.

Karen Stohr: Yeah, you’re frustrating your own purposes, which is irrational on Kant’s view.

Brett Mckay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now, back to the show. So that’s one formulation of the categorical imperative. Talk about another one.

Karen Stohr: Yeah, so the other… Our second formulation is what’s usually called the humanity formulation, and this one and Kant thinks these are all equivalent, but they are different ways of saying the same thing. The humanity formulation tells us that we always have to act in a way that treats humanity in ourselves and in other people as an end in itself, and never as a mere means. And so this is often spelled out in terms of treating ourselves and others as having dignity and respecting that dignity, and there’s all kinds of implications of this principle. That principle is actually the one that Kant uses more often, and one that often shows up most in discussions about Kant’s ethics. So the universal law of formulation is more famous in many ways, but the humanity formulation is one that actually gets used a lot.

Brett Mckay: Well, let’s talk about the humanity formulation, ’cause I think, as you said, this shows up in all parts of our life, and that’s why I think it makes it such a useful and powerful idea. So let’s talk about treating people as ends and not just means. What are some examples of us treating people as ends and then also examples of treating people as means?

Karen Stohr: Yeah, so Kant thinks of it, the most foundational part of it is actually not treating people as what he calls a mere means, and so this is… There’s a common sense equivalent to this that we’re all familiar with, this idea of just using people, deem them as objects that you can manipulate for your own purposes, however noble your purposes are, but to see them as things in the world that you can use, that are free for you to use. So back to the trolley problem, and you’re pushing the guy off the bridge to stop the trolley, you’re using him as a mere means to stop the trolley and on Kant’s view, you’re not entitled to do that because that’s not treating him as having dignity.

To just make sure that we don’t treat people as a mere means, that’s a way of setting we might describe as boundaries around the kinds of things that we can do to other human beings. And so it’s gonna rule out killing them, understandably, it’s also gonna rule out trying to coerce them or manipulate them in a variety of ways, it’s gonna rule out trying to thwart or get around the reason, this is why Kant thinks it’s wrong to lie to people, for the most part, because you’re trying to manipulate their way of understanding the world.

So those are all gonna serve as foundational constraints on how we behave toward people and ourselves, because he thinks this applies to us. But Kant says there’s also other things that we need to do in order to treat people in a fully respectful way and to really respect their dignity and for Kant, he describes that as treating them in his technical language as setters of ends or of people who have projects and interests of their own.

And for Kant this plays out in a duty to help people with their projects. So in a practical example, let’s suppose that you’re driving home from work and you see somebody stopped on the side of the road with a flat tire, you have a couple of choices here. One choice would be like, I think I’ll try to run them down, so that would obviously be a violation of their dignity, treating them as your means, but it’s not just that, because you might think, maybe I should stop and help them. And to stop and help them is to respect them in a somewhat different way, but also really important to respect them as someone who needs to get home who has a flat tire and could use a hand and Kant thinks both of those are part of treating people with dignity.

Brett Mckay: And this can get tricky when you’re trying to figure out treating people as mere means and treating them as an end, ’cause oftentimes our roles in society, particularly in the marketplace, we are presenting ourselves as means like a carpenter is there to fix people’s stuff. Or you’re a professor, so your means is people go to you to learn things. What would Kant say, how do you figure out when you’ve crossed the line, where just you’re using someone as a means, but then it’s just you’re treating them just as a means and not as an end?

Karen Stohr: Yeah, that’s a really good question, and it is really hard to figure out where the line is, because sometimes it’s kind of fuzzy. There’s some really clear cases of treating someone as a mere means where you’re like, yeah, you’re really just using that person, you’re seeing them as nothing more than a way to get what you want. But sometimes we’re doing things like you described, you have a project in your house you need done, you need to hire a plumber or a carpenter or someone ’cause you don’t have those skills.

So is that treating them as a mere means, that would be weird if that were true. And Kant says, no, what matters is whether you’re treating them as just a way of fixing your leaking pipes or are you also treating them as a being with dignity and some of this is gonna play out on, are you gonna actually pay the bill when they send it to you? Are you gonna treat them respectfully when they come into your house, treat them as a person who was not just a plumber but who has ends and desires and projects of their own, and so it’s subtle.

But Kant thinks really, really important. And I think we often feel the difference, I think anyone who has ever worked in minimum wage jobs understands the difference between a customer who actually respects you as a person and a customer who is just treating you like you’re nothing. And it’s that difference that I think Kant is really after when he’s talking about treating people as a mere means, and treating them as a means but also as an end.

Brett Mckay: And this can even be fuzzier with friendships, I think maybe some people have encountered this with their friend or maybe they have a long-time friend they haven’t heard from a long time like, hey, let’s connect. You’re like, oh great, this great friend I had from high school wants to talk to me, and you get together. And then he springs a multi-level marketing pitch on you and you’re like, oh my gosh, I just got used. I feel gross.

Karen Stohr: Yeah. That is a common situation. Yeah, this idea like, what’s going on there? So one way of explaining it in Kantian terms is to say that your friend who has turned you’re hanging out, your dinner together into a marketing pitch is almost changed the terms on your relationship unilaterally. So it’s like okay, I’m making this friendship into a business relationship, and a business relationship is an entirely different kind of thing, of course. And so when your friend just does this to you, I’m gonna stop treating you as a friend right now, I’m gonna treat you as a possible business contact here, you feel like, wait a second, my friend doesn’t really value me as a friend, they’re just seeing me as a way to make money? And so that’s a perfectly reasonable way to respond to that because your friend has just changed your relationship in ways that you haven’t signed on to, and because of that, you can’t really function as friends there. If every dinner is turning into a sales pitch of some kind, you’re not really friends, you’re unwilling business partners. So that would be treating someone as a mere means.

Brett Mckay: And this fuzziness, it gets even more complicated and complex in marriage. So here’s an example that I’ve seen play out. Wife doesn’t like how disciplined her husband is, she thinks he’s too rigid, too inflexible, can’t be spontaneous, etcetera. But this guy is discipline, it’s what allows them to be successful at work. It’s something that helps him grow in his own telos, and the wife even says, I appreciate that about him. He’s great, I love it. It helps our marriage. He gets stuff done around the house, it allows him to provide for our family, but that rigidity just still bugs her and she wants him to change and she frames it the way like, well, you need to loosen up for your own good, but really it’s for her. So she’s not really thinking about what’s good for his end, she’s more seeing him as a means to her happiness. So how to figure out how to treat someone as an end as having their own telos in a marriage, that can get hard to suss out as well.

Karen Stohr: Very hard. Yeah, because when we’re in close relationships with people, there’s lots of opportunities to do this behavior. Everybody in a long-term friendship or relationship or marriage finds themselves in situations where they have all these very human frustrations and annoyances. And the hard part in all of these cases is remembering how much you love and value this person and that they are not yours to change or alter in any way, and trying to separate out in some ways what I want this person to be for my sake from who they are and who they want themselves to be. This is so difficult, but it makes all the difference for Kant in whether you are really valuing them as an end in the way that he says we must or just valuing them as something useful to you.

Brett Mckay: And what does Kant say? What do you do when there’s people in our lives where they present themselves merely as a means, that’s it. I’m thinking maybe an influencer that shares all of their details of their private life and they monetize it, and it just seems like everything they do is… It’s not really… There’s no dignity in it, they’re just trying to get money or whatever, does Kant still say you have a duty to still treat that person who’s treating themselves as merely as a means as an end?

Karen Stohr: Yeah, you do. So one of my favorite parts of Kant’s ethics is that he has this really big and important place for self-respect. Because the humanity formulation, all of those requirements that you treat others with dignity applies to you too. You have to treat yourself with respect, and you have to ensure that others treat you with respect, and being able to treat yourself with respect means knowing your true value and living in accordance with it. So there are lots of ways in which this can go wrong, and in many cases, it’s not something the person could have controlled and we wouldn’t necessarily blame them for it.

Because sometimes the reasons why people don’t have self-respect have to do with factors outside of them, about the way that their family members treated them or society has treated them. But Kant thinks there is a duty to act in a self-respecting way, and there’s a duty to treat others respectfully even if they’re not treating themselves respectfully. So Kant thinks that this vice of not treating yourself with enough self-respect is a vice for Kant, he calls it servility. A servile person, either doesn’t know their own value or they don’t really claim their own value, and interestingly Kant thinks that arrogance is the flip side of servility, it’s also a failure of self-respect because both the arrogant person…

And the servile person are making mistakes about the source of their own value. So that influencer who really thinks like, okay, my value is caught up, in what kind of following I have or who advertises on my side, or all of that, they think that they’re worth is based on that. And so if they’re doing really well, they might be prone toward arrogance thinking they’re better than people because they have influence that others don’t, or they might be servile, they might think that they’re worth less than others. And Kant says both of these are wrong, because what gives you value, what gives you your dignity is something that you have and nobody can take away from you, and how many likes you have or how many followers you have is irrelevant to it. So self-respect for Kant is about understanding what our value is and interacting with people accordingly.

Brett Mckay: Yeah, and he would even say, in order for you to respect others, you have to respect yourself first, you have to understand that.

Karen Stohr: He does, because you won’t… If you’re arrogant or servile, if you’re self-image is bound up in your followers and you regard others in the same way, you’re gonna be making mistakes in both directions. The only real way to act is to understand that the value that we have is the same value as everybody else has.

Brett Mckay: You cannot wish away your dignity or, I don’t know.

Karen Stohr: Correct. You can’t lose it or waive it. It is something that you possess always, but we don’t always live up to it, we don’t always treat others in accordance with the value they actually have, and we don’t always act ourselves in ways that accord with that value.

Brett Mckay: So you mentioned this idea of respect, one of the more, I think really useful sections in your book was talking about the difference between love and respect. And Kant says, these are two moral forces in our lives that pull us in opposite directions. Let’s talk about this, what did Kant mean by love and respect, and then how does he think they pull us in opposite directions?

Karen Stohr: Yeah, so this is another favorite part of Kant. Kant calls love and respect, these two great moral forces, but he thinks they pull us in opposite directions. He says love tells us to come closer to people and respect tells us to keep our distance and so an example that I think makes this really clear what he’s getting at is what happens if you’re walking around some place and you see somebody in public, a stranger who’s crying, or who’s really upset. And you don’t know what to do ’cause you’re like, should I help them? They seem to be really upset, maybe there’s something I can do, but you also worry that it’s none of your business, that you might be invading their privacy. This is a great example of the tension that Kant thinks we can face between love and respect and Kant thinks, both of those are right. It is good to wanna help people in their troubles, but it is also really good to wanna make sure that we’re respecting their privacy and their boundaries. So there’s a tension here, and it’s just a tension in real human life. It’s not one that we can do away with in some ways, so it’s not a problem we can easily solve, which kind of makes sense because that weeping stranger is a real problem. What do we do?

Brett Mckay: No, you probably encounter that with your friends, maybe you hear that your friend is going through a hard time, maybe they lost their job, they’re getting a divorce, the love part is I wanna reach out to them and help them out, but the respect is, well, maybe that’s gonna make him feel less than or maybe he just wants his privacy during this time, and you never know what to do. Does Kant have any advice on how to figure that out, does he have a rule that we can follow to know when we lean on love or lean on respect?

Karen Stohr: No, sadly no, I’m not sure anyone does. But there’s a lot of value to identifying what’s important here, so I think one of the things I like about this idea of attention is that we recognize that both matter. Because sometimes love for people can make us overstep boundaries, maybe someone is in pain and we just want their pain to stop because we care about them, but also because it’s bothering us. And so sometimes it becomes more about us than about them helping does or giving advice, or sometimes are like, Oh no, no, I don’t wanna get in the way, it’s just us being lazy or selfish too, that we’re not really moved enough by love.

So I think that a Kantian answer or really any answer is gotta be sensitive to things like context or relationships or your capacity is like, can you actually help? It is the person about to go to a job interview, are they acting like they’re trying to pull themselves together, in which case, maybe you should leave them alone and let them pull themselves together, so there’s gotta be some space for judgment. In this case, what could I really do here? What would really be helpful here that wouldn’t be overly intrusive, and I think that answer is gonna change depending on what circumstances you face. And so a lot of it is gonna be trying to get this right, trying to be caring and considerate without overstepping what Kant thinks are morally significant boundaries between ourselves and other people.

Brett Mckay: So it sounds like you have to use some Aristotelian phronesis, some practical wisdom to figure this stuff out.

Karen Stohr: Yeah, I think everybody needs it. It needs some Aristotelian practical wisdom. No one can do without it because it really is about understanding what is at stake in the situation that you’re facing and figuring out how to act accordingly in accordance with what really matters there.

Brett Mckay: Continuing on this idea of love and respect, Kant has a lot to say about contempt and I’ve heard contemptibility described as a state of being both unlikeable. So maybe you just have a good… Just a really rough personality and incompetent, right? Skill-wise, you’re not good at anything. And so contemptible people, they’re hard to either love or respect, but Kant says contempt is one of those vices we really, really need to avoid. Why is that? And then did he offer any advice on loving and respecting people who are unlovable and unrespectable?

Karen Stohr: Yeah, he has a lot to say about this. In fact, I sometimes kind of wonder if Kant struggled with this himself. At one point he’s like, it’s really hard sometimes not to hold people in contempt, but we can’t because contempt he thinks it’s a vice, but he also thinks it violates a duty that we owe to people. And the duty in question is to recognize them as being capable of something more. So to hold someone in contempt on Kant’s view and there’s different ways of thinking about contempt, is basically to see them as beneath us in a way that means they’re worthless in a way that makes them not even part of a human community. And Kant thinks that is never true of any of us. No matter what you have done, how horrible a person you are, you can never give up or waive your right to be a member of the moral community. So we owe it to people to treat them with at least basic respect. So this is compatible with still punishing people and putting them in jail and being mad at them. It doesn’t mean that we can’t do those things but I think it’s nicely encompassed when we think of telling someone that they need to do better. So this idea, do better, suggests that A, you’re not doing as well as you could, but also that you could really do better. That you acknowledge that the person is capable of more. They’re not hopeless, they’re not worthless, they’re not stupid.

They might be acting that way but they’re not really that way or at least they could be otherwise. And I think Kant thinks that this is the way in which we are morally required to see people and interact with them. And it’s really hard sometimes, but we must turn ourselves into the kind of people that are capable of seeing someone else’s humanity. This idea is all over Martin Luther King’s sermons in ways that are really beautiful, the way that he frames this. He has this wonderful sermon called Loving Your Enemies where he is like, liking your enemies is impossible but you can love your enemies because you’re capable of seeing them as being something else. And I think that’s very much what Kant is after with contempt and his insistence that we can’t hold people in contempt. We must see them as capable of being better and we must hold them accountable for being better.

Brett Mckay: And this could be tricky, again, ’cause this kind of goes back to the love and respect. How do you know when you should step in and tell someone, hey, I think you could do better. And how do you do it in a way where it lands and you’re not overstepping that boundary again? This can get hard.

Karen Stohr: It can, yeah. So Kant thinks that in some sense we can’t make other people better because to make yourself better is to commit internally to being a better person. And I can’t make you decide that you’re gonna have a goodwill and you can’t do that to me because it’s in some ways a personal choice. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t influence each other or that we can’t tell people that they are failing in our expectations of them. And in fact, not doing that might be a failure of self-respect. So insisting that people behave better is something that we’re entitled to do and that’s partly because we get to require that other people do their part and perform their own duties and don’t treat us badly. And so it’s a way of holding other people accountable for being better than they are. And so I think Kant thinks of contempt as just writing people off and that’s the thing that he thinks we must not do, however difficult it is.

But that doesn’t mean that some ways are gonna be more effective than others. Whether calling someone out on a moral failing is gonna be useful or whether it’s appropriate is gonna depend a lot on what the failing is and what the context is. He thinks that friends have a duty to point out each other’s flaws to each other. This is one of the things about friendship, but he also recognizes that it threatens respect because it makes people feel like they’re not respected, their friend doesn’t respect them and they get all worried about this. And so he clearly thinks it has to be done carefully. [laughter]

Brett Mckay: And I imagine you do some introspection too. It’s like, am I calling this friend out because it just makes me feel better? ‘Cause it makes them less than and me and the superior. That’s self conceit.

Karen Stohr: Yes, exactly.

Brett Mckay: Or am I just doing this… Yeah, you gotta kind of say, you don’t do that, that’s not good but you have to do it where you actually, you’re trying to help this person out. You’re not trying to gratify some self conceit.

Karen Stohr: Yeah, that’s a really important point because sometimes we are just doing it as a way of expressing our own superiority like, you’re terrible, I’m great. Even if we don’t put it in those terms, if that’s what we’re doing then for Kant, that is actually a vice. That’s me being smug or self-righteous or something and Kant thinks that we have no business doing that because first of all we have as many flaws as the next person does and it’s just a way of trying to… It’s not really about them, it’s more just yeah, about making us feel good.

Brett Mckay: Let’s talk about gratitude. Kant had a lot to say about this. He called ingratitude a satanic vice. Why did he call it a satanic vice?

Karen Stohr: Yeah, so I don’t know if I know exactly why but it’s very interesting. But it shows how seriously he took it. So ingratitude, gratitude for Kant is a duty and ingratitude is a vice of hatred. And the hatred is the part that makes it satanic because what we’re hating, he thinks, when we’re not being grateful is we’re hating somebody else’s expression of love or expression of care or concern. Now, sometimes when other people are helping, they’re not really trying to help us. Sometimes it’s not really caring and so setting those aside, but let’s suppose someone really does try to do something kind and we’re not grateful. Kant says that when we’re hating that and he recognizes that it’s hard because nobody likes being dependent, nobody likes having to rely on other people. But in being ungrateful, we are rejecting somebody else’s really good act. And that’s what I think Kant means when he calls it satanic. That it’s a rejection of something good which is beneficence.

Brett Mckay: So even if someone helps you and it’s not very helpful, you should probably still thank them ’cause they’re trying to show love towards you.

Karen Stohr: Yeah, probably. So with the caveat that sometimes when people are trying to be helpful, sometimes they really are trying and just failing, not through any fault of their own, but sometimes when they’re trying to help they may not actually be trying to help. They might be trying to impose their will on you or something. But if we’re talking about cases where the person really is trying their best to help, even if it fails, it doesn’t work, like they’ve tried to buy you a gift that they really think you will like and you just don’t, then ingratitude is a vice. Because there you’re not marking out the value of the thing that they’ve done for you.

Brett Mckay: Gotcha. And again, this can get tricky ’cause you may be like, okay, well, even with the gift thing, will they give this ’cause for me or was it to help satisfy something in them, the giver?

Karen Stohr: Yeah.

Brett Mckay: This can get, again this can get tricky.

Karen Stohr: So yeah, Kant has so many interesting things to say about beneficence, but if I’m doing something supposedly nice for someone else but it’s really just about me ’cause I wanna look good or I don’t know. I’m donating money but I’m doing it for the tax break or for… So I can get in somebody’s brochure, that’s the wrong reasons. And Kant would even say that’s not even really an act of beneficence as he understands it, it’s not fulfilling the duty. I’m just doing it for my own purposes. So you should still do it. He doesn’t want people not to give away money or help change flat tires, but beneficence for him is doing it for the right reasons because the other person is worth your effort. And if that’s what’s being expressed by the gift or the action, then Kant thinks that means the response of gratitude.

Brett Mckay: So Kant also had a lot to say about good manners, which is kind of weird. Why would a systematic philosopher talk about table manners? But he thought manners could help cultivate virtue in individuals and communities. And you’ve actually, you’ve written a lot about manners. So let’s talk about why did Kant think good manners were an important part of our life?

Karen Stohr: Yeah, so Kant seems to think that good manners matter for a couple of different reasons. One, he thinks that they will actually make us better in some sense. So he often says, and this is gonna make him sound Aristotelian. Aristotle is famous for saying, well, you become a generous person by doing generous actions on the long lines of you become a builder by building things. And Kant seems to go along with this. You become the kind of person who treats other people with respect by treating other people with respect. So there’s that. It helps us become better. But Kant, I think, also has a bigger role for manners in his life or what he calls the social graces. And that’s because they help us kind of create a vision of a world that we should all be signing onto even if it’s a hard thing to live up to.

So this is a sense in which we might think it’s a kind of pretending in some sense, he calls it a beautiful illusion. So you might be like, “Oh, well this is just deceptive or something.” But I don’t think Kant thinks it is ’cause I think he thinks we all know what’s going on. So one example I like to use is in the case of sports games. And so sports have a lot of rules about how players have to interact with each other and with the referees and with the fans and all of that. And those rules impose certain kinds of behavioral norms in circumstances where it can just be hard to maintain those. So players are supposed to shake hands with each other, right? They’re supposed to go along with what the ref says, whether or not they agree with it. There’s all kinds of norms of behavior and we have those in place because they create an environment in which people remember that they’re playing a game, in some way, and they can still interact with each other as human beings. And I think Kant thinks it’s crucial for us to remember in some sense what we as a community are about. And manners are a way of doing that. A society that doesn’t care about those forms of social interactions is a society that doesn’t really care about getting better in some way.

Brett Mckay: And I think t0o manners help you develop the self-control necessary to create that society. Right? To live a Kantian life requires us to sometimes refrain from doing things, requires self-control, and manners is a tool we can use to help us strengthen that self-control muscle.

Karen Stohr: Yes. Yeah. So if you’re in a situation where there’s someone that you really don’t like but you need to shake hands with them and make small talk with them, and it’s not like they’re so evil that you shouldn’t do this at all that you should cut them, but you must… And Kant’s like, “Yeah, well, you must.” And then this way of being like, “I’m gonna still interact with this person that I don’t much like because it’s good manners.” That is, I think for Kant, a way of making ourselves better, constraining ourselves and doing it in the services of treating a person respectfully. Even if we’re not feeling it at the moment, it still matters because it’s still a way of interacting with them on the terms that Kant thinks we should be interacting with them.

Brett Mckay: Yeah. It helps us treat, again, people as an end not merely as a means. So you do these niceties with the barista who’s there to make you coffee but you say hello, you say, how is your day? ‘Cause you’re doing that cause it’s a way to recognize I see you as an equal human being just like I am.

Karen Stohr: Yeah. So Kant’s like, “Yeah, this is really hard sometimes. Sometimes it’s just really hard to not dislike or hate people but we’ve got to get over that.” And manners are a way in which we help ourselves get over it. And so I think he would say those conventions matter because they do kind of hold us into patterns of behavior that exemplify better relationships with each other, real respect. Even if we’re not feeling it, the handshake, the conversation, the greeting the barista, is a way of exemplifying true respect.

Brett Mckay: Well, Karen, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?

Karen Stohr: Yes. So I have a website, I teach at Georgetown University and the philosophy department there has a website and I have a link to a page that says more about me and my reading. And the book is part of Oxford’s Guides to the Good Life series. There are several books in this series, all of which on different figures that are also really fun to read about. So I encourage folks to keep reading in that series too.

Brett Mckay: Fantastic. Well Karen Stohr, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Karen Stohr: Thank you very much, Brett. It’s been fun.

Brett Mckay: My guest today was Karen Stohr. She’s the author of the book, Choosing Freedom: A Kantian Guide to Life. It’s available on Check out our show notes at, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast. The Art of Manliness podcast hosts guests from a wide range of fields so you can improve each and every area of your life. One week we could be discussing fitness supplements, another the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. If you enjoy the ever fresh variety of the AOM podcast, consider taking a minute to leave the show a review. I greatly appreciate all the generous folks who do so. And if you’d like to enjoy ad free episodes of the AOM podcast, you could do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to, sign up, use code “manliness” at checkout for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android, iOS, and you can start enjoying ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast. As always, thank you for the continued support and until next time, this is Brett McKay reminding you to not only listen to the AOM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.

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