Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.
In other words, for example, theft is immoral because if one were to adopt the general principle that stealing is good, then there would be no point in stealing anything, because whatever you stole would, in turn, be stolen from you, without any logical basis for complaint or recourse. Hence, the maxim ("Stealing is good") is inherently self-contradictory.
Not bad, as an effort to create a purely logical basis for morality. But then there are instances where this logic breaks down. As a college undergraduate, on first reading Kant, I discovered one such instance: the Four-Way Stop. The "principle" behind a four-way stop is that the right of way is conferred to the person on the right, if both arrive at the exact same time. But what if drivers arrive from all four directions simultaneously? Then obviously, both maxims ("defer to the driver on the right" or "just go first,") if applied universally, would defeat the purpose: either the four cars would stay there forever, or they would all crash in to one another. In order for the situation to resolve itself, one driver, at least, would have to choose to act aggressively, in an entirely self-serving manner, and the others would have to yield. But neither approach, or behavioral principle--Machiavellian aggressiveness nor Christian forebearance and yielding--could be willed to be universal, without contradiction.
So despite Kant's best efforts, there probably is not a purely logical, context-free guide to ethical behavior. There is, however, a context-bound guideline, if we return to Earth from the intelligible, timeless Platonic realm of pure logic, and reinhabit a living planet in these times. This I formulated some years ago, and it has stood the test of time...at least for me. So here is my Gaian Categorical Imperative:
In every decision you make, strive to promote the health, competence, and resilience of yourself, your community and your planet simultaneously.
This formulation is not strictly categorical in the Kantian sense, but it is predicated on a series of premises that cohere with the reality we currently inhabit, and in some ways always have inhabited:
- That humanity is a part of, and not apart from, the natural world or Gaia;
- That "whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly" (as Martin Luther King put it);
- That all living organisms depend, for their survival, on three values:
- Health (internal homeostasis);
- Competence (the skills, whether innate or learned or both, to survive long enough to breed, within a relatively stable ecological context);
- Resilience (the flexibility to adapt to unpredictable changes in one's ecological context).
- That any benefit to a subsystem (self, organization, or community) that is destructive to its biological support systems (community, ecosystem, bioregion, or planet) is ultimately and necessarily self-destructive as well.
Prior to the last century or so, the ecological footprint of human civilization was small enough, relative to our planet, that we had little need to consider the ecological consequences of our personal and collective choices. The world was big enough, and the aggregate human footprint small enough, that we could take our biological support system, our air, water, and biomes, for granted. This is why, for example, there is nothing in the sacred texts of our ancestors--the Bible, the Qu'ran, the Sutras, etc.--that directly addresses ecological awareness or responsibility. It was a non-issue.
But that is no longer true. In the Anthropocene era we presently inhabit, where humanity has dominated every niche, all of our significant decisions have direct or indirect implications for the health of our local, regional, and global ecosystems. If we benefit ourselves at the expense of our communities, we will generally end up in jail. But if we benefit our communities at the expense of our planet--whether by pumping fossil fuels, using plastics, or spraying pesticides, we may become billionaires, but we do so at the expense of our children and grandchildren's future survival and well being.
As a consequence, if we are to survive, our entire educational system, all of our global cultures and civilizations, will have to be reconfigured along these lines--to make "the good" synonymous with what, in any given circumstance, best promotes our own health, competence, and resilience, along with that of our communities, our bioregions, and our magnificent, irreplaceable living planet Gaia. Just imagine if our educational systems were reconfigured around the goal of promoting the health, competence, and resilience of ourselves, our communities, and our planet! Instead of building mere competence (to thrive within the existing framework of industrial civilization) as is presently the case, such an educational system would emphasize all three--health as a positive state, not just the avoidance of disease; competence in all necessary survival skills--not just in a narrow specialization that could land you a job with a corporation; and resilience to be able to adapt to the vast, unpredictable, and potentially catastrophic changes in our civilization and biosphere as a result of ongoing and self-accelerating ACD (anthropogenic climate disruption). This would be, in short, an educational system built around the Gaian paradigm of Permaculture.