Immanuel Kant, perhaps the greatest of the German philosophers, prized practical reason (“the moral law within”) above theoretical reason (“the starry heavens above”). And he’s not alone in this judgment. The father of Western philosophy, Socrates, was also morally-minded (not moralistic) in his search for wisdom.
These two men were separated by over 2000 years, one raised in the polytheistic beliefs of ancient Greece and the other in the pietistic Lutheranism of 18th century Prussia. However, for both it was the inner life of character, the wisdom of our choices, and the felt duty to act with virtue that made practical reason primary.
Both saw this pursuit as distinct from religion and science. Giving each their due respect, faith and knowledge express two sides of our nature. One concerns the nature of moral truth and the beliefs that we know intuitively through heart and mind. The other concerns the outer world and the principles of cause, which govern physical nature.
Therefore, moral philosophy is a vital social-cultural institution and practice. It involves the cultivation of practical reason. As such, it concerns learning what it means to live well and responsibly. These two men span a tradition that honors civility, rational discourse, and trust in the force of reason. It stands in stark contrast to the use of physical force and coercion.
In this tradition, human nature is seen as fallible, free, and deserving of dignity. This said, neither age was free of social classes, hegemony, and prejudice, nor are we free of them today. And this observation reminds us that inherent to our moral nature is the aspiration to be virtuous, but also the reality that we will frequently fall short.
This immediately raises questions of how to acknowledge our imperfection and seek redemption. And that’s where religion comes in isn’t it. But not only religion. Outside the church, synagogue, and mosque is the pluralistic society in which we must find an overlapping consensus of norms that make a virtue of humility, forgiveness, and reconciliation.
As for science, it can tell us much, but little about what we ought to do. It informs us and give us pause to consider our role as caretakers of our bodies, our natural environment, and of our social-economic systems of exchange. But care requires more than science. Prudential judgment is shaped by moral aims, as well as empirical facts and scientific principle.
So now we arrive at our starting point again. It is this: Practical reason calls on us to treat one another as ends. It’ a social-cultural practice of the highest order. Although imperfect in this practice, our nobility is measured by our sincere devotion to its realization, especially when doing what is right, good, and proper is not easy, puts us at risk, and requires courage.