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Compassion, Kant and Rats

By: on Aug. 22, 2009
8th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant
You’ve probably seen the bumper sticker. Its message, "Practice random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty!", has a natural appeal, doesn’t it? But, you probably don't know the real story behind this message. According to 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant, the message this bumper sticker is promoting is unethical behavior, and that those who follow it should not be considered moral persons!

Surprised? Well, if you are thinking, "What has some guy who has been dead for centuries got to do with a contemporary message on a bumper sticker," I ask you to think again. Kant was, and still is, an intellectual giant of Western philosophy. And, his perspective on ethics is still one of the two leading ways of looking at the nature of morality.

Here's a little story that’s often told to attempt an explanation of Kant's views on morality. I hope it won't be even more confusing. It's called, The Parable of the Rich Young Man. A naïve, rich, young man is walking down the street with a friend when they come upon a beggar. The young man spontaneously reaches into his pocket and gives some money to the beggar. It is a random act. You could even say it is senseless. Although the consequences of his instinctive generosity are obviously good (kind and beautiful) for the beggar, because the young man has no idea of what his moral duty is, he isn't a moral person. Rather, he is like a child who accidentally makes the right move in chess. He has no understanding of the game's rules or purpose. Thus, he gets no moral credit for this random act of kindness and senseless act of beauty.

Is Kant turning over in his grave every time someone puts one of those bumper stickers on his or her car? For Kant, morality is a serious business. He recognizes the possibility that one can do the right thing from a totally wrong motive. Therefore he concludes that the only proper motivation for doing the right thing is one's recognition that it's the right thing to do, no matter what your feelings are. He calls that recognition duty, and such rational duty, not our feelings or inclinations, tells us what the right thing to do is. Indeed, feelings are to be resisted.

Morality suddenly seems a lot less natural than the bumper sticker message does it? But wait, it get worse, here's the real problem. Kant believed that human beings are special amongst all other creatures because of the ability to reason. Because humans are rational there is a duty to not exploit another human, but rather to exercise moral behavior toward other humans. However, animals are a different story. Animals are not rational beings, they lack a moral will, and thus humans owe no moral duty to avoid causing pain and suffering to animals.

Hold onto your hats! Here's how Kant's so-called moral human behavior plays out in modern society. Emma Marris, writing for Nature, the International Weekly Journal of Science, 3 says in her article, Bioethics: An easy way out? "Tens or perhaps hundreds of millions of laboratory mice and rats are killed each year."

I don't like rats, and I’m probably not alone in that feeling. But I want no part of this wholesale slaughter. To kill that many living creatures requires both heartlessness and organization. In other words, we end up with just the opposite of our bumper sticker message, i.e. systematic acts of cruelty. This is the result of resisting our natural feelings. We get morality without compassion. Thanks a lot Immanuel!

No wonder someone came up with that bumper sticker. Its compassionate message resonates with human beings precisely because we have feelings.

Fortunately, there’s more to life than Kant or bumper stickers, and I’ve got an alternative for you to consider. It's a concept from the Vedic culture called ajnata sukrti. Ajnata means without knowledge, and sukrti means moral, pious, or devotional credit. This concept is spiritual in nature and thus effective for all living creatures; it encompasses random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty, and by its nature is effective even when these acts are performed unknowingly.

Here’s a little story that helps to make the concept of ajnata sukrti clearer. By the way, it’s also about rats. It’s called, The Rat Who Got Liberation, and is found in the Puranas.

There was once a rat who became liberated by offering service to Lord Visnu.  The rat was running on the altar of the Deity, just at a time when one of the ghee lamps was about to go out.  The rat thought that the flame might be some foodstuffs, so he stuck his whiskers in it.  The dying flame caught on to the rat's whiskers, and the fire flared up, catching on to the unused portion of the wick. In this way, by the rat's foolish sacrifice, the flame on Vishnu's altar continued to burn nicely. And for his service to Lord Visnu, the rat went to Vaikuntha (the spiritual world).

Think about this for a minute. I’m not saying that rats are not capable of knowing what is right or wrong like humans, but they are living beings with a soul just like human beings. What I am saying is that ajnata sukrti, which is a form of the Supreme Lord’s mercy, is so spiritually powerful that the benefit liberates even a rat, what to speak of a rational human being.

What we need to do to take advantage of ajnata sukrti is to get involved with the Supreme Lord Sri Krishna and those who serve Him. We are after all social beings, and in such spiritual association, such spiritual consciousness there is a natural inclination to act for the good of others and for others to act for our benefit. There doesn’t have to be a reason for this type of behavior, its natural. Don’t resist, for so situated any service rendered, any kindness exchanged, any beauty appreciated, even unknowingly, will reap tremendous eternal benefit.

I said before that Kant's idea's were the real story behind the bumper sticker message "Practice random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty!", but that’s actually not correct. Kant’s ideas are materialistic, but this message is truly effectively only in the life of spiritual consciousness. So, the next time you see one of those bumper stickers give the driver a friendly honk for they are knowingly or unknowingly (doesn’t matter) encouraging a spiritual notion.

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