One of the problems with teaching philosophy–that is to say, with teaching some of the best books ever written–is that one is always encountering previously unnoticed little insights, little “gems.” Why is that a problem? It is a problem because they take me by surprise; I had not planned on discussing them, I had not budgeted proper time, and so I am left with a constant sense of missed opportunities in teaching.
Today’s class is a case in point. I have been teaching Immanuel Kant’s Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals for three years now, and only today did I really notice, for the first time, an attractive little principle buried in Kant’s discussion of four moral case studies meant to illustrate the categorical imperative, the acid test for ascertaining one’s moral duties. Kant’s third case study concerns a natural sort of sloth, or culpable indifference to the good. Here is how Kant sets up the problem (trans. James Ellington):
“A third <man> finds in himself a talent whose cultivation could make him a useful man in many respects. But he finds himself in comfortable circumstances and prefers to indulge in pleasure rather than to bother himself about broadening and improving his fortunate natural aptitudes. But he asks himself further whether his maxim of neglecting his natural gifts, besides agreeing of itself with his propensity to indulgence, might also agree with what is called duty.”
I love that last part: the man is so incredibly hedonistic that he actually seriously wonders whether it is his moral duty to be a slob. But I digress. Kant then immediately applies the test of the categorical imperative to the man’s proposed maxim of acting: Kant asks whether the man could will that his personal maxim be expanded out into a universal law for all human beings, without creating either a logical contradiction or a contradiction in the man’s own will. Here, Kant discerns no logical contradiction in such a universalization, but rather a contradiction of the man’s own will. The man could not actually will such a thing, according to Kant–and here is the gem–“for as a rational being he necessarily wills that all his faculties should be developed, inasmuch as they are given him for all sorts of possible purposes.”
In other words, part of what it means to be rational (i.e. to be a human being), is to will that one’s natural gifts should grow, at least to the point of which they can be of service to one’s fellow man. As rational, you cannot truly will to be stunted, especially in regard to important abilities. There is probably no great loss if you could be a great player of Halo 4 on X-Box and you neglect to do so because you like watching TV better. But what if you are smart enough to come up with a cure for a disease, and instead you take as your priority the improvement of your golf game, since you find that more enjoyable? Clearly there is something wrong in in that.
I did not have a strong position on Kant’s principle when I first noticed it in class today, but the more I have reflected upon it, the more I like it–especially if one approaches it not from the natural perspective of philosophy, but from a more theological perspective. If it is naturally true that we have a duty to cultivate our abilities, how much more would this duty seem to apply to “the one thing necessary,” our relationship with God? Our secular work has its importance, but it pales in comparison with the good brought about by one person deeply in love with God. The willful neglect of that relationship is what the tradition of the Church has called the sin of sloth. Kant’s “little gem” gives us a bit of traction, a way to begin understanding just why sloth is a sin.