The Case of the Best Friend’s ‘Sexting’
Immanuel Kant’s “Categorical Imperative” not only says that you should do the right thing because it is the right thing to do, but that you should ask yourself if you would want what you are considering to do to become universal law (i.e., something that everyone should HAVE to do, including TO you, in the very same situation) and if it still respected the other person as someone who had the ability to make his or her own decisions in a rational way. His defense of imprisonment and capital punishment was that anyone, including you, who rationally chose to break the law and who had also rationally chosen to accept whatever punishment would result because of getting caught for the crime, would not be getting the respect they deserved if we did not punish the person for their rational choices (even if they had made the choice to act irrationally and commit the crime). So, in Kant’s view, punishment is the choice that a rational person makes and wants to see made universal and applied to himself and everyone else when they choose to break the law; not punishing the person would be a show of disrespect for his ability to be rational.
And, yes, for all of you CJ majors, Kant DID accept the notion of mitigating circumstances (i.e., acts of passion that are outside the realm of pure rationality). But, in truth, they are not common and even harder to prove. For the most part, Kant assumes that most crimes are planned (even the stupid ones in which things go very wrong). And, keep in mind that Kant does not worry about whether there is a virtuous ‘just right’ decision between one virtuous ‘mean’ and an infinite number of vicious and wrong possibilities (like Aristotle did) or the results (like Mill did); his only concern is that you do the right thing because it is the right thing to do and that you rationally and willingly choose to accept your punishment if you consciously choose to do the wrong thing.
You left your cell phone in your car while visiting your best friend in another city, and you just remembered that you were supposed to text your spouse to let him or her know that you arrived safely. So, your friend is in the kitchen and his or her partner is still at work; and, rather than run back out to your car to get your own phone, you pick up your friend’s phone and click on the Messages app. The phone has not been cleared, and you see really racy posts from someone besides your friend’s husband or wife. It is clear to you that there is a sexual affair of some sort going on. So, what are you going to do?
You can go ahead and call your own spouse and tell them about the affair, but then you remember that Kant said that you should do only what you would want done to you in the same situation—and, you are not sure that you would want someone spreading those kinds of rumors about you if they happened to pick up your cell phone. You could confront your friend, and either cheer them on or tell them that they are acting like an idiot and about to screw up the best thing they have ever had in life; but, would you want someone to do that for you if you were in the same situation? You could do nothing; it’s a cop-out, but maybe it is what you would want your friend to do if you were the one having an affair and did not want to hear anyone telling you that the right thing to do is the right thing.