To preface what you’re about to read, I should clarify that I am by no means a philosophy junkie with theoretical beliefs and opinions hidden away in my sleeve ready to be whipped out at a moment’s notice. I am simply a student who appreciates what studying foreign doctrines can do to expand your worldview.
On that note, I came across an excerpt on Immanuel Kant’s convictions regarding journalism and communication in John Merrill’s Legacy of Wisdom. I couldn’t help but think, “This is so philosophically dense… I Kant handle it!” Puns aside, I’ve always found the fundamentals of Kant to be an arbiter of both curiosity and criticism, as I’m not sure exactly where I would fall in his ethics.
Kantian ethics can be difficult to follow, which is so evident in his rigidity in rules, maxims, and principles. I really connect with his idea that any principle ethic that we, as journalists specifically, apply to situations should be one that we would firmly believe should be a universal principle. That is a great way to keep oneself accountable by holding others to one’s own standards.
Fundamentally, I am right there with Kant. However, I struggle with the overly formalistic and, one might argue, “constricting” aspect of his philosophy. He would argue that all actions done, as a result of one’s ethics, should be done with no regard to selfishness or consequence to others. Let the gravity of such a statement sink in. I know that I had to pause for a moment to digest this. So what he’s saying is that situational ethics is weak and inconsistent, which would not be good for a journalist.
Take this example for instance. You have a particular principle where you firmly believed that it was your duty as a journalist to expose any criminal activity, maliciousness, foul play, or scandal of anyone who could affect a lot of people. This sounds like a good principle to work by, especially if it could expose someone who is doing the public harm.
But what if that person was the President of the United States, and he was actually a manipulating murderer who has not only killed people himself, but had approved of a secret military sect used for torture and assassination? (Also, I hope you’re picking up on my political drama references. I watch way too much Netflix.)
Anyway, I digress.
So if that were the case, and your principle was to expose anything of that sort, Kant would say that it is your ethical duty to report on it, despite the probable consequence that the social stability and harmony of the entire country could collapse on itself. Or you’d just be killed off to contain the secret. Either way, it is your duty to follow that principle, with no regard to those consequences.
Maybe this example is a little too dramatic, but I hope you see my point. Kant is a hard cookie to swallow, but if you chew on his ideas long enough, it might be easier to digest. And fortunately, Kant is the kind of cookie that will leave you wanting even more cookie because it was such a unique and challenging flavor for your taste buds. Kantian ethics will leave you pondering the importance of duty in your own life, which I believe is a necessary contemplative that all journalists must face.
As I mentioned earlier, it’s hard for me to determine where exactly I stand in his philosophy, especially since I am still a college student attempting to solidify my own ethics. I can only say now, as a student, thanks to Kant, I have determined that I should prepare myself for the field with maxims and principles already in store. This doesn’t only go for those pursuing journalism as a career; you never know how an old dead guy’s opinions can mature your own convictions on your future career.