An explainer about Philosophy using lessons from popular culture. In Installment 1, Baazigar illustrates Kant’s Categorical Imperative.
Why do we get into relationships? This deep philosophical question has an easy answer in the 1993 film Baazigar: Ajay Sharma, the character played by Shah Rukh Khan, stages romances with characters played by Shilpa Shetty and Kajol in order to take revenge on their father. He doesn’t love them; and it is hardly a spoiler to say that he kills one of them.
Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.
In other words, respect the autonomy and agency of other human beings, and don’t use them as instruments to achieve something. In Baazigar, Shah Rukh treats Shilpa and Kajol as less than human: they are the means to an end.
A parallel to this has been revealed by the #MeToo Movement: it is now clear that many men regard women also as the means to an end. That end could be sexual pleasure, free housemaid services or arm candy for social signalling. Women are treated as objects to be used and discarded — and in many cases, objects that these men feel entitled to, especially if they occupy positions of power.
One metric that would illustrate this, though it is impossible to measure, is the number of times during sexual intercourse that a man reaches orgasm but doesn’t help the women reach hers. His purpose is achieved. Now who cares?
This attitude diminishes the women — but it diminishes the men more. Every interaction with a fellow human being can enrich us if we treat them with respect. This is opportunity lost.
It can be argued that there are only so many people we can consider worthy of our moral consideration. We might respect friends and family, but perhaps there is just a cognitive limit to how many humans we can regard in such a way — and the rest are instrumental. Even if that is so, the world would be a better place if we treated every other person as if we are respecting their autonomy, even if they play only an instrumental role in our lives. This would render irrelevant the question of whether our regard for others is genuine, delusional or performative.
I mentioned that this was the second formulation of Kant’s Categorical Imperative. What is the first? What is a categorical imperative anyway?
Think of ‘imperatives’ as guides to action. Kant held that there were two kinds of imperatives: the first was the Hypothetical Imperative. All hypothetical imperatives can be phrased this way: “If you want this, then do this.” (“Do this” is the imperative.) For example, if you are hungry, eat food. If you want to lose weight, avoid sugar. If you want to understand the world better, read Pragati regularly.
These imperatives are not moral rules. According to Kant, rules for morality, for how all of us should behave, have nothing to do with what we might want, and can be derived from reason alone. A Categorical Imperative is a moral rule that can be said to apply to anyone, anywhere, under any circumstances. The first formulation of Kant’s Categorical Imperative reads:
Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.
The second formulation, about not treat other humans as the means to an end, follows from this.
But we’ll write more about Kant later. For now, let us end with a hypothetical imperative followed by a categorical one.
Hypothetical imperative: If you don’t like bad writing and bad acting, don’t watch Baazigar.
Categorical imperative: Be nice.