Brendan O’Neil, editor of British online magazine Spiked, penned an article, “Why Won’t We Tell Students That Kant Is Better Than the Koran.” O’Neil’s article was inspired by a piece in the Washington Post by Avinash Tharoor, in which he writes about a seminar discussion on European philosopher Immanuel Kant’s democratic peace theory. O’Neil later makes the bold claim that as long as students are not confronted and corrected in their beliefs they will never see “the light” (my words) and be told: “Kant is better than the Koran.”
O’Neil contends that European philosopher Immanuel Kant—held highly within the Western tradition—provides a better source of ethics than the Qu’ran. Audacious in his claims, O’Neil asserts the superiority of Kantian ethics over the Qur’an should be taught within school curriculum to challenge the politically correct culture that seeks to hide this apparent truth.
O’Neil’s argument relies upon a variety of orientalist tropes about Muslims. At the heart of O’Neil’s assertion is that Muslim backwardness is rooted in their adamant rejection of Enlightenment ideals of reason and rationality.
For the sake of not going into an entire dissertation on why this is problematic, let’s set aside the historical fact that Islam, notably through the Muʿtazila school of Islamic theology has an intellectual tradition that is predicated upon the usage of a reason and rationality that actually predates the European Enlightenment by at least eight centuries.
Let’s also set aside the historical fact that European Enlightenment drew heavily from knowledge preserved in Islamic centers of learning in Baghdad, Damascus, and Cordoba.
For the purposes of this blog post, let’s deal exclusively with the belief that Immanuel Kant has a better ethical framework than the Qu’ran to understand the moral repercussions of O’Neil’s advocacy fully.
Kant’s Anti-Blackness Is No Secret
Kant’s rational is predicated upon the belief that human beings should never treat any other human as a means but instead as an end in itself. This presents an interesting paradox when one considers the fact that the so-called great moral thinker of Western civilization wrote an entire ethical treatise by which he instructed readers about the proper ways of beating Black slaves in order to extract better labor from them.
In this treatise, Kant advocates that it is merely insufficient to beat Black slaves with a simple whip, because the Negro possessing thick skin will be able to resist such pain. Instead, Kant advocates slave masters should utilize split bamboo on their Black slaves.
This creates the question of how does one reconcile Kant as esteemed moral philosopher while his writings simultaneously advocate the most efficient ways to physically abuse Black slaves?
How does one reconcile Kant as esteemed moral philosopher while his writings simultaneously advocate the most efficient ways to physically abuse Black slaves?
In answer to this question, political philosopher Charles Mills states in the Racial Contract that “full personhood for Kant is actually, dependent on race.”
The ability to reason and rationalize was the requirement of moral agency in Kantian ethics and since, according to Kantian ethics, Blacks (as well as Native-Americans) failed to be able to reason and rationalize they should be treated as solely a means to fulfill an end—justifying anti-Black violence.
Kant argues that, “Blacks cannot govern themselves. They thus, serve only as slaves.”
Who’s Kant Really For?
The Enlightenment is often romanticized as a period in history which ushered in the “age of reason,” as society began to move away from outdated religious ideals. In reality, the Enlightenment deified white people and today, Blacks and Native-Americans are all suffering in a system of global white supremacy as a result of the ethical theories that Europeans implemented within the parameters of reason and rationality.
O’Neil’s article serves only to reinforce these same violent ideals. His criticisms about the lack of rationality and reason in the Muslim world, is an extension of the same white supremacist mindset that Kant subscribed to.
Whereas slavery has been practiced by numerous cultures across the world, the racialization of slavery that marked Blacks as people who should be enslaved is a development of the very same European Enlightenment that O’Neil is laudatory about.
O’Neil could make the argument that one does not have to endorse the racist view of Kant in order to support Kant’s “Categorical Imperative,” however, O’Neil’s article is not merely advocating the categorical imperative but he also promotes Kant as a thinker whom he believes superior to the Qu’ran without any specification of what exact theories of Kant that he believes is superior to the Qu’ran.
Further, to sever Kant’s ethical theories from his racism, would result in a color neutrality that is inconsistent with Kant’s theory. This is another form of historical whitewashing that fails to adequately hold Europeans accountable for their racism. Kant’s categorical imperative is implicated and cannot be separated from his racist views.
To sever Kant’s ethical theories from his racism, would result in a color neutrality that is inconsistent with Kant’s theory.
When the racism of European philosophers is pointed out, a typical response is that they were just “products of their time.” These defenses of Kant do not hold up to critical scrutiny. Even when Kant’s views on race were critiqued by a European contemporaries such as George Forster, Pauline notes,”Kant, in response, persists in endorsing European colonialism and non-white slavery.”
In Kant’s essays, “Of the Different Races of Human Beings” and “Determination of the Concept of Human Race,” Kant develops a concept of “humanity” that excludes Blacks and Native-Americans, whom he believes should be ruled by white people. Even in school lectures, Kant expresses the belief that Blacks serve no other function in society other than to be slaves.
A Superior Alternative
Kantian ethics justifies anti-Black violence, which the Qu’ran offers a clearly superior alternative. The Qu’ranic worldview of Tawheed (God’s oneness), offers the belief that the variation of human beings is a sign of God’s ability to create and not as Kant believed—a sign for which races should be enslaved.
The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) in his last sermon, advocated that “a white has no superiority over a Black,” unlike Kant, who subscribe to the belief that whites were a superior race.
The moral bankruptcy of Kant is further demonstrated by the fact that if Kant’s comprehensive work were actually accepted and taught in schools as advocated by O’Neil, one would have to advocate a theory of personhood that excludes Blacks.
In light of this, one can only ponder how anyone with good conscious can actually assert “Kant is better than the Koran,” and expect to be taken as a credible ethicist.