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The Connection Between Walking and Thinking

A difficult decision on Day 19 of the Camino de Santiago

A difficult decision on Day 19 of the Camino de Santiago

I haven’t always been a walker. Where I grew up in America, in a small town in South Carolina, walking was not a normal activity. A town of 30,000 people that was so spread out that there were no schools or stores within walking distance. While at university in the state capital, walking became more common to get around the large campus, but it remained purely a functional rather than pleasurable activity. In the army, I spent a lot of time doing a certain kind of walking–marching at a vigorous pace with a heavy uncomfortable rucksack in too hot, too cold, or too rainy conditions. This, too, did little to foster the love of walking in me. Only after finishing my time in the army did I have the time to cultivate other more relaxing hobbies such as walking for fun.

My first real experience of this new world was the Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage path from France across northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela, ostensibly the site of the remains of the apostle James. This trip was one of the best and most valuable experiences of my life, and a personal symbol of my starting a new life after unfocused and unhappy years in the army. On the Camino, the only goal everyday is just to walk as far as you want at a pace you want until you decide to stop for the day, which is repeated day after day during the slow progress across Spain. I did the walk alone, though it is so full of interesting fellow travelers that you are never really alone except when you want to be. Every night was a social event at the various pilgrim hostels along the way. There is much to see in the countryside, the changing landscapes, from mountains to high plains to wet forests, and yellow arrows point the way at every crossroads of the 800-kilometer trek. The absence of any other duties or responsibilities means that you have time to let your mind wander freely and really think about whatever you want. You become mentally stronger as you walk, not only because walking is a healthy activity that increases blood flow to the brain, but because you find new challenges for yourself along the way. Some days I pushed myself to see how far I could go in a day (my record was 58 kilometers); some days you just found a quiet place in a wood near a stream to take a break, perhaps a nap, before continuing on to the next village.

The End of the Camino de Santiago at the Atlantic Ocean

The End of the Camino de Santiago at the Atlantic Ocean

Walking puts our human capabilities into perspective. For example, walking was the primary (or only) means of human transportation for a huge majority of humankind for a huge majority of our existence. The distance you can walk in a day has not changed since humans migrated from Africa to Asia and down to South America. The days I spent walking 30, 40, or 50 or more kilometers were exactly the same, quantitatively if not qualitatively, as those spent by countless ancestors searching for new hunting grounds, living space, or fleeing stronger tribes. You feel more connection to the land as you slowly explore it step by step, and a closer connection with other people. Hospitality becomes important when you have nothing but what you can carry on your back and no means of travel except your own feet. Indeed, in the days before its worldwide popularity and commercialization, the Camino was still supported almost exclusively by the hospitality of local people.

In the six years since I completed the Camino de Santiago, I have only increased my walking ability and appreciation. Almost all of my food shopping has been done on foot carrying only what fits in my backpack. I have been able to commute on foot to all the jobs I have had. When I spent a year in Wales doing a graduate degree, I joined the university hiking club and went on a long walk every weekend in the green hills or lovely coast of that wild country. In Italy, my home for the last four years, I have explored as much as possible the nearby mountains of the Dolomites, and started rock climbing again as well.

I wanted to write about this topic because I have recently moved from the city center of a large industrial area to a small rural town on a hillside surrounded by mountains with a panoramic view of the western edge of the Venetian plain. While I have to drive to work and shops for the first time in years, there are also miles of quiet and wooded paths just outside my door that go higher and higher up the hill into the clouds. I was thinking about the countless hours I have spent walking in the last six years, either in conversation with friends or occasionally listening to an MP3 player, but mostly in quiet meditation and contemplation of the ground below my feet, the trees and landscapes around me, and the myriad thoughts that come and go in the mind when unshackled to a specific task at hand. Even if it is not immediately or obviously clear, the time I spend walking is not only good for its physical and psychological aspects, but has also helped me find the inspiration and motivation to develop my intellectual and literary pursuits.

Writers and philosophers have long known and appreciated the benefits of walking. As described by his pupil Plato, Socrates is often seen walking the six miles or so to the Piraeus harbor while interrogating his companions. Plato’s pupil Aristotle famously did most of his discussion while walking around Athens, which is why his followers were called the Peripatetics. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, one of the central figures of both the Enlightenment and Romanticism, wrote one of his last autobiographical works called Reveries of a Solitary Walker, in which he expounded on his thoughts on natural science, political philosophy, and other subjects that were inspired during long walks around Paris. He went so far as to claim that he could not work or even think when not walking. Immanuel Kant followed the same daily schedule every day of his adult life, including the same walk at the same hour rain or shine. It was only delayed one time when he was unable to put down David Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature, which Kant famously claimed had awoken him from his dogmatic slumber. Incidentally, Kant also believed it was healthier to always breathe through the nose while walking. Arthur Schopenhauer followed a similar identical daily routine for the last 27 years of his life, which included a two-hour walk no matter the weather. “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking”, according to Friedrich Nietzsche, who interrupted his furious work pace for a two-hour walk in the late morning, and an even longer walk before dinner. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the last three men were lifelong bachelors. In his autobiography, Bertrand Russell mentions that from his university days he would walk at least 20 miles every Sunday, and recounts how some of his peers at Cambridge walked much more.

0092Probably the most famous literary walker was Henry David Thoreau, who wrote a long essay entitled “Walking”. It is filled with many examples and musings on the importance of walking, and is also one of the early inspirations for the environmental movement. Thoreau opens by giving his reason for writing as the following: “I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil–to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society.” The text contains many learned digressions on philosophy, literature, politics, and local culture, among other things. He says at one point, “I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits unless I spend four hours a day at least–and it is commonly more than that–sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”

The connection between walking and thinking is strong. If the most obvious examples I have given are all philosophers and writers, it is because their intellectual currency and production–words and ideas–are most easily wrought while the body and mind are otherwise free to walk at leisure through nature. I would recommend that you make a habit of walking more frequently and, in addition to added health benefits and lower stress, perhaps you will find inspiration for your own project striking when you least expect it.

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Kant’s Morality: Summary and Problems

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is one of the most important and influential modern philosophers. He was born in Königsberg, the ancient, seven-bridged Prussian capital which became, in 1945 (after deportation of most of the German population to the Gulag archipelago), the bizarre Russian Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad. It is said that Kant never traveled further than 10 miles from his home town in all of his 79 years. It is also said that Kant, who was a lifelong bachelor and a caricatured embodiment of stern Prussian sensibilities, never deviated from his schedule by a single minute, so that local townsfolk could ‘set their watches’ by his daily walks. However unlikely (or apocryphal) these stories remain, they do not diminish the legacy Kant has left to the world of ideas. Considered somewhat of a ‘late-bloomer’, Kant’s first major work, the Critique of Pure Reason, appeared in 1781 when he was 47 years old. In this monumental treatise, he attempted to reconcile the empiricism (from experience) of David Hume with the tradition of idealistic philosophy, by way of his new definition of the capabilities of knowledge derived from ‘pure reason’ alone.

I am more interested in examining the basis of morality Kant describes in a short follow-up work, the Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, first published in 1785. This work first described his idea of the ‘categorical imperative’, which would be dealt with in much more detail in his next major work, the Critique of Practical Reason.

First, Kant presupposes that there is a moral law. That is, there exists some basis for morality beyond subjective description of it. He then begins with a series of identifications to answer how the moral law possibly gives a pure abstract form of a moral law that will ask if it is really moral. He says the only good thing that exists without qualifications is a good will (or good intentions). Other things may bring goodness, but always with qualifications. For example, happiness is a good thing in itself, but if there is a qualification that a happiness could be caused by harming someone, it is no longer good. Or perhaps we could say that someone is very ‘good’ at making money, but this does not necessarily imply overall ‘goodness’ (in the case of Wall Street banks, for example). This is a somewhat circular argument, in that he says that what is inherently ‘good’ (or moral) is a ‘good will’. He, thus, further defines it as: a good will acts for the sake of duty alone. In other words, a good will does the right thing only for the reason that it is the right thing, and for no other reason. Not for happiness, personal gain, personal inclination, but only because it is ‘the right thing to do’. Kant sees this duty to ‘do the right thing’ as a triumph of reason in the struggle over superstition.

But what is ‘good will’? And how can we know what our ‘duty’ is? And will there be problems with always doing this ‘duty’, no matter the extenuating circumstances? Well, Kant begins to answer these questions with another circular argument, saying that ‘duty’ is when someone acts in accordance with the ‘moral law’. This does not appear to clear up the confusion at all, if duty is defined by moral law, and vice versa, and we’re back where we started from. Kant continues, however, by proposing a solution in the form of a universal moral law that can be inserted as a sort of formula to determine the correctness of any particular action. This solution is called the ‘categorical imperative’.

The categorical imperative can be basically defined as “Always act so that you can will the rule of your action to be a universal law.” It is ‘categorical’ because it is not ‘hypothetical’ or ‘contingent’ on anything, but is always and everywhere ‘universal’. That is, there is no “if” clause to any moral act, but only the imperative clause (*not: you should do X if Y; but: you should do X!). It is called an ‘imperative’ because it is a command, not an option. So this means that, for every action you perform, you could potentially create a universal rule based on that action. Your action and the universal rule would be equally true and representative of ‘goodness’, or morality.

The categorical imperative must meet these demands: it must be universal and without restrictions; and it must be reversible. There are no proper names or group distinctions allowed in any context of a moral rule, either to attribute with praise or with blame. There are no unique exceptions, and it can be applied on a universal level to everyone equally.

Kant draws four principles from the categorical imperative.

  • The first is the ‘ends’ principle, that says, “Always treat others, and yourself, as though you were an ‘end’, and never a ‘means’. Basically, don’t use other people!
  • Secondly, “We must always act under the practical postulate that our will is free.” Don’t make excuses or refuse to act because you think that your actions will not make a difference. It is ‘practical’ because our everyday decisions are borne out as a result of our free will, and because we recognize that our actions result from such practical decisions.
  • Thirdly, “Always act so that you can regard your own will as making universal law.” This means that when we decide how to act in a given situation and choose the action (with our free, autonomous will), we would want everyone else to act just as we did. The autonomy of this decision leads to personal responsibility, and excludes any other reason to act that was not from our own free will. For example, if God himself ordered you to do something, and you followed the command, it would not be moral because it was not derived from your own free will. Morality comes only from the decisions you make, and not from decisions that are made for you by others. (For what it’s worth, Kant, like many Enlightenment thinkers, was a Deist, and believed that Reason alone was our most important attribute).
  • Finally, Kant says that “Human capacity to be a moral agent gives each human dignity.”  This dignity gives unconditional worth to every human being. In this last principle, Kant understands that there is the possibility (or ‘capacity’) for anyone to act morally, and describes what this action would look like in practice. It explains why we are hesitant to try to put a value on a person’s life, and why most people would refuse to even attempt such a thing. Money, in this case, would introduce a ‘conditional’ value that is not permitted in Kant’s view.

With these four principles, Kant describes how a moral individual would act using the categorical imperative. If there is to be something called ‘morality’, this is what it would look like according to Kant. If all individuals acted this way in accordance with his principles, there would result what he calls a “Kingdom of Ends.” In this kingdom, everyone would treat everyone else as an ‘end’ rather than as a ‘means’, and everyone would grant everyone else his own autonomy or free will. This kingdom would be one in which no one gets ‘used’ by anyone else. This is the end-state result of Kant’s morality, and one which he believes would lead to universal peace. If everyone on earth thought the same way as Kant, this might be true.

An objection to this system was first raised during Kant’s lifetime. The objection pertains to Kant’s assertion that telling the truth must be universal, and that lying cannot be considered ‘moral’ in any contingency or circumstance. For the sake of argument, using extreme examples is the clearest way to make a point or find a weakness. In this case, then, imagine that a group of Nazis comes to your door and asks if you are hiding any Jews, or if you know the location of any Jews. You are hiding a family of Jews in a secret basement. Do you answer truthfully to the Nazis, or do you lie to them in order to save the Jewish family? I think almost all of us would assert that we would lie to them, believing that the lie was based on benevolent concerns that outweigh the supposed morality of the universal ‘truth-telling’ imperative. Kant, however, denied that this apparent contradiction proved any inconsistency with his original formulation of the ‘moral law’. According to him, moral actions do not derive their value from the expected consequences (in this case, presumably saving the Jewish family, or sending them to their doom), and that it is required to tell the truth to the Nazis. If we lie for any reason, or for any expected outcome, we are only treating the recipient of the lie (in this case, the Nazis) as a ‘means’ to another ‘end’, which denies the rationality of the other person and, thus, denies the possibility of the existence of rational free will at all.

Another objection to Kant’s main argument here is that it depends on what someone is willing to ‘will’ to be a universal law. So, in the case of the Nazis, would we be willing to ask them if they considered their actions to be moral (from a corresponding universal law), and to accept their answer? When the Nazi in question inevitably replies ‘yes’, Kant’s only reply is to say that this is not the act of a rational moral agent. The universal nature of Kant’s formulation means that it is only stated on the most general level, without any specific content or qualification of certain situations (which are, of course, disqualified from being ‘universal’). Kant seems to have created a system of ‘fairness’, but one which is not usually ‘practical’ for real moral decision-making. This is especially true when we try to consider the ‘right’ thing to do in regards to other factors that influence decisions in real life, such as our human relationships, family, race, class, nationality, etc.

Therefore, drawing on the two objections stated above, we can easily imagine many likely negative outcomes from following the ‘categorical imperative’. A person who either believes he is following his ‘moral duty’ as based on a universal law, or who believes he is following his own personal ‘morality’, could be empowered to commit any number of atrocities that would have conceivably be prevented without the presence of the person’s ‘false’ universal moral law. For example, in the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann, Hannah Arendt describes how the captured Nazi leader stated that he had only been doing his ‘duty’ by facilitating the massacre of the Jews. Eichmann implied that he had at least attempted to live his life based on his idea of morality as given through the categorical imperative, and led to what Arendt called ‘the banality of evil’. Another instance in which we can imagine such as thing is the case of religious extremists who believe in the supposed universality of the ‘moral laws’ dictated by their holy books or the clerics who teach them, that they are willing to commit horrible acts of murder and even suicide in the name of what they believe (quite strongly, obviously) to be a universal moral law.

With such practical objections apparently sounding the death knell (or perhaps, the ‘knell’ in the coffin) of Kant’s idea of morality, we must look further into these questions to decide where he went wrong. Does there really even exist an idea of universal morality, or is it something that humans invent and construct based on our present knowledge and understanding of the world and human nature? Are there better systems of morality we can discover or describe, and is there anything we can salvage from Kant’s system? In order to attempt to answer these questions as much as possible, and to attempt to find a practical system of morality that works in our own society, it is necessary to first examine the competing idea of ‘Utilitarianism’ formulated by Jeremy Bentham and described most famously by John Stuart Mill, which will be the subject of my next post.

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