BERLIN — People have been making New Year's resolutions since long before we had health insurance premiums to help calculate them or magazines to tell us what they should be. In Ancient Rome, citizens renewed their vow of loyalty to the emperor and the gods with a New Year's procession honoring Janus, the two-faced god of the home and family, who looks both forward and backwards. Everyone reflected on their own character and promised to better themselves.

New Year's resolutions experienced a renaissance during the Reformation, which did away with the rite of confession. Calvinists, Puritans and Pietists sought forgiveness after 365 sinful days. But what could they know? What should they do? And what might they hope for? The answers to these three questions about moral behavior were to be found, at least partly, in the New Testament. They were elaborated in more detail a couple of centuries later in the writings of Immanuel Kant, through his Protestant philosophy and, more exhaustively, in his 1788 work Critique of Practical Reason.

After publishing Critique of Pure Reason in 1781, Kant turned his attention to practical, everyday reason: "I have learned from the critique of pure reason that philosophy is not the study of ideas and concepts, but the study of man, his attitudes, thoughts and behavior."

Between what is and what should be ...

Every person lives in the space between what is and what should be. He is free to decide whether he does something or refrains from doing it at all costs. He must use his reason to decide. That, Kant admits, is never easy. It is quite hard, even: "The rule for judging, under the laws of purely practical reason, is this: ask yourself whether you could wish this action that you are planning to be a universal law of nature that everyone should obey."

With that question, Kant gives us a framework for establishing ethical maxims and makes a clear distinction between the objective and the subjective. He distinguishes the quantity from the quality, distinguishes the universal laws that apply to everyone from the usual demands of conscience.

Photo: Helen Melissakis

There are always both external and internal reasons to behave in the right way. God and society are external reasons, while the internal reasons are the healthy or, as Kant calls it, "common" human understanding and feelings. These make up practical reason.

So, before making a resolution, we should ask ourselves: Is what is good for me also good for others? That is how we establish "rules for acting or refraining from action."

As we have long known, Kant himself was not entirely free from questionable views and bad habits. In the 1785 Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, he issued a strong warning against placing oneself above other people and their burdens. Thus according to Kant, who argued that each individual knows best what is reasonable for him or herself, we all know how likely we are to stick to our resolutions over the next twelve months.


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