I once got myself into a bit of a tight spot at an African airport when I didn’t have twenty dollars for the departure tax. I had completely forgotten I needed the cash and the friends who had dropped me off had stuffed some wonderful gourds into my bag at the last minute, but had also forgotten the essential tax. On trying to leave, I was faced with some officials who clearly didn’t believe me when I said I was sorry and that I didn’t have the money. They eyed me up and down and I became uneasy when one of the officials pointed to my laptop and made a comment to his colleague. My protestations that the laptop was ‘for work’ and ‘not worth anything,’ did not convince them. All the money I had on me was a little local currency, worth around ten pence, and when I offered this instead the officials thought that I was trying it on with them. Their attitude said that I was a foreigner, a rich white tourist, surely twenty dollars was nothing to me?
A fellow traveller witnessed this tricky situation and decided to act. As he passed me, he swiftly and unobtrusively pressed a twenty dollar bill into my hand. I can still feel the texture of that note unfurling like a new leaf into my sweating palm; never have I felt such cool relief as at that moment. Those twenty dollars saved my skin.
After boarding the aircraft, I discovered that I was sitting next to a friend of the anonymous benefactor and when I told him what had just happened, he smiled and shrugged: ‘That’s just the kind of thing he would do.” He pointed out where his friend was sitting nonchalantly reading. I scrawled a note saying how much his generous action had meant to me and sent the note down the aisle. He read it and then he twisted in his seat and waved at me once before turning back to his book. It was nothing, his gesture said, forget about it.
But I have never forgotten those twenty dollars. For me, his action was one of the most supremely considerate acts I have encountered. He acted instinctively and without thought of reward. The twenty dollars really meant nothing to him. He noticed a person in a tight spot and helped them to get out of it with a simple, swift and elegant solution.
Thinking through Kant’s ethics for my philosophy session last night reminded me of the airport situation. Kant would have approved of my benefactor’s approach. Kant’s ethics are anchored in a sense of good will to others and central to this good will is a sense of duty. Kant urges us to act humanely, to treat other human beings as we would wish to be treated ourselves. My fellow traveller handed over the twenty dollars out of a sense of duty to another traveller who needed to get home. He didn’t stop and ask me whether he could help, or try to pay the officials for me, or make a show of being generous as some people might have done. In putting the solution into my hand, he acted flawlessly.
I would like to think that if ever I saw someone in a similar situation at any remote immigration point, I would do the same. No fuss. No hesitation. No thinking: is this right, what if that woman has just spent all their dollars on drink or drugs? What is she uses it to buy crack? What if she follows me and begs for more money? What if…
Kant reminds us is that when we act from duty we act on the side of humanity. When we act from duty in the way in which I understand Kant to mean it, we don’t need to equivocate, or look at consequences, or think of the implications of our actions. We simply act. One human being reaching out to another touching lives briefly and then moving on. No guilt. No reward. When we act from duty, we move in the direction of right conduct as part of the flow of life.
Duty in this understanding does not require effort or strain; it is not about obedience, or doing things because you have no choice. It is not even about overcoming laziness or selfishness. It is simply about acting without ulterior motive. It is acting from a point of absolute integrity.
For Kant, these sort of duty-driven actions are not emotional or personal. If we wish to live ethically, and Kant assumes that we do, then acting from duty and not treating people as a means, but as an end in themselves, actually frees us. Viewing the world through Kantian eyes makes it possible for us to see others not as individuals who might trap us with complex needs that might impinge on our lives and make things uncomfortable for us, but as a mirror of ourselves.