In a startling change of tone from last week’s topic, today I’m discussing an application of “Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals” (1785), one that Kant would not have understood in today’s context: self-care.
We live in a relentlessly overwhelming world. While it’s not unique to this era that so much is happening at once, this time is uniquely modern in that many individuals possess a means of instantly accessing information about anything and everything. When so many of those things negatively impact our worlds, it’s very easy to feel like being aware of them all is not just a possibility, but an obligation.
Kant didn’t give us much warning about what an internalized duty to know everything about every tragedy would mean for our mental states, but what he did offer was a distinct source of all good in the world: good intentions.
Those two ideas may not seem immediately related, but let me provide the third piece of the puzzle: Katmai National Park and Preserve’s annual Fat Bear Week competition. This lighthearted competition radiates the simple goodwill that Kant discusses; it is the result of people who wanted to make others smile and to educate them on bears’ hibernation.
In my case, those people achieved their goals. But I was surprised at how guilty I felt for reading this article and not a more serious one. I had grown so accustomed to the idea that being “informed” was synonymous with “overwhelmed” that the second I felt relaxed about current events, I thought I was doing something wrong.
Kant would say that the opposite is true. If I’m burying myself in polling data and fact-checks to satisfy some imagined obligation to be the perfect, informed citizen, I’m not actually doing something good. As Kant says, the classification of “good” does not come from an action’s consequences, but the intentions with which it was enacted. Thus, informing myself because I think I have to is not necessarily good, even though the end result of avoiding ignorance is desirable.
The line between informed and overwhelmed is an infinitesimally thin one, and our access to never-ending information is what makes it so. I do have the will to be informed and to help remedy the challenges we face as a society, but I can only take so much.
The guilt I felt in distracting myself from it all for just a few minutes while reading about the winner of Fat Bear Week was a necessary reminder that being informed is useless if I am not also a functioning, energetic citizen.
So, I hope you’ll take a moment this week to read about some fat bears with the sole intention of having a moment to breathe, away from the suffocating reality that we live in. The bigger headlines will be there when we’re ready for them, and I hope we can learn to let it be Kant’s goodwill that brings us to them.