British Columbia

How basic lessons from classic philosophy could have made politicians think twice about their trips abroad

Canadians have been balancing individual desires against the greater good as they try to navigate public health orders, asking themselves: “What is the right thing to do?” Experts say the world’s greatest philosophers are a natural place to look for answers. And we’ve all had a lot of time to think.

Experts say Kant and Aristotle still hold relevance for people grappling with big questions

Immanuel Kant (left) lived nearly 300 years ago. But his philosophical writings on morality may have come in handy when former Ontario finance minister Rod Phillips was booking a Christmas vacation to St. Barts. (Johann Gottlieb Becker/CBC)

It's unlikely Canada's sun-seeking politicians sought guidance from the works of Immanuel Kant before setting off for the Caribbean, Hawaii or Mexico over the Christmas holidays.

But York University associate philosophy professor Alice MacLachlan says elected officials like former Ontario Finance Minister Rod Phillips might have done well to heed the advice of one of the greatest thinkers of the Enlightenment. 

Faced with a question like 'How do we know if we're doing the right thing?' Kant thought people should ask themselves: "What would happen if everyone acted on the principle I'm following right now?"

MacLachlan says it's a way of avoiding making an exception for yourself.

"I think that our political representatives have a particular duty to say, 'What would happen if my constituents behaved the way I am behaving right now?' And to hold themselves to that model," MacLachlan said. 

"Obviously, if everyone had done what these politicians are doing, right now the COVID numbers would be so out of control, we'd be in complete catastrophe."

Aristotle and exemplary citizens

Canadians have been outraged by the actions of politicians like Phillips, who resigned after returning from a Yuletide trip to St. Bart's, or the growing list of Alberta Conservative MLAs who have admitted to vacationing abroad while the rest of the country is stuck in lockdown.

But experts say the anger strikes at a deeper chord than normal upset over political hypocrisy. For months, millions of Canadians have been balancing individual desires against the greater good as they try to navigate public health orders, asking themselves: "What is the right thing to do?"

Greek philosopher Aristotle believed that politicians should be exemplary citizens and act like the captains of ships for the good of the crew. Taking vacations during a pandemic, not so much. (Lysippos)

Experts say the world's greatest philosophers are a natural place to look for answers. And we've all had a lot of time to think.

University of British Columbia political science professor Max Cameron wrote an essay last year for the magazine Philosophy Now, titled Aristotle and The Good Ruler. 

He's been thinking lately about the legendary ancient Greek philosopher.

"He actually believed that politicians should be exemplary citizens," Cameron says.

The captain of the ship

Aristotle likened the role of a politician to that of the captain of a ship.

Citizens perform various duties above and below deck — rowing (remember Aristotle was born around 384 BC), standing guard for marauders and watching the weather — but the captain has a more central function.

"The captain is the person who's fundamentally responsible for bringing the ship safely to port," Cameron says.

"The captain must be what Aristotle calls 'a good person.' He (or she) must have all of the virtues and excellence to be able to do what is right for the ship and for the crew and his or herself."

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry provides an update on the COVID-19 pandemic. UBC political science professor Max Cameron says that when he wears a mask, he sees himself as an ambassador for Henry. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Public health officials are essentially asking all Canadians to be exemplary citizens. Cameron says it's the least we expect from the politicians elected to play that role.

"We're trying our best to follow public health guidelines. We're doing it in part motivated by the desire not to let down our fellow citizens," Cameron says.

"I'm conscious of that when I go out with a mask and so I begin to think of myself of being an ambassador for (B.C. Provincial Health Officer Dr.) Bonnie Henry."

Categorical imperatives and tropical vacations

One of the central tenets of Kant's philosophy involves a concept known as the "categorical imperative."

Loosely speaking, it's a way of thinking about morality and ways of acting by coming up with rules that hold true for everyone at all times.

Alice MacLachlan is Associate Professor of Philosophy at York University. She says the lessons of Immanuel Kant are relevant to the times we are living in. (Alice MacLachlan)

In the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, MacLachlan says one such universal maxim might be: "Behave in a way that prioritizes the health of you, your family and community at all times."

Following that imperative doesn't mean everyone has to do the same thing. 

For instance, MacLachlan says essential workers may need to send their children to daycare, so the rules can't say no one should send anyone out of the house. Teachers and children may have to gather in groups. Some people may need to travel.

"But we can say make those decisions that put the health of your family, your community and your country first," she says.

"And we can see how that allows decisions that are needed in order to prioritize health, but wouldn't allow for a personal vacation to a tropical country."

'What is the good life?'

Kant's 18th century writings came after the turmoil of the Middle Ages, known for war, pestilence and plague. And Aristotle's Greece was no picnic: he believed warfare was justified to capture "natural slaves."

MacLachlan says philosophy has always played a central role in helping humans navigate the ethical dilemmas that accompany violence and disease.

It's worth noting that the vast majority of Canadian politicians at all levels have chosen to follow the health orders they're tasked with modelling.

Phillips remains a member of Ontario's provincial parliament. Alberta Conservative Tracy Allard will stay an MLA after resigning her post as minister of municipal affairs for taking a family trip to Hawaii. And Alberta Premier Jason Kenney's chief of staff has resigned for going to the U.K.

One way or another, they'll all have a little more time on their hands. MacLachlan says it's good time to pick up a philosophy book.

"One of the most enduring questions of philosophy is what is the right life to lead, what is the good life? I think the pandemic has forced us to realize we need to ask that question," she said.

"The oldest questions are the most enduring for a reason. They're the ones that matter … that's what Kant struggled with. And that's what we're struggling with."

About the Author

Jason Proctor

@proctor_jason

Jason Proctor is a reporter in British Columbia for CBC News and has covered the B.C. courts and mental health issues in the justice system extensively.

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