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Kant on Enlightenment & Ignorance as a Societal Sickness

Thoughts on Immanuel Kant’s discussion of self-imposed nonage in Answering the Question: “What is Enlightenment?”


Ignorance is a Societal Sickness

Kant writes that “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage.” You’ve likely never heard of the word nonage before.  It refers to a state of immaturity, youth, a time of life in which we rely on guardians to make decisions for us. During this period, we are directed by another person’s reasoning, rather than by our own.  In the natural age of youth, we require the assistance of guardians to think and speak for us, due to our undeveloped faculty of reason.  At such an age, we do not harm our soul, spirit, or personal humanity by deferring decision-making to those who care for us.  There is no feasible alternative, lest we be forced to prematurely raise ourselves and risk detriment.

Sometimes, however, a human prolongs his nonage far into adulthood. In Kant’s essay, he distinguishes between nonage and self-imposed nonage. Kant names two essential features of self-imposed nonage, which act as internal barriers to enlightenment and cause self-imposed nonage. These are:

1) indecision, and/or

2) the lack of courage to use one’s own mind.

Indecision is evident when a person tries to hire another to perform intellectual tasks for him, such as reading or deliberating. It’s evident in the lazy attitude, Why think when you can hire someone to do it for you? The lack of courage to use one’s own mind is evident in lives characterized by exaggerated fear of the slightest faux pas and a high degree of uncertainty avoidance.

It’s interesting that Kant excludes lack of understanding as a cause of self-imposed nonage. This omission implies Kant’s surprising position that nonage due to ignorance (i.e. being immature as a result of not understanding how to use one’s reason) is not self-imposed. Indeed, the German word for self-imposed chosen by Kant is selbstverschuldet; Schuld means fault or causal responsibility. Therefore, the text itself provides supporting evidence of Kant’s position that nonage, as the inability to reason, may be an external circumstance which is imposed on an adult.

Expounding the Moral Implications

There are some surprising moral implications of Kant’s characterization of self-imposed nonage. First, from his characterization of nonage it follows that ignorance is not blameworthy; that is, we are not morally culpable for being ignorant.  Do you agree with the following statement?

An individual is not responsible for not knowing what he does not know.

Kant’s moral philosophy is well-known for the Ought-Implies-Can Principle, which entails that a person cannot be morally required to take actions which are impossible for him to perform. For example, you cannot be expected to make tomorrow morning’s 9 am meeting in Singapore if it’s midnight now and you’re currently in Dallas.

If you cannot know what you do not know, then the moral conclusion follows: if a person cannot know how to think due to external circumstances (i.e., his nonage is not self-imposed), then it cannot be his moral duty as an individual to become enlightened.   Kant, by defining self-imposed nonage with only two features, allows citizens off the moral hook for their prolonged nonage in the case that it results solely from lack of education and ignorance.


Nonage as a Human Sickness

The fact that Kant relieves those immature-by-circumstance from moral responsibility does not entail that prolonged nonage is ever desirable or good. It is merely morally excusable on a personal level when a person has not received the tools he requires for becoming rationally mature.

Given Kant’s moral philosophy – namely the focus on reason as the defining feature of humanity and reason as the source of morality – we can still recognize that any prolonged nonage is injurious to humanity as a deprivation of a moral good.  Prolonged nonage of individuals and the overall unenlightened geist are symptoms of a sickness of reason.   Kant’s paper expresses a call for mankind to “consider the step to maturity” and is woeful of those who “gladly remain minors all their lives, long after nature has freed them from external guidance.”  Moral good is always gained from curing ignorant nonage as much as self-imposed nonage.


Moral Implications of Kant’s Characterization of Self-Imposed Nonage

I’ve drawn the conclusion that nonage due to lack of understanding is personally excusable, but does this mean that no one is to blame and that nothing  should be done about it? The answer is that nonage of the ignorant, non-self-imposed type is a symptom of a societal sickness that requires a collective effort to cure.  Although the individual is relieved of responsibility, the responsibility for the cure lies with society.

What are some causes of society’s sickness? When a society fails to value education and make it available, the people will remain ignorant.  The failure to value and teach independent reasoning is a failure to respect humanity, for it keeps a portion of mankind in a state of nonage.  This could be motivated by a ruler’s desire for power, for nonage keeps people docile. Instead of growing into independent, reasoning agents propelled through life by our own ideas, uneducated people are manipulated for the interests of the ruler.  The cause of ignorant nonage is the failure of a society to value education, which is at best some kind of sickness or affliction, and at worse a crime against humanity.

In fact, Kant makes a point about the danger of a “society of ministers” that secures “perpetual guardianship over all its members and through them over the people”. If such an organization  tries to secure a contract that will “prevent [the people] from increasing their significant insights purging themselves of errors, and generally progressing in enlightenment.  That would be a crime against human nature…”  Although Kant is referencing the deliberate exercise of power to keep a population ignorant rather than a mere failure to promote independent reasoning, it is reasonable to draw the same moral conclusion: a society that fails to distribute education and encourage free thinking is sick and disordered.


The Remedy

A society is a collective in which each person is impacted by the health of the whole society. We all need to be guardians of the ignorant and protect ourselves by encouraging education, or at least not hindering it through our words, work, or actions.  In a society that has failed to sufficiently educate persons and thereby keeps them in a state of perpetual nonage, not one person can respond to ignorance and say, “it’s not my problem.”

In the greater part of Kant’s essay on Enlightenment, he focuses on self-imposed nonage,  the suitable limits for freedom, the place of government, and ethics of interaction between individual and society.  I’d like to add what Kant missed in his discussion of Enlightenment of society and point out the equal importance of curing nonage that is not self-imposed.  We are mutually accountable to each other to promote critical thinking and curiosity, and to seize opportunities to instill within individuals a spirit that values education.

For the average person, my minor exploration of Kant’s essay on Enlightenment can guide us to interact supportively with cases of nonage that result from ignorance (not character flaws of laziness or cowardice). When you meet someone who seems to suffer from ignorance, there are two actions to immediately take.

  1. Ask yourself whether the “ignorant” person is morally responsible (i.e. blameworthy), and
  2. remember that good teachers teach you how to think, now what to think.

The close examination of Kant’s definition of self-imposed nonage provides insight into the battle of ignorance you might feel like you’re fighting everyday.  Therefore, philosophy can help you focus your energy on the real issue:  ignorance is the problem, not “stupid people” themselves.   Fight ignorance, not the ignorant individual.

Critical Thinking Questions:

1.Does your society prolong immaturity?

2.What are the obvious symptoms of such nonage?

3.We all have met people who can’t make decisions. What are some of the symptoms of a unwillingness or inability to rely on one’s own reasoning?

4.Why is it scary to make decisions?

5.How do you know what people want others to make decisions for them? Are there certain sentences people use in order to communicate that they want another person to decide for them? Or, do they act in a certain way to influence others to make the decision?

6.We often say “I’m confused” as if it’s a reason not to make a decision. Is confusion real or just an excuse?

7.Kant might say that you should always be guided by your own reasoning. But is it sometimes healthy to rely on loved ones to make decisions for you?  Why might you ask a loved one to decide for you?

8.Is a person harming his/herself when he/she avoids relying on his/her own reasoning?


  1. Emily,

    You wrote, “Given Kant’s moral philosophy – namely the focus on reason as the defining feature of humanity and reason as the source of morality – ”

    I like that Kant says that reason is the source of morality. I find in practical life that people who go against their own reason are also immoral.

    I do not think that people who are highly educated are necessarily moral.

    Not having much capacity or ability to reason is not what makes somebody immoral, what makes a person immoral is not having the courage to use his own reason. It is self-deception which makes a person immoral.

    How do you personally in your own thinking connect reason with morality?


    • Hello Ontologicalrealist!

      Thanks for your reply!
      I think it’s important to understand that Kant was not saying that people who reason are moral. Rather, he says that we need reason in order to be moral. Possessing some intelligent reasoning skills is not sufficient for morality, but necessary for morality.

      The moral law is discoverable by using reason. Not only is it discoverable by reason, but reason is the source of the moral law. I recommend you take a look at some explanations of hypothetical and categorical maxims!



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