Tag Archives: Immanuel Kant

The Paradox of the Heap

There is an ancient Greek paradox, called the Sorites Paradox, originally attributed to Eubulides of Miletus. “Sorites” is Greek for “heap”. The paradox goes like this: suppose you have a heap of sand and then you start removing one grain of sand at a time. At what point does the heap of sand stop being a heap.

You can reverse it: start out with one grain of sand and then add another grain and another. At what point do your grains of sand become a heap?

Now, we can apply this paradox to more interesting categories of subjects.

A child is shamed by a number of his classmates and hangs himself as a result. Let’s say hypothetically the number of classmates involved in shaming the child was five. Say one less classmate shamed him. Would he still hang himself? Say two less? Three less? Let’s reverse it: say one person shamed him. Then two. Then three. At what point would the child be so ashamed that he would take his own life?

During an average week, there are one or two mass shooting incidents somewhere in America. A mass shooting has been defined for statistical purposes as gun-related deaths or injuries of at least four people. We could go back over the years and add up all the gun-related deaths and come up with a mind-boggling number. My question is this: at what point in the future will we collectively decide that enough is enough and pass laws to regulate who gets legal access to guns and rifles? A million? Ten million? A hundred million?

At what point does the murder of non-combatants become genocide? At what point does it become a Holocaust? A thousand? A million? Six million? We know by studying history that the actions of Hitler and the Nazi party led to the Holocaust. How many of those actions does another nation’s leader have to take before we can say that these actions will lead to another holocaust? One? Ten? A hundred?

We can study history and learn its lessons, but that does not necessarily mean that we will know how to apply those lessons to our present or future situations.

Shimon Peres once said that we should spend more time studying the future than studying the past. How do we study the future? We start out by asking ourselves what we want and then figure out what we have to do to get from now to then.

But there are things we can never know with any kind of precision, like how much cruelty, injustice, unfairness, deprivation, derision, ridicule, or invisibility can a person or a group of people take before they can’t take any more? What can we do? How do we know that what we are doing to someone is the last straw for him or her? Immanuel Kant provided the answer in his Categorical Imperative. He said we should consider what would happen if everyone did what we are thinking about doing. Kant asserted that if everyone did it and it would lead to the destruction of society, then it would be immoral; otherwise, it would be moral, or at least not immoral. I would suggest a slight alteration of Kant’s assertion for our purposes: if everyone did it before you and it is something you wouldn’t want done to you, then your doing so should be treated like the last straw, should be avoided, and another way should be sought.

The Freedom Paradox is that we are free to do or say whatever we want, but we are not free of the consequences of what we do or say. Everything we do or say has consequences, like the ripples a stone thrown into a pond cause. Although we can never know all the consequences of our actions, we must take responsibility for them as adults. The law may let us off the hook on certain of those consequences, but the laws of morality and reality do not let us off any hook whatsoever.


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