In Defense of Immanuel Kant

By M. Anthony Mills

Was the lesson of A Christmas Carol that Uncle Scrooge became a religious man, or simply a "good person"?

Every year the Christmas season rekindles the question of how much Christianity, with its popular message of peace and joy, can be salvaged from Christian doctrine, with its less popular mysterious dogmata and moral imperatives. Doubtless secular society would strengthen this "wedge" between ethics and doctrine. In a recent article discussing Time's selection of Pope Francis as person of the year, Fr. Robert Barron blames this tendency to deprive ethics of its religious content on the 18th century German philosopher, Immanuel Kant.

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Kant is among the greatest philosophers of all time. But there are many Kants. There is Kant the "all destroyer," who rejected God; Kant the positivist, who rejected metaphysics in favor of science; Kant the arch-rationalist, who reduced morality to reason; Kant the pietist, who thought human nature corrupt; Kant the romantic, who located human genius in the transcendental power of imagination. Fr. Barron adds to this list: Kant the secularist, who reduced religion to ethics.

Two of Kant's more notorious legacies surely concern God and morality. First is the refutation of the ontological proof for God's existence. Kant argued, and many took his argument to be irrefutable, that contrary to many metaphysicians before him, such as Anselm, Leibniz, and Mendelssohn, one could not prove (or disprove) the existence of God through theoretical reason.

The second is the belief that morality could be given a rational foundation: that there could be, in John Rawls's words, a "moral geometry." Contrary to the Aristotelian edifice that was crumbling in the 18th century, Kant did not believe that morality could be grounded on a teleological view of nature -- a view that the Newtonian worldview called into question and which Darwin would later squash. Instead, morality must be grounded on universal rational precepts.

In effect, Fr. Barron suggests yet another Kantian legacy: the belief, ubiquitous today, that religion is reducible to morality, that the doctrinal content of religion is subordinate to the ethical maxims all religions share.

This, Fr. Barron convincingly suggests, is the dark side of the warm reception Pope Francis has received in secular culture. Pope Francis is great, but just insofar as he is not too doctrinaire. He seems like a good person by ethical standards recognized by all -- but don't let's talk about abortion or sexuality. This is the "Kantian wedge" between ethics and doctrine.

No doubt Kant's ideas have had some profound and, arguably, some profoundly negative consequences throughout history. Thus the refutation of the ontological proof is often called a Pyrrhic victory since, in getting rid of speculative metaphysics Kant also got rid of God, though he never intended to. The idea of a purely rational morality was thought by many to divest morality of its human content. Thus Kant's morality was famously, if polemically, lambasted in Adorno's and Horkheimer's Dialectic of Enlightenment for advocating an "instrumental" view that facilitates human alienation, rather than moral betterment.

In a similar way, Fr. Barron suggests that Kant's divorce of morality from doctrine has had the baleful effect of throwing all religious doctrine out when it comes to morality. In its most simple-minded form, this is the idea that ethics do not require religion. One can "be a good person" regardless of one's particular beliefs.
These, at any rate, are history's judgments about Kant. Fr. Barron is right about history; but history is wrong about Kant.

Like all misconceptions, they are rooted in truth. Kant did seek a rational and universal basis for morality. But this was the Enlightenment dream of many -- of the founders of the United States, for example, and of G. K. Chesterton, who wrote in Orthodoxy: "I believed this doctrine of the brotherhood of all men in the possession of a moral sense, and I believe it still -- with other things." (It is perhaps these "other things" to which Fr. Barron rightfully calls attention).

Even St. Thomas Aquinas sought the source of virtue in reason: "Wherefore, since the rational soul is the proper form of man, there is in every man a natural inclination to act according to reason: and this is to act according to virtue. Consequently, considered thus, all acts of virtue are prescribed by the natural law: since each one's reason naturally dictates to him to act virtuously."

Of course, the idea that "oughts" spring from a pre-political and natural source has roots much farther back than Aquinas. Aquinas himself quotes the 6th century theologian Isidore, who wrote: "The natural law is common to all nations." And it was St Paul, after all, who said that "the laws are written on our hearts" and Augustine, who added, "which iniquity itself effaces not."

But more importantly, Kant argued that morality requires the existence of God and an immortal soul. These are not mere "constructions" of the mind, as some Kant commentators mistakenly argue. No, Kant believed these "postulates" of practical reason were necessary. The idea that ethics could somehow dispense with religion, ubiquitous -- and attributed to Kant -- though it may be, is not Kantian.

While Kant tried to refute the ontological argument, he did so in order to elevate morality over irresolvable metaphysical conflicts. Few remember that Kant even offered his own argument for God's existence. But his argument takes moral, rather than metaphysical, propositions, as premises. As the Kant scholar Karl Ameriks has emphasized in Interpreting Kant's Critiques, in so doing Kant argued not only that we must believe in God and immortality, but that we can acquire knowledge of these things. This is what Kant called the "determined thought of the supersensible."

This baffles many of Kant's readers. For Kant famously claimed that we could only have theoretical knowledge of things in space and time. Neither immortal souls nor God are in space and time. So how could he claim that we can have knowledge of them? To avoid the apparent contradiction, some conclude that if Kant allowed 'knowledge' of these things, this cannot be true knowledge; rather, it must be some kind of opinion or feeling. The ideas of God and immortality are merely subjective.

But we can't have our anti-Kantian cake and eat it too. For Kant, morality is founded on reason. So any knowledge gained through morality is knowledge gained through reason, what Kant called Vernunftglaube, literally, "reason-belief." To be sure, this kind of insight into the supersensible is not, on pain of contradiction, theoretical, scientific, or even the kind of metaphysical knowledge claimed by Anselm, Leibniz, or Mendelssohn. Instead, it is a kind of "moral cognition." But it is no lesser for that.

This view is not at variance with doctrinal religion. On the contrary, for Kant, as for Aquinas, our natural inclination for the summum bonum or "highest good," is closely tied to a desire for God. Kant wrote in his Critique of Practical Reason: "there is in us not merely warrant but also the necessity [...] to presuppose the possibility of this highest good." Moreover, Kant says, the highest good "is possible only insofar as a supreme cause of nature" exists. Thus there is no wedge between morality and religion; for Kant, it is through morality that we gain partial knowledge of the divine.

Fr. Barron is certainly right that this view is not commonly held in our own time. But that is because our time is not as Kantian as so many claim.

M. Anthony Mills is a PhD candidate in philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, specializing in philosophy of science.

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