Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804):  Call to Duty.


This is a review of The Fundamental Metaphysics of Morals.  This work has a promising start as Kant observes that the greatest good is that of a good will:


"Nothing can possibly be conceived in the world, or even out of it, which can be called good, without qualification, except a good will."


At this point he should have acknowledged the existence of John Calvin and the doctrine of Total Depravity, but this was not to be.  Instead, the topic is pontificated about a bit and then dropped.  A big problem for the neo-Epicureans is that the only moral code they were able to draw upon was one of enlightened self interest, but Kant is smart enough to see that this won't work.  Furthermore, even if enlightened self interest causes someone to do what is right, because he did it for self interest we do not credit him with having done anything morally significant.  Kant hits upon the notion of duty as being the missing item.  To this end the notion of duty is developed with Kant's version of the Golden Rule.  Another admonition involves treating men as ends rather than means which also seems to me to be a well intended but faulty rework of "love your neighbor as yourself".  


A smirk is in order here because Kant is clearly drawing on theistic notions of duty to patch up a failed atheist system.  The rewording is necessary to avoid giving too much credit to the source.  One point that I especially like in Kant's system is that he requires a notion of free will, even though atheism explicitly rejects free will:


"A rational being must always regard himself as giving laws either as member or as sovereign in a kingdom of ends which is rendered possible by the freedom of will. He cannot, however, maintain the latter position merely by the maxims of his will, but only in case he is a completely independent being without wants and with unrestricted power adequate to his will."


This free will is much less than most Christian theologians, since it is a free will that is only effective until an animal impulse kicks in and we start craving something.


Having stolen his system from theists, Kant somehow thinks it good sense to condemn the author of the system that he plagiarized:


"Amongst the rational principles of morality, the ontological conception of perfection, notwithstanding its defects, is better than the theological conception which derives morality from a Divine absolutely perfect will.  ... the only notion of the Divine will remaining to us is a conception made up of the attributes of desire of glory and dominion, combined with the awful conceptions of might and vengeance, and any system of morals erected on this foundation would be directly opposed to morality."


Or to put it another way, the speed limit is immoral if there are police driving up and down the highway ticketing scofflaws.   Kant is unable to face the Doctrine of Total Depravity.  The problems with the atheist duty model are the exact same that Plato noted:  There is no one to whom our duty is obligated and there is no controlling legal authority.  No matter how many eloquent words are put in print, it all adds up to nothing.


Back to the self-interest vs. duty topic: At the beginning Kant asserts that these two motivations alone represent all possible motivations for moral behavior.  To this I must also object and cite a Bible verse:


"But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us." - Romans 5:8


The problem is that God's saving of mankind was neither self-interest nor duty, yet God chose to do this anyway.  There is a higher and purer form of ethical behavior that Kant cannot conceive of, much less explain its metaphysics.

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