Part 1: Modern Approaches to Ethics
(c) Kant's Categorical Imperative
Emmanule Kant was an 18th Century German Enlightenment Modernist Philosopher, considered the most influential thinker of Modern Times. Kant’s ethic is summed up by Stanley Grenz by this sentence:
“Always do the act that is motivated by the sincere belief that what you are doing is the right thing to do, right not merely for you but for anybody seeking to act properly in any similar situation.”
Kant set out to create an ethical system that does not rely on consequences—a system that rationally determines a universal principle for all ethical decision making.
The KEYS of modernistic philosophy, epitomized by Kant, are:
- God is not Master, Reason is Master.
- Reason is the final legitimator of all truth; Reason is the final arbiter of ethics.
- If one cannot legitimate something by way of Reason, it is not morally true.
- It’s essential to have Rational Foundations to all thought.
His rational system of Ethics: “The Categorical Imperative.”
(Categorical: absolute, universal; Imperative: what one must do).
Kant taught that we can use human reason to determine the categorical imperative. Having done so, we can know what to do without any exceptions. So, according to Kant, we can take a rational approach to deciding whether or not a statement of action (a “maxim”) is ethical by testing it according to the paradigm of the categorical imperative.
Something is in line with the Categorical Imperative if:
- We are willing to universalize the rule of action which it generates. (Everyone who faces a similar choice must follow this rule of action—this must be everyone’s conduct).
- We never use people as a means to an end. (Other people are not the stepping stones to our own personal fulfillment, all people are valuable for their own sakes).
- We are not acting out of desire of an outcome that is beneficial to us or anybody else (such as pleasure, power, respect, fear of evil, injury, death). These cloud moral perceptions; we only act from firm convictions about what is simply the right thing to do. Ethical acts are those that arise ONLY from a sense of DUTY.
Today's Christians often say that they are in disagreement with Kant’s Ethical approach. They know that Kant is atheistic in his approach, allowing Human Reason to trump Divine Revelation.
- However, we can readily agree that we should never use people as a means to an end, affirming with Kant that people are intrinsically valuable.
- And, if we evangelicals earnestly analyzed our way of thinking about “truth,” we would find ourselves agreeing that ethics must be “universal” in order to be true. Many evangelicals would assert that any ethical maxim must be true across the board in all situations in order for it to be true.
- And, many of us would say that we should act out of duty rather than allowing ourselves to be motivated by our own benefit or out of what we would hope will come out of it. Right actions are right actions, regardless of the consequences.
A classic example of how this creates problems is this:
What if I were in Nazi Germany, holding Jews in my home to protect them from the concentration camps? If soldiers came to my door and asked, “Are you hiding Jews in your home?” what should I do? One universal maxim is this: “I should never lie.” My maxim that I should never lie will lead to the Jews in my home to face death in a concentration camp. Is this ethical? We would also say another maxim should be, “We must not allow people to murder others.”
These two maxims clash; and Kant’s ethic offers no way out of the conflict.
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