Emmanuel Kant in Modern Evangelicalism

Emerging Christian Ethics
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:

  1. 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).
  2. 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).
  3. 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.
But we live in a murkier world than this. Often, we are faced with a myriad of choices, each carrying the banner of meeting the Categorical Imperative.

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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Jared said...

I really enjoyed this post, though I've always found that picture creepy (don't know why). I have always liked what I've heard of Kantian ethics, but I've never read him myself. Maybe it's time.

By the way, nice to find a fellow blogger in the Canton area!

J Hearne said...

What about the other statement of the Kant's CI? Never to treat another as a means but only as an end in itself.

The traditional lying-to-the-nazi problem has a myriad of Neo-Kantian responses. Some even utilize Augustine in a sense to point out the "murkiness" of the world and talk about not treating the hidden jews as a means but as an autonomous ends in themselves. Consequently, you are not free to give them away because of your obligation to hide them. Consequently, you're in a tricky place where many Kantians will argue that you should not give the Jews up the Nazis but that lying is still wrong.

Additionally, there may be a flaw in making the universalized maxim too general when the maxim should allow for loopholes in this situation.

I'm not saying that Kant is correct, but I am saying that there are legitimate and considered responses to the apparent dilemma of the hidden jews.

Anonymous said...

Serious Prayer Concern


DLW said...

The diff between Pragmaticism/Realism and Kantian Idealism is that right action is considered as not based on intentions, but consequences. Since there are always unintended consequences for our actions, we can never know for sure what we shd do and need to be open to learning from past and present experience about the likely consequences of different courses of actions.

I think that one of the key consequences we weigh with our actions needs to be what sort of persons we become and how it affects our witness to others.

Bob Robinson said...

Very good, dlw.

As I move us through this series, you will see the argument develop that an "Emerging Christian Ethic" must be more concerned with who we are becoming than what we are doing. Being determines our Doing, then Doing returns to inform our Being. Most ethical systems are concerned with virtuous actions; an emerging Christian Ethic will be concerned with becoming a virtuous person. And this is done not primarily through Reason (though it plays a part), it is done through the dance of Holy Spirit, Community, and Social Action.

More on this as the series develops!!

Mike Pape said...

Very nice series you have going. I tend towards virtue ethics myself but I find that you need a little taint of deontology to make it work. If you aren't careful you can run into something that sounds like a Socratic discussion:
What is a virtuous act? It's what virtuous people do. How can I tell if an act is virtuous? By seeing if virtuous people do it. Deontology can help clear this up a bit.

Keep up the good work.

Bob Robinson said...

Mike Pape,

I like that. I'm laying a foundation here with looking first at the Modern options. I will then move into the more postmodern idea of Virtue Ethic, which I feel better gets to the meat of what Ethics is all about.

The deontological aspect of a Christian Virtue Ethic is rooted in the Christian Community's Narrative that binds them together: Creation-Fall-Redemption. Once we find ourselves immersed in that community story, reinforced by the community's involvement in each others' lives, we find the deon that can guide a virtue ethic.

Anonymous said...

I don't think it's wise to make a fetish out of universality.

A lot of issues of discerning right conduct are inextricably tied to the consequences and these consequences can and do change by context.

Ie, having the death penalty may have a deterrence effect(relative to lifetime imprisonment) in TX where there is a lot of poverty and inequality, while it may have no effect in France where murders may tend to be more crimes of passion because your boyfriend/girlfriend are cheating on you for the sixth of seventh time this month.

Likewise, we inevitably use others as means to ends, but the real issue is treating their well-being as among the ends that we value in our decision-making.

The Scottish CommonSensist approach would also argue that trying to remove all actions for one's self-interest is futile and can have some serious negative unintended consequences. At issue is what sorts of community/nationwide institutions do we have that channel the ways we pursue our selfinterest, which is one of among many motives that guide our conduct.


Byron said...

Bob Robinson suffered an aortic aneurism in the wee hours of Thursday night/Friday morning. Emergency surgery went well, but this is a serious thing. A fuller report is on my blog, www.byron-harvey.com. PLEASE PRAY FOR OUR BROTHER AND FRIEND.