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Social Media, Immanuel Kant, and the Church

 

By David Baggett

What on earth do these three things have to do with one another? Well, I recently found myself looking at the work of Immanuel Kant, particularly his Religion within the Bounds of Reason, and a few thoughts occurred to me to pass along. In the third section of the book, Kant extends the discussion beyond the need for individual forgiveness and moral transformation to a more communal matter: participation in a community and its role, among others, to furnish eminently teachable moments.

It’s easy to think we’ve morally arrived when we’re sealed in like a hermit away from others, but we acquire patience when we actually have to practice it among other people. We learn love when we strive to have it for people not always easy to love. This is an important reason why community is vital as a sanctification tool.

Kant recognized that victory of the good over evil, and the founding of the kingdom of God on earth, occurs only in the context of community. He thought of such a “community of ends,” or “ethical commonwealth,” as a necessarily religious institution. Why?

When we live in proximity to others, we all too easily have a corrupting influence on each other. Consistent with Christian theology, Kant thought that, despite our potential for good, we’re all also afflicted with radical evil. Believers are in the process of being extricated from our “dear self” that can so easily beset us and derail our best efforts, but we remain susceptible to its allure. Only God’s grace can ultimately liberate us from it.

As I reflected on this, it dawned on me that we live in an interesting historical moment in this regard. Until about a decade ago, social media didn’t exist like it does now, and it has thrust us all, however unwittingly, into a novel relational paradigm, a new robust community. High school reunions don’t mean what they used to; rather than being out of touch with old friends and hankering to reconnect, we get hourly updates about their goings on. Much of this is wonderful, even charming, but it has its downside, and Kant can help us see why.

“Familiarity breeds contempt” is an oft-repeated adage for good reason. The more we’re around others—virtually or otherwise—the greater the temptation to find them a bit wearisome. Patterns emerge; idiosyncrasies begin to grate; and interpersonal conflicts owing to jealousy, selfishness, and a million other causes can easily ensue. This is unfortunate, but Kant also saw such inevitable conflicts in community as potentially redemptive, for they can reveal to us new things about ourselves—our need for deeper transformation, for learning to live with others despite their (and our) moral frailties and failures, and for coming to understand what it means to treat others as ends in themselves rather than as mere means.

Kant thought such communities are forged by a willingness to come together and agree to cooperate based on moral laws. He saw these communities as a kind of church in which we have the chance to learn and grow, becoming better, not worse. The possibility for both exists.

And the context of social media ratchets it all up a notch. Here the ugly underside of the human condition is often on full display: indulgence, rabid partisanship, off-putting communication styles, sophistry, dehumanization, unchecked incivility, shoddy argumentation, disingenuousness, putting on airs, projecting impressions, self-aggrandizement, addictive tendencies, unfiltered commentary, unprovoked tendentiousness, and the list goes on.

The Bible would up the ante even more: Is it an expression of love? Is it a way to obey the most important command to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves? 

The littered trail of not just lost Facebook connections, but ruined friendships—even among strong professing Christians—is adequate commentary that too often social media has brought out our worst, not our best.

To my fellow believers, in particular, I’d like to say this as a word of encouragement and exhortation: of course social media isn’t the (or even a) local church, but we’re all part of the Church universal, and biblical truths apply. If social media is going to serve as a redemptive presence in our lives, we have to remember something that Kant recognized clearly. The ethical commonwealth—the contexts to which we belong, even on social media—is insufficient for true religion. We have to learn to allow God to guide all the members of a group together, all the disparate parts of His body. He’s the Head of the Kingdom of Ends able to coordinate and make cohere all the different roles we’re meant to play.

The same Being or Source is at the root of the moral deliverances to which we all need to heed, especially when it’s tempting not to. From this perspective, the level of cooperation between the members of the groups thus banded together will be a function of how faithfully they follow His lead in their lives. Garden variety conflicts are still sure to arise, but they needn’t—and they mustn’t—irremediably divide; they can instead be means of grace.

Kant offered a good test for actions when it comes to religious practice that would also serve as a useful rule for engagement on social media: Asking whether the word or action conduces to virtue, in oneself and others. If it doesn’t, best to refrain from it.

The Bible would up the ante even more: Is it an expression of love? Is it a way to obey the most important command to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves? If we speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, we are a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. And though we have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge, and though we have all faith—so that we could remove mountains—and have not love, we are nothing.

In this wonderful and special time of year, a season of soaring hope and charity, and at the precipice of a new year, let’s do something countercultural: let’s allow a spirit of generosity to replace any animus and invective, exchanging harsh tones and cutting comments for words of healing and edification, renewal and mercy, reconciliation and restoration—extending to others the grace that’s been offered to us.

From all of us at MoralApologetics.com, blessed Advent, and Merry Christmas.

 

Image: Telephone exchange by Cristiano de Jesus. CC License. 

Chapter 5 of God and Cosmos, “Moral Obligations.” Part 2

 Summary by Frederick Choo

Baggett and Walls next evaluate the Cornell realist account, advanced by those like David Brink, Nicholas Sturgeon, and Richard Boyd. Cornell realists view moral facts as natural facts (constituted by some complex collection of natural properties), but not reducible to non-moral natural facts. Some natural properties, for example, contribute to human flourishing. Baggett and Walls point out that even if Cornell realist accounts of the good are successful, this does not provide an effective account of moral obligations. C. Stephen Evans, for example, thinks such a theory of goodness is fully compatible with Divine Command Theory.

They then further evaluate Brink’s approach to accounting for moral obligations, which seems far from a Kantian understanding of moral obligations as categorical. Kant’s categorical imperatives fell on hard times for various reasons. One reason was due to potentially competing or conflicting moral demands which Kant provided no way of resolving. W. D. Ross extended Kant’s work by distinguishing between prima facie and ultima facie duties (ultima facie duties are one’s duties all things considered). This however loosened the perceived authority of certain moral obligations since they can be overridden. Another reason was due to the action-guiding nature of morality. Moral anti-realists took this as evidence to suggest that moral judgments can’t merely purport to state facts, otherwise they cannot fulfill their practical function. Those who resist this assessment typically affirm an internalist thesis, where there is an internal or conceptual connection between moral considerations and action or the sources of action. One can be an internalist about motives or reasons. And “reasons for action” may refer to explanatory reasons or justifying ones. Brink responds to the anti-realist challenge by identifying three distinguishable characteristics of internalism: (1) Moral considerations necessarily motivate or provide reason for action; (2) it follows that the claim about the motivational power or rationality of morality must be a priori; (3) it follows that the rationality or motivational power of moral considerations cannot depend on substantive considerations such as what the content of morality turns out to be, facts about agents, or the content of the correct theory of rationality. On motivation internalism, anyone who recognizes a moral fact will necessarily be motivated to act on it. This seems implausible. On reason internalism, anyone who recognizes a moral fact has a reason to act on it. Baggett and Walls think this is true, but resists Brink’s insistence that internalism entails (2) and (3). Brink himself admits that not all internalists embrace all three conditions.

9780199931194Brink rejects reason internalism because he thinks that someone can correctly identify their moral obligations and yet still wonder whether those obligations give him good reason for action. Hence not all moral facts are reason-giving. While he thinks moral obligations apply to agents independently of their desires, he thinks that moral obligations do not provide reasons for action independently of their desires. The sort of reasons he is interested in are the sorts of pro-attitudes that expressivists and prescriptivists affirm are constitutive of moral judgments. Baggett and Walls reject Brink’s account, then, because this waters down the concept of moral obligations. The sort of reasons that moral obligations give us to act are connected with the authority of morality, which is closely connected to a commitment to reason internalism. Certain moral facts themselves provide distinctive, and sometimes overriding reasons for acting, bringing deliberation to a halt and resulting in a guilty verdict if we do not perform the duties in question. Hence, Brink’s account cannot explain these kind of moral obligations and instead waters the concept down.
Baggett and Walls then look at non-natural normative realism advanced by those like Derek Parfit and Erik Wielenberg. On this view, moral facts are non-natural facts. Wielenberg claims that the secularist can posit that moral laws are normative in nature just like the laws of logic are. Both sets of laws are prescriptive. Since the law of non-contradiction can exist without a lawgiver, so can morality. Baggett and Walls however think that there are important dissimilarities. First, it may well be that all genuine norms have their locus in God, reflecting aspects of his nature. Second, only violation of the moral law properly generates guilt, a need to be forgiven, and alienation from others that forgiveness can fix. Making a logical mistake may cause us to feel silly or embarrassed, but not guilty.

Baggett and Walls also note that some secular philosophers lose the distinctive character of moral obligations when they assimilate moral obligations to having good reasons to act a certain way. What they do is provide a number of reasons to perform an action and act as though they have explained where a moral obligation comes from. Instead, Baggett and Walls claim that it often works the other way. Because we have a moral obligation gives us reasons to act. For example, we don’t look at a poor person and count up a distinct set of normative reasons to act and then infer we have an obligation as a result. We instead apprehend or feel the force or sense the authority of the obligation to help, which gives us overriding reasons to act.

John Hare’s God’s Command, 5.3, “Barth and Our Access to the Commands”

Summary by Jonathan Pruitt

In the last section of chapter 5, Hare explores Barth’s view of our access to divine commands. In order to get a clear picture of how Barth thought about access, Hare thinks it will be helpful to use Kant’s view of conscience as a foil. To this end, Hare first discusses Barth’s view of Kant, then Kant’s view of conscience, and finally Hare lays out Barth’s view.

Barth is a careful interpreter of Kant, but his analysis does not always hit the target. Hare proposes that Barth has missed the mark in a couple of ways. First, Barth understands Kant as saying that God is a merely regulative idea and not a constitutive one. By Barth’s lights, Kant thought of God as just a useful (regulative) idea—it doesn’t matter if God actually exists. But a right reading of Kant will show that though Kant did not think we could have knowledge of God by pure rationality, through practical reason God becomes a constitutive idea. Kant needs God to exist in actuality for his moral theory to work.

Hare further thinks that Barth has misunderstood Kant’s view of divine revelation and grace. Contrary to many of his interpreters, Kant did think that divine revelation was possible, but that it must be justified from pure reason. Further, Kant held that divine grace was necessary for moral transformation. These misunderstandings of Kant are major reasons for Barth’s rejection of Kant. Barth did appreciate Kant’s recognition of radical evil, but Barth thought Kant’s acknowledgement of human depravity resulted in a contradiction and the complete failure of Kant’s system. Hare again thinks Barth has misunderstood. Kant begins with the reality of radical evil and works out from that point and so his system, when read charitably, is consistent with this reality. Hare works as a peacemaker, suggesting that many of Barth’s objections are mistaken and that the real difference between Kant and Barth is epistemological. Barth inverts Kant’s “concentric circles,” where pure reason lies inside the circle of revelation to reason. In this way, Barth takes up Kant’s role of “biblical theologian.” Where Kant thinks that divine revelation must be justified by pure reason, Barth thinks that revelation is fundamental and undergirds human reason.

Despite Barth’s criticism of Kant, both Barth and Hare agree that Kant’s account isn’t intended to be reductive; Kant wants to retain a “vertical” or theistic element. This non-reductive element can be seen in Kant’s view of conscience. In Kant’s discussion of the conscience, he argues that to make moral judgments, we must imagine that there is a third party (or parties) who serves legislative, executive, and judicial roles. These figures serve as our inner voice or conscience, prescribing the moral law, enforcing it, and omnisciently judging the heart. However, Kant held that these roles cannot be fulfilled by a mere human. As judge, he must scrutinize all hearts. As legislator, he must legislate all obligation, and as executive, he must enforce the moral law. These are not human capacities. Thus, Kant thinks we must imagine that this person speaking to us about morality is God, who is uniquely qualified to serve in all three roles. This imagining of an actual God who serves these roles is God as a regulative concept and makes morality accessible to us by reason. Phenomenologically, Kant holds that this view of morality is necessary to explain the weighty feeling of our moral duty. But Kant thinks that we must conclude that God actually exists in order for there to be the possibility of the highest moral good, which is the union of happiness and virtue. Reason requires God to exist as a constitutive principle.

hare god's commandFor Hare, the key difference between Kant and Barth with respect to our access to divine command is that Kant thinks our knowledge of the commands is discerned by pure reason and Barth thinks that they are given by revelation. Hare carefully nuances Kant’s view on this point. Kant did not think God could not give commands by way of revelation, only that we would never be justified in believing that these commands, if they are so given, were from God. The problem for Barth is to answer how we know when God has commanded us. People claim to be commanded by God when they are not and some divine commands, like the command to Abraham to sacrifice his son, would be difficult to recognize as a divine command. To solve this dilemma, Hare argues that Barth provides phenomenological features of genuine divine commands.

First, the command will have a “certain kind of clarity or distinctness.” By this, Barth means that the command will have specific content. This does not mean we will always be able to discern the content easily. But the command will be persistent and will resist our effort to ignore it. Genuine commands, in a sense, pursue us and direct us in specific ways.

Second, the command will present itself as “having an external origin, either immediately or mediately.” Here Hare finds resonance between Barth and Kant. The command imposed on us must come to us from the outside; it is revealed and not invented.

Third, the command comes “in a familiar voice.” Barth’s central idea here is that we learn the “voice” of God through the practice of instruction, where instruction is grounded in both the individual meditation upon the Word of God and communally thinking together about God and his Word as is done in the church. The entire Christian tradition and one’s own history with God provide a knowledge of what God is like and shapes our expectations about what God will command and when he might do so.

Fourth, the command comes with “a sense of conviction or authority.” Barth thinks that genuine divine commands will carry a certain kind of weight. They make claims on us. Barth says that the divine command “must lay upon me the obligation of unconditional truth—truth which is not conditioned by myself. Its authority and power to do so must be intrinsic and objective, and not something which I lend to it.” Divine commands have the sense of obligation to a Person of immense authority. They are substantial, heavy things.

The fifth and most important phenomenological feature is that “the commands appear to be from a loving or merciful source.” For Barth, the chief exemplar of goodness and mercy is Jesus Christ. In the Incarnation, God has both acted rightly for us and to us. Jesus demonstrates God’s grace and mercy, and in the teaching of Jesus, especially in the Sermon on the Mount and in the Golden Rule, God has clearly articulated the shape of the good. All of God’s commands should be ultimately consistent with the revelation of Jesus Christ.

At the end of the day, argues Hare, these phenomenological features of the divine command do not show that God has so commanded us. If one imagines he is commanded by a good God, her imagination may generate all the relevant phenomenology. However, on the assumption that God commands us, Barth’s five features of phenomenology can help us discern whether and when God has commanded us.

John Hare’s God’s Command, Chapter 5: Introduction and 5.1.

Summary by Jonathan Pruitt

In the previous chapter, Hare argued that it is not possible to deduce the human good from human nature. But if the human good cannot be determined this way, then where should we look? Hare suggests that those who believe in God may find that God’s commands provide a rationally satisfying and sufficiently specific account of the human good. Therefore, in chapter 5, Hare takes a theological turn. Hare utilizes the insight of the prodigious theologian Karl Barth to flesh out some of the implications of God’s commands.

Hare emphasizes that though Barth is a theologian, he ably interacts with key philosophical ideas (especially Kant’s ideas) and he brings an awareness of the whole Christian theological and philosophical tradition to bear in his works. Barth thus provides Hare with a synthesis of exegetical, theological, and philosophical reflections on the commands of God.

Hare focuses on three themes in Barth’s treatment of God’s command: “the particularity of God’s commands, our freedom in response to the command, and our access to the command.” Barth suggests that the simple fact that we are commanded implies several things. First, God’s commands are given to particular people at a particular time. They are given to “responders,” who are “centers of agency.” Being commanded further implies that we can be obedient and bring about change in the world. We must also persist through time, through the hearing of the command to the realization of it. God’s command of us also suggests that we are sufficiently free to obey or not. And, if God commands us, we must be competent users of language to be able to understand the command.

The first Barthian theme that Hare explores is the particularity of the command (and this is the subject of section 1). Though there is a universal command to respect life, God commands specific persons. This respect begins with respect for one’s own life. But what does it mean to respect one’s own life? Barth rejects the notion that the substance of this command can be fleshed out through autonomous human reason. To attempt to establish what one must do on our own steam is both a denial of what we are (finite and fallible creatures) and a denial of who God is (utterly sovereign). Further, Barth holds that God’s has a highly specific form of life for every person. It is this form of life to which God calls us, and not to some merely general human good. Therefore, God’s plan cannot be captured in generalized statements about what humans ought to be. Rather, God has intimate and specific desires for each individual. We relate to God not only as a species, but person to person in the mode of “Thou-I.” Barth thinks we ought to allow God to completely determine for us what we are to do in every situation because of who he is and what we are in relation to him.

hare god's commandHare argues that in this regard Barth stands more in the tradition of Scotus than of Aristotle and Plato. Rather than think that all humans have the same essence, Barth holds that each human being is a unique essence and this distinguishes them from other human beings (each person is a “haecceity”). Humanity shares a common nature, but we each have a distinct essence. Hare quotes the passage from Revelation that teaches that God has a name for each human written on a white stone. Hare suggests this name is a representation of God’s purpose for our life and our haecceities. It is something only God knows and if we are going to live according to it, we must rely on God’s commands to us. For Barth, the end of man is to love God and others in a particular way as a reflection of the love in the Trinity.

Kant thought that all our moral obligations could be captured in terms of the categorical imperative, which is universally applied to all humans in all cases. No reference to particular people (either as subject or object) could be allowed or else the imperative could not be universalized.

Hare thinks this universal morality is too restrictive because there are clear cases where moral obligations rightly are limited to particular people in specific circumstances. To help support this point, Hare distinguishes four positions in moral judgment: addressee, agent, recipient, and action. Any of these elements may take on a specific, non-universal character. God may, for example, tell Joshua (the addressee) that the priests (the agent) should march around Jericho seven times (the action). Hare also points out Jesus’ greatest commandment, which is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your mind,” is not universalizable in the recipient position. Jesus is not saying, “love whoever or whatever is God with all your heart.” He is saying, “Love this specific God, who has a historical connection with Israel, with all your heart.” Thus, there seem to be cases where we have moral obligations that cannot be captured in all universalist terms. Of course, if these are genuine moral obligations, then Kant’s formulation, that “we have to treat humanity, whether in our own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end in itself, and never merely as a means,” would need to be qualified.

To further support his case for qualifying the categorical imperative, Hare produces the hypothetical case of his friend, Elizabeth, who needs a bat removed from her house. Hare argues that he does have a moral obligation to help Elizabeth, but that this obligation is not generated by an appeal to Elizabeth’s humanity. In other words, it does not obtain by appeal to the Kantian maxim as stated above. If it did, then Hare would be obligated to help anyone who needed bats removed whoever they were. What grounds the obligation is Hare’s relationship to Elizabeth in her particularity. The obligation exists just because Elizabeth is Elizabeth and Hare stands in special relation to Elizabeth that he does not share with humanity in general. Hare adds that he loves Elizabeth for her haecceity (her unique essence), and not merely because she is human. And since loving another for her own sake is characteristic of a moral relation, then it would seem he does have an obligation to Elizabeth just because of who she is and his relation to her. Of course, the particularist nature of this moral obligation does not mean that morality reduces to particularities. Usually, universal moral judgments accompany the particular. For example, “One ought to help one’s friend” accompanies “Hare ought to help Elizabeth.”

Finally, Hare wants to show how Barth’s view of God’s commands can be understood to be both particular and universal. So far, the discussion has emphasized the particularity of God’s commands to specific people, but Barth also thinks that many of God’s commands have universal validity.

To help show the consistency of Barth’s view, Hare lays out some important distinctions. First, Hare notes that Barth makes a distinction between instruction and reflection. By “instruction,” Barth has in mind something like the Ten Commandments. These commands give instruction and provide an opportunity and context for us to think through what we know about God and ourselves. After instruction comes reflection. In reflection, we take what he learned from instruction and apply to our own case; we hear God’s command to us in our place and time. Though the instruction is given to a particular people in a particular place, instruction provides the basis for our knowing what God is like and preparing ourselves to act as he wishes.

The narrative of the Bible in which the commands are embedded are to shape our moral sense. Hare clarifies Barth’s discussion of this by introducing the distinction between the good and the obligatory. All of God’s commands are good, but God does not command all that is good. So in every case of God’s commanding, he commands something good and this connection to goodness is universal. All of God’s commands are objectively and universally good. God’s commands as instruction show us what God values and they teach us the character of the good. The commands of God in the Bible, then, are not abstract laws that admit of no exceptions. Instead, they are didactic, shaping our moral sense. We can through instruction, know goodness in advance and that goodness is universally required, per Barth, but we cannot know what our obligation will be in a given case. This is because we need God to tell us “which good kind of thing we are now to realize, to which particular recipients.” Knowing what we are to do in a particular case requires reflection and dependence upon God and his Word. (One may wonder, given this dependence, what need we have for moral deliberation. Hare promises to address this later in the chapter.)

Hare sees some similarities between the morality of Barth and Kant. Both Barth and Kant agree that our obligations come to us independent of what we desire, though this does not mean desire and obligation are ultimately in conflict. But more importantly, both Barth and Kant have a “public” morality. For Kant, the formulation of the categorical imperative must be endorsable by all members of the kingdom of ends. For Barth, the act of obeying a divine command means making the claim that the “commander whose commands establish the covenant obligations for all human beings.” Further, Barth says that all divine commands are given to members of a body, humans in a community. This community provides accountability and a way to test the commands, through the communal hearing of the instruction and through reflection, whether the commands are from God or not.

 

 

How Kantian Ethics Helps to Demonstrate the Attractiveness of Biblical Ethics: Part II

by Zach Breitenbach

Part I 

BIBLICAL ETHICS SUCCEEDS WHERE KANT FALLS SHORT

In comparing the three proposed biblical principles of ethics with Kantian ethics, it is evident that both Kant and the biblical principles attempt to achieve many of the same objectives despite having different foundations to ground morality. Kant’s ethic, however, proves to be less plausible when his justification for objective morality, his requirements for moral worth, and his argument that humans possess inherent value are compared with a biblical view of ethics.

Kant departs from the first biblical principle by grounding objective morality in the “good will” that is produced by reason in every rational creature. In accord with the Enlightenment ideals of human autonomy and reason, humans can legislate morality apart from God. Assessing the philosophical merit of Kantian ethics versus the biblical ethic on this point deserves careful attention because both views stand or fall with the ability that their intrinsic “good” has to ground objective morality.

The classic problem that confronts any moral system that claims some absolute standard as the ground of objective morality is the Euthyphro dilemma. This dilemma, which goes back to the time of Plato, questions whether God’s commands could really determine what is good (or “pious”). The dilemma is stated: “Is the pious being loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is being loved by the gods?”[1]

Both horns of the dilemma are a challenge to any proposed absolute standard of goodness. For any purported standard of objective morality, one can ask whether that standard merely recognizes goodness (i.e., goodness is external to the standard) or whether that standard determines goodness arbitrarily. Consider first whether the biblical ethic is able to defend that the Christian God is plausibly the ground of objective morality in the face of this challenge. It will not do for objective morality to be arbitrary (if good is merely what God says), and God cannot ground objective morality if there is a standard of morality outside of God (if God simply affirms what is independently good). Fortunately for biblical ethics, there is a third alternative—God Himself is the “Good.” The third alternative is that “God’s own holy and perfectly good nature supplies the absolute standard against which all actions and decisions are measured. God’s moral nature is what Plato called the ‘Good.’ He is the locus and source of moral value.”[2] So God is the Good. God’s will and essentially holy nature are fused such that God only wills that which consistently flows from His nature. God is not an arbitrary “stopping point” for morality’s foundation, as there are “principled reasons to think that God’s existence is necessary and that God functions as the very ground of being.” If God is the “primordial good of unsurpassable value,” then goodness is anchored in an unchanging, personal, and necessarily perfect source.[3] It is reasonable that the ground of objective morality would have these properties; morality seems to be essentially bound up with personhood, and anything that would ground objective morality would have to be unchanging and beyond human opinion.

Although the biblical grounding of objective morality in God’s holy nature appears to survive the Euthyphro dilemma, Kant’s “good will” does not fare as well. Kant may seem to split the horns of the dilemma by claiming that the good will is intrinsically and necessarily good. The problem, however, is that there is no reason why the good will must be good “without qualification” in the way Kant says it is. Louis Pojman raises the problem that the good will itself—the rational faculty that recognizes the CI as the supreme moral principle—could potentially be “put to bad uses.” Although the good will seems to be a good, Pojman insightfully recognizes that it is “not obvious” that the good will is necessarily good or that it is “the only inherently good thing” since a “misguided do-gooder” could act in accordance with what he believes is good and yet carry out what most of us regard as bad actions. Perhaps the good will is a “necessary condition to any morally good action,” but it does not seem to be sufficient.[4]

Ultimately, for Kant, the good will is intimately tied to the principle that it produces—the CI and its requirement of universalizability. The problem is that universalizability is unable to stand as the ultimate moral criterion. For one thing, Kant does not adequately specify parameters for the characteristics of a maxim that is appropriate to universalize as moral law. Aside from the limitation that a maxim must not violate the Principle of Ends, Kant “provides no guide for determining what features must be included in the maxim.” This leaves open the door for morally problematic actions “to be based on a maxim that a person would universalize.”[5] Also, it is highly dubious that reason necessarily produces the same conclusions in all rational beings. For example, one could justifiably will to universalize the maxim that “one should always tell the truth no matter what consequence might come about as a result.” Indeed, Kant believed that reason demands the acceptance of this maxim. Yet many would argue that reason demands the acceptance of the maxim that “one should tell the truth unless doing so would harm others.” It is unclear which maxim is necessitated by reason, and both positions have defenders. This example also highlights the difficulty the CI has in handling moral conflicts.[6]

If, however, God’s unchanging and necessarily good character is the intrinsic “Good,” then there is no concern about disagreements among rational human persons as to what should be universalized—that is, what is good. Only God, out of His necessarily holy nature, stands as the ontological ground of goodness, and conflicting human beliefs are irrelevant to the existence of objective morality. With biblical ethics, the existence of moral values and duties (moral ontology) does not depend upon the conclusions we reach as we try to know what these moral values and duties are (moral epistemology). What happens when two maxims that appear to be legitimately justifiable according to our best human reason disagree with each other? If objective morality is rooted in God, then such a situation is irrelevant to moral ontology.

In addition to providing a better foundation for objective moral values, having a biblical ground of ethics can adequately justify moral duties while the Kantian ground of ethics cannot. Since biblical ethics grounds objective morality in God, God’s commands are justifiably our moral duties because they are derived from His essentially holy nature.[7] Biblical ethics is able to sustain itself as a truly deontological ethical system. On the other hand, although Kant would deny it, significant voices have charged that Kant’s good will is unable to produce true moral duties without appealing to a more subjective consequentialist justification for them. The famous utilitarian ethicist John Stuart Mill, for example, claims that the CI does not avoid seemingly “immoral” actions on purely logical grounds; rather, he says Kant merely shows “that the consequences of their universal adoption would be such as no one would choose to incur.”[8] Mill has a valid point. Some seemingly immoral maxims do not lead to any obvious contradiction if universalized, though we can see that the consequences of universalizing it would be morally bad and may produce a negative result. For example, consider the maxim that “two consenting adults who are not already in a committed relationship should always have sex with each other if they desire to do so.” The universal acceptance of this maxim would not in any way lead to a logical contradiction that would undermine the very practice of the maxim, and it is not obvious that the Principle of Ends is being violated since both individuals are consenting and may well have a legitimate interest in the wellbeing of the other person; however, one can reasonably will that this maxim should not be universalized because of the consequences it would have. Such promiscuity is known to carry a heavy emotional weight for those who engage in it, and it also raises the likelihood of the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Such behavior also makes it more difficult to form meaningful committed relationships, which one can reasonably argue have significant value. In fact, there are actually “Kantian consequentialists,” such as R. M. Hare[9] and David Cummiskey. Cummiskey argues that Kant’s ethical system “is consistent with and supports a consequentialist normative principle” even though Kant sought a fully deontological ethic.[10] If that is the case, then it is hard to see how Kant’s good will allows for objective moral duties; however, because God Himself is the necessary “Good” and His nature produces moral truth that is essential and binding upon us, moral duties transcend humans, and their existence does not depend upon our own assessment of what actions will probably produce “good” consequences. It is not clear that Kant’s CI is able to account for the full range of objective duties that are binding on us and that it can do this without recourse to subjective human considerations of consequences.

Moreover, the authority and bindingness of moral duties seems to be much stronger and more plausible if the source of these duties is a person rather than something impersonal, such as “reason.” Merely “acting and thinking rationally does not constitute a full explanation of moral belief and practice. Moral obligation carries extra clout and punch, which needs accounting for.”[11] When we fall short of our moral duties, we sense that we are guilty in a sense that goes beyond simply violating a principle of reason. Locating the source of moral authority in an essentially holy personal God better explains the objective guilt that seems to accompany violating one’s moral duty. In view of all these considerations, the biblical ethical principle that the standard and basis of all goodness is found in God is quite plausible, and this fact is highlighted by the apparent problems that Kant’s system has in establishing the good will as the one intrinsic good that grounds objective morality.

Moving to the second principle of biblical ethics, Kant’s insight in agreeing with the biblical principle that moral worth depends on our motives as well as our actions has been noted; however, Kant’s view of moral worth proves to be too narrow when compared to the biblical assessment of moral worth. As Joseph Kotva points out, Kantian ethics and all ethical theories that are based strictly upon “rules or duty” are at a disadvantage in accounting for the biblical recognition that the moral life is more than rules. Kant fails to see that life is a “race” that requires ongoing character development. While Scripture goes beyond virtue ethics, it captures its insights. We are constantly to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us” as we model ourselves after Jesus (Heb 12:1-2). Paul emphasizes the need to develop such virtues as “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal 5:22-23), and he exhorts others to grow in character by following his example as he follows Christ (1 Cor 11:1). While Christian ethics certainly has a strong deontological component, Kotva rightly points out the biblical emphasis on developing virtues and constantly struggling for moral growth in order to become a person of greater character.[12]

The key shortfall of Kant’s view of moral worth is that he does not credit moral worth to a person who grows in character such that she no longer does an action out of rational duty but out of modified and improved inclination. We have seen that Kant is clear that there can be no moral worth involved when an agent is “so sympathetically constituted” that she performs kind acts out of the pure joy of doing them rather than a sense of duty.[13] While biblical ethics would applaud someone of such character who enjoys doing virtuous things, Kant does not recognize such a person as morally praiseworthy. He thus fails to capture the value of moral growth and the fact that one should strive both to “will and act” according to what is good (Phil 2:13). While feeling joy from doing what is good should not be our sole moral motivation, “normal healthy human considerations of self-interest are a perfectly legitimate part of moral motivation.”[14]

Therefore, although Kant is certainly right that duties such as the command to love others should be done regardless of inclination, loving others is something that we ought to work towards wanting to do so that the duty does not have to be against inclination. Finding joy in doing what is good is a mark of moral development and personal character, and the Bible more completely captures this. Such character is exemplified in Jesus, who, though He dreaded it, even found joy in sacrificing Himself on the cross for others (Heb 12:2).

Finally, Kant’s ethic falls short of the third biblical ethical principle in terms of justifying the idea that humans possess value. We have seen that Kant attempts to ground the intrinsic value of humanity in our rationality. Kant argues that pure reason forces us to the conclusion that humans must have value because nothing can be valued without rational beings to do the valuing. In contrast, biblical ethics holds that humans have value in virtue of being made in the “image of God” (Gen. 1:26-27). Human value is based on “the relationship for which we were created” rather than because of any “distinguishing characteristic” that is found in human capabilities.[15] This is attractive; for if human value is rooted in a capacity like reason or rationality, then how can the value of babies or the brain damaged be upheld?[16] The reason that the biblical justification for the value of humans is superior to Kant’s follows from the earlier point that God is a far more credible “stopping point” for objective morality than the good will.

If God truly is the ultimate “Good,” then perhaps human rationality is an instrumental good rather than an intrinsic good. Rather than agreeing with Kant that the “rational nature” of humans is itself sufficient for regarding humans as “ends in themselves,”[17] it may be that rationality functions as an instrumental good in so far as it allows us to have a relationship with the one true source of ultimate value—God Himself. If that is the case, then Kant is correct in valuing rationality but wrong in thinking that it has intrinsic value.

Beyond the automatic implications that locating objective morality in God has for human value, careful consideration of the question of human value by itself reveals that humans, if they are to justify having truly objective value, must justify their value by appealing to something outside of themselves. If humans consider themselves intrinsically valuable merely because they value themselves, then how can David Hume’s is-ought problem be avoided? Just because it is the case that humans tend to ascribe value to their own lives and the lives of other people does not mean that we necessarily ought to do so.

Finally, there is a sort of argument from contingency that points to God as the proper justification for human value and dignity. Kant and many others have claimed that we are the sort of beings who have intrinsic value.[18] But even if Kant were right that our rationality provides a basis for intrinsic human value, this would not negate the fact that God is necessary for us to have value because “relationality and intrinsicality are neither at odds nor mutually exclusive.”[19] If there is no possible world in which beings like us could exist apart from God, then there is no reason in principle why our value could not come from both our relationship to God as well the intrinsic qualities God has given us. Paul Copan argues that morality and value are “necessarily connected” with personhood. Since an essential attribute of God is that He exists necessarily and is the ontological ground of all other persons, morality and value would be impossible without God.[20] Using this logic, it is plausible that the source of intrinsic value can only be found in a necessarily existing person. Thus, in response to Kant’s view that the mere possession of rationality endows all rational creatures with intrinsic value, one must ask on what basis humans persons exist to have rationality. God, if He does exist as Kant himself believed, is the only reason that there is rationality. Even if it were true, as Kant claims, that rationality brings about value, God is the source of rationality. Ultimately, in view of these considerations, the biblical justification for human value appears more plausible and legitimate than Kant’s justification.

 

 

CONCLUSION

The three biblical principles of ethics proposed in this paper appear to be eminently plausible when held up to philosophical scrutiny. Because Kant, without grounding morality in God, sought to achieve many of the same goals that these biblical principles accomplish, Kantian ethics serves as an instructive litmus test of the plausibility of biblical ethics. Morality must be objective and universal if it is to avoid the total collapse that relativism ensures. Kant is undoubtedly correct in recognizing this. Furthermore, we have seen that objective morality—to be truly objective—must have a plausible absolute standard of intrinsic value and goodness that grounds it. Biblical ethics provides a philosophically justifiable basis for accomplishing this by identifying God as that source. In contrast, Kant is unable to legitimize the “good will” as being “good without qualification” and able to produce moral principles and binding duties that are defensibly objective and have an ontological basis that is fully independent of humanity. Biblical ethics also legitimizes the attractive conviction that humans really do have intrinsic value. Kant is right to recognize the truth that humans are “objects of respect” and should be “treated as ends,” but he is unable to objectively ground this apparent truth in a justifiable source. God Himself is the ultimate standard of goodness and value, and it is only by way of our relationship with God that we, as creatures made in God’s image, can have intimate connection to the ultimate source of value and can ourselves be endowed with objective value.

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Sources Cited:

Baggett, David, and Jerry L. Walls. God and Cosmos: Moral Truth and Human Meaning. Oxford: University Press, 2016.

Copan, Paul.  “A Moral Argument.”  In To Everyone an Answer: A Case for the Christian Worldview.  Edited by Francis Beckwith, William Lane Craig, and James Porter Moreland.  Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004.

Craig, William Lane.  Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics.  3rd ed.  Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2008.

Cummiskey, David.  Kantian Consequentialism.  New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Driver, Julia.  Ethics: The Fundamentals.  Oxford: Blackwell, 2007.

Gert, Bernard.  Morality: Its Nature and Justification.  New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Grenz, Stanley.  The Moral Quest.  Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998.

Hare, John E.  The Moral Gap: Kantian Ethics, Human Limits, and God’s Assistance.  Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.

Kant, Immanuel.  Critique of Pure Reason.  In Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason: In Commemoration of the Centenary of its First Publication.  2nd ed.  Translated by F. Max Müller.  London: Macmillan, 1907.

——–Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals.  In Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals and What is Enlightenment?  Translated by Lewis White Beck.  Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1959.

——–.  “What is Enlightenment?”  In Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals and What is Enlightenment?  Translated by Lewis White Beck.  Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1959.

Kotva, Joseph J.  The Christian Case for Virtue Ethics.  Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1996.

Lewis, C. S.  Mere Christianity.  San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 2001.

Mill, John Stuart.  Utilitarianism.  Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1906.

Moreland, J. P., and William Lane Craig.  Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2003.

Plato.  “Euthyphro.”  In The Trial and Death of Socrates.  3rd ed.  Translated by George Maximilian Anthony Grube and John M. Cooper.  Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 2000.

——–Plato’s Republic.  Translated by George Maximilian Anthony Grube and C. D. C. Reeve.  Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1992.

Pojman, Louis.  Ethics: Discovering Right and Wrong.  6th ed.  Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2009.

Porter, Burton Frederick.  The Good Life: Alternatives in Ethics.  3rd ed.  Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2001.

Smith, R. Scott.  In Search of Moral Knowledge: Overcoming the Fact-Value Dichotomy.  Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Tiffany, Evan.  “How Kantian Must Kantian Constructivists Be?”  Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy 49, no. 6 (December 2006): 524-546.

Wielenberg, Erik.  Robust Ethics: The Metaphysics and Epistemology of Godless Normative Realism.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

 

Additional Sources:

Craig, William Lane.  “The Indispensability of Theological Meta-ethical Foundations for Morality.”  Foundations 5 (1997): 9-12.  http://www.reasonablefaith.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=5175 (accessed February 12, 2016).

Kant, Immanuel.  “Critique of Practical Reason.”  In Great Books of the Western World.  Vol. 42.  Translated by Thomas Kingsmill Abbott.  Chicago, IL: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1952.

McElreath, Scott.  “The Inadequacy of Kant’s View of Moral Worth.”  Philosophical Writings, 19-20 (Spring/Summer 2002): 23-42.

Ritchie, Angus.  From Morality to Metaphysics: The Theistic Implications of Our Ethical Commitments.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

 

Notes:

  1. Plato, “Euthyphro,” in The Trial and Death of Socrates, 3rd ed., trans. George Maximilian Anthony Grube and John M. Cooper (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 2000), 11.
  1. J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2003), 491.
  1. Baggett and Walls, God and Cosmos, 286.
  1. Pojman, Discovering Right and Wrong, 127.
  1. Bernard Gert, Morality: Its Nature and Justification (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2006), 306.
  1. Baggett and Walls, God and Cosmos, 167.
  1. William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, 3rd ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2008), 182.
  1. John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1906), 5.
  2. John E. Hare, The Moral Gap, 18-19. Hare notes that R. M. Hare is a Kantian who believes he is consistent with Kant in applying act-utilitarianism to Kant’s CI to determine whether an act should be universalized.
  1. David Cummiskey, Kantian Consequentialism (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1996), 9.
  1. Baggett and Walls, God and Cosmos, 176. This quote is in the context of showing a limitation of Erik Wielenberg’s secular approach to ethics, but this particular criticism applies to Kantian ethics as well.
  2. Joseph J. Kotva, The Christian Case for Virtue Ethics (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1996), 156.
  1. Kant, Foundations, 14. Kant believed happiness must result from moral living for us to press on in the moral life, but our motivation to be moral must be duty and not happiness. See Hare, The Moral Gap, 76-78.
  1. Baggett and Walls, God and Cosmos, 266.
  1. Stanley Grenz, The Moral Quest (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 217.
  1. Baggett and Walls, God and Cosmos, 117.
  1. Kant, Foundations, 46.
  1. Erik Wielenberg, Robust Ethics: The Metaphysics and Epistemology of Godless Normative Realism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 83-84. Wielenberg, a secular moral realist, contends that rooting human value in God devalues the intrinsic human value that common sense tells us we have.
  1. Baggett and Walls, God and Cosmos, 286.
  1. Paul Copan, “A Moral Argument,” in To Everyone an Answer: A Case for the Christian Worldview, ed. Francis Beckwith, William Lane Craig, and James Porter Moreland (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 113.