Immanuel Kant on Reason, God, and Morality
Kant now takes himself to have waged a devastating critique of rational theology in the Transcendental Dialectic, and yet we find in the Canon of Pure Reason that we are still justified, according to him, in believing that there is an omniscient and omnipotent God, and that the soul is immortal- on other than theoretical grounds. “If then, these three cardinal propositions [the three unconditioned ideas] are not at all necessary for our knowing, and yet are insistently recommended to us by our reason,” he says, “their importance must really concern the practical” (B 828, p. 674). Making the distinction between pragmatic law and moral law, Kant places moral law within the realm of the practical, because between the two laws, the moral law is the only one which “permits a canon” (p.674). It is upon this ground, that of the idea of the moral law, that Kant begins to build his ethics and the justification for belief in an all-powerful God (which will later grow into his Religion Within the Bounds of Reason Alone, for which he is made to apologize and recant).
Humankind has a naturally occurring deep and real sense of morality according to Kant- an objectively valid experience of a moral life and the way things ‘ought to be’ which is necessary in order for the universe to make any unified sense at all. This common experience of the moral law within each of us is the practical importance of reason’s ever-reaching upwards toward realms it cannot fly in. Three questions concern it most, three questions it is always asking, and these are: What can I know? What can I do? And what can I hope? (B 833, p. 677). The first he dismisses (the purely theoretical), having already discussed it at length in the rest of the Critique. It is helpless on its own and we can find nothing for us in it. The second, Kant says, is not transcendental, but purely moral (practical), and therefore dismisses it. It as well is helpless on its own, and of no use or interest to us. The third, however, is both “practical and theoretical, so that the practical leads like a clue to a reply to the theoretical question and in its highest form…” (p. 677, emphasis added).
What can I hope? we ask, after Kant. All hope concerns happiness according to him(p. 677), and one can always either concern one’s self with the pragmatic (practical) approach, bent on acquiring that happiness, or with the moral approach, which “has no other motive than the worthiness to be happy” (p.677).
In an ‘ideal’ world (in the conventional sense of the term), a world “in which we have abstracted from all hindrances to morality”, one’s worthiness to be happy would perfectly coincide with one’s degree of happiness; however, says Kant,
“this system of self-rewarding morality is only an idea, the realization of which rests on the condition that everyone do what he should, i.e., that all actions of rational beings occur as if they arose from a highest will that comprehends all private choice in or under itself” (p. 679).
Through discerning the way things ought to be from out of a comparison with our inner sense of the moral law, we see that while we are constituted in such a way as to fit in such a world, our senses and tell us this is nothing like where we now are. “To regard ourselves as in the realm of grace,” says Kant, “where every happiness awaits us as long as we do not ourselves limit our share of it through the unworthiness to be happy, is a practically necessary idea of reason,” and yet we live in the realm of nature (Leibniz) where, although we “stand under moral laws[, we] cannot expect any successes for [our] conduct except in accordance with the course of nature in our sensible world” (p.680-681). Since this moral world cannot come to be on this earth (as we humans are far more disposed to go our own directions than anyone else’s, moral or not), it is clear that if the hope of happiness necessarily linked and equal with the striving to be worthy of that happiness is to survive, we must believe in an afterlife where this is possible. Pure reason imposes this belief on us.
The system of morality itself, being a system, is cohesively one, and our conception of it must be policed in such a manner as to make sure it is able to remain whole. Kant says that the coherence of the moral law requires the existence of a God-like being to make the moral laws commands by enforcing them and endowing them with the consequences appropriate to (or even dictated by?) their nature. Thus pure reason shows us the necessity of supposing a commanding ‘highest reason’, or ‘highest good’, a being “which alone can make possible such a purposive unity” (B840, p.680).
In this way, Kant has achieved the construction of an argument for compelled belief in God and the afterlife, built from the ground of the common experience of the moral law up. Without these two beliefs, “the majestic ideas of morality are, to be sure, objects of approbation and admiration but not incentives for resolve and realization.” (p.681). But with a God there to make good on the ‘promises and threats’ involved in the consequences of the moral law, it is clear why our moral disposition must come first and open the door to happiness rather than the desire for happiness instituting the moral disposition within us (p.681). According to Kant, we are convinced of this concept of the divine being,
“not because speculative reason convinces us of its correctness but because it is in perfect agreement with the moral principles of reason… we will not hold actions to be obligatory because they are God’s commands, but will rather regard them as divine commands because we are internally obligated to them” (p.683-684).
c. Mary Kathryn Gough
Katie Huffman (married, Gough)/ 5.21.04 /Kant / Professor Hardy / Journal # 5
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