Thoughts of a Catholic convert

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Friday, August 26, 2011

Abraham, Isaac, and Kant

- The Sacrifice of Isaac by Juan de Valdés Leal

A few things came together for me today -- a post at the NYT's philosophy blog, a post at Todd's blog, and Keith Ward's Kant lecture.

At The Stone, the NYT's philosophy blog, from Joel Marks - Confessions of an Ex-Moralist. Here's the beginning of it ...

The day I became an atheist was the day I realized I had been a believer.

Up until then I had numbered myself among the “secular ethicists.” Plato’s “Euthyphro” had convinced me, as it had so many other philosophers, that religion is not needed for morality. Socrates puts the point characteristically in the form of a question: “Do the gods love something because it is pious, or is something pious because the gods love it?” To believe the latter would be to allow that any act whatever might turn out to be the “pious” or right thing to do, provided only that one of the gods (of Olympus), or the God of “Genesis” and “Job” in one of His moods, “loved” or willed it. Yet if God commanded that we kill our innocent child in cold blood, would we not resist the rightness of this act?

This would seem to be the modern, sane view of the matter. We have an intuitive sense of right and wrong that trumps even the commands of God. We have the ability to judge that God is good or bad. Therefore, even if God did not exist, we could fend for ourselves in matters of conscience. Ethics, not divine revelation, is the guide to life ....

And this from Todd's post, Heading Into Difficult Territory, at Catholic Sensibility ....

Jephthah’s horrific vow turned up in the daily Lectionary last week. Without even a balance of Jesus in Matthew 5:37:

Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’ Anything more is from the evil one.

Our new associate pastor did an amazing dance by not only tackling that passage from Judges, but slathering on innumerable coats of paint* to get us to the Liturgy of the Eucharist as Christians. If I had been the preacher, I think this is one passage that can be read with full condemnation and not a stitch of regret in doing so. Anything else may well be from the evil one ...

* The spiritual interpretation for those outraged by the murder of one’s own child

And then Keith Ward's lecture on Kant. You can find the whole lecture in video here at, or you can listen to it here at Gresham College's site. The transcript is also at the Gresham site but Professor Ward tends to go off the beaten path in person, so his spoken lectures aren't always the same as the written ones :). Here's the bit of his (spoken) lecture that I was reminded of when I saw the post from the NYT's philosophy blog and the one from Todd's blog ....


The Triumph of Idealism
by Keith Ward

"[...] What is the practical consideration about God? Well, Kant thought it was mainly two-fold. One is that God is the ground of moral obligation - when you feel there is an objective moral obligation, you're in fact hearing the voice of God. And in his last work ... he actually identified God with with the sense of objective moral obligation. What he was saying there was, it's not that you first of all believe in God, you theoretically have some arguments that there's a God, and then you say our God commands you to do something so I must do it. Kant was totally opposed to that. So Kant would have been opposed to anybody who said 'I can show there's a God and that God, for example, inspired the writing of the Bible. Because it says in the Bible you should do X, therefore you should do it.' He was opposed to that. So there's no argument from a theoretical belief in God to obeying the commands of God. Rather he felt it's the other way around.

You argue from your deepest and strongest moral obligation to the existence of that which grounds this obligation in objective reality. You call that God. So it can never be the case for Kant that God commands something immoral. That's just not a possibility for him because you decide what God is by finding out what your strongest moral obligation is. So if you think the strongest moral obligation is to love your neighbor as yourself, then you can say, because this is an objective obligation, that is what God is - God is love. And you're not just saying I'm going to use the word God to stand for some human obligation. What you're trying to say is, ultimate reality grounds this objective obligation. But you have to add: theoretically, I don't know what this ultimate reality is. I certainly can't say it's like a person who is telling me to do something - that's ruled out - I just have to say I have to picture my objective moral obligation as God commanding me to do something. That's the way I have to picture it.

You may feel inclined to disbelieve that, but it is what Kant thought: that objective moral obligations have to be grounded in some belief in a reality which could give rise to such obligations, and the term for that, the model for that, is the will of God. So, for Kant, the Will of God - this was a very important point for Kant, and for Protestant thought too, in general - the will of God cannot conflict with your duty, with your moral obligation, because you define the will of God in terms of your moral obligation. So there cannot be a conflict between revealed morality and your own felling of what is right or wrong, because it is your feeling that will actually determine you to accept something as a revelation or not. And if you have a revelation which tells you to do something that you think is immoral - for example if in the Bible it tells you that women should always obey their husbands, which I believe it does, my wife tells me, then you should say, if that conflicts with my moral obligation it's not what God says. I don't care if it's in the Bible or not, because that's not what God is, God doesn't do that sort of thing.

So Kant was clearly not somebody who would let his morality be determined by revelation. He called that heteronomy, taking your moral beliefs on authority from somewhere else, either a book or a person or a group of people. So he did believe in moral autonomy in the sense that you have to start with what you think is right and your religion can never conflict with that. Well what, you may say, about Abraham and Isaac? Kant wouldn't have had much time for them. That is, he wouldn't have agonized, didn't agonize, about whether Abraham really was commanded by God to sacrifice his son. Since such sacrifice is immoral, God clearly didn't do that - that's Kant's view ...."



Blogger Deacon Denny said...

I think if I had been asked to preach on that passage about Jephthah's vow, I would have spoken about bargaining with God and making foolish promises. I'd say it is very wrong to "sacrifice" anyone who is innocent; even self-defense and war have their limitations.

If I had made some kind of "foolish promise" to God, as Jephthah did, I hope I would see that God was shaking some sense into me, by having my child come out of the house. I would, of course, not kill my own child; and I would not believe that God really wanted me to kill my child. I'd certainly feel the need to atone for my arrogance and disregard for innocent life, to have made such a vow. I hope it would make me more humble, and realize all the more how much God knew me better than I knew myself.

And then, if I were preaching on that, I'd ask how many of us make foolish promises, promises that might not only be beyond us, but which might be wrong to fulfill. I'll be most of us could think of promises we make, goals that we set up for ourselves, which might actually do us harm. What about parents who are so fixed on "making a good life" for themselves, that they become workaholics, and fail to give our children and spouses the time and attention they really need from us. How many broken marriages come from such promises?

Good post.

1:47 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

I would have liked to here your homily :)

6:09 PM  

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