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Sunday, September 22, 2013


There are few philosophers religious people hate more than Kant. Giles Frasier writes The west is in thrall to Kantian ideals of personal freedom. And suffers for it. What's weird is that religion is indeed all about personal freedom - the Spiritual Exercises speak of freedom and the freedom to follow ones conscience is endorsed by by Pope Francis.

The best explanation I've heard of what Kant felt about God and freedom is given in this video lecture (below) by Keith Ward. Here's a bit of what he says ...

"There are a number of misunderstandings about Kant which are quite widespread .... first of all, that Kant ... made morality completely autonomous, that is, completely separate from beliefs about God ..... [this is] the opposite of what Kant himself thought he was doing ....

And what is the practical consideration about God? 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 .... 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 [and] because it says in the Bible you should do X, therefore you should do it .... 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 ... 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 ....

For Kant, the Will of God cannot conflict with your duty, 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 - it is your feeling that will actually determine you to accept something as a revelation or not. And if you have a revelation that tells you to do something immoral, for example if in the Bible it tells you that women should always obey their husbands, as 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 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 ...."


Anonymous Richard said...

Thanks for the great post. It's fun to listen to smart people talk about things they know inside out. Can you imagine being able extemporize so offhandedly ("Oh by the way, he was wrong") about some defect in Kant's ideas about God?

2:35 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Richard,

I really do like Keith Ward :) He was the Regius prof of Divinity at Oxford for over a decade. He's also an Anglican priest. I like that he has a sense of humor. I think he's a good teacher too - I understood his lecture on Kant way better than I did anything at my school :)

2:47 PM  

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