07 August 2010

A Question About Kant

On yahoo!answers, a fellow calling himself Fitzy recently asked us to "discuss Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac in light of Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative?"

Of course, Abraham didn't sacrifice Isaac in the end. But presumably we can discuss his willingness to do so, and his binding of Isaac.

My first thought was this:

"I don't know if Kant ever commented on the story, but I would expect that he would have found the idea of it revolting.

"Kant's categorical imperative (in one of its formulations) says that we should treat every human being as an end in himself, never solely as a means to an end. Abraham's willingness to obey the Lord in this means that he was about to treat his son NOT as an end in himself, but as a means, as a game piece in the big game of obeying commands.

"That sounds pretty thoroughly anti-Kantian to me."

Here's a more amusing take on the story.

Anyway, another visitor to yahoo!answers informed me (and Fitzy) that Kant did specifically address this point, in a text available through the miracle ofGoogle Books.

Turns out Kant's reaction was roughly what I thought it would be, though with a twist. Kant thought that since we know (through Kantian reasoning) that a good God could not possibly have ordered Abraham to do such a thing, we must infer that the voice Abraham heard was that of a demon pretending to be God.

"If God should really speak to man, man could still never know that it was God speaking. It is quite impossible for man to apprehend the infinite by his senses, distinguish it from sensible beings, and recognize it as such. But in some cases man can be sure the voice he hears is not God’s. For if the voice commands him to do something contrary to moral law, then no matter how majestic the apparition may be, and no matter how it may seem to surpass the whole of nature, he must consider it an illusion."

[That's at p. 115 of the Google-accessible book.]


Henry said...

The second take on the story ties in with the problem of theodicy, which you discussed on July 25. Monotheists tend to explain the fact that God allows evil to occur by claiming that he must have a good reason, which we mere mortals are unable to understand. (They also claim that his allowing humans to do evil is a condition of his allowing us to have free will, but this explanation fails to explain deaths and injuries of young children caused by natural disasters.)

Similarly, if God orders someone to perform an act contrary to the moral law, then a monotheist who offers the above solution to the problem of theodicy is not in a position to say that God cannot have changed the moral law, or that He may not wish to create an exception to it in the particular case.

Christopher said...
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Christopher said...

If I understand your point, you are saying that Kant, certain as he was that he had figured out the moral law, and a moral law that God -- being God -- cannot break, re-write, or find exceptions to -- would have to have a theodicy that does not take refuge in mystery. A theodicy notably unlike that of Josiah Royce as I summarized it last week.

I see the point. In a sense, we can go further. Kantianism requires that a believer make do without a theodicy. After all, with a satisfactory theodicy we would have a God-given teleology too.

If we were confident that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds, that God's plan is in operation and our sufferings make sense therein, then our actions, too, would make sense as parts of the fulfillment of that plan.

And then the strict deontological aspect of Kantian ethics would be in trouble.

Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.