Kant’s Explanation for Morality

In his book Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, philosopher Immanuel Kant gives a definition of his basis for morals, which he calls the categorical imperative. Kant states “There is, therefore, only a single categorical imperative and it is this: act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.” A second statement is given as support: “act as if the maxim of your action were to become by your will a universal law of nature.”[1] Kant goes to great lengths to say that morality cannot be based on self-interest, for self-interests are vague and based on biased human perceptions which cannot be trusted nor applied universally. Rather, according to Kant, morality is based on a pure application of the categorical imperative to all situations and all people universally. Whether knowingly or not, many modern people hold to a very similar viewpoint, believing that things are only “moral” if they can be applied to universal well-being of the specie.

Kant’s teachings of morals are beset with several problems, as are the modern viewpoints. His attempt to apply morals from a rigorous and logically consistent approach based in pure reason results in some unusual conclusions. For example, Kant gives an interesting explanation of the categorical imperative: “This imperative is categorical. It has to do not with the matter of the action and what is to result from it, but with the form and the principle from which the action itself follows; and the essentially good in the action consists in the disposition, let the result be what it may.[sic]”[2] It is an odd system indeed that defines morality as rational consistency alone and is not the least concerned with subject matter, nor whether or not the actions are aimed at some empirical end, nor whether the actions result in any benefit to a human. Kant can say that any results are fine as long as we have the correct logical form and principle and have applied them universally. Similarly, modern people tend to hold that all actions are moral if they can somehow be said to enhance survival.

Kant’s viewpoint from the Christian moral and cultural perspective appears to have influenced the way he applies the categorical imperative. He holds that all humans, even the most hardened scoundrels, if their reasoning were logical, would choose honesty, steadfastness, sympathy, and general benevolence.[3] He goes on to say that “fidelity of promises and benevolence from basic principles (not from instinct) have an inner worth.”[4] Why? Does Kant not say that morality comes from pure reason as an end in itself? With Kant’s first principles being pure rationality, how then do fidelity and benevolence have an inner worth? Kant’s statements appear to be laced with statements drawn from a culture that is heavily influenced by a Christian perspective, one that a radical postmodern relativist would not hold. Likewise, many modern atheists’ view of morals appear to be drawn from a cultural perspective heavily laced with Christian morals.

What if the categorical imperative is applied in another culture or circumstance? What if the humans involved are totally depraved? In Nazi Germany, the leaders held, and the population ultimately believed and accepted, that Jewish people were detrimental to society and should therefore be exterminated. Such a principle can be applied logically and categorically. If the Nazi beliefs are true, then one truly ought to exterminate all Jews. If the premise were true and one were a Jew, it would only be rational to agree with this conclusion, and will one’s own death. In fact, if one were Jewish, one ought to will this, no matter what the desire for self-preservation might motivate us. But Kant (and the rest of us) are repulsed by the idea, and rightfully so.

Modern application of social contract and instinct as explanations for morals are equally inadequate. For the situation above fits with explanations of instinct, social contract, and learned behavior, and thus fits with the atheists’ models of the development of morals. But deep down, we all know that such things are wrong, and things “ought” to be different.

Therefore the moral argument stands strong, holding that morality is written on our hearts by a moral law giver. And this we call God.


[1]Kant Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals 4:421

[2] Ibid., 4:416

[3]Ibid., 4:454

[4]Ibid., 4:435

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About humblesmith

Christian Apologist & Philosopher
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4 Responses to Kant’s Explanation for Morality

  1. llondy says:

    Agreed…I have never heard a good explanation from an Atheist for the “ought”. If the good of a group is to exterminate another group, and the universal actions of survival for that group make their position right, then why would anyone have an inward inclination for the act to be wrong and come out against it? The “ought” seems to be internal instead of external and not only driven by outside experiences. The Athist indeed always seems to pressupose inward morality instead of starting from where they should based on their worldview which is there is none.

  2. humblesmith says:

    The atheist evolutionist provides an explanation that is defacto impossible to refute. For whatever scenario one provides, why it must have been this way to ensure survival. For example, if a person kills another, this is for survival. If a person helps another, it’s herd instict that helps survival. So in effect, there’s no way to disprove natural selection because they keep moving the target.

    And you are correct……..if all that existed were exclusively natural matter and energy, then we would never get to “ought.” Vinegar and baking soda, when added together, will move around due to natural forces. But in no case of natural forces does one get “right” or “wrong” or “this ought to be another way.” This is almost totally lost on our atheist friends.

  3. llondy says:

    It is lost on many, but some I have talked to just refuse to acknowledge what is clearly there because they have no good answer to it. So as you said, they just keep going back to playing both sides of the survival coin that has nothing to do with our ability to choose against survival based on our own internal sense of morality. But you know how they are, if Science can’t explain it then I don’t have to discuss it.

  4. Pingback: Atheist and Christian Dialog About Morals | Thomistic Bent

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