Wednesday, July 1, 2009

A Note I Wrote to a Person Quoting Immanuel Kant

Hey, I went to school with you and I stumbled upon your note about why you once opposed the right of women to vote, and your writing kept my attention. And I got to the end of your note, and I read this about Immanuel Kant.

"Immanuel Kant once wrote that an action is only moral if it is done out of a sense of duty, which in turn is decided by reason. That's the mentality that I am desperately working on incorporating into my life."

And I wanted to comment on the note, but I couldn't, so I decided to send you a message- you seem to appreciate comments and discussion, so here I go.

I think that the concept of morality Kant is getting at here is not true, and is actual damaging to biblical Christianity. Let me explain.

A Kantian morality says that Christians should obey God out of duty, decided through the mental processes of reason. It states that the virtue of an action decreases when we aim to derive any benefit from it. Actions are good when the doer is disinterested. We should do good because it's good--not for ourselves. Any action that is motivated by our own desire to seek happiness or pursue joy, then, lacks virtue because it is not done out of a reasoned "sense of duty". Am I right?

First of all, is that even possible? I don't think so. Every decision ever made by any person is always done for the same universal reason that goes like this: "It is better for me to do this than not to do this.". The man who hangs himself pursues relief. The man who wakes up early to study seeks knowledge. We are, at all times, in pursuit of fulfillment/gratification/happiness/satisfaction--whatever you want to call it. Pascal was right: "All men seek happiness without exception. They all aim at this goal however different the means they use to attain it...They will never make the smallest move but with this as its goal. This is the motive of all men, even those who contemplate suicide." Therefore, acting ONLY in a sense of duty, apart from personal, self-motivations (Pascal calls it "seeking happiness"), is impossible.

Secondly, Kantian morality is not only impossible, it's unbiblical and undesirable. Think about a man who is virtuous by biblical standards, not Kant's. He is one who LOVES kindness (Micah 6:8)--the implies that the reason a good man is kind is because he loves being kind, not because being kind is his "duty". He DELIGHTS in the Law of the Lord (Psalm 1:2)--same implication is here--a righteous man keeps the Law of the Lord because he loves keeping it, not because he has to. How can a man be virtuous in Kant's view of morality? He wouldn't be virtuous, by God's standards--if anything, he'd be a hypocrite.

Kant loves a disinterested giver. God loves a cheerful giver (2 Cor. 9:7). Kantian obedience is dead-set against Christian, biblical obedience. The Bible is replete with incentives of rewards, including joy, pleasure, fulfillment, contentment, and happiness. So to say, like Kant does, that an action is moral only if it is done out of a sense of duty is to deny the role of affections in the life of a believer. The Christian life is not about cold obedience done out of a "sense of duty". It's about God changing your affections so that you fall out of love with the world and in love with God, so that obedience is a JOY.

C.S. Lewis says, "It is a Christian duty, as you know, for everyone to be as happy as he can."

And Jonathan Edwards: "Resolved, to endeavor to obtain for myself as much happiness in the other world as I possibly can, with all the power, might, vigor, yea violence, I am capable of, or can bring myself to exert, in any way that can be thought of."

And even Jesus, who set the example of perfect obedience (Phil. 2:5-11), had this mindset. Consider Hebrews 12:1-3:

"Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who [catch this!!] FOR THE JOY THAT WAS SET BEFORE HIM endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God."

Jesus' obedience was motivated by joy. So should ours.

All of the works of John Piper share this theme--that pursuit of joy IN GOD ought to be the motivating incentive for everything we do. "Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist" changed my whole view on obedience, and really helped me understand it. I suggest you read it, you'll probably love it like I did.

I know this is lengthy, and I apologize, but once I found out you even ATTEMPTED to read Critique of Pure Reason I figured you'd be able to read this.

What do you think?

--Eric Durso


Chris McKinny said...

Great Post. I think this thought process/theology of obedience is vital to ministry and daily living. I just read the chapter in Brothers We are Not Professionals entitled - Brothers, Preach the Debtor's Ethic. Piper puts it very nicely. Oh what a relief it is that we don't have to repay and all we can do is go more into debt.

Anonymous said...

Really good post!