The catastrophic spider

Immanuel Kant, this great destroyer in the realm of thought, exceeded Maximilian Robespierre in terrorism.

Heinrich Heine, Concerning the History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany

Kant… This catastrophic spider…

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Antichrist

Taken as a whole, the Kantian influence on modern Christianity is so deep and pervasive that I believe in makes sense to speak of three great periods of Christian theology, each associated with a dominant philosopher. (1) The first period is the Platonic or Neoplatonic Christianity of the early church fathers; (2) The second is the Aristotelian Christianity of medieval or Scholastic theology; (3) and the third is the Kantian Christianity of the modern age …

As I see it, the validity of the new synthesis depends entirely on one issue: the ability to control Kant, to keep ‘Kant-in-a-box,’ as it were. For pure Kantianism is incompatible with Christianity… [I]f a Kantian conception of autonomy prevails, then God has become the servant of modern humanism and the synthesis is invalid.

Robert P. Kraynak, Christian Faith and Modern Democracy

As I noted in my recent post on God and obligation, from an Aristotelian-Thomistic point of view, God only ever wills in accordance with reason and thus, given that reason is of its nature directed towards the good, only ever wills what is good. But He does so, not in obedience to a law outside Himself, but rather in accordance with His own nature. For He does not “have” rationality or goodness; rather, He is His infinite Intellect, He is perfect Goodness. To use the language central to Kant’s ethics, you might say that He is “autonomous,” that He is a “self-legislator” – that He follows no law save that which is dictated by His own rational nature.

But of course, Kant himself applies these concepts to us. We must in his view be “autonomous” if we are to be truly free – not lawless, to be sure, but not “heteronomous” either, not bound by a law external to us. Rather, we must be “self-legislators,” bound only by a law that is somehow of our own making. Kant also famously describes us as “ends in ourselves,” and holds that a truly moral community is one whose members strive to create a “kingdom of ends,” an order in which all are treated as self-legislating ends in themselves.

These ideas have been enormously influential. They inform the egalitarian liberalism of John Rawls, the libertarianism of Robert Nozick, and even the conservatism of Roger Scruton. As Kraynak emphasizes, they have also permeated contemporary Catholic and Protestant thought. Modern people of all political and religious persuasions have come to see “respect for persons,” “human rights,” “human dignity,””freedom,” and the like – rather than, say, submission to the natural law or to the will of God – as the fundamental categories in terms of which to address moral and political issues. To this extent, “We are all Kantians now.”

But from a traditional Christian point of view, and from a Thomistic point of view, there is something more than a little blasphemous in all of this. For classical natural law theory – the kind which grounds morality in human nature as understood in terms of a classical essentialist (Platonic, Aristotelian, or Scholastic) metaphysics – it is hard to see how human beings could intelligibly be described as “self-legislators” or “autonomous.” In no sense are we the source of the nature that determines our ends, including the end of reason itself; God alone is that. Hence nature, and ultimately God – rather than the individual reason of the moral agent – are what ground the content and obligatory force of the moral law. As Aquinas says:

In this way God Himself is the measure of all beings… Hence His intellect is the measure of all knowledge; His goodness, of all goodness; and, to speak more to the point, His good will, of every good will. Every good will is therefore good by reason of its being conformed to the divine good will. Accordingly, since everyone is obliged to have a good will, he is likewise obliged to have a will conformed to the divine will. (QDV 23.7)

Or as Someone once put it, “Not my will, but Thine, be done.” If that is heteronomy, so much the worse for Kantian autonomy.

The “ends in themselves” talk is no less suspect. Aquinas explicitly considers the question of whether “man himself were his own last end,” and answers that “man's last end is something outside of him, to wit, God” (ST I-II.3.5) since “all things are ordered to one good as their end, and that is God” (SCG III.17.6, emphasis added). Given the metaphysics underlying classical natural law theory, describing man as an “end in himself” is, like the idea of man as “self-legislator,” simply unintelligible. Of course, that same metaphysics informs the classical theist conception of God that we have recently been exploring in a series of posts, and it is precisely what makes it the case that such talk is intelligible when applied to God, and to God alone.

Thus, the abandonment of that metaphysics has resulted not only in an anthropomorphizing of God, bringing Him closer to man’s level – the classical theist’s complaint against theistic personalism – but also in a deification of man, raising him to the level of God. Modern people like to think that the first of the Ten Commandments is the one no one breaks anymore; after all, when is the last time you saw someone bow down to an idol? But we are blindest to the sins we are most in thrall to. Idolatry is in fact the defining sin of modernity, and it is all the worse for being directed at man. The ancient pagan at least knew enough to worship something higher than himself.

For this reason it is a grave error to think that the only problem with Kantian “self-legislator” and “ends in themselves” talk is that, absent the sort of moral standards that were taken for granted in Kant’s own time, it has a tendency to degenerate into a kind of libertinism. If you honor your parents, you do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not lie, and do not covet, you do well. You will have fulfilled what Christ called the second commandment – to love one’s neighbor. But you will not have fulfilled the first and greatest – to love God above all things. And if the reason you obey the second is precisely to honor man as an end in himself, you are in danger of violating the first and greatest. Kant himself was, of course, a very austere man; he would have been absolutely horrified at what liberals and libertarians now defend in the name of “autonomy.” Accordingly, the original sin of Kantianism is not abortion, fornication, dope smoking or the like. It is, rather, the codification of modern man’s blasphemous self-obsession, the raising of “It’s all about me” to a moral first principle. And the blasphemy is only heightened, not lessened, if the only reason the blasphemer refrains from the sins in question is that he thinks them incompatible with his pathological self-regard.

To be clear, I am not saying that anyone who uses Kantian language is guilty of blasphemy. As Kraynak emphasizes, Christian thinkers who have made use of it often transform it in the process, so as to make it compatible with Christian theology and natural law. But Kraynak is also keen to emphasize, quite rightly in my view, that the emphasis modern Christians often put on the Kantian moral categories is unwise. At its best, it is little more than a marketing gimmick, an attempt to “sell” traditional morality to the citizens of modern, liberal, secularized societies by showing them that it follows from premises to which they are already committed. And it rarely if ever works, because modern secular liberals are well aware that orthodox Christians and traditionalists do not interpret the premises in question the same way they do. Chanting “human dignity” and “respect for persons” like mantras is not going to convince anyone who doesn’t already agree with you to oppose abortion, euthanasia, pornography, and the like, precisely because human dignity and respect for persons are themselves highly contested concepts. What you need to do is to show exactly how the practices in question are incompatible with human dignity, and that means (I would argue) getting into precisely the sorts of classical natural law considerations one had hoped to be able to sidestep. There are no shortcuts. But then the “human dignity” and “respect for persons” stuff falls away as otiose.

At its worst, use of the Kantian categories can seriously distort our understanding of what natural law theory and Christian teaching actually entail, even when applied by otherwise traditionally-minded thinkers. To take just one example, “new natural law” theorists, who have a reputation for upholding Catholic orthodoxy and who have done admirable work in defending traditional sexual morality and opposing abortion and euthanasia, have also in recent years tended toward the view that capital punishment is unjust even in principle. This not only goes beyond anything the Catholic Church has ever taught, but (as I have argued elsewhere) is simply incompatible with both Catholic teaching and classical natural law theory. But (as I also argue in the piece linked to) it is not entirely unsurprising that they should reach such a conclusion given that, like Kant, they eschew any appeal to human nature understood in terms of essentialist metaphysics and instead ground their position in a theory of practical reason that puts the ends of the moral agent himself (rather than the ends set for us by nature or the will of God) in the driver’s seat.

Nietzsche famously characterized Kant as a “catastrophic spider” because he took him to have insinuated an essentially Christian morality into the secular German philosophical tradition. The truth is that he insinuated an essentially un-Christian morality into the Christian tradition, and into Western civilization as a whole. Rather than appropriating this work, conservatives and Christians should strive to undo it. Kraynak is right, we need to keep Kant in a box. A pine box, with a stake through his heart.
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