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|Kant and the Purpose of Man
By P. Engelbert Recktenwald
In many contexts we experience morality to be a boundary, a prohibition, a limiting of our possibilities. In the world of business, for instance, it puts a halt to unbridled competition, in career issues it checks the ruthless pursuit of success. Or we experience it to be a party pooper. “Morality is when you live in such a way, that living that way isn’t any fun,” says Edith Piaf.
Or it is portrayed as an instrument of repression: “Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people we personally dislike”, reckons Oscar Wilde in one of his many aphorisms, which are of course to be taken with a grain of salt. In addition to these more or less casual forms of moral criticism, which tend to point to a misuse of morality or to its distortions rather than to morality itself, there can be found in the realm of philosophy serious forms of challenging morality. Ever since the days of Bernard Williams philosophers have been discussing something which he refers to as “the problem of Gauguin.” Based on the biography of Paul Gauguin, Williams describes the case of a painter who abandons his family in order to emigrate to the South Pacific and pursue his calling as an artist. Without this betrayal of his moral obligations, he would never have become the great artist which he was, and the world would have been the poorer for it. Williams takes this as evidence for his assertion that there can be cases in which the claims of morality can be repudiated. The legal basis for this repudiation lies in the fact that in such a case, the restrictive character of morality extends so far as to even stand in the way of our actual calling. Self-fulfillment and morality conflict with one another.
This problem is also raised in the famous contraposition of duty and inclination, which characterize Kant’s moral philosophy. Immanuel Kant, of course, resolves the tension in favor of morality: The Categorical Imperative must be followed unconditionally regardless of one’s own inclinations and interests. I am to be moral even at the expense of that which I consider to be my calling.
But appearances are deceiving. In reality, Kant solves the problem on a deeper level: He does not view morality as being in competition with human purpose, on the contrary: It is itself the deepest and most authentic purpose of man. It is not a bothersome limitation, but rather the objective and the fundamental meaning of human existence. We find this phrased by him in a lovely and fitting manner. For instance, he speaks of the “sense of sublimity of his (man’s) moral purpose” (Religion within the Limits of Bare Reason, RGV, B59). Man has therefore a moral purpose, and this purpose is sublime. To search for one’s own purpose elsewhere is only possible for a person who has lost the sense of this sublimity. Therefore, if Gauguin searches for his purpose in unethical ways, then the error does not lie with morality, but rather with Gauguin. He errs concerning his purpose.
According to Kant, the sublime enraptures us more than all which is beautiful (RGV B12, note). We therefore need not worry that morality lacks motivational force. The sense of sublimity enables us to give preference to the moral law in all decisions, in Kant’s wording: to “grant to the law, as an incentive that is sufficient in itself, a higher rank than all the other determining bases of the will” (RGV B45). That is why we should cultivate It: „To frequently activate this feeling for the sublimity of his moral determination is an especially praiseworthy means for the arousal of moral dispositions, and indeed because it works directly in opposition to the innate propensity for the inversion of the incentives in the maxims of our discretion, and indeed to reestablish in its purity the original moral order among the incentives as the unconditional respect for the law, it is the highest condition of all acceptable maxims, and with this the structure for good in the human heart.” (RGV B59).
Kant speaks of the “majesty” of the moral law. It “instills awe”. Awe, according to him, “arouses the subordinate’s respect for his master.” In the case of the moral law, however, the master resides within us. And therefore this awe towards the majesty of the law awakens a sense of how sublime our own destiny is. And so we owe it to ourselves to be moral. A betrayal of morality is a betrayal of ourselves.
In the Critique of Practical Reason we find the same issue expressed. It is the moral law which allows us to “sense the sublimity of our own supersensiblel existence” (A 158). In comparison to the moral law, life “with all its comfort, has no value at all.” Morality, therefore, does not exist for the sake of life, but rather life for the sake of morality. We live, in order to achieve the highest morality, or, expressed in Christian terms: to become holy.
For Kant, therefore, it can be ruled out a priori, that morality should ever take on the role of that which impedes man from achieving his purpose, as it is itself precisely that which defines this purpose. So, he has a high regard for moral value. He holds this view in common with Christianity, and thus his idea of morality contrasts pleasantly from those pathetic views which make morality into a simple cost-benefit calculation with regard to individual or societal good fortune. In the language of Christianity, one can express Kant’s insight thus: The highest purpose of man consists in holiness. Holiness is the ultimate value, which surpasses all other values, merits and talents which a person can possess, such as intelligence, genius, artistic ability, strength or beauty. It is that goodness of will, of which Kant explains in his famous beginning of the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, that this goodness alone can impart to the will an inner, absolute value, so that only a good will as such and without qualification can be considered good.
The ultimate value therefore is the moral value, the value of moral goodness. It is that which, in biblical language, marks the righteous man, who stands in contrast to the sinner. It is impossible that a person could ever have a purpose which he can only realize at the cost of his moral integrity. The fact that there can be individual callings which consist in the development of one’s individual personal talents and abilities, is not ruled out. But they always remain subordinate to the calling to holiness. The dignity of the greatest genius lags behind that of the most ordinary man, if he lacks righteousness. It is in this sense which Kant says that, although he may bow to the man of upper class, his spirit does not stoop before him. Yet “before a lowly, plain common man in whom I perceive righteousness of character in a certain measure that I am not conscious of in myself my spirit bows, whether I want it or not.” (KpV A 136). The Catholic pedagogue Heinrich Bone expresses the same thing when he says: “Without morality human dignity ceases to exist.”
The moral law is, then, according to Kant, the only thing which commands absolute respect from us. It is an infallible indicator of our purpose. Our inclinations, on the other hand, are merely unreliable guides. They can lead us astray and delude us into following a purpose which is actually a false path. By contrast, it is never wrong to follow the moral law. In all cases of conflict, it has precedence over the inclinations; expressed in the terms of value ethics: The moral value must be given precedence above all other values.
In acknowledging the preeminence of morality, therefore, Kant and Christian ethics (at least in their Catholic form) are in agreement. Morality does not restrict man, but rather sets that capacity in him free, which constitutes his entire dignity: the capacity for holiness. The moral law, according to Kant, as mentioned above, “makes us aware of the sublimity of our own supersensible existence.” The supersensible existence is opposed to the sensory existence, in which we allow ourselves to be determined by our inclinations, thereby falling victim to heteronomy by the objects of those inclinations. This antagonism between autonomy based on the moral law and heteronomy based on the inclinations corresponds to the battle between the spirit and the flesh, which St. Paul addresses in the Letters to the Romans and the Galatians.
So Kant has a very high notion of the purpose of man. Its sublimity is based on the sanctity of the moral law. The principal difference to Christianity consists in the fact that Kant stops at the sanctity of the moral law without in turn fixing it in the holiness of God. In Christian ethics, on the other hand, the word of God applies: “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:16; Lev 11:45).
This difference has major consequences. It becomes virulent at that moment when following the moral law makes us victims of an injustice leading to the failure of our life plan, or even costing us our life. What gain does the dissident have in retaining his moral integrity (for instance, by refusing complicity with a totalitarian regime), if he must accept imprisonment, torture or death for it? Kant is right in considering this question to be unwarranted, to the extent that it intends to call into question the validity of the moral imperative. This imperative applies categorically. It is to be followed regardless of the consequences. But the question is: What are the implications for the concept of morality itself, if it cannot compensate for these negative consequences?
This question does not arise in Christianity, as it knows, in the person of God, a moral law which will compensate for everything and ensure perfect justice. The Christian martyr, who, like Franz Jägerstätter for instance, prefers to choose death rather than to cooperate with injustice, knows he is borne by a loving God who transforms this death into a triumph. This God is not an anonymous power who is indifferent to our fate. A moral law which is separated from God in the manner of Kant cannot be saved from such a verdict, even if we assent to the fitting words with which Kant describes the moral law: “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.” (Critique of Practical Reason). Despite all the admiration which the moral law deserves: It remains deaf and indifferent to both my admiration and my grievance. I am not dealing with a living person who is concerned about me. And the fact that the moral law is a fact of my reason, that it is the guarantor of my autonomy and dignity, does nothing to change my fate when I am the powerless victim of injustice. In this case the moral law is a cause of misery for me: By following its imperative, it drives me to my ruin. It has no regard for my fate, cannot save me, and leaves me alone in my misery. Can such a thing be my purpose? The fact that philosophers use this as an opportunity to protest against the unreasonable demands of morality, sometimes happens out of an inner sense of justice, which cannot bear that the good person should in the long run be the fool or yet worse: the one damaged by the moral law. In this perspective the moral law contradicts itself in view of the real course of the world: It demands justice from the individual while making him the victim of injustice. It bestows upon him the dignity of being good, it raises his value “infinitely”, as Kant says (CPR), yet allows him, along with his value, to go to the dogs.
The question which is phrased in all stridency is then: Is morality harmful? Is it compatible with the sanctity of the moral law to think that man, ultimately, can become a “loser by his integrity” (David Hume)? Can one’s moral purpose consist in a fate which is doomed to failure and which causes, by the death of the righteous man, the obliteration of his moral value that is, precisely that which ought to lend meaning to his life?
Can the meaning of life consist in such meaninglessness? If this were the last word, then morality would betray itself.
This problem, therefore, is not one of eudemonistically undermining the categorical character of the moral imperative, but rather of liberating it from the accusation of meaninglessness and the taint of inner inconsistency.
Simply positing God as the ex post facto restorer of a just order and of the correlation between good conduct and well-being, as Kant does, is a pseudo-solution, which comes too late to liberate the moral law from this taint. It is the very character of the experience of an absolute Ought as such which is at stake here. Dare I trust this experience? The protest and the philosophical suspicion towards this Ought, from Nietzsche on down to Norbert Hoerster and on to Susan Wolf and Michael Slote, deserve a reply which does not merely insist on this experience, but rather integrates this experience into a system of metaphysics, in which it retains its logical consistency and which allows the experienced Ought to actually be without external assistance - that which it claims to be. This consistency is only retained if the moral law is simultaneously that actual power which prevents it from happening, that its observance compromises moral value by encouraging unjust situations, and which makes a mockery of the idea of a moral purpose that is, if God is the moral law personified and consequently the ultimate normative power and the ultimate actual power are one and the same. Kant’s error lies in his separation of God from the moral law. For him, God is the moral ruler of the world. He is moral due to the fact that his will correlates with the moral law. The moral law is thereby thought to be that authority to which God is subjected and which judges his moral value. The morality of God, just as the morality of man, is constituted through the correlation of the will with the moral law. The difference to man consists solely in the fact that God’s will correlates with the moral law in the most perfect manner and without having to overcome sensual inclinations, the moral good does not therefore require, in the case of God, the coercing force of duty in order to prevail against competing motivating forces. Nonetheless, God and the moral law remain two different authorities, the one being the ultimate authority in the actual sphere, the other in the normative sphere. So Kant’s concept of God falls short of that of St. Anselm of Canterbury, who thought of God as that being than which no greater can be conceived. Kant drives a wedge into this greatness and makes of it two greatest entities: the moral law as the greatest normative power and God as the greatest actual power. This division, in which Kant’s dualism of practical and theoretical reason is reflected, is one of the birth defects of Kant’s philosophy. A moral ruler of the world who is posited for the purpose of retroactively producing the proportionality of virtue and happiness, may be capable of provisionally whitewashing the fissure in the origin of Kant’s architectonics, but is not capable of healing it.
If, however, the majesty of the moral law experienced in the moral Ought is itself the reflection of the holiness of God, then our relationship to the moral law undergoes a profound transformation. It becomes an interpersonal relationship to a living counterpart. The moral law receives a humane countenance. As one who acts morally, I am then no longer merely obeying a law, but rather a person, who knows about me and means well for me. The goodness with which the moral law concerns itself is no longer only the goodness, which the moral law demands of me with all severity, but rather it is also benevolence, which gives itself to me. The good itself becomes the good for me as well. God is not only the moral law, which directs a categorical Ought at me, but rather also the good as diffusivum sui, as benevolence which gives of itself. He is not only a person who rules but also a person who loves. And so also moral failings receive a different character: The transgression of a prevailing law becomes the rejection of a love directed at me personally, the injury to the moral order becomes the wounding of a loving heart. God as love desires not only to allow me a share in his holiness, but also in his bliss, which in turn consists entirely in loving and being loved. Thus it is one and the same entity, namely love, which represents the source of both holiness as well as bliss. The intrinsic unity of being worthy of bliss and bliss itself, in God as the personification of love, seeks to be reflected in the unity of both, which is graciously given in the rational creature. In the presence of God as the source of all good, the purpose of man is transformed from a path which would have him fulfill all the demands of the moral law, regardless of the consequences, into a path which turns all losses into gains, thus fulfilling man’s longing for a meaning in his purpose which does not turn out to be elusive. The path to holiness becomes, at the same time, the path to salvation. Man’s need for meaning includes both categories: He wants to do something of value and to experience the good. A path which leads a person to heroic good deeds but to personal demise falls short of the full sense of this purpose as does though in a different way the path which leads him to happiness, but not to holiness. God is neither benevolence which merely gives, nor moral law, which merely demands, but rather both in ultimate unity. He is the source of the moral demand for holiness and the source of the benevolence which makes us blissful. He is love, which bestows love and demands love. As the source of the moral law he wishes us as Duns Scotus says to imitate his love as well, and, in so doing, we become worthy to receive his love as the source of all happiness. His love makes us both worthy of happiness as well as blissfully happy. It is law and grace, demand and fulfillment, selflessness and bliss. The purpose of man lies in precisely this unity of holiness and well-being, by his becoming one who loves.
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