Correction of the Theory of Kant

Kant, who thus asserts the rational intuitive of the judgment of obligation, of course believes that the rule of morality is permanent and essential. There is an eternal moral law which never changes in its essence, however its applications may be modified by new circumstances, whose binding propriety is seen by the right reason. Morality consists in acting according to this rule, and for the sake of the rule, to the exclusion of all personal, self-interested ends. The virtuous man does the things which the moral rule dictates, simply for the sake of the rule, without any reference to self-interest, or advantage, his own or his fellow-man’s. The will which freely elects the rule, and elects it for its own sake, is the good or righteous will. This is high doctrine; the only question is, whether it may not be too high in these respects, that it seems to disparage some good acts done for the sake of one’s own legitimate welfare, and out of philanthropic regard to the happiness of our fellows, and also a very noble class of actions prompted by instinctive impulses.

Kant Seems to Exclude Duties Done to Self and Those Done Impromptu and with Full Consent.

As to the former class, we cannot but regard the teachings of Bishop Butler as much more just, as they are more moderate. Reason says, that both we ourselves and our neighbors have our legitimate claims to welfare.

Hence when we pay regard to such claims, our motives do not cease to be moral.

It is this overstraining of the essential law of obligation which seems to have provoked such philosophers as Lotze to recoil from our simple, rational theory, even at the cost of embracing a qualified Hedonism.

As to the second class of virtuous actions which Kant seems to disallow, as morally indifferent, I would remark that he here overlooks too much the essential seat of morality in the right disposition and will. These may have their virtuous habitus. Indeed, it is but the conformity of their habitus to the moral law which characterizes them as a goodwill, and as the source of virtuous acts. Suppose now, that in a given case, suddenly presented to the spirit, the affections and will should act under the impulse of this right habitus, so promptly as to outrun conscious reason; is the generous act therefore not virtuous, but indifferent? Who can believe this?

Here is a faithful mother, who is startled by suddenly seeing her child fall into deep water.

Under the impulses of her maternal affection, she has leaped into the water, endangering her own life to save her child’s, without taking time to think whether the law of reason and of God required her to do so. As soon as rational thought comes, it justifies her act to her, and pronounces that rational imperative which she has obeyed without waiting to hear it.

Shall Kant condemn this as the act of a mere animal στοργη (Gk: storgh)? Surely he should not, when the agent is rational, the form of the act virtuous, and the end just what the rational moral law would have dictated. It has also been justly objected to Kant that his system is too austere in this, that he makes the pain of self-sacrifice the invariable condition of moral action. He requires that the motive shall be always impersonal; but as man always instinctively craves his own welfare, he must always be conscious of this pain of self-denial in order to act virtuously. Here Kant almost justifies the popular representation of his austerity: that he seems to think that whenever a man pleases himself in his own action, he must sin.

That his view is here overstrained appears by a very practical test. The perfectly holy soul, being absolutely conformed to the moral law, will of course comply with it, with a complete conscious harmony of affections and desires. This perfect habitus of will precludes self-denial. For the action which the moral law requires is precisely the one in which he finds the most complete and spontaneous delight. And this is certainly our highest conception of holy action.

But according to the overstrained view, being without inward struggle, it must be without conscious self-denial, and therefore it must be without virtue. Thus the best morality of the universe would be condemned as not moral. Such instances actually exist in the persons of the angels and heavenly saints, of the Messiah and of God himself, the supreme standard of excellence.

R.L. Dabney

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Robert Lewis Dabney was an American theologian, Southern Presbyterian pastor, Confederate States Army chaplain, and architect. Despite turning down a position at Princeton, Charles Hodge considered Dabney to be perhaps the greatest theologian in the U.S.

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