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Kant, Piety, and the Dead

Immanuel Kant held to a strict ethical code. Whatever does not stem from duty is not moral. Therefore, he summed up his code in the Formula of Universal Law. It states that you must “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.” In fact, Kant viewed duty as being summed up in three formulas. The most famous one being the Formula of Humanity. This formula states that we are never to use people as a means only, but always as an end.

However, Kant’s Formula of Humanity seems to have the implication that I am sinning on a regular basis. If I go to the store to purchase groceries, I am “using” the man at the cash register to get what I want. I am not treating him as an end, in and of himself. That is, I am not coming for the purpose of his friendship or to further his aims, just mine, and only mine. I am using him to get what I want, and don’t really ‘care’ about his ends. I care about my groceries, and probably am wishing he would move faster.

In reply to this objection, Kantian scholars will say that we have simply misunderstood Kant. Michael Cholbi explains that Kant would have no objection to my example, using a bus stop instead of a grocery store. Suppose it is cold and windy. As I walk in the frosty morning to the bus stop and get in line, I decide to position myself at just the right angle to block the wind. I use the bodies of other people standing in line to my advantage. I do not even ask. Surely, this is morally acceptable. And yet, I am using them to my end – an end and a purpose that they did not consent to.

Kant’s ethical theory is unable to deal with the pious and the sacred.

Cholbi would say this is morally permissible for the Kantian. In contrast, however, what Kant would say is wrong is if we did the same thing with, say, a group of people praying, and were insensitive to their desire for privacy. My presence may disturb their sense of sacredness. Therefore, only in violating a person’s will do we do him wrong. As Cholbi says, we only need to respect the rational agency of the person. Not the person himself.

It should be evident why this reductionism is problematic. But if Cholbi is correct, then Kant’s ethical theory is unable to deal with the pious and the sacred. The ancient Greek playwright, Sophocles, captured something of the duty of piety.

 His play, Antigone, is about a woman by the same name whose brother, Polyneices, has wronged the king. After losing the civil war, Polyneices is made an example. The king demands that his body remain unburied as punishment and warning. Any one who gives him a proper burial is willingly “siding” with the treacherous man and is also to be killed. Yet, Antigone’s love and piety convicts her of her duty to give her brother’s body a proper burial. Defying the king’s edict, Antigone follows her beautiful conviction. And to make the story all the more interesting, the king’s son is engaged to Antigone! What then, is the duty of the king? To execute his son’s bride-to-be, or sacrifice the edict and his word? Piety is often most strongly expressed in how we relate to our loved ones and the deceased.

All humans have strong feelings about what is an appropriate way of handling the dead. For example, all societies condemn necrophilia, yet a body is used without violating another person’s will or another person’s rational agency. This is no different, and even arguably better than, the bus stop example. Yet we all know it is horribly wrong and the Kantian cannot explain why.

Kant was correct that ethics is irreducibly rational. But he was mistaken when he thought ethics can be reduced to merely the rational. That is, morality is not less than rational, but it is certainly more than rational. If morality is merely the rational, as Kant wanted to hold, then murder and incest are really no different than deriving four from two and two. It must be admitted that no one has ever produced a better formulation of ethics than the Westminster Divines. It is doubtful that any shall do so, for their formulation was, after all, derived from the special revelation of Jesus Christ, instead of the natural revelation of man.

Kant rejected utilitarianism’s emphasis on happiness and human flourishing, opting instead on duty and the glory and honor that flows from it. Thus, the utilitarians upheld the happiness principle and Kant the duty principle. What the theologians declared united by God, philosophy’s great men tore asunder.

The utilitarian is right in that joy is the animating principle, and the Kantian is right that duty is the essence, yet both are wrong. The unbelievers could not match the borrowed wisdom of the Divines for they had not searched the Scriptures with them.

Kant was correct that ethics is irreducibly rational. But he was mistaken when he thought ethics can be reduced to merely the rational.

Man’s chief ethic is derived from man’s chief end; to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever. The Westminster formula has united both duty and pleasure. Man’s duty is to glorify God, but no man who does merely his duty, and only out of duty, has yet done his full duty. What the Divines understood well was this: that it is both our duty to enjoy and we must also enjoy our duty. A man who does his duty but without joy has not yet even begun to do his duty.

This means that the Reformed ethicist is a conservative one. Why? Conservatism is simply the Biblical worldview without the Enlightenment aberrations. What the Divines understood, the Enlightenment attacked. What Scripture upheld, the philosophes undermined. For the Enlightenment was an attempt to build a worldview without God and without God’s Word. The Reformed thinker has a wealth of tools at his disposal, in history and in creeds, yes, but most of all, in the living text of Scripture, that we may say with Paul, “Where are the great debaters of this age?”

Robert J. McPherson II

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Robert J. McPherson II is a graduate of RC Sproul’s Reformation Bible College with an honors degree in theology. He has an MA in Philosophy from the University of Buckingham; conducting research under the guidance of Sir Roger Scruton. His thesis is on personal responsibility and social justice.

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