Religious Concepts and Moral Theory: Luther and Kant
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Religious Concepts and Moral Theory: Luther and Kant BERNARD WAND IT IS A COMMONPLACETO SAY that for Kant the claims of morality are both independent of, and more fundamental than, those of religion. To be accepted as valid, religious claims must satisfy the distinctive criteria of morality; and the existence of God and the belief in immortality can only be legitimately established by reference to unquestioned moral premises. However, in his explanation of moral beliefs and actions Kant uses concepts which are, in effect, counterparts of religious concepts and he does so in ways which parallel the ways in which they are used by a certain type of religious thinker of whom Luther is the main, though not the sole, representative. Moreover, his use of these concepts is not only inappropriate to the understanding of the moral life but prevents him from giving an intelligible account of it. To make these claims is to leave open the question which factors might have influenced Kant in the formation of his mature moral theory. Several influences are readily identifiable: Plato and the Stoics, the Lutheran form of Christianity, especially Pietism, Rousseau, and, more vaguely, the general climate of opinion of the Enlightenment. For the claim that Kant in his ethical writings, beginning with the Grundlegung in 1785, persistently used essentially religious concepts to elucidate ordinary moral beliefs and attitudes is independent of any view as to the actual influences on him, whether they be religious or not. A relationship between Christianity, and more specifically Luther, and Kant has been noted often enough before. Paulsen has claimed "that [Kant's] morality is nothing but the translation of ... Christianity from the religious language to the language of reflection: in place of God we have pure reason, instead of the ten commandments the moral law, and in place of heaven the intelligible world." 1 Friedrich Paulsen, Immanuel Kant. His Life and Doctrine, ed. and trans. J. E. Creighton and A. Lefevre (London: J. C. Nimmo, 1902), p. 339. See also Heinrich Ostertag, "Luther und Kant," Neue Kirchliche Zeitschrifl 36 (1925): 765-807 for a summary and criticism of German interpretations of Kant as the philosopher of Protestantism and of the nature of the relationship between Luther and Kant. Ostertag himself draws sharp 1"3291 330 HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY However, the relationship which Paulsen wishes to establish is one between Kant's "morality," i.e., Kant's own moral beliefs and perceptions, of which Paulsen generally approves, and a form of Protestant Christianity and not one between Kant's ethical theory, of which he generally disapproves, and certain religious concepts . Indeed, Paulsen contends that Kant's account of morality, i.e., his ethical theory, "is very greatly influenced and perverted by his epistemology." 2 Nonetheless, Paulsen's view that Kant, in his moral writings, has substituted practical reason for God is appropriate. For in the elaboration of its implications the variety of ways in which Kant uses religious concepts in his account of morality will become increasingly evident. In The Freedom of a Christian Luther echoes a position which is at least as old as St. Augustine in contending that "(God) alone commands, he alone fulfills." ~ Although there may not be as succinct a summary of Kant's own view in his writings, it is surely no distortion to hold that with the appearance of the Grundlegung and after, his basic position is that "Reason alone commands, it alone fulfills." (i) Reason as the source of moral rules. We may begin with an admittedly crude characterization of the religious believer's attitude toward his God. He takes it that God issues certain commandments which in the Hebraic-Christian context have to do with his attitude toward God and toward human beings. Furthermore, insofar as God issues a commandment in the form of a rule of action, it serves as the criterion in terms of which an action, or attitude, is judged to be good or evil. Consequently, in determining the source of a rule of action, in recognizing it as derived from God, the religious believer thereby has available to him a test for the morality of his actions. It is especially important to recognize that...