This paper is meant to explore the legitimacy in disregarding ethics in the name of faith through an exploration of Immanuel Kant’s view on morality and religion and Soren Kierkegaard’s theory of distinction between ethics and faith and by comparing and contrasting both. It is further argued in this paper that non-rational leaps of faith can’t be subject to whether they are ethical or not as religion is higher than the ethical and as a dedicated Christian, I trust that true religion lies beyond what is rational. For that reason, this paper then chooses to uphold Kierkegaard’s theory.
A Look into Kant’s Hypothetical and Categorical Imperatives
Kant holds that “Whoever wills the end, so far as reason has decisive influence on his action, wills also the indispensably necessary means to it that lie in his power” (Kant, 1785). Kant distinguishes hypothetical and categorical imperatives on the role of desire in guiding actions. If I do some action, that is a means to an ends, because of some desire on my part, then my action is based on a hypothetical imperative. Meanwhile, the reasons for following a “categorical imperative” are not merely that doing so will promote the ends that one happens to have, such as becoming rich or (more generally) being happy. Following categorical imperatives may often promote our personal ends, but it may not always do so.
Making us happy and helping us get what we want is not what makes moral principles categorical imperatives; they are rational to follow, even if doing so does not make us happy or promote our personal ends. They express the idea that it is good and rational to act as they prescribe, but, unlike hypothetical imperatives, they do not simply say what is good to do as a means to getting or achieving what we want.
To further explain, Kant’s categorical imperative requires that the principles of our actions command categorically and absolutely even though the results of these actions might be unknowable. It is a command that derives its significance not from the outcome of an action but from the necessity of the imperative. This is not to say, though, that morality should be viewed as something dictatorial, not intrinsically appealing or personally fulfilling or that categorical imperatives are like demands that we must obey with the attitude of a dutiful soldier following orders, respecting the authority of law without regard to anything else. Unlike commands from parents, military superiors, and legal authorities, they are conceived as expressing “objective principles”, that is principles that anyone in the context would follow if sufficiently guided by reason. They are supposed to tell us what is good in itself to do, not what someone demands that we do.
In fact, he further upholds that basic moral requirements are laws we legislate to ourselves as rational persons with autonomy. We are not morally bound by any assumed requirement unless it is backed by principles that we can recognize as what we ourselves, as rational, self-governing individuals, want for ourselves and others. Kant holds that one “Categorical Imperative” (in the strict sense) that he formulated (in several ways) is an unconditional and unqualified requirement of reason, applicable in all human conditions and implicitly acknowledged in common moral judgments. Unlike the principle behind instrumental reasons, which we call “The Hypothetical Imperative,” it does not simply prescribe taking the necessary means to desired ends. That said, Kant’s categorical imperative then commands universally.
The Teleological Suspension of the Ethical
Would it be possible to put the ethical on hold or “suspension” purposefully for the sake of something else such as faith? Most of you are probably familiar with the story in Genesis 22, but let me reiterate the first few lines to refresh your memory:
“And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him: ‘Abraham.’ And he said: ‘Behold, here I am.’ And [God] said, ‘Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.’”
Abraham is an individual asked by God to sacrifice his son Isaac as an expression of faith. Never mind that Abraham did not in the end go through with the act of killing his son. But is it intelligible to praise the father’s faith? Ethically he seems to be in the wrong, but can there be a teleological suspension of the ethical? Can a command of God suspend our obligation to act morally? That is the question with which Kierkegaard confronts us through the story of Abraham and Isaac.
What does it mean, first of all, to ask about a teleological suspension of the ethical? Kierkegaard explains, “[t]he ethical as such is the universal, and as the universal it applies to everyone, which from another angle means that it applies at all times.” For Kant, practical reason identifies the categorical imperative, which is defined precisely as that maxim which “could always hold… as a principle establishing universal law”. All people in all places and times are obligated to act according to such a maxim whatever the particulars of their own experience or circumstances. We could say that Kierkegaard agrees with Kant’s categorical imperative in that both of them hold that the ethical is universal. But can there ever be a demand upon us that properly requires a suspension of the categorical imperative?
Kierkegaard wrote Fear and Trembling using the pseudonym “Johannes de Silentio.” He used the Biblical story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac, not to eradicate ethics out of the picture, but to illustrate the distinction between ethics and faith: ethics has to do with universal morality, it’s based on reason; whereas faith, for him, is particular and paradoxical – it could seem absurd in a sense, but never irrational, totally separate from and even higher than rationality. In Kierkegaard’s terms, an ethical man is good, but the man of faith is best, and Abraham is the quintessential man of faith.
For Kant, the universal demand of ethics is the highest claim upon us. He ropes in Christian faith within a philosophical scheme or, as he himself put it, to construct “religion within the limits of reason alone”. In Kierkegaard’s view, that is a curtailment of Christian faith; it is a trimming of the gospel in order to make it look just like the ideas of the “good” life that we have come up with ourselves. In Kant’s case, of course, the good life to which all religion is directed is simply the consistent application of the categorical imperative, that product of practical reason through which is defined what is right and what is wrong.
While, according to Kant, God is supposed to approve this scheme and act as the remote guarantor of its coherence, this does not allow to God the prerogative of disclosing his own view on what might constitute the life well lived. Such an intervention in the affairs of human beings – traditionally called revelation – would constitute, in Kant’s view, an intolerable violation of human autonomy. Faith on this account, “pure religious faith” as Kant calls it, in contrast with the historical or empirical faith of the church, must be purely rational and does not differ from the principle of a good course of life.
The conclusion arrived at is that while no ethical defence is possible, this is not sufficient reason for Abraham to be condemned. Kierekgaard is prepared to assume that Abraham has reasons that reason cannot tell. Abraham himself seems to know that he has passed beyond the limits of an intelligible defence of his actions. What this may suggest is that even Abraham himself cannot be sure that he is acting correctly.
His conviction that he is acting in obedience to the command of God cannot be supported rationally and nor can it be easily supported by precedent, for this word of God seems to be in conflict with every other word that he has so far heard, most especially of course, the word that Isaac is the child of promise, the one through whom all nations will be blessed. Will God now take away that promise or has Abraham himself misunderstood? When Kierkegaard says that Abraham believes by virtue of the absurd, he has this in mind; that Abraham trusts God in two apparently contradictory directions, first, that Isaac is the first of many generations who will be blessed because of Abraham, and second, that Isaac is to be sacrificed on an altar before the Lord. Trusting God in both these things, “Abraham cannot speak, because he cannot say that which would explain everything.” Nevertheless, Abraham resists the temptation of the ethical and makes the “leap of faith.”
My view on this is that religion is separate from the ethical and the rational. To provide a justification of Abraham’s action would be to bring him back within the limits of reason alone, to measure him against a universal standard. Those standards, as proffered by Kant, cannot condone but only condemn Abraham. I venture the suggestion that there will be times in the life of faith when the individual must proceed without all reasonable objections having been resolved. Faith proceeds even though doubt has not been absolutely refuted. That is risky. To journey out beyond ethics and beyond common sense is to find oneself alone — perhaps even without God, perhaps just alone. People of faith are capable of, and often do get it wrong. But faith means trusting in God with the hope that one’s action is justified, not in the end by our own reason, but by God.
Kant, I. (1998). Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. (M. Gregor, Trans.). New York: Cambridge University Press. (Original work published 1785).
Kierkegaard, S. (1985). Fear and Trembling. (A. Hannay, Trans.) Harmondsworth: Penguin. (Original work published 1843).