Philosophy: Basic Readings
by Nigel Warburton
When you think of the ivory tower, think of Immanuel Kant. Men like Kant are the reason academia is often viewed as obscure and irrelevant—because men like Kant never actually live enough to see if their ideas have good consequences in the real world.
Kant went to bed each night at ten o’clock and awoke at five in the morning; it is said that he never overslept. He rarely traveled and he never saw a mountain. Sadly, the man this deep in his cocoon became one of the most influential thinkers of his time.
This reading focuses on Kant’s “categorical imperative,” which was his attempt to arrive at universal moral law without reference to divine revelation. Many Christians misunderstood Kant and saw him as a champion of their faith against the atheism of Voltaire, but Kant was a deist at best and no friend of Christianity.
He did argue for moral absolutes, but he thought that men could reason their way to those absolutes. His categorical imperative is simply this: “I ought never to act except in such a way that I can also will that my maxim should become a universal law.” This negative approach to action, according to Kant, results in several absolutes: we should not break promises, we should not lie, etc.
As you would expect, this results in a stunted, impractical version of morality, with no room for the radical self-sacrifice that Christ expects of His people. Further, it grants man’s reason a much higher status than it deserves in light of the fall. Nero could will that the maxim “exterminate the Christians” became a universal law. Does that make it right?
Students should read Kant to grasp a crucial historical lesson: if someone offers a compromise between the “extremes” of Christianity and atheism, what they are offering is not sound doctrine.
by Jeff Baldwin