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In the system of Kant philosophical ethics put off the naturalistic or subjectivistic character; the moral idea attained, on the basis of the freedom of the will, to an objective significancy, and became an end per se, and not simply a means to the end of individual happiness. Independently of the theoretical reason and of the God-consciousness, the moral idea became the presupposition and basis of all speculation on the supersensuous, and hence also of rational religion. The universal validity of the moral law became the formal, and, pretendedly also, the material principal of morality. But the one-sided rational character of this morality left essential phases of the moral unaccounted for; and the merely formal character of the moral law admitted of no consequential carrying-out in detail.—The application of Kantian ground-thoughts to theological ethics was of two-fold effect,—raising it indeed above the utilitarian ethics of the “illuministic” current, but robbing it, in its divorce from religion, of a part of its Christian character.

Previous philosophical ethics had gone astray in two respects. The two equally true and necessary thoughts, that, on the one hand, the moral idea has a universally valid significancy, that it cannot be dependent in its obligating character on the chance caprice of the individual subject, and that yet, on the other, it has in fact for its end the perfection of the person, and hence also his happiness, had been one-sidedly held fast to, each for itself. Naturalistic Pantheism gave validity simply to the objective significancy of the moral,—absolutely annihilated the freedom of the will, and conceived by the moral law as a mere fatalism unalterably determining every individual; and when, with the champions of materialistic atheism, this notion of the unfree 328determination of the individual, ultimated practically in an entire letting-loose of the passions, it was not without the countenance of strict consistency with the ground principle. The opposite tendency proceeded from the subject, emphasizing his free will, and hence looking less to the ground than to the end of the moral activity; man was to be determined by nothing which does not leave him absolutely free, which does not contribute to his own individual advantage, in other words, by the thought of individual happiness. While the first tendency undermined morality by the fact that it annihilated the moral subject, sinking him into a mere unfree member of the great world-machine, the other tendency imperiled morality in its innermost essence, in a no less degree, by the fact that it required no self-subordination of the subject under a per se valid idea, but emphasized the absolute claims of the individual personality, so that in fact in their ultimate consequences the two opposite tendencies resulted, equally, in the letting-loose of the individual in his; unbridled naturalness.—Christian ethics could not, save by letting itself be led astray by philosophy, fall into either of these errors. That the moral idea is valid per se, that it has an unconditional, universally-obligating significancy, is here a point settled from the very start, inasmuch as it conceives this idea as the holy will of God. He who inquires first as to himself, and only afterward as to the will of God, has absolutely reversed the moral relation. On the other hand, it is, in Christian ethics, not in the least doubtful, that this will of God has in view the perfection of man, and hence also his perfect happiness,—that man, in fulfilling God’s will becomes also truly happy, and does not lose his freedom but brings it to perfection.—It was high time, toward the end of the eighteenth century, to set bounds to the decline of philosophical ethics; the two opposed currents had attained to their last corrupt consequences, subversive of all morality. The “eudemonistic” tendency could oppose nothing else to the frivolous enjoyment-seeking and conscienceless self-seeking of the materialistic tendency, than an insipid utilitarian morality essentially identical at bottom with the other, and which differed from it only by an air of external decency, but not by profundity of thought or moral worthiness. It was a great forward-step of philosophical thought-development when 329Kant, with mighty hand, dashed to atoms both these moral structures, and built up a new firmer-based system; although his own age, in its enthusiasm for him, no less than he himself, sadly deceived themselves as to the perfection and durability of the same.

His first and by no means unimportant service consists in the fact that basing himself primarily on the skepticism of Hume, he annihilated, at a single stroke, all confidence in previous methods of philosophizing, whether speculative or empirical, and deprived both empiricism and the pure theoretical reason, in so far as it had thus far been developed, of all right to pretend to establish, in respect to the supersensuous, or the ideal, any thing whatever as philosophical knowledge. Though in his “Critique of the Pure Reason” (1781) Kant had ascribed to the speculative reason, in the sphere of theoretical knowledge, really only the function of formal thought or logic, he yet attained in fact to a positive knowledge of reality in the sphere of the practical reason, that is, in that of morality.243243   Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten, 1785; Kritik der praktischen Vernunft, 1788, the chief work of the Kantian form of ethics; Metaph. Anfangsgründe der Rechtslehre, 1797; Metaph. Anf. der Tugendlehre, 1797. Reason is not merely a cognizing, but also a volitionating power; hence there is not merely a rational knowledge of that which is, namely, theoretical or pure reason, but also of that which, through rational volition, ought to be, namely, practical reason; the former seeks in every given reality for the rational beginning, the ground; the practical reason seeks for the rational goal, the end. This end can, as a rational one, not be fortuitous, arbitrary, or doubtful, but must have an unconditional absolutely-valid character. The office of reason is here entirely other than in the sphere of pure theoretical cognition; the practical reason directs itself toward something which is not yet real, but which should through reason become real, and which, consequently depends upon reason; hence reason is here, as in contrast to the other sphere, in its own sphere proper, where it itself actively creates its own object,—is free and responsible. Man, as a spirit, can choose whatever object of action he pleases, but as a rational spirit he should set before himself 330only a rational, and hence absolutely valid object. As he acts here in a sphere determined by himself, hence he is dependent only upon himself; in willing and acting, man is free. A rational end is such a one as must be recognized by every rational man, as his own end; for reason is not a merely individual quality, but is in all men the same; hence the rationality of the end consists in its universal validity. Hence the highest principle of all rational moral action is the law: “act in such a manner that the maxim of thy conduct is adapted to become a universal law for all men.” (Maxim is here taken as the subjective principle of moral action in contradistinction to the objectively-valid law.) The obligatoriness of such action lies exclusively in my rationality, and is hence entirely unconditional; should I act otherwise I would not be rational; hence this law of the reason is the “categorical imperative.” I am here to inquire not after my own happiness, but only after that which is rational; I ought to be rational; to this end I need no other motive than my own rational nature itself. To make my own happiness the end of my moral activity-eudemonism-is irrational and immoral; for, because of the fortuity of the outward conditions of happiness, and of the heterogeneousness of claims upon happiness, the moral would be rendered dependent upon accident and. caprice. The moral reason is absolutely free only when it has absolutely within itself the law and the motive of action, and where it makes itself dependent on no other conditions not given within itself. “Autonomy” constitutes the essence of reason and the dignity of human nature. Reason, in a practical law, determines the will directly, and not by means of an intervening feeling of pleasure or displeasure. To be happy is indeed the legitimate and naturally-necessary striving of every rational being, but such a ground for action can be known and recognized only empirically, whereas the moral law must necessarily have objective unconditional validity. What is good or evil cannot be known through any thing outside of reason, but only through reason itself; but feelings of pleasure and displeasure belong not to reason, but to the lower sphere of the spirit-life.

Though morality as resting exclusively upon the categorical imperative of the reason has not happiness for its motive, 331yet it earns a right to happiness; virtue is the subjective fitness for and worthiness of happiness, that is, for that condition of a rational being to whom, in its entire existence, every thing goes according to wish and will, and where consequently also the outward relations, including those of nature, harmonize with the spiritual and moral reality of the person. Neither virtue per se, nor happiness per se, but happiness as attendant upon virtue, constitutes the true, perfect life-condition of man—his highest good. The moral law per se is the sole true motive of the will, while the idea of the highest good is an object of reason. Happiness depends not merely upon our rational will, but also upon outer conditions which lie not within our power. Hence happiness and virtue are not identical (as the Greek moralists taught), but have primarily nothing whatever to do with each other; the virtuous man may possibly be very unhappy, namely, in so far as his condition is not dependent upon himself,—which is in fact another proof that the striving after virtue and the striving after happiness are not one and the same thing, and that the striving after happiness per se is neither moral nor leads to morality. In this distinction lies the dialectics of the practical reason; happiness is not already included in virtue itself,—stands therewith not in analytical but in synthetic connection; and hence we are brought to the important question: how is the highest good practically possible? that is, how can the two essentially different elements of this good be brought into perfect harmony?—The highest good is a demand of the practical reason; the demand of happiness for the virtuous is just as rational as that of virtue itself; but its realization rests not (as that of virtue) within our free power, but is rather a morally necessary demand upon the moral government of the world,—a “postulate of the practical reason.” The demand, the postulate, of a perfect morality which is not fully to be attained to in this temporal, sensuously-limited life, and of a correspondent happiness, that is, the demand of the highest good, finds its fulfillment only in the assumption of an immortality of the rational personality, and of a universal government of an all-wise, just and almighty God. These postulates have, in virtue of the moral nature of man, entire moral certainty, because it is only on the assumption 332of their truth that the morally-rational life can attain to its goal. Thus the moral law leads, through the idea of the highest good as the object and end of the practical reason, to religion, that is, to the conceiving of all duties as divine commands,—not indeed as arbitrary prescriptions of an external will, but as essential and morally-necessary laws of every free rational will per se, which, however, must be looked upon as divine commands, because it is only on the supposition of a moral Infinite Will that we can attain to the highest good. Thus the moral striving is preserved from becoming selfish, and the thought of happiness is not made the motive of morality, but this motive is and remains absolutely nothing else but the moral law; but, through the religious consciousness, our reason attains to certainty and confidence in its moral aspirations. Ethics will never become a doctrine of happiness, an art of becoming happy; it becomes simply the doctrine as to how we may make ourselves worthy of happiness. Hence the moral idea rests not upon religion, but, conversely, religion rests upon the per se certain and necessary moral idea,—follows by moral necessity from this idea. Man is not moral because he is pious, but le is pious because he is moral. Morality in so far as it rests upon the idea of a free and rational creature, has no need, per se, of religion, because it has no end nor motive outside of itself, but it leads necessarily to religion, and thus gives rise to the idea of an almighty moral Lawgiver and world-Governor.—A special carrying-out of philosophical ethics, Kant has not really given; we find only a scanty approach thereto in his “Doctrine of Virtue,” a work of no great importance, and which already betrays marks of intellectual senility. He contents himself mostly with the mere general foundation-laying, whereas in fact, the chief question is: in how far the general thoughts admit also of being carried out in detail? Duties toward God belong, according to Kant, not to ethics proper, but to the doctrine of religion.244244   Met. d. Sitten, ed. 1838, p. 355 sqq.

Unquestionably there lies in the ethics of Kant a decided advance beyond antecedent philosophical ethics, and especially beyond the empirical and naturalistic. He raised it from the low region of a self-seeking or external utilitarian 333morality into the dignity of the science of a purely rational idea transcending all mere reality,—rejected all inferior self-seeking motives to morality, and insisted on the unconditional validity and obligatoriness of the moral law. While there lies in this a decided approximation to the Christian conception of the moral, still the great difference of this from the Christian view, and the inner weakness of the Kantian system as a whole, are unmistakable. The independence of morality on religion which follows from Kant’s theory of rational knowledge, makes it impossible for the moral principle to obtain positive contents; his much admired moral law, and for which he puts forth such high claims, says in fact absolutely nothing, and does not lead, save by arbitrarily calling in aid from without, a single step further; and it is manifestly not without good reason, that Kant developed no system of ethics proper. The above-mentioned formula expresses not, properly speaking, the moral law itself, but only the universal validity of the law which is yet to be discovered,—says, in fact, nothing else than: “act according to rational, and hence universally-valid law;” but if we now ask, what then is this law, we are left entirely without answer. The application of this formal principle becomes in each particular case an experiment; an examination of the question: can I will that all men should act according to the same maxim by which I act? But we have absolutely no clue or criterion as to whence and on what basis the answer is to be given, inasmuch as the moral law is utterly destitute of positive contents; we could at best only start the inquiry as to what the result would be in case all men acted as we; but this, as a judging of morality by the result, would be in contradiction to the other moral views of Kant, and would be the worst of all empiricism,—as in fact not the real, but only the possible or probable result could be taken into consideration. But in case, now, some one should, in view of some per se immoral action, come to the manifestly possible, though erroneous conviction, that such action is adapted to be practiced universally, then such a person would be entirely unassailable and unreformable from the stand-point of Kant, and thus an error in the calculating understanding would jeopardize the entire moral conduct of the person. And in fact Helvetius and La Mettrie affirmed 334without hesitation, that their own maxim was adapted to be a universally valid law; what could Kant then object to them, seeing that they recognized his formal principle? The Kantian moral law, which he himself declared to be purely’ formal, is moreover incorrect even in formal respects. Inasmuch as, according to Kant, a maxim is the subjective rule which lies at the basis of my conduct, hence it is for that very reason per se utterly unadapted to be made into a universal law for all men; a maxim is the law as subjectively conditioned and shaped, and has in fact, in its subjective form, validity only for this particular subject. The moral maxim of an educator and guide is not adapted to be also the maxim of him who is to be guided and led,—that of a warrior cannot be that of a clergyman. Although it is true that the law which forms the basis of my maxim must be universally valid, yet I cannot derive the law from the maxim, but only the maxim from the law. Kant gives not the contents of the law, but only the way in which the contents may be found; this way, however, is in contradiction to his entire system, and is not merely a purely empirical or rather experimental one, but also an entirely false one. In the very attempt at rejecting every merely individual element as determinative, Kant exalts it in fact to the solely determining one.

Kant undertakes, now, actually to advance further by the aid of this formal principle, and infers from it, as a second formula, the principle: “act in such a manner as to consider and use rational nature, that is, humanity in general, both in thy own person and also in the person of every other one, always, at the same time, as an end, and never merely as a means,”—namely, because rational nature is personality, and personality is an end in itself. Kant himself admits that this formula is merely formal; but precisely in this fact lies its defectiveness, for it is just as impossible to attain to positive contents from merely formal principles as to obtain a real value from a purely algebraic equation. When the principle is only a mere empty space which is first to be filled from without, and not the fountain which unfolds itself into a stream, there is no possibility of advancing a step-further. And hence, the above formula may be applied equally well morally and immorally; the whole question depends on, what 335the end is, for which I consider the person; it might in fact be an end of Satanic malice. This second principle is, in its arbitrarily-determined form (and which in fact embraces only a limited part of morality) still less adapted to its purpose than the first, with which in fact it stands in no logical connection.

Another wide-reaching defect of Kantian ethics is this, that morality appears as a mere one-sided affair of the understanding, while the heart entirely disappears, and is left utterly unexplained. This one-sidedness results of course from the divorce of morality from religion. It sounds plausibly, and is likewise very easily said, that the good inust be done for its own sake, that the law of the reason must be per se the direct motive to moral action; but as Kant positively admits elsewhere the possibility that man can act also against his better knowledge, and consequently against his conscience, hence this undeniable fact proves that rational knowledge is not per se a sufficient motive to moral action. The thought of love is wanting; man can indeed act against his knowledge, but not against his love. It is only in a love of the good that a sufficient motive for moral action is found; but in this God-ignoring morality of the understanding, love has no ground and no place. The love of the living God can enkindle love, but an abstract thought cannot. Kant demands simply unconditional obedience, but not love; he expressly declares that the law must often be fulfilled even against our inclinations, yea, in the face of decided repugnance; but this would amount only to an outward fulfilling of duty. Kant’s morality is possible only for beings who have in themselves no manner of sin and no germ of sin; but so soon as even the mere possibility of an already-existing sinfulness is admitted, this ethical system loses all foundation; for both the certainty and also the potency of the rational law as a motive, are thereby undermined. And now Kant in fact admits,—in his remarkable work: “Religion within the Limits of Pure Reason” (1792, ’94)—(which, with the exception of the one point here in question, became the catechism of Rationalism)—the indwelling of an evil principle in man along-side of the good one, a “radical evil in human nature,” existing there already anterior to any exercise of freedom,—a tendency to evil inhering 336in all men without exception, as a subjective motive-power antecedent to all action,—a peccatum originarium, which he describes with such dark colors that even the strongest presentations of the orthodox doctrine of hereditary sin would fail to depict the natural man so unfavorably; but by this admission, Kant undermines his entire moral system, for he thereby renders it entirely incomprehensible, how the mere knowledge of the moral law (if indeed, under such circumstances, such a knowledge could in fact be certain and unclouded) could be the motive to a willing fulfillment of the same, seeing that, in fact, the love of man is turned in the direction of evil. And though it is true that often precisely in the contradictions of a system, the deeper presentiment of the truth is in fact contained, still the system itself is thereby overturned and proven untrue. And in general the antithesis of reason and sensuousness, which extends through Kant’s entire world-theory, is in no respect rendered comprehensible, nor conciliated; it appears simply as a fact, broadly prominent and defying all comprehension.—Another peculiarity of Kantian ethics is its utter lack of appreciation for history, although this was in fact characteristic of the entire epoch; his ethics has history neither as its presupposition, nor as its end, nor as its contents. Each man stands unconnected with the historical development of the spirit,—is considered only as a rational unity, and acts only as such; and there is also a lack of all appreciation for an historical goal of the moral, for a morality of humanity, for the rational moral significancy of universal history.

The Kantian ground-principles of ethics were further carried out and applied, with partial modifications, by Kiesewetter (1789), by K. C. E. Schmid (1790), by the Roman Catholic Mutschelle (1788, ’94), by Snell (1805) in smooth, popular style, by L. H. Jacob (1794), by Heydenreich (1794), by Tieftrunk (1789 and later), and by others.

Kant’s moral system was, in its general character, very poorly adapted to be applied to Christian ethics. Its absolutely unhistorical character, its merely formal principle the application of which rests simply on reflective calculation, its lack of any other moral motive than the authority of an abstract law, and above all the reversing of the Christian relation between morality 337and religion,—all this could not, on its application to theological ethics, fail to endanger the Christian character thereof, notwithstanding the fact that it opposed with moral earnestness the insipid utilitarian morality of deistical “illuminism.” Precisely this divorcing of morality from religion—a direct contradiction to the Christian view—was very much in harmony with the dominant spirit of the age; and this in fact accounts in part for the warm welcome which Kant’s moral system met with also within the sphere of the already deeply sunken theological world; and upon this adoption of Kantian views rests the general development of the system of Rationalism. The dogmatic element of the Christian religion,—reduced now to the ideas of God, of immortality and of Christ as the ideal of virtue,—sank into secondary importance—into dependence on the morality given with full certainty in reason itself; the historical phase of Christianity was without worth; Christ himself was admired only in so far as he had realized in himself the moral law given already in reason,—only as a teacher of “illuministic” morality, and as a living exemplification of the same. It was not evangelical faith that could lean with confidence upon Kant, but rather only the anti-Christian tendency, which had thus far been represented in “illuminism,” and which now, in fact, received from Kant a more earnestly-ethical and scientific character. We have no wish to deny this scientific impulse given to theology; but when (as is done by Daniel Schenkel in his Dogmatics) Kant is exalted into an essential and necessary reformer of the whole field of evangelical theology, through whom there has been wrought “a deep-reaching reaction on the part of the ethical factor against the fanatical-grown doctrinism of the dogmatics of the seventeenth century” which had annihilated all interest in ethics,—such a manner of viewing the matter simply indicates a forgetfulness of the fact that this orthodoxy in question had been already for almost a century devoid of vitality, and that in the meantime the philosophy of Wolf and the movement of Pietism had given theology an entirely other direction, and that Pietism especially had in fact almost one-sidedly emphasized the moral phase of Christianity,—so that there could hardly have been need of the Kantian moralism as the sole salvation against said doctrinal “fanaticism.”


The most important theological presentations of ethics from the Kantian stand-point are: J. W. Schmid (“Spirit of the Ethics of Jesus,” 1790; “Theological Ethics,” 1793; “Christian Ethics,” 1797), who presents the founding of ethics on Kantian principles as the sole mission of Jesus; J. E. C. Schmidt (1799), in a similar spirit; S. G. Lange; S. Vogel. Stäudlin treated theological ethics (from and after 1798) with constant changing of title and stand-point, until in his “New Treatise on Ethics” (1813, third edition, 1825) he despaired of any superior principle at all, and brought together, in a wavering eclecticism of heterogeneous thoughts, a feeble whole. The self-metamorphosing C. F. von Ammon repeated at first (1795-’98) simply the ethics of Kant, but soon after (1800) broke entirely away from him, without yet getting rid of his own superficiality.

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