(2/2) The Starry Heavens Above Me And The Moral Law Within Me: Immanuel Kant (April 22, 1724 – February 12, 1804)

(above) Kant with the ouroboros snake encircling him, the classical symbol for the mind turning back on itself.


The Starry Heavens Above Me And The Moral Law Within Me: Immanuel Kant (April 22, 1724 – February 12, 1804)


I think it’s sometimes overlooked how much Kant’s Christianity figures into his philosophy.  Let’s consider his ethics. Kant says there are three a priori conditions for ethical systems:

(1) God

(2) Immortality

(3) Freedom:

Let’s consider these:

(1) GOD

A large part of Kant’s argument is redefining us in terms of our hardwiring and so with Kant man as the rational animal becomes man as the imperative/rule following moral agent.  Kant fits in precisely with the apostle Paul when Paul attributes ethical behavior to the way God created us:

  • 14 When gentiles, who do not possess the law, by nature do what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves, They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts [by God], as their own conscience also bears witness (Romans 2:14-15)

To “will” means to act according to concepts, such as pursuing scientific education, and if the gentiles follow the law though they have not been given it, then they act out of universal concepts.  So, for Paul moral agency is possible because of this revelation from God, and Jews and pagans “will” according to universal concepts, since there is no humanistic reason pagans should be following the law (since it was only given to the Jews).  

In this way, Kant’s categorical imperative doesn’t or most primarily mean, as is popularly supposed, “if you want to be ethical then do X,” since this would be a hypothetical imperative, (if-then), not a categorical one.  Rather, the linguistic form of the categorical imperative is “Ethics made possible because humans (who are inherently moral agents) operate according to a rule that I morally accompany my actions, no if, ands or buts.”  This is the a priori (that which comes before ethical experience and makes it possible) rule moral agents operate according to, which is necessary if ethical judgments and actions are to be intelligible at all.  Hence, Kant calls it not just a system of morality but a “metaphysics of morals,” what a priori makes moral judgments and behavior possible.

Dogs are smart and engage in prosocial behavior, but what is lacking is human level intelligence, and so when the dog slips up and chews up the couch we say “it doesn’t know any better.”  One commenter says regarding Paul and the law:

  • What does Galatians 3:24 mean?
  • Paul is describing the purpose of the law in the history of Israel until Christ came. He has been clear that the law of Moses cannot bring life. It cannot save people from their sin (Galatians 3:11). It did, however, play a vital purpose for Israel from the time of Moses until the time of Christ. 
  • Paul uses an illustration to describe that purpose. He compares the law to a paidagōgos, or a “pedagogue.” In Greek families, a pedagogue was a slave entrusted with protecting and caring for the children from the age of 6 until late adolescence. The pedagogue was not exactly the same as a “teacher,” but he did discipline the children. He taught them morals and corrected them when they misbehaved. When the kids got old enough, though, they left the pedagogue behind. This word is translated into English here as “guardian,” or “tutor.”  Paul’s comparison suggests that God’s law provided protection and discipline for Israel until the time was right for Christ to come. The law was not the teacher, and it could not save Israel. It provided direction and discipline until all people could be justified (“made right with God”) through faith in Christ.

Our nature rebukes us when we try and deny moral attachment to our actions (oh, I was drunk, etc.).  The fact of our attachment of ownership of our actions is shown all the more clearly when we try to wriggle our way out of responsibility for ourselves.  That the Will legislates I morally accompany my actions is a condition of the possibility of particular ethical maxims like “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  The dog or certain mentally challenged individual are not intelligent in this way, and so are not morally attached to and accountable for their actions.  Average humans are special among animals because they act on behalf of themselves.

There are many possible interpretations of an event.  For instance, I am alone in a room at a neighbor’s house at a party and I accidentally knock juice on a white rug.  Do I think:

  • Good, he’s a jerk
  • Oh no, this is going to cost me
  • I’m so clumsy
  • Maybe I can hide it
  • I’ll need to be fast to clean it up
  • Hey Bob, sorry but …
  • Ha, I’m drunker than I thought!
  • Gotta get out of here
  • I’ll blame it on someone else at the party
  • etc

In all these cases, I am expressing ways in which ownership accompanies my actions.  Ethical thinking therefor doesn’t pertain to essential “what” I did, but rather existential “how” I actualize my possibilities “to be.” Nietzsche thus accused Kant of sneaking in theology in the guise of Philosophy by reading theological weight into our natural dispositions as an extremely intelligent social animal


 Kant further Christianizes his practical philosophy by importing theistic reflections on a lack of immortality.  In the bible, one of the key stumbling blocks for ethical behavior is people not believing in immortality, because if we are just going to die anyway, might as well eat, drink, and be merry. For instance:

Isaiah 22:13

13  and behold, joy and gladness,

killing oxen and slaughtering sheep,

eating flesh and drinking wine.

“Let us eat and drink,

for tomorrow we die.”

1 Corinthians 15:32 “32 What do I gain if, humanly speaking, we fought with beasts at Ephesus? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.””

Nietzsche comments

  • The Protestant parson is the grandfather of German philosophy…. The theologians’ instinct in the German scholars divined what [Kant] had once again made possible. […] The conception of a “true world,” the conception of morality as the essence of the world … were once again, thanks to a wily and shrewd skepticism, if not provable, at least no longer refutable. […] Kant’s success is merely a theologian’s success…. [Nietzsche, The Antichrist §10.]

(3) FREEDOM (Freedom For, Freedom From)

Just as Jesus’s death is going to make possible repentance because it uncovers our hidden sinful nature, the Will out of a causality of “freedom for” is going to unconsciously legislate a rule according to which I always act while morally attached to my actions, unlike certain animals and mentally challenged individuals that are not attached to their actions in that way.  This freedom-for makes possible ethical judgments and actions, and so is the ground of freedom-from (eg freeing yourself from fascisms in the world and in yourself).