Into the World--Chapter Ten: The Challenge from Kantian Autonomy


Prologue and Abstract
Chapter One: Introduction
Chapter Two: The Layered Gospel Context
Chapter Three: Today’s Warring Intellectual Context
Chapter Four: A Perpetual Warring Intellectual Context
Chapter Five: A Primer—The Bible’s Broadest Theme
Chapter Six: The Voice of Conscience
Chapter Seven: The Voice of God
Chapter Eight: The Message of the Cross as Supreme Answer
Chapter Nine: The View from Enlightened Self-Interest

Chapter Ten: The Challenge from Kantian Autonomy
Chapter Eleven: The View from James’ Radical Question
Chapter Twelve: The View from Sartre’s Bad Faith
Chapter Thirteen: Kierkegaard’s Challenge to Intelligibility—First Part
Chapter Thirteen: Kierkegaard’s Challenge to Intelligibility—Second Part

It is another doctrine of secular faith that religion is a fifth wheel when it comes to morality. Various points of view contribute to this doctrine, including the following one championed by Immanual Kant. I can see myself as essentially committed to moral values, this view holds, and so make fidelity to myself the basis of my moral commitments. Commitment to self, thus, replaces commitment to a religious tradition and its moral framework. By creating a sense of identity between myself and my moral perspective, the dilemma—between a primary commitment to self-interest on the one hand and a primary commitment to one’s moral obligations, or “conscience,” on the other hand—disappears.

Renowned ethicist, John Rawls, explained his Kantian point of view this way: “Properly understood…the desire to act justly derives in part from the desire to express most fully what we are or can be, namely, free and equal rational beings with a liberty to choose.”1 The philosophical rationale behind Kant’s view is this. We are most free when we are motivated by our moral perspectives in that it is our ability to understand and act on a moral framework that provides a framework that does not constrict our autonomy—that is, a framework not embedded in the web of cause and effect that controls nature. Thus, from a Kantian perspective, acting on a desire “to express most fully what we are or can be” means acting in accord with a moral point of view.2 Consequently Rawl’s Kantian view, it seems, eliminates the dilemma behind the supreme question: For a Kantian moralist, a proper view of oneself does not conflict with one’s moral commitments generally.

Reality, however, does not bend to definitions so easily. Consider that Nietzsche had a very different view on how best to express our human nature most freely and fully: “…convictions are prisons…” he said.3 He goes on to note that the crucial difference between a “great spirit” and a person invested in a moral commitment consists in the “great spirit” having the strength to set aside outside standards of conduct. By setting aside any moral framework as binding, Nietzsche held that a great spirit “knows himself sovereign.”4 Thus, Kantian autonomy is a Nietzschian prison.

We bring the point to bear on our dilemma by asking whether either the Kantian or the Nietzschian perspective can be seen as more fundamental. (If one is more fundamental than the other, it subsumes the other and the dilemma behind the supreme question with it.) Rawls notes that “…Kant [spoke] of the failure to act on the moral law as giving rise to shame….” and states that “Such actions strike at our self-respect.”5 He thereby stakes the same ground as did Nietzsche. In fact Nietzsche famously defined humanity by this very ground: “To him who has knowledge, man…is the animal with red cheeks. How did this come about? It is because man has had to be ashamed too often.”6 Thus, Kantian and Nietzschian perspectives agree on the fundamental importance of a person’s reaction to the authoritative standing of moral frameworks. Consequently, neither can claim the deeper insight. But they disagree radically on what the response should be. Unless the perspectives are defective, a radical disagreement on a fundamental point expresses an exclusive dilemma.

On inspection, then, we find that the Kantian attempt to identify one’s sense of self with one’s moral perspective does not define the dilemma away. In fact, it reveals the fundamental place the dilemma holds in human life: a clear thinking person will understand the need to choose between believing that we give best and fullest expression to human nature by fidelity to moral frameworks or independence from them. For what it means to be a free human being fully expressing human nature depends on how one chooses to believe. The implication is that the dilemma does lie at the foundation of human nature, and so the meaning of “proper view of self” depends on making the choice that determines which horn of the dilemma defines “propriety” in relation to one’s primary commitments. What we see, then, by examining Kant’s view in light of Nietzsche’s radical challenge to it is that the dilemma behind the supreme question does express a radical choice at the foundation of what it means to be a human being. Not elimination of, but reinforcement of the supreme question comes by way of a close evaluation of the Kantian point of view.

Moreover, it was Nietzsche’s opinion that Kant “was on the same path as the Christian.”7 I agree, because any application of the Kantian perspective will depend on giving a moral authority to conscience that cannot be located in nature generally, and human nature more specifically, and that constitutes a de facto religious faith perspective.

1. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Revised Edition, (The Belknap Press, Cambridge, 1999) p. 225.
2. Ibid, pp. 221-227.
3. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Antichrist, in The Portable Nietzsche, tr. and ed. Walter Kaufmann (Penguin Books, New York, 1954) p. 638.
4. Ibid.
5. Rawls, p. 225.
6. Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathrustra, in The Portable Nietzsche, tr. and ed. Walter Kaufmann, (Penguin Books, New York, 1954) 200.
7. The Antichrist, p. 641.

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4 thoughts on “Into the World--Chapter Ten: The Challenge from Kantian Autonomy”

  1. Hi Torrance,

    It certainly is, and it is life lived backwards too.


  2. Hi Tracy,

    First, an apology from the last post. After doing some research, enlightened self-interest is used in different and often contradictory ways. If I had looked up ethical egoism I would have figured out which definition you were using, but obviously I didn't. So apologies for that mistake.

    In this post, I mostly agree that Kantian moral philosophy coincides with much of Christian teaching since Kant's is based on an abstract and universal moral code. Nietzsche, on the other hand, holds to a relativistic morality of power relationships. Kant might object that his Categorical Imperative is more stringent than the Golden Rule, but for the most part they overlap fairly well. The problem is that Kant's introduction of the synthetic, composite nature of how we understand reality was the foundation upon which Nietzsche built. According to Kant, "Mind is the law- giver to nature." There are many qualifiers left out of that simple statement, and Nietzsche ignored all of them, but the most central theme of Nietzsche's philosophy can be found in it.

    In addition, Nietzsche revealed his inspiration as Dionysus, described as tempter, explorer, and visionary who has a total lack of shame. Nietzsche eventually answers his first question from the preface of Beyond Good and Evil, "Supposing truth is a woman - what then?" His answer is a deviously clever whirlwind of insightful wisdom, ecstatic strength, and poetic sentiment, a charm offensive designed to lure truth towards him and away from the overly serious, somnambulant, and cautiously awkward dogmatists he disdains in both religion and philosophy.

  3. Hi Step2,

    No apology needed. I'm pleased to have such an interested reader.

    The Second Introduction to the 1950s Harper Collins edition of Kant's Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone has some good background information on this, as does Walter Kaufmann's Critique of Philosophy and Religion (cited in Chapter Eight notes).

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