Evil and Theodicy, Part 3: Kant, Authenticity, and Lament

I've been reflecting on Susan Neiman's book Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy. To recap, one way Neiman frames the problem of evil is as a disjoint between virtue and happiness. Consequently, a theodicy is an attempt to show that virtue and happiness are linked. See my prior to posts on this topic for a review.

According to Neiman, Immanuel Kant had a bit of a different take on the possibility of theodicy. Although Kant believed virtue and happiness were linked he expressed concerns about the possibility of virtue should those links become transparent. According to Kant, for virtue to be virtue it must be pursued as an end in itself. The minute virtue becomes a means to an end it ceases to be virtue. Take courage as an example. If in a difficult ethical dilemma moral courage is demanded of me and I knew, with 100% certainty, that my actions would lead to a good outcome then what place is there for courage? Courage is virtuous precisely because I don't know the outcome, that I have no guarantees that my virtue will result in happiness.

For Kant, then, virtue can only exist in a world where there is "a problem of evil." Consequently, any proposed theodicy must take care not to rob us of authentic moral action by making the links between virtue and happiness too apparent and predictable. In short, if a final theodicy were given to us then the causal links between virtue and happiness would become completely transparent and known. In this fully realized theodicy we are assured that, eventually, virtue is always rewarded and vice is always punished. But in that kind of world virtue vanishes. All that is left is self-interested calculation. We do good because it pays.

But for Kant goodness, to be authentic, must be its own reward. True goodness acts with no guarantees. Goodness, it seems, requires an incomplete theodicy. A world with no evil, no virtue/happiness loose ends, reduces life to behaviorism, where each action, eventually, has a discrete and entirely predictable reward/punihsment outcome. For Kant there is no virtue or courage in such a world. Just rats in a maze working out self-interested calculations. Heaven becomes The Cheese, reward.

As I read Neiman's account of Kant my mind drifted back over the emotional topography of the psalms. Take, for example, Psalm 1, a song of praise:

Blessed is the man
who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked
or stand in the way of sinners
or sit in the seat of mockers.

But his delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law he meditates day and night.

He is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither.
Whatever he does prospers.

Not so the wicked!
They are like chaff
that the wind blows away.

Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.

For the LORD watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.

In Psalm 1 there is no "problem of evil" as there is no disjoint between virtue and happiness. The world of Psalm 1 is governed by moral symmetry: The righteous flourish and the wicked are punished. By contrast, lament psalms are governed by moral asymmetry: The righteous are punished and the wicked flourish (see Psalm 13 as an example). The problem of evil, per Neiman's scheme, emerges in the lament psalms as the disjoint between virtue and happiness is clearly articulated.

Now take these observations about the psalms and think back about Kant's critique of a completed theodicy. Specifically, think about this question from Kant's perspective:

If you dwell excessively in the world of Psalm 1 and never live in the world of lament can you be living an authentic Christian life?

Kant says no. His reasons, as we've seen, are clear. If you live with a view of God that guarantees that your faith and virtue will be rewarded then, for Kant, your faith is simply self-interest. Again, virtue cannot exist for Kant if the outcome is guaranteed. If reward and eternal bliss are sure bets, well, can you really be praised for taking a non-existent risk?

This is really a profound critique of much of what is happening in Christian culture. For example, many have lamented (no pun intended) the excessive praise-orientation in much of popular Christian worship. Much of Christianity is triumphalistic. Health and wealth visions of the gospel are also very popular. By being a Christian we can get Our Best Life Now!

We often see these trends as symptoms of superficiality. But Kant's critique hits harder. It is not just that these forms of Christianity are emotionally shallow. Kant shows that these praise-dominated faith systems are void of all authenticity. For when the links between virtue and happiness are fully in hand faith demands nothing of us. Religion reduces to expressions of human self-interest and selfish calculation. Kant calls this idolatry.

The flip side of the equation is that true authenticity is found in a faith full of lament. It's not just that lament is emotionally "deeper" or more "real" than the emotions of praise. Rather, lament is expressed in the face of evil, in a world where the links between virtue and happiness have broken down. Thus, to have faith or to act with virtue in a world of lament calls upon something more than self-interest. Faith and virtue have no guarantees in the experience of lament. Thus, for Kant, only faith and virtue expressed from lament are truly authentic.

What all this means, for me at least, is that for Christianity to be authentic it must play out against a backdrop of doubt and lament. Faith, to be real, needs doubt and lament as constant companions. By contrast, to live in a world dominated by praise and certainty is to not live by faith at all. Religion, in that instance, is just one more example of human self-interest.

I think all this is what Søren Kierkegaard was after when he said this:

"If I am capable of grasping God objectively, I do not believe, but precisely because I cannot do this I must believe. If I wish to preserve myself in faith, I must constantly be intent upon holding fast the objective uncertainty, so as to remain out upon the deep, over seventy thousand fathoms of water, still preserving my faith."

Kierkegaard would not allow his faith to "come ashore." He would not allow his faith to slide into comforting knowledge. He had to work to keep doubt in his faith. Only then, he knew, would his faith be authentic and not a form of self-comfort or self-interest.

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6 thoughts on “Evil and Theodicy, Part 3: Kant, Authenticity, and Lament”

  1. Dr. Beck,

    You paraphrase Kant, "Again, virtue cannot exist for Kant if the outcome is guaranteed. If reward and eternal bliss are sure bets, well, can you really be praised for taking a non-existent risk?"

    How does this affect a view of universal reconciliation? (I know the question seems to assume quite a bit, but I don't want to assume how it fits in with UR, or even that Kant is a universalist.)


  2. Great question "anonymous". I'm looking forward to
    Dr. Beck's take.

    To add to the question, wouldn't the notion of partial
    reconciliation place virtue as the primary (if not exclusive)
    vehicle leading to eternal happiness? Virtue is then
    used as a measuring stick, not only between those that
    are "saved" and those that are "lost", but amongst the "saved"
    community as well. To exasperate this further, this system
    of soterioloy assumes that those who are "lost" are consigned
    to an ETERNITY of torment.

    All of this intensifies the lament for those who experience the disjoint between virtue and happiness in their lives.
    Many "in the faith" who appear to live a relatively untested life
    do not seem bothered by the idea that MANY of the "lost"
    will spend an ETERNITY in torment. Add to this, the randomness of Katrina, and all the inconsistencies of theodicy observed throughout man's history and - this can drive one to insanity.

    Therefore, for such a system of soteriology, is it possible that one can choose virtue for virtue's sake?

  3. Hi Justin and Gary,
    I think this is a good question, one I was pondering while I was thinking about Kant’s view.

    I think universalism fares well given Kant’s scheme. It’s the traditional notions of heaven and hell that have the problems.

    In the traditional view, heaven and hell function as a final reward and punishment. The goal of virtue is, thus, to attain heaven. This has always been a thin view and skeptics of religion have long pointed this out: Isn’t trying to go to heaven just a form of self-interest?

    But “heaven” in the view of Universalism isn’t reward as much as it is restored relationship with both God and humanity. True, this is a positive outcome, it is fulfillment and happiness, but it’s not obtained as an extrinsic reinforcer. It has to come from authentic character. That is, the view of Universalism posits no “deadline” were just deserts are handed out. It extends the timeline into God’s future, where relationality is pursued to its outcome, perhaps with no ending, just an ever deepening fullness. There are no “rewards” except those that come organically from a life of self-emptying.

    Phrased another way, salvation is about relationality not reward. And I’m always in relationship with God, regardless of my actions. So when I act in virtue I’m not gaining anything down the road except the benefits of intrinsic virtue in the deep core of my heart. But let’s say I act out of self-interest or cowardice, saying to myself, “God is still with me, why not act any damn way I please?” You could do this, but you’ve moved away from God and damaged yourself in the process. You are still in orbit, but you’ve moved further into darkness. You could continue in this process until, I expect, you become a wraith, a shell of a human being. It’s not that your are being “punished” as much as it is you getting what you want: Yourself, and only yourself. The point being, in this view virtue and vice function as intrinsic rewards and punishments rather than requiring external whips and carrots. Thus the life of virtue, true virtue, can only be one of internalization.

  4. I'm with Hume and Adam Smith on this one. We have "sympathy-based sentiments" or empathy for others that motivates us towards unselfish acts. In other words we are hardwired to have altruistic feelings because of the public utility that results. To put it another way, there is more than simply unvirtuous self-interest that is motivating behavior, even if you live with the view of God rewarding good behavior.

    Richard, I'm interested to hear where you fit, as one who studies human behavior, between Hume and Kant. In reading your blog, I'd say you favor Kant. But it appears to me that the more we learn about the brain, the more Hume is vindicated.

  5. Hi Pecs,
    I'm a huge admirer of both Hume and Kant. I think you are right that psychology has largely vindicated Hume and Smith on our moral psychology. But I follow Kant on ethics (his categorical imperative that humans are to be treated as ends not means is very important). So I think the two are really talking about two different things: Moral psychology versus ethics. I follow Hume on the former and Kant on the latter.

    Obviously, the two are related. I think the goal is to leverage our sympathy-based moral psychology (Hume) to realize the universal ethic articulated by Kant.

  6. Please check out this reference which describes the origins and consequences of the perceptual strait-jacket which is at the root of our current zeitgeist.


    And which inevitably created the situation pointed to and described in this reference.


    But even that zeitgeist is the inevitable outcome of the drive to total power and control at the root of the entire Western "cultural" project---including its so-called religion.


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