The Categorical Imperative of Faith

Many of you are aware of Immanuel Kant's famous categorical imperative in ethical theory. There are many ways to describe the categorical imperative. One way to describe the categorical imperative is that virtue should always be an end in itself rather than a means to an end. That is to say, virtue is virtue when it is pursued for its own sake and not being used for some Machiavellian or strategic purpose. What this means is that virtue isn't always rewarded in the world. And that's what makes virtue virtue.

We might say that virtue isn't an economic transaction with the cosmos. Virtue isn't an exchange where if we do X the cosmos will give us Y. Of course, we'd always like to have Y, the good outcome. But if we are truly virtuous the good outcome isn't the root motivation. We do the right thing regardless, because it's the right thing to do. Virtue is an end in itself.

What I'm wondering about is if there might be a categorical imperative for the religious life as well.

In his book Christ on Trial Rowan Williams describes the transcendence and radical Otherness of God as that which is wholly separate from the ways in which we might accomplish success or find security in this world. Transcendence, in this view, does not accomplish anything in this world. If it did, if God was effective, then God would become a tool we would use to justify and secure our self-interests. God, in that instance, would be a means rather than an end.

Consequently, the radical transcendence of God will be experienced by us to be a radical ineffectiveness, that God accomplishes nothing by way of success or security in this world. Another way to say this is that God's transcendence is experienced as a sort of failure. In the language of Paul, the cross is foolishness to the world. Jesus's exultation and victory appears, for all intents and purposes, to be a failure.

We can't use the cross, try as we might, to get the stuff that we want. God is useless in this regard. God cannot be used as a means to secure our ends.

Rowan Williams describing how Jesus's revelation of his transcendence (his claim to be "I AM") occurs at the exact moment of his worldly failure--as the one condemned, tortured and sentenced to die:
[T]he challenge remains, to re-imagine what it is for God to speak to us as God--not as a version of whatever makes us feel secure and appears more attractive than other familiar kinds of security. For if our talk about God is a religious version about human safety, the paradox is that it will fail to say anything at all about salvation. It will not have anything to do with what is decisively and absolutely not the way of this world.

Religious speculation talks a good deal about transcendence...[But] we cannot properly think of transcendence merely by projecting what we know and what seems to help and reassure us to the highest point imaginable. Transcendence meets us, and surprises us, when we are shown simply that the way of the world is not the final and exclusive truth...[What we sense as] good, holy and merciful just is what it is, for its own sake; it has its substance in itself, not in its dependence on any outcome. It is not a strategy for attaining something other than itself; it needs nothing else. When the vanquished and tortured man in the Gospel story says 'I am' to his tormentors, he claims exactly that character of independence--he is something that is for its own sake and needs no justification.

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7 thoughts on “The Categorical Imperative of Faith”

  1. Absolutely. With double entendre, God is good for nothing. And prayer - prayer is a waste of time (Herbert McCabe). Nietzsche called utilitarianism "pig philosophy". Its theological version is no less porcine.

  2. It's interesting that in Kant's view both persons and ethical directives are to be viewed as ends in themselves. But ethics gives a universal perspective (the categorical imperative is identified by admitting no exceptions, ethically) while humans persons are unique. To my knowledge Kant never explicitly reconciled this rupture which results if you extend his thought: Universal directives will be made from the standpoint of unique persons, producing as many categorical imperatives-potentially--on any given question as there are persons. Ethics would collapse as a result. (Kant does see the problem in the "Remark" following his "Theorem III" of chapter 1 in his "Critique of Practical Reason." But he extricates ethics from personalism, instead of founding it on it...)

    The question becomes, is there a right kind of personal point of view? It's a meta-ethical question. It takes what James called "a certain blindness in human beings" (the very personal nature of human value--which we are blind to in others) and puts it in the center of ethics. It's a transformation of ethics accomplished by faith, which might be stated, "Never act except as to treat each person's value and dignity as sacred." In short, ethical points of view can be used to harm people, unless respect for persons is their end.

    "and the tortured man in the Gospel story says 'I am' to his tormentors...he is something that is for its own sake." Exactly. But we do have a purpose in this--to not get our sense of right all wrong.

  3. Doesn't Kierkegaard in a sense explore the religious categorical imperative? God is not equal to the ethical but transcends it and so there is always more to virtue and the ethical than we can imagine. On the other hand, all transcendence or all duty undermines the reality of creation. Eschatology derives its everything from God, yet this everything is an everything in relation to creation. It has transcendence, delivering a reality beyond all creaturely/finite potential, but it is also shamelessly immanent, affirming our bodies, histories, relationships... We need transcendence to stand outside ourselves, yet to embrace it completely would annihilate us, lead to ultimate pantheism, and miss the great tradition in Abraham, Moses, Job (among many others), of asserting our finitude to the transcendent.

  4. I am wondering how you understand this in light of Jesus promise that whoever believes in him will "do the works he has been doing and even greater things"? I understand the point that we don't do things for the sake of success, but I do feel like it's good and right to want to see good things happen, to see things change for the better, no? I do think Christ would have been really disappointed if all his efforts hadn't borne fruit and led to his followers understanding and spreading his teaching. Wondering how y'all think about this. Maybe the point is that "success" for God might look very different than what we typically perceive as success?

  5. This needs some push-back, especially given the prominent links that the protagonists in Scripture - including Jesus himself - are presented as fashioning between certain works/virtues and certain blessings/outcomes. To frame it as either/or is to take "categorical imperative" all the way to seed. Perhaps it functions best as a goal of maturation (cf. your latest post on Calvin/Hobbes) rather than an imperative per se.

  6. A small point on terms: I think what you are talking about is a bit more general than the categorical imperative. I think you are largely looking at the contrast between deontological ethics (which is concerned with the rightness of an act, independent of ends) and conequentialist ethics (evaluating acts based on their outcomes), which includes utilitarianism as one of many subtypes. Kan'ts categorical imperative is a single precise statement, from which he tries to derive a system of deontological ethics. He lays it out quite precisely, and it is basically this: act only according to maxims that you can also will to be universal maxims. It is a fancy and precise version of the 'golden rule'.

    Does this note about terms relate to the content of the post itself? If I'm right about the terms, we can just imagine that the post talks about Kant's deontological ethics instead of his categorical imperative in particular. If we did that, I'd recommend that we take a trip back to the ancients, by Hegelian routes. Specifically, I think the contrast between consequentialist and deontological ethics conceals a deeper unity of the two: both implicate assessments of both means and ends. The deontologist still functionally ends up defining specific things as 'goods in themselves', leaving open the question of the good. For example, I would argue that the categorical imperative is not a transcendent abstract rule, but one which appeals to us because it appeals to the basic perceived moral good of 'fairness.' For from being an abstract principle that can be detached from any particular moral perception, it is instead a model based on consistently seeking the good moral end of 'fairness'. In a similar way, a consequentialist might argue that it is good to follow the categorical imperative, because it leads to the good end of achieving fairness. In other words, I would suggest that sound moral reasoning is always simultaneously consequentialist and deontological, and that we can only ever fully evaluate the goodness of an action from the perspective of its entirety, seen in its fullness 'backwards' from the end. And now, suddenly, we are back among the ancients...and, I would suggest, much better for it.

    So on the theology: is Jesus good because his ethics are deontological? Maybe, but not 'deontological' understood as a contrast to 'consequentialist'. Instead, I would suggest that the particular goodness that is being articulated here is that, through the incarnation, Jesus shows that Creation is a Good end in itself, when seen in its fullness 'backwards' from the end. What is the end? Redemption and the complete overcoming of evil, through humble, gentle and non-violent means (which entails vulnerability to violence, but a refusal to inflict it).

  7. This is right up my alley - here we go. I have a post on Genesis next week that fits this.

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