Monday, January 26, 2009

Kant's moral argument for God

A redated post. The link it to a philosophy of religion information site.

Suppose you have been trying to decide whether to believe in God or not and you can't figure it out. The philosopher Immanuel Kant thought that we are all in that situation. Kant argued that we must then choose the beliefs that will best facilitate our efforts to be moral persons, and he argued that a world-view with an infinite future ahead of us, a world-view where our choices are really up to us, and a world-view that sees the world governed by a moral God is preferable from that standpoint that a world-view where we die and rot, where the scales of justice are not balanced in the end. So if our goal is to be moral, then given a choice, we should believe in God.

Is Kant right about this?


David Wood said...

Attention must be drawn to your next-to-last sentence: “So if our goal is to be moral, then given a choice, we should believe in God.” Here we find the difference between a theoretical argument (which philosophers are used to) and a practical argument (which philosophers are not used to). Most of Kant’s critics miss this distinction. That is, they treat Kant’s arguments for moral theism as they would treat any other argument.

A theoretical argument doesn’t presuppose values (except, one might argue, the value of truth). A moral argument, on the other hand, presupposes one’s commitment to the moral law. And here we aren’t merely dealing with a person who says that it’s important to be moral. The commitment to duty in Kant’s philosophy is more staunch than anywhere else in the history of philosophy (even that of the Stoics).

Kant presupposes this fanatical commitment to duty. But there is also another important element without which the (moral) argument cannot succeed. Kant claims that practical reason has the primacy. That is, theoretical reason has its limits, and it reaches a point where it must reluctantly yield to practical (or moral) reasoning. Without this primacy, the arguments for moral theism do not stand a chance.

To clarify the difference, theoretical reason asks, “What is true?” And, according to Kant, theoretical reason cannot answer questions such as “Does God exist?” or “What is the thing-in-itself like?” Practical reason, however, says, “All right, the moral law is the most important thing in the world, and life is meaningless without it. Now what is necessary if the moral law is to hold?” And here practical reason (rather than theoretical reason) must answer: “God and immortality are necessary. Hence, I must believe in God and immortality.”

If Kant’s argument is treated as a theoretical argument, I think it fails miserably. Treated as a practical argument, however, I think there’s something to it. However, I think there’s something fishy about the idea of theoretical reason passing the torch to practical reason. And if Kant’s point here fails, so does the rest of his argument (though many of his points stand on their own as important insights.)

Tom Freeman said...

Interesting. I've not come across this argument before.

It needs the premise that belief in God is likely to result in more moral behaviour, which is debatable. Given that the individual facing this question is assumed to want to be moral already, I think the supposition of God may not add that much to their motives.

It might change their behaviour, but that will substantially be through the desire to please God and join him in heaven (rather than go to hell). As these motives aren't themselves moral ones, it may muddy the water by bringing in these other considerations.

As for "the idea of theoretical reason passing the torch to practical reason", I agree that it's a bit dodgy. I suppose this move could be warranted in cases where an answer one way or another is needed, but theoretical reason isn't up to it.

[A while ago I mused about a roughly similar (non-theistic) argument to motivate a working assumption of moral realism. Sorry to plug myself, but it's at least borderline relevant...]

David Wood said...


Kant’s position isn’t “Believe in God and immortality because such belief will help you to be moral.” As you noted, the people Kant is addressing are already dedicated to the moral law. Rather, he’s saying, “Without belief in God and immortality, the idea of morality is ultimately incoherent. Therefore, since you’re truly dedicated to morality, you will believe what is necessary to preserve it.”

Human beings, according to Kant (and many other philosophers) all have happiness as our goal. We strive for it. However, the moral person also has virtue as his end. He strives for virtue. But these ends must be united. Thus, the moral person has the following end: happiness proportioned to virtue (i.e. people getting what they deserve). Now, according to Kant, if a person is to have something as his end, he must believe that it is possible. Yet we look around at our world, and we see people constantly getting what they don’t deserve, and not getting what they do deserve. Good people get murdered. Bad people get rich. Happiness is not proportioned to virtue.

What, then, is necessary if we are to believe in the possibility of happiness being proportioned to virtue? We must believe that there is a Being capable of ultimately setting things right, and only God qualifies. (Note that Kant is not saying, “Hence, God exists.” Instead he is saying, “If you want to believe X, then you must believe whatever is necessary for X. If you’re not willing to believe what is necessary for X, you can’t consistently believe it.”) Also, if virtue is my goal, I must believe that virtue is attainable. But it isn’t (completely) attainable in this world. Hence, I must believe in immortality, where I can improve for all eternity.

To take the matter in reverse, if there is no God or immortality, then the end (happiness proportioned to virtue) at which I aim is impossible. If I believe that the end at which I aim is impossible, then I cannot consistently strive for it. Thus, if I am to strive for it, I must believe in God and immortality. Since theoretical reason can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God (according to Kant), practical reason has the reigns, and practical reason will do whatever is necessary to prove morality.

Jason Pratt said...


{{Kant’s position isn’t “Believe in God and immortality because such belief will help you to be moral.” As you noted, the people Kant is addressing are already dedicated to the moral law. Rather, he’s saying, “Without belief in God and immortality, the idea of morality is ultimately incoherent. Therefore, since you’re truly dedicated to morality, you will believe what is necessary to preserve it.” }}

This is extremely close to the variant of the theistic (or not-atheistic) Argument from Reason I mainly work with. The difference is that by going with the AfR, I am working at the bleeding edge of relevance for any argument at all. I'm just as suspicious of passing the torch from theoretical reason to pratical reason, but in a case where I find a necessary presumption for _any_ argument then the fishiness is mooted. Or, put a more colorful way, theoretical and practical reason meet and kiss at that point (and maybe lapdance. {g})

Kant's argument would similarly avoid the taint of rational pragmatism if and/or insofar as a commitment to morality (per se) could be identified as being a non-negotiable given. I am a little iffy that it can be so identified; I am more certain that a variant of the AfR would work fundamentally better on the same principle.

Incidentally, this answers Steve Lovell's question to me earlier in a thread last week, about whether my proposal (iii) concerning a rational estalishment (I would say discovery) of an objectively moral standard would be Kantian. The answer I guess would be yes and no. {g}

It just occurred to me that Kant's argument as presented and discussed here, reminds me of a Pragmatic Argument from Sex to Christianity that I came up with once--which, sadly, I can't link to because the site doesn't exist anymore.

Meanwhile I am working out a discussion of what could be called practical metaphysics in regard to morality over at the Christian Cadre, the most recent entry (as of today) being here. Sadly, it isn't remotely as intrinsically interesting as an argument from sex. {lol!}

In the novelCry of Justice, which will be available by Labor Day, I use what could be called a Kantian committment to justice to provide a tacitly theistic rationale for helping a character talk himself out of suicide in an early chapter. (He gets the rug pulled out from under him later by someone who has come up with a different conclusion, so I do recognize the limitations; but I needed something relevant to get over a plot problem before an action scene commenced. {shrug}{g})


Steelman said...

I know the discussion so far has centered around the finer points of Kant's argument for belief in God, but I wonder if the Buddhist versions of karma and reincarnation don't make the point moot? I think the Wheel of Samsara may practically be akin to a western Christian Natural Law theory that doesn't require a god. It requires a metaphysical belief, but not a deity to enforce it. At its most basic such a belief in karma seems to satisfy Kant's requirements detailed above, without the added confusion of a multiplicity of theologies regarding the nature of the "judge" involved. It also removes the power of the theodicy argument against an omni-benevolent God who prescribes eternal punishment for immoral behavior. There is still moral cause and effect, and reasons to avoid immorality, but with (infinite!) second chances to "get it right."

Blue Devil Knight said...

Kant is right that there aren't any good proofs of God's existence.

To your point, though, his morality-based argument doesn't work even if we sidestep truth-centered arguments and allow narrowly pragmatic concerns to rule the day. We would need an additional argument that God is a unique solution to the moral problem. (Perhaps Kant provided this). Steelman provides one useful alternative theory that could be just as useful psychologically. Heck, we are limited only by our imaginations in coming up with various natural or supernatural pragmatic equivalents.

David Wood said...

Blue Devil Knight,

You've misunderstood Kant's argument (which has more to do with the argument than with you).

Kant's claim isn't a matter of reason vs. practical concerns. It's a matter of theoretical reason vs. practical reason. Most of us don't make this distinction, and we therefore miss Kant's point.

As for Kant claiming that there are no good arguments for God's existence, this isn't quite accurate. In his pre-critical period, Kant advocated a version of the Ontological Argument which he claimed could be made into a demonstration of God's existence. When he rejected the design argument and the cosmological argument, it wasn't because these arguments are completely flawed. Kant simply recognized (correctly, I think) that the design argument, at best, proves a designer, but not the God of traditional theism. Similarly, at best, the cosmological argument would prove the existence of a first cause, not the God of traditional theism. Kant was looking for an argument that proves both God's existence and all of his attributes, and he noted that the traditional arguments don't accomplish this.

Nevertheless, there is the matter of the demonstration he gave during his precritical period, which he claimed was the proof he was looking for. He later abandoned the argument, not because he didn't think it worked, but because his epistemology changed radically.

Anonymous said...

I would submit that when people try to offer up 'transcendent/metaphysical but non-theistic' replacements for God, they're typically offering up God in all but name. Complete with a necessary system of judgment, solid rights and wrongs, immortality, and often overtones of nature that become pan(en)theistic or otherwise.

And any choice naturally excludes naturalism along with all but the flimsiest and most superficial claims to atheism.

Anonymous said...

Re: the Buddhism objection, it would seem that Buddhism posits that *something* is observing human behavior, rating it morally, and deciding whether a particular moral agent will be reincarnated, and as what. So that *something* would have to be rational, moral, either omnipresent or omniscient (it knows everything that every moral agent does), and sovereign.

I don't know much about Buddhism. Maybe it posits some "natural" force that just does all this without an agent being involved, but I can't see how that would work.

Also, Buddhism would commit us to dualism and to an eternal soul that survives death. So yeah, I'd still like to hear a plausible atheistic option, because I don't think Buddhism would quite get it done.

Patmos Pete said...

Fear God, and give glory to him; for the hour of his judgment is come: and worship him that made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and the fountains of waters.

MacroSloth said...

Kant is saying that It's our rational obligation to promote the highest good. We can't promote what isn't possible. The highest good isn't possible without God and immortality so we are obligated to believe in those.

I don't know exactly what Kant takes the highest good to mean here. It seems like he's saying it's some kind of supreme happiness achieved through virtue. Is this highest good the same concept as good will which is the foundation of duty? In either case, there is something wrong with the argument.

I fail to see why acting in accordance with your duty should need to bring any kind of happiness. I thought that was the whole point of duty and good will for Kant. The thing is right because it's right, not because of consequences that may follow. Why is Kant bringing happiness into the picture. It's so not like him.

If happiness really has nothing to do with it, then I don't know why God or immortality is needed. I though universality was the rational foundation for duty - not god or immortality.

Eugene Lebedev said...

In my opinion, the best argument to prove the existence of God!
In the easy to understand format.

As a real fact, there are moral and ethical laws of behaviour among people.
Firstly these laws are absolute and objective.
And secondly: these laws are laws of behaviour which show us (people) how to behave, so these are laws of behaviour for rational creatures.
The fact that these laws are rules of behaviour for rational creatures and that they address to our mind means that they are established by a rational Creature, Individual.
The fact that these laws are objective and absolute for all people means that these are laws of nature, laws of universe arrangement.
But then who could invent such laws of behaviour that are objective and absolute and that are the part of universe arrangement? – Only the Highest Rational Being, a certain All-powerful Creature who invented the whole world, the Universe and all people.
To say in other words – the God Creator!