ARTICLES

Volume 44 - Issue 2

The Insights and Shortcomings of Kantian Ethics: Signposts Signaling the Truthfulness of Christian Ethics

by Zachary Breitenbach

Abstract

Immanuel Kant proposed what he considered to be the one true ethical system—a system rooted in pure reason, without recourse to grounding morality in God, that sought to explain universal moral truth. This article argues that Kant’s ethical system, despite grounding morality purely in reason and in light of its own philosophical failures, contains significant insights that serve to illuminate the philosophical attractiveness of key biblical ethical principles. The article highlights three insightful objectives of Kant’s ethical view and compares them to three crucial ethical principles that are taught in the Bible. It then contends that Kant’s view of ethics fails to accomplish his desired objectives and makes the case that a biblical understanding of ethics succeeds. The shortcomings of Kantian ethics serve as a signpost to the truth of Christian ethics.

Few ethical systems have been as influential or as hotly debated in Western philosophy as the one proposed by Immanuel Kant. Kant, living when reason was king in eighteenth-century Enlightenment Europe, proposed what he considered to be the one true ethical system—a system rooted in pure reason, without recourse to grounding morality in God, that sought to explain universal moral truth.1 This article will argue that Kant’s ethical system, despite grounding morality purely in reason and in light of its own philosophical failures, contains significant insights that serve to illuminate the philosophical attractiveness of key biblical ethical principles.

To accomplish this, I will highlight three important objectives of Kant’s ethical view and compare them to three critical principles of a biblical perspective on ethics. Kant emphasizes: (1) the existence of objective and universally-binding moral values and duties that require an intrinsic “Good” to ground objective morality; (2) the principle of “moral worth” that incorporates insightful appeal to the role of motive in ethics; and (3) the belief that humans have inherent value. Kant’s justification for these three contentions will be juxtaposed with the rationale for the biblical ethical principles that: (1) God himself is the intrinsic “Good” that grounds objective morality; (2) moral worth is found in honoring God by willing and acting in accordance with God’s will; and (3) God provides a superior basis for ascribing value and respect to human beings.

After briefly surveying Kant’s ethical perspective, I will first show how Kant, in spite of his exclusion of God from morality’s foundation, offers several key insights that help to establish the tenability and attractiveness of these biblical principles. Then, I will demonstrate how Kant’s view of ethics fails to accomplish his own desired objectives and how a biblical understanding of ethics succeeds. Note that, for the purposes of this article, a “biblical understanding of ethics” refers to a general Christian ethical approach that draws upon the Bible and minimally includes the three biblical principles identified above. Certainly there are a variety of nuanced positions that a Christian ethicist might hold, but this article will defend these three particular ethical principles that are widely recognized as biblical.

1. An Overview of Kant’s View of Ethics

Kant was born in 1724 in Königsberg, Germany, and he lived there until his death in 1804. A crucial influence on Kant that was especially formative to his ethical approach is the Enlightenment thinking that was at its height in Europe during his lifetime. Kant was a staunch defender of the Enlightenment ideal of human autonomy and the lofty capabilities of human reason.2 He viewed the Enlightenment as “man’s emergence from his self-incurred tutelage.” By “tutelage,” Kant means “man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another.”3 He encouraged people to stop blindly following the traditions of others and claimed that the “motto of enlightenment” is: “Have courage to use your own reason!”4 Indeed, as we will see, autonomous human reason (i.e., our ability on our own to use the mind’s conceptual schemes to generate knowledge) is the very foundation of Kant’s ethical theory.

For Kant, reason exists in the human mind prior to and independent of experience, and it ultimately produces the basis for objective moral truth. Kant spurned the idea put forth by empiricists like David Hume that all synthetic knowledge is a posteriori (i.e., known only after using our sense experience). While empiricists were arguing that morality is a human construction based entirely upon human experiences, feelings, and desires, Kant was insisting that “there really exist pure moral laws which entirely a priori (without regard to empirical motives, that is, happiness) determine the use of the freedom of any rational being, both with regard to what has to be done and what has not to be done.”5 These “pure moral laws” that reason produces are “imperative” and “in every respect necessary” because they are rooted in reason and not contingent upon human experience.6

But how does pure reason produce “necessary” moral laws that are objective and universally binding? Kant’s answer is that reason alone produces an intrinsic “good” that serves to ground objective morality—the “good will,” which is the rational faculty that recognizes moral duty. This “good will” is not an instrumental good that merely produces other goods; rather, “it is good only because of its willing, i.e., it is good of itself.” Even if circumstances should not allow the good will to be put to use, it would still be intrinsically good and would “sparkle like a jewel in its own right, as something that had its full worth in itself.”7 The good will is the only good “which could be called good without qualification.” As such, the good will is able to discern what Kant considers to be the “supreme principle of morality”8 that serves to generate our moral duties—the categorical imperative (CI).

Although Kant considers the CI to be one cohesive principle, it comprises three formulations. The first formulation, the Principle of Universal Law, states, “I should never act in such a way that I could not also will that my maxim should be a universal law.”9 If reason dictates that we could will that a maxim should be applied universally, then it becomes our moral duty to act on that maxim; conversely, if we could not rationally will to universalize a maxim, then it is our duty not to act on it.

It is important to see that Kant’s CI is intended to generate duties that are morally obligatory and not optional or contingent upon the desires of any person. Kant contrasts the idea of a “hypothetical” imperative with his concept of a “categorical” imperative. A hypothetical imperative “says only that an action is good for some purpose,” but the CI “declares the action to be of itself objectively necessary without making any reference to a purpose.”10 Kant provides a number of examples to illustrate how the Principle of Universal Law reveals to us our moral duties independent of desire. In one example, Kant describes a man who needs to borrow money but does not have the means to repay what he needs to borrow. The man is considering accepting the following maxim: “When I believe myself to be in need of money, I will borrow money and promise to repay it, although I know I shall never do so.” Kant argues that when the man applies the Principle of Universal Law to this maxim, the man will discover that the maxim cannot be universalized and is, therefore, morally wrong. It cannot be universalized, Kant says, because that would make “the promise itself and the end to be accomplished by it impossible; no one would believe what was promised to him but would only laugh at any such assertion as vain pretense.”11 Thus, regardless of what the man wants to do, reason dictates that his objective moral duty is to reject that maxim and not make the lying promise. If everyone in such a situation made a lying promise then a contradiction would result because the man’s goal of obtaining a loan would not be possible. Kant wants to say that it is this contradiction and not the consequences of undermining loans that makes reason demand the rejection of this maxim.

The second formulation of the CI, the Principle of Ends, states, “Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only.” Kant upholds the inherent value of humans on the same basis that he argues for objective morality—pure reason. Kant argues that humans, as “rational beings,” are by nature “ends in themselves” and “objects of respect.”12 This is because every person “necessarily” thinks of himself as a valuable end in himself because he has a “rational nature” that grounds value—nothing can be valued without rational beings to do the valuing.13 This argument of Kant is sometimes called the “regress” argument because “by regressing on the condition of value, it is possible to derive the intrinsic value of rational nature itself.”14 The second formulation of the CI ensures that no maxim that devalues a rational person can be acceptably universalized.

The third formulation, the Principle of Autonomy, states, “Never choose except in such a way that the maxims of the choice are comprehended in the same volition as a universal law.”15 Given the first two formulations, it is clear that Kant’s theory has no need for a transcendent being to generate moral law for humanity. In this final formulation, Kant emphasizes that the good will of a rational being is sufficient for determining absolute moral law. Humans have the autonomous ability to legislate moral values and duties. In fact, Kant holds that God himself, along with all rational beings, can only be good by adhering to the CI. He declares, “Even the Holy One of the Gospel must be compared with our ideal of moral perfection before He is recognized as such.… But whence do we have the concept of God as the highest good? Solely from the idea of moral perfection which reason formulates a priori.”16

Another concept that is especially critical to Kantian ethics is “moral worth.” For Kant, “moral worth” means moral praiseworthiness. An agent’s action has moral worth if it is in accordance with duty and the agent is motivated to do the action out of duty. This means that the motivation of an agent is critical, and Kant even asserts that an action done out of duty that is contrary to one’s natural inclination results in the “highest”17 moral worth of all. Kant regards it as unthinkable that subjective feelings could have any bearing on moral motivation. While Kant thinks God, who lives up to the moral law perfectly, gives us hope that the moral law can be perfectly fulfilled, at the same time he does not allow such hope to be our motivation for being moral. Rational duty must be our motivation in order for our action to have moral worth.

Having briefly surveyed the core points of Kant’s view of ethics, we will now examine how the three key principles of a biblical understanding of ethics identified previously are plausible by comparing them to Kant’s view of ethics. We begin by seeing how Kant’s ethical perspective offers positive insights that support the tenability and attractiveness of these biblical ethical principles.

2. Insights from Kant’s View of Ethics

Kant’s ethical system offers a number of insights that help to reveal the soundness of a biblical understanding of ethics. Consider the first biblical principle that was introduced above, which states that objective and universal moral values and duties exist, and that God is the intrinsic good that grounds their existence. This traditional view sees God as the basis of objective morality such that the truths of morality are found in God and are fully independent of all human opinions and beliefs. The Bible portrays God as the very foundation and standard for universally-binding morality. Support for this concept can be gleaned from numerous biblical passages. We are commanded to be holy because of God’s holy character (Lev 19:1–2). God is maximally holy (threefold repetition of “holy”) and exposes our sinfulness (Isa 6:1–5). Jesus states that “no one is good—except God alone” (Mark 10:18). God alone is the standard. Although Kant rejects the idea that God grounds morality, he does correctly recognize the reality of objective morality and the need for an intrinsic “good” that must provide some ontological basis for it.

There is great wisdom in Kant’s passionate rejection of all ethical systems that cast morality as a human construct that is relative to the desires of individuals or the whims of culture. Morality must be objective and universal to be truly normative, and normativity is seemingly a necessary feature of any adequate ethical system. Moral relativism, if true, would make moral criticism impossible such that morality would fall apart. Kant recognizes this and harshly condemns ethical relativism for making morality out to be a “bastard patched up from limbs of very different parentage, which looks like anything one wishes to see in it.”18

Kant appears to be correct that objective morality must be grounded in an intrinsic “good” that has “its full worth in itself.”19 He saw that if there is no objective good that serves as the incorruptible standard of moral perfection, then the subjectivity that destroys the prescriptivity of morality cannot be avoided. As C. S. Lewis rightly observed, “The moment you say that one set of moral ideas can be better than another, you are, in fact, measuring them both by a standard…. You are, in fact, comparing them both with some Real Morality.”20 Plato recognized this as well when he postulated the idea of a “Good” form that serves as the objective basis by which anything can be called good. Plato saw that the “Good” must exist independent of all appearances and human conventions. Recounting the words of Socrates in Plato’s cave allegory, Plato writes of this “Good” as that which is the ultimate “cause of all that is correct and beautiful,” even though we often see it in only a distorted way in this world.21 As long as morality is truly an objective reality, as it apparently must be, then both Kantian and biblical ethics are correct in affirming an intrinsically good moral standard as a foundation.

Kant also provides insight concerning the second principle of biblical ethics that was outlined above by affirming that moral worth depends on our motives and not just our actions. As discussed previously, Kant only allows for an agent’s action to have moral worth if the action is in accordance with moral duty and the agent is motivated to do the action out of moral duty. Similarly, the Bible indicates that God is concerned not only with our actions but also our motivations and our will.God does not merely base the moral worth of a person’s action on whether the act itself is in accordance with his commands; rather, the motivation of the agent to act in a God-honoring way is also critical. For example, the apostle Paul writes that God wants us to “will and to act according to his good purpose” (Phil 2:13). The scribes and Pharisees “do all their deeds to be noticed by men,” and Jesus condemns this motivation (Matt 23:1–12). Even good works, such as prayer, must not be done with a wrong motive (Matt 6:1–6). All food is acceptable to eat, but if one is convinced that eating a certain food is wrong and does it anyway, he is morally guilty (Rom 14:14, 23). So, in Scripture, the action done by a person is not the only thing that is significant in terms of moral praiseworthiness; one’s motivations and reasons for acting matter greatly.

Louis Pojman rightly points out that the benefit of an ethical system that accounts for motive is that “two acts may appear identical on the surface, but one may be judged morally blameworthy and the other excusable” depending on the motive of the agents carrying out the acts.22 Kant captures this truth, and he realizes that one’s commitment to one’s moral duty will sometimes require one to contradict one’s own natural inclinations. For example, Kant’s contention that “love as an inclination cannot be commanded” is theologically insightful and attractive.23 While some critics find such dutiful love to be cold and uncaring, Kant is surely correct that love for others must be more than a feeling that we are either inclined or disinclined to have if love is truly a moral duty.24 In the same way, biblical ethics involves the command to love others—even one’s enemy—regardless of inclination (Matt 5:44).

Finally, Kant’s agreement with the third of our biblical principles—that humans are inherently valuable and deserve respect—is also intuitively attractive. Although the next section will explore the difficulties Kant has in justifying the value of humans independently from God, Kantian and biblical ethics share the advantage of being in accord with the nearly universal sense that human life is valuable. Most people would agree that it is “difficult, if not impossible,” to deny our moral sense that there is something valuable about human life, and denying that human value is an objective reality “runs counter to our most basic feelings.”25 While this widely-held moral sense that humans have value does not prove that humans really are valuable, any ethical theory that is in accord with such a prominent aspect of our moral experience is to be preferred. With these insights of Kant in mind, let us now examine how the shortfalls of Kant’s view of ethics highlight the greater tenability of the three specified biblical principles of ethics.

3. Biblical Ethics Succeeds Where Kant Falls Short

In comparing the three proposed biblical principles of ethics with Kantian ethics, it is evident that both Kant and the biblical principles aim to achieve many of the same objectives despite having different foundations to ground morality. Kant’s understanding of ethics, however, proves to be less plausible when his justification for objective morality, his requirements for moral worth, and his argument that humans possess inherent value are compared with a biblical view of ethics.

Kant departs from the first biblical principle by grounding objective morality in the “good will” that is produced by reason in every rational creature. In accord with the Enlightenment ideals of human autonomy and reason, we legislate morality apart from God. Careful attention must be given to how well Kantian ethics can justify this point philosophically, and it must be compared to the philosophical justification that the biblical understanding of ethics can provide. This is key, as both views stand or fall with the ability that their intrinsic “good” has to ground objective morality.

The classic problem that confronts any moral system that claims some absolute standard as the ground of objective morality is the Euthyphro dilemma. This dilemma, which goes back to the time of Plato, questions whether God’s commands could really determine what is good (or “pious”). Plato records that Socrates poses the following dilemma to Euthyphro: “Is the pious being loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is being loved by the gods?”26

Both horns of this dilemma are a challenge to any proposed absolute standard of goodness. For any purported standard of objective morality, one can ask whether that standard merely recognizes goodness (i.e., goodness is external to the standard) or whether that standard determines goodness arbitrarily. Consider first whether the biblical understanding of ethics is able to defend that the Christian God is plausibly the ground of objective morality in the face of this challenge. It will not do for objective morality to be arbitrary (if good is merely what God says), and God cannot ground objective morality if there is a standard of morality outside of God (if God simply affirms what is independently good). Fortunately for biblical ethics, there is a third alternative—God himself is the “Good.” The third alternative is that “God’s own holy and perfectly good nature supplies the absolute standard against which all actions and decisions are measured. God’s moral nature is what Plato called the ‘Good.’ He is the locus and source of moral value.”27 So God is the Good. God’s will and essentially holy nature are fused such that God only wills that which is consistent with his nature. God is not an arbitrary “stopping point” for morality’s foundation, as there are “principled reasons to think that God’s existence is necessary and that God functions as the very ground of being.” If God is the “primordial good of unsurpassable value,” then goodness is anchored in an unchanging, personal, and necessarily perfect source.28 It is reasonable that the ground of objective morality would have these properties; morality seems to be essentially bound up with personhood, and anything that would ground objective morality would have to be unchanging and beyond human opinion.

Although the biblical grounding of objective morality in God’s holy nature appears to survive the Euthyphro dilemma, Kant’s “good will” does not fare as well. Kant may seem to split the horns of the dilemma by claiming that the good will is intrinsically and necessarily good. The problem, however, is that there is no reason why the good will must be good “without qualification” in the way Kant says it is. Louis Pojman raises the problem that the good will itself—the rational faculty that recognizes the CI as the supreme moral principle—could potentially be “put to bad uses.” Although the good will seems to be a good, Pojman insightfully recognizes that it is “not obvious” that the good will is necessarily good or that it is “the only inherently good thing” since a “misguided do-gooder” could act in accordance with what he believes is good and yet carry out what most of us regard as bad actions. Perhaps the good will is a “necessary condition to any morally good action,” but it does not seem to be sufficient.29

Ultimately, for Kant, the good will is intimately tied to the principle that it produces—the CI and its requirement of universalizability. The problem is that universalizability is unable to stand as the ultimate moral criterion. For one thing, Kant does not adequately specify parameters for the characteristics of a maxim that is appropriate to universalize as moral law. Aside from the limitation that a maxim must not violate the Principle of Ends, Kant “provides no guide for determining what features must be included in the maxim.” This leaves open the door for morally problematic actions “to be based on a maxim that a person would universalize.”30 Also, it is highly dubious that reason necessarily produces the same conclusions in all rational beings. For example, one could justifiably will to universalize the maxim that “one should always tell the truth no matter what consequence might come about as a result.” Indeed, Kant believed that reason demands the acceptance of this maxim. Yet many would argue that reason demands the acceptance of the maxim that “one should tell the truth unless doing so would harm others.” It is unclear which maxim is necessitated by reason, and both positions have defenders. This example also highlights the difficulty the CI has in handling moral conflicts.31

If, however, God’s unchanging and necessarily good character is the intrinsic “Good,” then there is no concern about disagreements among rational human persons as to what should be universalized—that is, what is good. Only God, out of his necessarily holy nature, stands as the ontological ground of goodness, and conflicting human beliefs are irrelevant to the existence of objective morality. With biblical ethics, the existence of moral values and duties (moral ontology) does not depend upon the conclusions we reach as we try to know what these moral values and duties are (moral epistemology). What happens when two maxims that appear to be legitimately justifiable according to our best human reason disagree with each other? If objective morality is rooted in God, then such a situation is irrelevant to moral ontology.

In addition to providing a better foundation for objective moral values, having a biblical ground of ethics can adequately justify moral duties while the Kantian ground of ethics cannot. Since biblical ethics grounds objective morality in God, God’s commands are justifiably our moral duties because they are derived from his essentially holy nature.32 Biblical ethics is able to sustain itself as a truly deontological ethical system (i.e., a system that accounts for moral duties). On the other hand, although Kant would deny it, significant voices have charged that Kant’s good will is unable to produce true moral duties without appealing to a more subjective consequentialist justification for them. The famous utilitarian ethicist John Stuart Mill, for example, claims that the CI does not avoid seemingly “immoral” actions on purely logical grounds; rather, he says Kant merely shows “that the consequences of their universal adoption would be such as no one would choose to incur.”33 Mill has a valid point. Some seemingly immoral maxims do not lead to any obvious contradiction if universalized, though we can see that the consequences of universalizing them would be morally bad and may produce a negative result. For example, consider the maxim that “two consenting adults who are not already in a committed relationship should always have sex with each other if they desire to do so.” The universal acceptance of this maxim would not in any way lead to a logical contradiction that would undermine the very practice of the maxim, and it is not obvious that the Principle of Ends is being violated since both individuals are consenting and may well have a legitimate interest in the wellbeing of the other person; however, one can reasonably will that this maxim should not be universalized because of the consequences it would have. Such promiscuity is known to carry a heavy emotional weight for those who engage in it, and it also raises the likelihood of the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Such behavior also makes it more difficult to form meaningful committed relationships, which one can reasonably argue have significant value. In fact, there are actually “Kantian consequentialists,” such as R. M. Hare and David Cummiskey.34 Cummiskey argues that Kant’s ethical system “is consistent with and supports a consequentialist normative principle” even though Kant sought a fully deontological system of ethics.35 If that is the case, then it is hard to see how Kant’s good will allows for objective moral duties; however, because God himself is the necessary “Good” and his nature produces moral truth that is essential and binding upon us, moral duties transcend humans, and their existence does not depend upon our own assessment of what actions will probably produce “good” consequences. It is not clear that Kant’s CI is able to account for the full range of objective duties that are binding on us and that it can do this without recourse to subjective human considerations of consequences.

Moreover, the authority and bindingness of moral duties seems to be much stronger and more plausible if the source of these duties is a person rather than something impersonal, such as “reason.” Merely “acting and thinking rationally does not constitute a full explanation of moral belief and practice. Moral obligation carries extra clout and punch, which needs accounting for.”36 When we fall short of our moral duties, we sense that we are guilty in a sense that goes beyond simply violating a principle of reason. Locating the source of moral authority in an essentially holy personal God better explains the objective guilt that seems to accompany violating one’s moral duty. In view of all these considerations, the biblical ethical principle that the standard and basis of all goodness is found in God is quite plausible, and this fact is highlighted by the apparent problems that Kant’s system has in establishing the good will as the one intrinsic good that grounds objective morality.

Moving to the second principle of biblical ethics, Kant’s insight in agreeing with the biblical principle that moral worth depends on our motives as well as our actions has been noted; however, Kant’s view of moral worth proves to be too narrow when compared to the biblical assessment of moral worth. As Joseph Kotva points out, Kantian ethics and all ethical theories that are based strictly upon “rules or duty” are at a disadvantage in accounting for the biblical recognition that the moral life is more than rules. Kant fails to see that life is a “race” that requires ongoing character development. While Scripture goes beyond virtue ethics, it captures its insights. We are constantly to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us” as we model ourselves after Christ (Heb 12:1–2). Paul emphasizes the need to develop such virtues as “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal 5:22–23), and he exhorts others to grow in character by following his example as he follows Christ (1 Cor 11:1). While Christian ethics certainly has a strong deontological component, Kotva rightly points out the biblical emphasis on developing virtues and constantly struggling for moral growth in order to become a person of greater character.37

The key shortfall of Kant’s view of moral worth is that he does not credit moral worth to a person who grows in character such that she no longer does an action out of rational duty but out of modified and improved inclination. Kant is clear that there can be no moral worth involved when an agent is “so sympathetically constituted” that she performs kind acts out of the pure joy of doing them rather than a sense of duty.38 While biblical ethics would applaud someone of such character who enjoys doing virtuous things, Kant does not recognize such a person as morally praiseworthy. He thus fails to capture the value of moral growth and the fact that one should strive both to “will and act” according to what is good (Phil 2:13). While feeling joy from doing what is good should not be our sole moral motivation, David Baggett and Jerry Walls are surely correct that “normal healthy human considerations of self-interest are a perfectly legitimate part of moral motivation.”39

Therefore, although Kant is certainly right that duties such as the command to love others should be done regardless of inclination, loving others is something that we ought to work towards wanting to do so that the duty does not have to be against inclination. Finding joy in doing what is good is a mark of moral development and personal character, and the Bible more completely captures this. Such character is exemplified in Jesus, who endured the agony of the cross “for the joy set before him” (Heb 12:2).

Finally, Kant’s view of ethics falls short of the third biblical ethical principle in terms of justifying the idea that humans possess value. We have seen that Kant attempts to ground the intrinsic value of humanity in our rationality. Kant argues that pure reason forces us to the conclusion that humans must have value because nothing can be valued without rational beings to do the valuing. In contrast, biblical ethics holds that humans have value in virtue of being made in the “image of God” (Gen 1:26–27). Human value is based on “the relationship for which we were created” rather than because of any “distinguishing characteristic” found in human capabilities.40 This is attractive; for if human value is rooted in a capacity like reason or rationality, then how can the value of babies or those with brain damage be upheld?41 The reason that the biblical justification for the value of humans is superior to Kant’s follows from the earlier point that God is a far more credible “stopping point” for objective morality than the good will.

If God truly is the ultimate “Good,” then perhaps human rationality is an instrumental good rather than an intrinsic good. Rather than agreeing with Kant that the “rational nature” of humans is itself sufficient for regarding humans as “ends in themselves,”42 it may be that rationality functions as an instrumental good in so far as it allows us to have a relationship with the one true source of ultimate value—God himself. If that is the case, then Kant is correct in valuing rationality but wrong in thinking that it has intrinsic value.

Beyond the automatic implications that locating objective morality in God has for human value, careful consideration of the question of human value by itself reveals that humans, if they are to justify having truly objective value, must justify their value by appealing to something outside of themselves. If humans consider themselves intrinsically valuable merely because they value themselves, then how can David Hume’s is-ought problem be avoided? Just because it is the case that humans tend to ascribe value to their own lives and the lives of other people does not mean that we necessarily ought to do so.

Finally, there is a sort of argument from contingency that points to God as the proper justification for human value and dignity. Kant and many others have claimed that we are the sort of beings who have intrinsic value.43 But even if Kant were right that our rationality provides a basis for intrinsic human value, this would not negate the fact that God is necessary for us to have value because “relationality and intrinsicality are neither at odds nor mutually exclusive.”44 If there is no possible world in which beings like us could exist apart from God, then there is no reason in principle why our value could not come from both our relationship to God as well the intrinsic qualities God has given us. Paul Copan argues that morality and value are “necessarily connected” with personhood. Since an essential attribute of God is that he exists necessarily and is the ontological ground of all other persons, morality and value would be impossible without God.45 Using this logic, it is plausible that the source of intrinsic value can only be found in a necessarily existing person. Thus, in response to Kant’s view that the mere possession of rationality endows all rational creatures with intrinsic value, one must ask on what basis humans persons exist to have rationality. God, if he does exist as Kant himself believed, is the only reason that there is rationality. Even if it were true, as Kant claims, that rationality brings about value, God is the source of rationality. Ultimately, in view of these considerations, the biblical justification for human value appears more plausible and legitimate than Kant’s justification.

4. Conclusion

The three biblical principles of ethics proposed in this article appear to be eminently plausible when held up to philosophical scrutiny. Because Kant, without grounding morality in God, sought to achieve many of the same goals that these biblical principles accomplish, Kantian ethics serves as an instructive signpost pointing to the plausibility of biblical ethics. Morality must be objective and universal if it is to avoid the total collapse that relativism ensures. Kant is undoubtedly correct in recognizing this. Furthermore, we have seen that objective morality—to be truly objective—must have a plausible absolute standard of intrinsic value and goodness that grounds it. Biblical ethics provides a philosophically justifiable basis for accomplishing this by identifying God as that source. In contrast, Kant is unable to legitimize the “good will” as being “good without qualification” and able to produce moral principles and binding duties that are defensibly objective and have an ontological basis that is fully independent of humanity. Biblical ethics also legitimizes the attractive conviction that humans really do have intrinsic value. Kant is right to recognize the truth that humans are “objects of respect” and should be “treated as ends,” but he is unable to objectively ground this apparent truth in a justifiable source. God himself is the ultimate standard of goodness and value, and it is only by way of our relationship with God that we, as creatures made in God’s image, can have intimate connection to the ultimate source of value and can ourselves be endowed with objective value.


[1] John E. Hare, The Moral Gap: Kantian Ethics, Human Limits, and God’s Assistance (Oxford: Clarendon, 1996). Though it is not clear, Hare thinks Kant might have believed traditional Christian doctrines (see pp. 38, 48). God is important to Kantian ethics in that God ensures that virtue and happiness align and that the moral law can be perfectly fulfilled; however, for Kant, we will see that moral law springs from reason. God is not its source.

[2] R. Scott Smith, In Search of Moral Knowledge: Overcoming the Fact-Value Dichotomy (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014), 94.

[3] Immanuel Kant, “What is Enlightenment?,” in Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals and What is Enlightenment?, trans. Lewis White Beck (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1959), 85.

[4] Kant, “What is Enlightenment?,” 85.

[5] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, in Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason: In Commemoration of the Centenary of its First Publication, trans. F. Max Müller, 2nd ed. (London: Macmillan, 1907), 647.

[6] Kant, Critique, 647.

[7] Immanuel Kant, Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, in Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals and What is Enlightenment?, trans. Lewis White Beck (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1959), 10.

[8] Kant, Foundations, 8–9.

[9] Kant, Foundations, 18.

[10] Kant, Foundations, 31–32.

[11] Kant, Foundations, 40.

[12] Kant, Foundations, 46–47.

[13] Kant, Foundations, 47.

[14] Evan Tiffany, “How Kantian Must Kantian Constructivists Be?,” Inquiry 49 (2006): 540.

[15] Kant, Foundations, 59.

[16] Kant, Foundations, 25. Kant sees the “highest good” as the conjunction of virtue and happiness. Notably, he thinks only God can bring about such a condition; however, God is only good by perfectly living up to the CI as demanded by reason.

[17] Kant, Foundations, 15.

[18] Kant, Foundations, 44.

[19] Kant, Foundations, 10.

[20] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, reprint ed. (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2001), 13.

[21] Plato, Republic, 517b (Plato’s Republic, trans. G. M. A. Grube and C. D. C. Reeve, Hackett Classics [Indianapolis: Hackett, 1992], 189).

[22] Louis Pojman, Ethics: Discovering Right and Wrong, 6th ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2009), 11. For example, it seems that a man who helps an elderly lady across the street to impress his friends should be judged as less morally praiseworthy than a man who does this same action out of a sense of moral responsibility.

[23] Kant, Foundations, 16.

[24] Julia Driver, Ethics: The Fundamentals (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007), 86.

[25] Burton Frederick Porter, The Good Life: Alternatives in Ethics, 3rd ed. (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001), 85.

[26] Plato, Euthyphro, 10a (The Trial and Death of Socrates, 3rd ed., trans. G. M. A. Grube and John M. Cooper [Indianapolis: Hackett, 2000], 11).

[27] J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2003), 491.

[28] David Baggett and Jerry L. Walls, God and Cosmos: Moral Truth and Human Meaning (Oxford: University Press, 2016), 286.

[29] Pojman, Discovering Right and Wrong, 127.

[30] Bernard Gert, Morality: Its Nature and Justification (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 306.

[31] Baggett and Walls, God and Cosmos, 167.

[32] William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, 3rd ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 182.

[33] John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1906), 5.

[34] John E. Hare, The Moral Gap, 18–19. Hare notes that R. M. Hare is a Kantian who believes he is consistent with Kant in applying act-utilitarianism to Kant’s CI to determine whether an act should be universalized.

[35] David Cummiskey, Kantian Consequentialism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 9.

[36] Baggett and Walls, God and Cosmos, 176. This quote is in the context of showing a limitation of Erik Wielenberg’s secular approach to ethics, but this particular criticism applies to Kantian ethics as well.

[37] Joseph J. Kotva, The Christian Case for Virtue Ethics (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1996), 156.

[38] Kant, Foundations, 14. Kant believed happiness must result from moral living for us to press on in the moral life, but our motivation to be moral must be duty and not happiness. See Hare, The Moral Gap, 76–78.

[39] Baggett and Walls, God and Cosmos, 266.

[40] Stanley Grenz, The Moral Quest (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 217.

[41] Baggett and Walls, God and Cosmos, 117.

[42] Kant, Foundations, 46.

[43] Erik Wielenberg, Robust Ethics: The Metaphysics and Epistemology of Godless Normative Realism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 83–84. Wielenberg, a secular moral realist, contends that rooting human value in God devalues the intrinsic human value that common sense tells us we have.

[44] Baggett and Walls, God and Cosmos, 286.

[45] Paul Copan, “A Moral Argument,” in To Everyone an Answer: A Case for the Christian Worldview, ed. Francis Beckwith, William Lane Craig, and James Porter Moreland (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 113.

Zachary Breitenbach

Zachary Breitenbach is a PhD candidate (ABD) at Liberty University who specializes in Christian apologetics, philosophy of religion, and ethics.

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