Many people believe that morality “requires” God. Without God, nothing would really matter. One philosopher who many refer to as supporting this claim is Immanuel Kant. In particular, his work The Groundwork for a Metaphysics of Morals, the Critique of Practical Reason, and Opus Postumum. However, Kant’s argument is greatly misunderstood and it has a lot of “if-and-or-buts” involved. Kant does not believe that we ultimately have to believe in God. “Thou shalt believe in God” would certainly be out of the question. Instead, we merely have some reason to have faith in God (or whatever else could do the job). Why? Because God can make sure we can achieve our moral goals.
I am not an expert Kantian, but I do know the basics of Kant’s argument. A good place to learn more about Kant’s argument is Ethics Vindicated: Kant’s Transcendental Legitimation of Moral Discourse by Ermanno Bencivenga. All of my citations are from this book.
There are multiple practical problems with morality. Assuming that we ought to do X, we need to be able to do X. “Ought” implies “can.” Why might we be unable to do X? Either because of inner or outer factors:
- If we are “the slaves of our passions” as Hume thought, then morality will make no difference. We will do whatever we most desire to do rather than what practical reason requires. The solution: Free will.
- Even if we can try to do the right thing, it might be impossible to actually succeed. The solution: God
It is possible that we aren’t merely driven by irrational desires. Instead, we might have the freedom to do what is rationally required of us. Kant believes we have “free will” if practical reason can determine our actions.1 We don’t know if we have the free will required by morality, but we have reason to believe that we do. Why? Because denying that we have free will would be to give up on morality entirely.2 To repeat: Kant does not use the word “free will” the same way many other people use the word. He merely means that we have free will if practical reason can determine our actions.
Imagine that you like people and help an old lady to cross the street. If you did it just because of your desire to help, then you would have done it even if morality dictated the opposite. It might not seem so bad to be compelled to do the right thing, but compulsion doesn’t always seem to make us do the right thing. Sometimes compulsion makes us do the wrong thing, such as those who swindle old ladies through pyramid schemes through the desire for money. Compulsion is morally irrelevant. If we want to be good people, we have to find out what actions are good and make sure we do it.
Free will as defined by Kant does appear to a be necessary assumption for morality to be possible. Without free will, some actions would harm people and others would benefit people, but there would be no reason to have moral laws. We couldn’t decide to obey a moral law, so it would be pointless. Kant doesn’t prove free will exists. He only proves that if anyone is moral, he or she will have to assume free will is real.
It is possible that the natural world just so happens to make it possible for our moral endeavors to be successful. However, just the opposite seems to be the case and we never know for sure if our moral goals are really possible.“Ought” implies “can.”3 If our moral obligations are impossible, then they aren’t really moral obligations after all. Kant argues that we must assume that our moral goals can be achieved, and somehow this requires us to assume the existence of God.4
It might be possible that there are other ways for our goals to be achievable (other than God as traditionally conceived). Kant admits that “[f]rom the practical point of view, it is one and the same thing whether one founds the divinity of the [moral] command in human reason, or founds it [in] such a person [as God], since the difference is more one of phraseology than a doctrine which amplifies knowledge” (108).5 I understand this to say that God is a metaphor for the ability for our moral goals to succeed. We take ourselves as having rationally founded obligations, but we don’t know for sure that these obligations could be fulfilled.
I don’t fully understand Kant’s argument, but I will give two interpretations of his argument to help us examine it:
- We conceive of an obligation to promote the greatest good. (Perhaps we conceive that “I ought to promote the greatest good” is true through an intuition of practical reason.)
- If we have an obligation to do something, then it must be possible to do it.
- “God” is a metaphor for the possibility of achieving the greatest good.
- Therefore, the assumption that we have an obligation to promote the greatest good logically implies the belief in “God.”
Kant thought the greatest good was to be perfectly virtuous and happy.6 It seems correct to say that we ought to promote perfect virtue and happiness, which implies that we can do so. But we can’t become perfectly virtuous and happy in the material world, so either (a) we ought not promote perfect virtue and happiness or (b) something other than the material world is making it possible to promote perfect virtue and happiness. For example, God as traditionally conceived could make people perfectly virtuous and happy in the afterlife.
However, this interpretation of Kant has two problems. One, it appears to misunderstand what ideals are. To ideally become virtuous and happy isn’t necessary to promote perfect virtue because we can try to become more and more virtuous without ever being done. We could imagine that perfect virtue would be limitless, but that doesn’t imply that perfect virtue could really exist. Such a concept might be nonsense. No matter how much virtue we have, we might be able to have more. It would be great to cure cancer, but it might be even better to cure all disease, but it might be even better to cure all diseases that ever existed, and so on.
If our ideals are based on intrinsic values, then virtue and happiness might have intrinsic value. In that case, the more virtue and happiness the better. To idealize intrinsic values and suppose a maximal (perfect) manifestation of intrinsic value is unnecessary.
Two, whether or not virtue is possible in the afterlife is irrelevant to my attempt to achieve virtue in this world. If perfect virtue must be possible in order to justify our obligation to promote virtue, then it would seem that Kant already gave up on the idea of promoting virtue in this world. In that case we might as well give up now.
- We conceive that we ought to do something.
- If we ought to do something, then it must be possible.
- It is only possible to achieve our moral obligations if “God” exists (because “God” is a metaphor for “it is possible to achieve our moral goals.”)
- Therefore, if we assume that we ought to achieve a moral goal, then we must also assume that “God” exists.
Under this interpretation we have to assume that our moral goals can be achieved or we can’t have them. Morality requires “God” because it would be impossible to have any moral obligations if it is impossible to achieve them (by definition).
However, this argument seems trivial. If “God” is just a metaphor for “there are moral goals that can be fulfilled,” then the conclusion is merely true by definition and no substantial claim is being made.
Still, Kant might be making a trivial argument just to point out that we don’t have to believe in obligations at all. Perhaps all obligations are impossible to fulfill. Additionally, saying that “God” is “the possibility of fulfilling our moral goals” is compatible with the Christian God as traditionally conceived. It might be that one way moral goals can be achieved is if an omnipotent entity makes sure of it.
Kant does not argue that we know God exists (as traditionally conceived). He merely argues that certain moral beliefs might imply God’s existence in the sense that we assume that we can accomplish our moral goals. Our ordinary understanding is that God is a perfect and all powerful being that can assure us of accomplishing moral goals, but that is just one way of understanding the word “God.”
Additionally, Kant does not discuss intrinsic values in detail. It seems like a safe assumption to think that intrinsic values can exist even if God does not exist. We can harm people even if we are unable to rationally stop doing so. If we can find out about what intrinsic values exist and we are able to use that information to change our behavior, then we will be able to live a moral life.
At best, Kant showed religious people a reason to believe in a perfect and all powerful God as one way to make sense out of certain moral beliefs. At worst, he failed to prove that we need to assume that perfect moral success is possible. We could base our decisions on the best information we can find rather than on perfect knowledge. We might need to believe that our moral goals are generally possible without demanding that they be perfectly successful.
1 “[I]f some behavior of mine, in addition to whatever heteronomous account it receives, could also be seen a rational behavior, as a manifestation of reason, as reason showing itself to be practical, to have concrete currency in the world, then it could be judged spontaneous behavior on the part of a rational being like myself. There would be no superordinate explanation in which such a rational account could be incorporated; the account itself would be self-contained (again, independently of what other accounts of the same behavior could also be given)” (Bencivenga 34).
2 “According to Kant, reason never directly engages the natural inclinations: ‘sensory impulses… stand in no connection with the moral law. The latter is simply an idea of… [man’s] reason, and hence we no more find a necessary agreement of sensory urges and inclinations with the moral law, than we do a contradiction, since there is no linkage at all between them’” (44).
3“There is a sense in which ‘ought’ implies ‘can,’ we noted already. It is not a cognitive sense; it cannot be. It cannot be the case that, because I consider myself subject to the moral law, I also know that I am able to obey it” (101).
4 “[T]o trust that she will be able to behave rationally in the end is to trust that the world will become rational—in light of the limitations of her finite being, she can hope for no favorable outcome unless everything else is cooperating in the same enterprise. Therefore, a presupposition of her behavior is that a universal teleology be intrinsic to nature: a plan guiding all of its concrete, empirical workings toward a final agreement with reason. Which in turn requires a perfect rationality having enough power to determine rational ends for all of nature and willing to exercise such power—and that is just our ordinary understanding of God” (104).
5 “Our previous analysis of object-based formulation of what could be said with no reference to God (or any other object); hence to say that one trusts that God exists is only another, more colorful and possibly more attractive, way of saying that one trusts that things will (rationally) work out” (105).
6 “This perfect being would guarantee the possibility of the perfect combination of virtue and happiness virtue deserves… which is inevitably presupposed by virtuous behavior” (105).