Kant and the Moral Argument

Here are three answers to a part b question on Kant’s moral argument:

They vary in quality -see if you can critique them.

  • ‘Morality has nothing to do with the existence of God’. Discuss.
  1. Kant believed that morality proved the existence of God. He thought that good people would seek happiness and therefore because it couldn’t be found on this earth it had to be found in the next life. But Freud proved that morality was given by your parents and your upbringing. This shows that morality doesn’t have to come from God. Also Kant’s argument doesn’t work as sometimes people do good things for rewards, and not out of duty.
  1. Kant’s argument is incoherent – it has at least two main areas which are strongly disputed by philosophers. The first is that ‘ought implies can’. Kant claims that whilst the imperative for moral agents to act according to their duty has no reward other than itself, nonetheless all actions have a goal, and the goal which moral actions aim at is the “highest good,” (summum bonum) which is a world in which both moral virtue and happiness are maximized. If I have an obligation to seek this highest good, Kant maintains, then it must be achievable.

But this is just wishful thinking; it may be that the sense of moral obligation we feel is just the result of upbringing or societal pressure as Freud would claim. In that case, just because I ought to do something, there is no guarantee that it will be achievable – the source of moral obligation is not a universal moral law, but a subjective, culturally bound set of practices.

Equally, some have questioned the notion that ought implies can when applied to the existence of things rather than just what should happen – Kant is clearly saying that the state of the summum bonum must exist somewhere because ought implies can, but this is false. Ought implies can if applied to an action, for instance if someone tells me I ought to try to work harder, but it tells me nothing about what actually exists.

However, Kant would probably say that his argument does not make this step; it is merely a working out of what morality implies, and shows what we have to postulate in order for moral actions to make sense.

It is also unclear that even more straightforward uses of ought imply can. For instance we might say of someone that they ought to be paid more, even though we know that their employer doesn’t have the money to do so.

Ultimately, Kant’s argument relies on the assumption of the fairness of the universe, but many philosophers would contend that this is unwarranted.

  1. The summum bonum is an incoherent notion in the sense that it doesn’t seem to follow from Kant’s moral theory – in fact his moral theory seems to disallow the existence of the summum bonum, as it functions as a reward for moral virtue. Kant rules out any possibility of reward for moral actions – the good will is that in which we act for duty’s sake, whereas the summum bonum is the state of supreme happiness which is the end goal of perfect virtue. But surely this is a reward by another name? As Michael Palmer has suggested – this looks suspiciously like trying to keep your cake and eat it.

However, it is possible that the notion of the summum bonum as a reward by another name does not do justice to Kant’s actual theory. Kant does seem to have identified a key element of moral behaviour – happiness or a state of satisfaction that one is acting in the right way, and although the summum bonum and duty are in tension, it is perhaps not completely incoherent. Kant is concerned with establishing the implications of morality, and if there is a conflict between my happiness and my duty, then perhaps the only coherent solution is that God will resolve that conflict.

One comment

  1. […] Here is a post I wrote for A Level students on Kant’s moral argument. As you can see, it takes the form of three different quality answers to the question ‘Morality has nothing to do with the existence of God. Discuss’. This kind of question on Kant would involve evaluating the way in which Kant believes that morality when properly understood requires us to postulate from practical reason the existence of God. Anyone who has studied the argument knows that Kant does not think that morality proves God, rather that when we see the nature of morality we would understand that it requires God to work. The atheist comments thus: “The idea that God has some monopoly of morality is ludicrous and arguably rascist [sic]. The major obtuse implication is that cultures that are without God (historically due to geographic reasons) would be devoid of morality. This disproven belief has been used as justification for some very immoral behaviour from those who would act in the name of God. Buddhism could be said to be a very moral teaching as it professes empathy and reduction of suffering and strives toward nirvana (summum bonum) but this teaching has no God pulling the strings or passing judgement. I would say that Kant’slack of wordly experiences and cultural tunnel vision coupled by undoubtedly rascist higher ground typical of most western philosophers and psychologists has contributed to any number misconstrued arguments that attempts to pass as well thought out descriptions of reality. Morality stems from an instinctual desire to please those in our social atmosphere to encourage cooperation. This is an evolved tendency acted upon by processes of selection and is not at all unique to human beings. All moral behaviour leads to a healthier, happier, more cohesive population that is better able to survive and reproduce. Religion’s role has been as an enforcer of society’s biological moral compass as an indivual may occasionally place their own ego ahead of the empathy required be good.”  […]

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