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The catastrophic spider


Immanuel Kant, this great destroyer in the realm of thought, exceeded Maximilian Robespierre in terrorism.

Heinrich Heine, Concerning the History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany

Kant… This catastrophic spider…

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Antichrist

Taken as a whole, the Kantian influence on modern Christianity is so deep and pervasive that I believe in makes sense to speak of three great periods of Christian theology, each associated with a dominant philosopher. (1) The first period is the Platonic or Neoplatonic Christianity of the early church fathers; (2) The second is the Aristotelian Christianity of medieval or Scholastic theology; (3) and the third is the Kantian Christianity of the modern age …

As I see it, the validity of the new synthesis depends entirely on one issue: the ability to control Kant, to keep ‘Kant-in-a-box,’ as it were. For pure Kantianism is incompatible with Christianity… [I]f a Kantian conception of autonomy prevails, then God has become the servant of modern humanism and the synthesis is invalid.

Robert P. Kraynak, Christian Faith and Modern Democracy

As I noted in my recent post on God and obligation, from an Aristotelian-Thomistic point of view, God only ever wills in accordance with reason and thus, given that reason is of its nature directed towards the good, only ever wills what is good. But He does so, not in obedience to a law outside Himself, but rather in accordance with His own nature. For He does not “have” rationality or goodness; rather, He is His infinite Intellect, He is perfect Goodness. To use the language central to Kant’s ethics, you might say that He is “autonomous,” that He is a “self-legislator” – that He follows no law save that which is dictated by His own rational nature.

But of course, Kant himself applies these concepts to us. We must in his view be “autonomous” if we are to be truly free – not lawless, to be sure, but not “heteronomous” either, not bound by a law external to us. Rather, we must be “self-legislators,” bound only by a law that is somehow of our own making. Kant also famously describes us as “ends in ourselves,” and holds that a truly moral community is one whose members strive to create a “kingdom of ends,” an order in which all are treated as self-legislating ends in themselves.

These ideas have been enormously influential. They inform the egalitarian liberalism of John Rawls, the libertarianism of Robert Nozick, and even the conservatism of Roger Scruton. As Kraynak emphasizes, they have also permeated contemporary Catholic and Protestant thought. Modern people of all political and religious persuasions have come to see “respect for persons,” “human rights,” “human dignity,””freedom,” and the like – rather than, say, submission to the natural law or to the will of God – as the fundamental categories in terms of which to address moral and political issues. To this extent, “We are all Kantians now.”

But from a traditional Christian point of view, and from a Thomistic point of view, there is something more than a little blasphemous in all of this. For classical natural law theory – the kind which grounds morality in human nature as understood in terms of a classical essentialist (Platonic, Aristotelian, or Scholastic) metaphysics – it is hard to see how human beings could intelligibly be described as “self-legislators” or “autonomous.” In no sense are we the source of the nature that determines our ends, including the end of reason itself; God alone is that. Hence nature, and ultimately God – rather than the individual reason of the moral agent – are what ground the content and obligatory force of the moral law. As Aquinas says:

In this way God Himself is the measure of all beings… Hence His intellect is the measure of all knowledge; His goodness, of all goodness; and, to speak more to the point, His good will, of every good will. Every good will is therefore good by reason of its being conformed to the divine good will. Accordingly, since everyone is obliged to have a good will, he is likewise obliged to have a will conformed to the divine will. (QDV 23.7)

Or as Someone once put it, “Not my will, but Thine, be done.” If that is heteronomy, so much the worse for Kantian autonomy.

The “ends in themselves” talk is no less suspect. Aquinas explicitly considers the question of whether “man himself were his own last end,” and answers that “man's last end is something outside of him, to wit, God” (ST I-II.3.5) since “all things are ordered to one good as their end, and that is God” (SCG III.17.6, emphasis added). Given the metaphysics underlying classical natural law theory, describing man as an “end in himself” is, like the idea of man as “self-legislator,” simply unintelligible. Of course, that same metaphysics informs the classical theist conception of God that we have recently been exploring in a series of posts, and it is precisely what makes it the case that such talk is intelligible when applied to God, and to God alone.

Thus, the abandonment of that metaphysics has resulted not only in an anthropomorphizing of God, bringing Him closer to man’s level – the classical theist’s complaint against theistic personalism – but also in a deification of man, raising him to the level of God. Modern people like to think that the first of the Ten Commandments is the one no one breaks anymore; after all, when is the last time you saw someone bow down to an idol? But we are blindest to the sins we are most in thrall to. Idolatry is in fact the defining sin of modernity, and it is all the worse for being directed at man. The ancient pagan at least knew enough to worship something higher than himself.

For this reason it is a grave error to think that the only problem with Kantian “self-legislator” and “ends in themselves” talk is that, absent the sort of moral standards that were taken for granted in Kant’s own time, it has a tendency to degenerate into a kind of libertinism. If you honor your parents, you do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not lie, and do not covet, you do well. You will have fulfilled what Christ called the second commandment – to love one’s neighbor. But you will not have fulfilled the first and greatest – to love God above all things. And if the reason you obey the second is precisely to honor man as an end in himself, you are in danger of violating the first and greatest. Kant himself was, of course, a very austere man; he would have been absolutely horrified at what liberals and libertarians now defend in the name of “autonomy.” Accordingly, the original sin of Kantianism is not abortion, fornication, dope smoking or the like. It is, rather, the codification of modern man’s blasphemous self-obsession, the raising of “It’s all about me” to a moral first principle. And the blasphemy is only heightened, not lessened, if the only reason the blasphemer refrains from the sins in question is that he thinks them incompatible with his pathological self-regard.

To be clear, I am not saying that anyone who uses Kantian language is guilty of blasphemy. As Kraynak emphasizes, Christian thinkers who have made use of it often transform it in the process, so as to make it compatible with Christian theology and natural law. But Kraynak is also keen to emphasize, quite rightly in my view, that the emphasis modern Christians often put on the Kantian moral categories is unwise. At its best, it is little more than a marketing gimmick, an attempt to “sell” traditional morality to the citizens of modern, liberal, secularized societies by showing them that it follows from premises to which they are already committed. And it rarely if ever works, because modern secular liberals are well aware that orthodox Christians and traditionalists do not interpret the premises in question the same way they do. Chanting “human dignity” and “respect for persons” like mantras is not going to convince anyone who doesn’t already agree with you to oppose abortion, euthanasia, pornography, and the like, precisely because human dignity and respect for persons are themselves highly contested concepts. What you need to do is to show exactly how the practices in question are incompatible with human dignity, and that means (I would argue) getting into precisely the sorts of classical natural law considerations one had hoped to be able to sidestep. There are no shortcuts. But then the “human dignity” and “respect for persons” stuff falls away as otiose.

At its worst, use of the Kantian categories can seriously distort our understanding of what natural law theory and Christian teaching actually entail, even when applied by otherwise traditionally-minded thinkers. To take just one example, “new natural law” theorists, who have a reputation for upholding Catholic orthodoxy and who have done admirable work in defending traditional sexual morality and opposing abortion and euthanasia, have also in recent years tended toward the view that capital punishment is unjust even in principle. This not only goes beyond anything the Catholic Church has ever taught, but (as I have argued elsewhere) is simply incompatible with both Catholic teaching and classical natural law theory. But (as I also argue in the piece linked to) it is not entirely unsurprising that they should reach such a conclusion given that, like Kant, they eschew any appeal to human nature understood in terms of essentialist metaphysics and instead ground their position in a theory of practical reason that puts the ends of the moral agent himself (rather than the ends set for us by nature or the will of God) in the driver’s seat.

Nietzsche famously characterized Kant as a “catastrophic spider” because he took him to have insinuated an essentially Christian morality into the secular German philosophical tradition. The truth is that he insinuated an essentially un-Christian morality into the Christian tradition, and into Western civilization as a whole. Rather than appropriating this work, conservatives and Christians should strive to undo it. Kraynak is right, we need to keep Kant in a box. A pine box, with a stake through his heart.


Comments (58)

Release the Kraken, if you can. I'm betting you Kant.

Well, that certainly explains why my philosophy 101 course was 1/3 Plato's Republic and why it's wrong, 1/6 Descartes and why its wrong, 1/6 Bentham and its shortcomings, and 1/3 glorious Kant. That was what was presented as the sum of philosophy throughout the ages. I believe Aquinas may have been mentioned in passing, and nothing more.

I couldn't stand being in that class without spiking my coffee - and that was when I was fallen away. His ideas might seem clever, but nothing really ... thoroughly made.

I think you may be happy to hear that more and more philosophers not only disagree with Kant, but think of him as, quite simply, a mediocre philosopher who is considered great because of his interpreters, rather than because of his actual arguments, which are some of the worst in the history of philosophy.

which are some of the worst in the history of philosophy

I thought Marx ought to have that distinction. It has been quite some time since I read Marx, so the details have escaped me, but my recollection is that he went on for page after page of trite platitude, and then (after your mind had fallen asleep in protest) slipped in a complete non-sequitur that didn't even have the appearance of being reasonable. And that he did this repeatedly.

About Kant: let's face it: he would not have gotten nearly as much of a hearing if he had written his thoughts in language that could be followed without trying to warp your mind. It is the very fact that you must distort your intellect to even understand his phrases that makes you think maybe he has a point.

Tony, that last comment belongs to Heidegger even more than to Kant. :-)

I should note that I don't share those philosophers' opinions. It's just something I've noticed. I'm a Kant scholar, after all, and I haven't come to find his arguments bad. I rather like them, in fact.

Prof. Feser,

As I understand it, theistic personalists would regard persons as intrinsically valuable because God himself is personal. How would A-T thinkers express why persons have intrinsic value (in a way that, say, animals which are non-persons do not)? Thanks.


Anselm -

I am no professor, but as I can see it, theistic personalism has the tail before the head. It supposes that God woke up one day to find rational creatures, so decided that they are special.

Hi Bobcat,

I guess I fall somewhere in between. I think Kant is overrated, but when I take off my "Aristotelian-Thomistic Polemicist" hat and put on my "Objective Philosophy Teacher and Scholar" hat I certainly still think he is very interesting.

Hi Anselm,

A-T is happy to say that God is "personal" insofar as He has intellect and will. The reasons the flat assertion that "God is a person" is suspect are (a) that it seems to put God under a genus, which He cannot be given divine simplicity, (b) that as the assertion is understood by writers like Swinburne, "person" is applied to us and to God in a univocal way, and (c) that it conflicts with the doctrine of the Trinity (on which God is not "a" person, but three Persons in one substance, and on which "Person" doesn't mean quite what it means when applied to us).

So, A-T is also happy to say that the reason persons are intrinsically valuable is that they have intellect and will, i.e. the "personal" qualities in virtue of which we are made in God's image.


I saw this interpretation of intrinsic value at Bill Craig's website, where he says: "...persons have intrinsic value in that they are not merely means to be used for some end but are to be treated as ends in themselves. So we might well ask, "But why are human persons intrinsically valuable?" and the answer will be because God is personal." (http://www.reasonablefaith.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=7703)

He didn't have space to elaborate in the brief Q&A format in which he addressed that issue, but I interpreted him to mean that God created human beings in his image, and that the imago dei is "personhood," and that is why human beings are intrinsically valuable. So in that case the personhood would derive from God, and not be prior to God.

I see Prof. Feser's answer crossed in the ether with my second post, and he has fully answered by question. Thank you!


My pleasure, Anselm.

I'm disappointed that no one has commented on my "Zanti Misfits" illustration. On the other hand, I watched that old Outer Limits episode again last night with the kids, and it was cheesier than a pizza. So, maybe the less said the better. (Still, the kids liked it, and it's fun to watch people shriek in absolute, frozen terror at a spider the size of a shoe they could easily squash or run away from!)

Ed, I wonder if you would have a problem with the following:

Human beings have value because God made them to have value, not because they serve some utilitarian end for other finite creatures. This makes human beings different from, say, automobiles or economic theories. Even human beings that do not believe in God can observe that non-utilitarian value in man that God has placed there. Similarly, though to a lesser degree and in a lesser form, a beautiful flower has non-utilitarian value. In perceiving this, human beings realize that they should not value these things only insofar as they are useful to themselves.

Phrases like "an end in itself" and "human dignity" capture this notion of non-utilitarian-value-placed-into-the-thing for many people who use them. This includes people who are not full-fledged Aristotelian-Thomists and who would find it difficult if not impossible to express the same idea in some way that would include highly distinctive A-T terminology and categories.

Therefore, these phrases have a legitimate use in our ethical and political discourse.

Hi Lydia,

I have no problem at all with the the phrase or concept "human dignity" as such, and I am happy to speak also of intrinsic or non-utilitarian value. Nor do I think one needs to use the A-T language in non-philosophical contexts.

But I don't like the "ends in themselves" talk, for the reasons stated in the main post. And unfortunately, that's the kind of meaning that often gets attached to the idea of human dignity these days.

In other words, in a context in which people reflexively thought of human beings in terms of their status as rational animals (where rationality is understood to be irreducible to some material attribute), their high "just below the angels" place in the natural order, as made in God's image, etc., the term "human dignity" would be completely unproblematic. But in a context in which it is taken for granted that God and nature (in the classical sense of "nature") are irrelevant to ethics, that consent, freedom, etc. are the fundamental moral categories, etc., talk of "human dignity" has a tendency to be read in an idolatrous "Man is an end in himself" way.

That doesn't mean the expression shouldn't be used. I think it should be. It's just that one shouldn't assume that it constitutes any genuine moral common ground between traditionalists/Christians on the one hand and their liberal/secular opponents on the other. And thus it needs to be qualified and explained in terms of deeper moral premises.

Hi Ed,

I'd be curious to hear about what you don't think is disastrously wrong and incredibly poorly argued for in Kant.

THE DEDUCTION OF THE CATEGORICAL IMPERATIVE: I assume you think that there's a flaw in Kant's deduction of the categorical imperative (CI). I should imagine you think that, even if there weren't a flaw in the deduction of the CI, it would still give laughably wrong results when we're actually trying to think about what to do. Moreover, I presume you think that, even if the CI were properly derived, and even if the CI didn't give clearly the wrong results, it's still true that Kant misapplied it.

KANT'S THEORY OF MORAL MOTIVATION: I imagine you think that Kant's theory of moral motivation is entirely wrong-headed, and that doing something only because it's right (assuming you think that motivation makes any sense) is clearly not the only reason for which something is morally praiseworthy.

TRANSCENDENTAL IDEALISM: I imagine you think that transcendental idealism (TI) is incoherent. On the one hand, Kant thinks that we can know that causation holds only for the realm of phenomena, but on the other hand, Kant claims that the phenomenal realm is caused by the noumenal realm. Moreover, Kant seems to think that real existence applies only to phenomena, and yet he is clear as day that he thinks noumena exist. Kant thinks that only phenomena are in space and time, and that noumena are not in space and time. But, even if it's true that space and time are projections of the human mind, it could be that noumena are in space and time.

Aside from finding masturbation and homosexual sex immoral, what's left in Kant for you to like or even find interesting?

Hi Bobcat,

Well, I said "interesting," rather than "plausibly argued for" or "anywhere close to the truth." And it wasn't the stuff on sexual morality I was referring to. (Nothing original in that part of his views, and if anything he sometimes gets a bit rhetorically overheated on such subjects.)

Rather, I think that Kant is philosophically interesting in the same way that I find Parmenides, Berkeley, or any number of other philosophers with wrong-headed or bizarre views interesting: As a representative of a possible position one could stake out -- in Kant's case, that one could stake out in light of (what I regard as the) baneful trends of the moderns that he was reacting to. In particular, the idea of building morality entirely on a theory of practical reason alone, abstracted away from concrete facts about human nature, is interesting. The idea of trying to provide a foundation for objective knowledge that steers between realism and Berkeleian subjective idealism is also interesting. And he has interesting things to say here and there about other topics too (teleology, aesthetics, etc.)

I'm not saying that any of it is plausible -- I don't think it is. Indeed, I think it is mostly very awful indeed. But, as a philosopher, I find it interesting and worthy of serious study in the way Aristotle found the odd views of Parmenides, Heraclitus, Zeno et al. interesting and worth studying even while he took a position radically at odds with theirs. Especially as an indication of the sorts of weirdness one is led into when one accepts the anti-Scholastic premises of the early moderns.

Hi Ed,

I think you and I have very different interpretations of Kant (e.g., construing Kant as trying to build "morality entirely on a theory of practical reason alone"; depending on what you mean by "morality", I think it's quite clear that (a) Kant does not think people "build" morality and (b) human nature figures very importantly in the nature of morality for Kant). That said, your interpretation of Kant is probably more mainstream than mine.

I think it's quite clear that (a) Kant does not think people "build" morality and (b) human nature figures very importantly in the nature of morality for Kant).

That's true, but as you say, it depends on what you mean. What I meant by "build" is "theorize about," and what I meant by saying that he "abstracts away from concrete facts about human nature" is that, like Hume but unlike an Aristotle or Aquinas, he doesn't think that we can read off moral facts from facts about human biology and psychology interpreted in light of some version of classical essentialism (whether Platonist, Aristotelian, or Scholastic). Obviously he still thinks that we need to know certain things about human life in order to apply the CI to concrete circumstances.

I don't try to use "treating people as ends in themselves" because I think it will help me to find common ground with liberals/contemporary people. I use it because I find its negation ("treating another person as a means rather than an end") to express helpfully what is being done when, say, people conceive a savior sibling, use IVF to conceive a child and then abort it when it turns out to be disabled, or bump off Grandma.

Way back in my Berkeley days, I seem to remember attending a public lecture by Prof. Searle, wherein he said something to the effect that he couldn't read the "transcendental deduction of the categories" (in either version) without a sense of awe that any merely human being could ever have had such thoughts.

Or maybe I just imagined it.

Kant's writings on morality, on the other hand, have always struck me as pretty feeble.

IMHO, the Argumentum ad Searle is a pretty good argument from authority. He has zero tolerance for BS. So, a point for Kant.

Re: not using people as means, I understand the appeal of that, Lydia, but I think:

(a) It is unnecessary -- surely it's easy enough to explain what's wrong with killing Grandma or a fetus without saying that we're using them as means (and it would still be wrong even if we weren't using them as a means, e.g. if we did it because Grandma begged us to do it despite our not wanting to).

(b) It is too easy to come up with counterexamples. E.g. suppose I rest my coffee cup on my sleeping son, even though I know he would not like me to do this out of inordinate fear of germs, because it's easier than setting it down on the table across the room and I need for whatever reason to set it down. I've used him as a means! And as a mere piece of furniture, a thing, at that! Horrors! But I've done nothing wrong.

Or, suppose Grandma is being kept alive artifically via "extraordinary means" of the sort natural law theorists say are not required of us, and we decide not to continue with them because the financial drain is so great. In making this decision, is there a sense in which we are treating Grandma as a "means"? Given how vague this sort of talk is, there may be, but it doesn't follow from that alone that there is any moral objection to our action.

In general, I think this "not using people as means" stuff does more harm than good. It leads to fuzzy thinking and to excessive rigorism.

complete misreading of Kantian deontology...wannabe papists...a crypto-Ayn Rand

Don't hurt yourself leaping over all those bus-sized premises, Evel Knievel.

Ed, not to ruin your analogy or anything, but the Zanti Misfits were ants not spiders. Six legs, not eight, antennae, etc.

I love that episode, btw. Outer Limits always struck me a show whose aspirations were higher than its budget. It's cheesy, but in a completely different way than the original Star Trek series was cheesy. I find O.L.'s cheese far more bearable.

Sorry to interupt with this pedantry (ahem). We now return control of your television set to you.

the Zanti Misfits were ants not spiders

But Rob, look at that picture -- that's Kant's face on it! Clearly they were meant to be spiders!

(BTW, I agree, cheese or not, OL was great.)

Hi Ed,

"Obviously he still thinks that we need to know certain things about human life in order to apply the CI to concrete circumstances."

I don't think it's *just* that, though. For one thing, at least in his 1780s period, the reason he thinks we are under imperatives at all is that we are finite. That is, if we were infinite, like God, we would be self-sufficient, and if we were self-sufficient, we wouldn't have any needs, and if we had no needs, there would be nothing to tempt us to violate the moral law. So, the fact that we human beings have needs is what is responsible for our even having obligations in the first place. (Another way of putting this is: since everyone seeks his own happiness, everyone can potentially choose happiness over morality.)

Keep in mind another of Kant's claims, in Groundwork 4:394-396, the argument that the function of reason must be to make us worthy to be happy rather than to be happy. Note that that argument begins, "In the natural constitution of an organic being--that is, of one contrived for the purpose of life--let us take it as a principle that in it no organ is to be found for any end unless it is also the most appropriate to that end and the best fitted for it" (4:395). And note the end of the argument: "For since reason is not sufficiently serviceable for guiding the will safely as regards its objects and the satisfaction of all our needs (which it in part even multiplies)--a purpose for which an implanted natural instinct would have led us much more surely; and since none the less reason has been imparted to us as a practical power--that is, as one which is to have influence on the _will_; its true function must be to produce a _will_ which is _good_, not as a _means_ to some further end, but _in itself_" (4:396).

"that's Kant's face on it!"

Perhaps that's why the people shrieked in absolute, frozen terror. The horror was philosophical.

Great post. I loved it, except for the spider (ant).

Some thoughts provoked by Prof Feser's post:

1. Who cares if, in the hands of fools, Kantian ethics "has a tendency to degenerate into a kind of libertinism." Kantian ethics is intrinsically opposed to libertinism, full stop. He thought you had a duty to develop your talents for Pete's sake.

2. Let's stipulate for the sake of argument that "classical essentialist (Platonic, Aristotelian, or Scholastic) metaphysics" are incorrect. One might ask: "are we then left with the only plausible position being some version of materialism + naturalized epistemology?" The Kantian answer is: no, it is not. I know that classical essentialist metaphysics has strong backers here! But others may be interested in rebuttals to NE that don't go through essentialist metaphysics.

3. There's always a danger of approaching a philosopher at a sloganeering level. It makes me *very itchy* to see Dr. Feser glossing "Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means to an end" as "raising of “It’s all about me” to a moral first principle." That's just a reading completely ruled out by any interpretation of Kant anywhere. Now, maybe the point is that weak followers of Kant have made that error (see #1 above). But again, who cares. I worry that quite a lot of what is written in this thread about Kantian ethics is, frankly, inaccurate. It seems rather to be responding to Kant-as-slogan, or b) a response to some wicked follower of Kant who is not Kant.

4. There are (in my very humble, Phil Ph D drop out opinion) deep affinities between the ethics derived essentialist metaphysics and Kantian ethics. I think this post, and the following discussion, undersells that.

I agree with Ben A's points. That said, a lot of Kant's most prominent interpreters--Korsgaard, O'Neill, and arguably Reath and Hill--read Kant as a constructivist about ethics, and constructivism about ethics, even if not an "it's all about me" approach to Kant could plausibly be described as an "it's all about us" approach.

Hello Ben A (and Bobcat),

You're both missing the point, and not reading what I wrote very carefully.

1. As I made clear in the original post, my point was precisely NOT that "in the hands of fools, Kantian ethics has a tendency to degenerate into a kind of libertinism." I explicily noted that both Kant himself and at least some of those influenced by him use Kantian premises to defend an austere, non-libertine ethic. And I went on to say that the premises are still problematic anyway from an A-T point of view, because they amount to a deification of man, ascribing to him what from an A-T point of view can only intelligibly be ascribed to God.

2. If you want to find an alternative response to naturalism, fine, but again, that's irrelevant to the point at issue, which is that Kant's way of doing it entails a blasphemous view of man's significance. I would argue that that is certainly going to be true from an A-T point of view -- surely an interesting and important claim even for non-A-T folks -- and even non-A-T theists might come to the same conclusion. Surely it is important to consider whether all responses to naturalism are equally advisable from a Christian (or more generally theistic) POV?

3. Surely it was also quite clear from everything I said that I realize that Kant does not subscribe to "It's all about me" in the contemporary pop psychology/Me generation sense. Surely it was clear that that was just a cute way of saying that Kant over-emphasizes the significance of human beings to the point of (arguably) blasphemy. Wasn't it?

4. Fine, there are deep affinities. There are also deep incompatibilities, or at least tensions, which is what the post was about. And I don't see how you've shown otherwise.

Oh, and I meant to add that "It's all about us" is equally objectionable from an A-T POV. The point has nothing to do with pop psychology - let's be less literal-minded here, people! -- but with ascribing to man (whether as an individual or as a group) what can intelligibly and properly be said only of God.

Hi Ed,

You asked, "3. Surely it was also quite clear from everything I said that I realize that Kant does not subscribe to "It's all about me" in the contemporary pop psychology/Me generation sense. Surely it was clear that that was just a cute way of saying that Kant over-emphasizes the significance of human beings to the point of (arguably) blasphemy. Wasn't it?:

When you said that Kant subscribes to "It's all about me", I didn't take you to mean that in a pop psychology sense, but rather in something like this: "Kant thinks I legislate the moral law--it is, after all, why he says the moral law is self-legislated--and since its binding force comes from the fact that *I* legislate it, then it follows from that that I could have different moral obligations if I had simply legislated it in a different way.

Perhaps that's not what you meant--perhaps you meant something like this: "When Kant says the moral law is self-legislated, what he means is not that humans make the moral law; rather, what he means is that the reason I am obligated to follow it is that I recognize that I am bound to follow it. Moreover, I couldn't *not* recognize that I am bound to follow it; Kant's point is that, since I'm a rational agent, I'm bound to recognize that I am obligated to follow the moral law. And indeed, all rational agents, except God, are obligated to follow the moral law, and can recognize no other. Nevertheless, because Kant says that my obligation to follow the moral law comes from my recognizing it as a law of rational agency--rather than because God has instilled in us a nature according to which we have certain ends essentially--this is quite blasphemous, for it makes man, rather than God, the source of obligation."

I'll try to read you more carefully next time, but I can't tell which of these readings is close to what you meant. Perhaps neither is at all close, and for that, I apologize.

Wait, I missed it--where did Ben or I suggest you meant "it's all about me" (or "it's all about us") in a pop psychology sense?

Hi Bobcat,

Ben A had said that he was concerned that I was reducing Kant to the "slogan" "It's all about me." And you said you agreed with him. But as a slogan, "It's all about me" is typically understood as an expression of Me generation and/or self-help self-centeredness. Hence, I assumed (not unreasonably, I think) that I was being accused of reducing Kant to such trivia.

then it follows from that that I could have different moral obligations if I had simply legislated it in a different way.

No, I am well aware that that is not what Kant thinks. Again, I don't see why it's so mysterious what I had in mind. Kant says that human beings are "ends in themselves"; A-T says that only God is or can be an end in Himself in any ultimate sense. Hence Kant seems implicitly to deify man, to make the moral life ultimately "all about man" rather than all about God.

Now, you might want to say that that's a misreading. But whether it is or not, that's what I meant.

Ed, those are pretty good counterexamples on the means-end language, I have to admit. There are ways around some of them. I myself find the idea of setting your coffee cup on your sleeping child a little...odd myself. I would also reject the idea that a person's consent is a sufficient condition in all cases for not treating the person as a means. For example, if someone says, "Kill me and eat me" in a lifeboat situation, that doesn't mean that one isn't wrongly treating him as a means if one does it. And actually, I _do_ think that there are dangers in cost analysis even when one is considering end-of-life care that isn't strictly speaking ordinary means. For example, suppose that a person needs an amputation to survive--classic extraordinary means. Suppose that the person is legally and/or medically incompetent and that the decision whether to amputate has to be made by others. I worry a bit about the decision being made on cost considerations, though I have to say that I'd _rather_ the family decided that the cost was too crushing than that a non-related rationer made the same decision. So there are real worries about bad utilitarianism in cost rationing even when ordinary care is not the only thing in question.

But overall, I think your counterexamples do show that the means-end talk needs to be supplemented, at a minimum, with ideas about, e.g., grave harm, the person's true best interests, etc.

I can't speak much about Kant, never having plumbed the depths of his writings, but his definition of the process of humor in The Critique of Judgment is (outside of perhaps what Aristotle may have said in the lost sections of The Poetics), to my knowledge, the first modern treatment of the subject and, essentially, correct, although he doesn't go into things in great detail.

I'm disappointed that no one has commented on my "Zanti Misfits" illustration. On the other hand, I watched that old Outer Limits episode again last night with the kids, and it was cheesier than a pizza. So, maybe the less said the better. (Still, the kids liked it, and it's fun to watch people shriek in absolute, frozen terror at a spider the size of a shoe they could easily squash or run away from!)

As to the Zanit misfit, I am an aficionado of the old black and white Outer Limits (the less said about the 1990's re-make, the better). I own two boxed sets (one was a present, the other I bought).

This is the first and to my mind, the best example of philosophical science fiction. Some of the comments of the Control Voice are absolutely prescient. One of my favorite is this:

"The greatness of evil lies in its awful accuracy. Without that deadly talent for being in the right place at the right time, evil must suffer defeat. For unlike its opposite, good, evil is allowed no human failings, no miscalculations. Evil must be perfect... or depend upon the imperfections of others.

or this quote, which, perhaps, describes the jihadist:

"You do not know these men. You may have looked at them, but you did not see them. They are newspapers blowing down a gutter on a windy night. For reasons both sociological and psychological these three have never joined or been invited to join society. They have never experienced love and friendship or formed any lasting or constructive relationship. But today, at last, they will become a part of something. They will belong. They will come a little bit closer to their unrealistic dreams of power and glory. Today, finally, they will join the hu... I almost said the human race. And that would have been a half-truth. For the race they are joining... is only half-human..."

or these two, which even philosophers should remember:

"There is a passion in the human heart that is called aspiration. It flares with the noble flame, and by its light Man has traveled from the caves of darkness to the darkness of outer space. But when this passion becomes lust, when its flame is fanned by greed and private hunger, then aspiration becomes ambition-by which sin the angels fell."
"Some success, some failure, but either way the gnawing hunger to know is never sated, and the road to the unknown continues to be dark and strange."

Have you ever seen such writing on tv anywhere else? The level of language usage would be totally out of place in today's dumbed-down tv shows. In fact, this is probably the only show that I have ever seen on tv that used a word I had never heard: cockahoop. It is used in the seminal episode, A Feasibility Study. This show makes me sad because it had so much unrealized potential and contrasts with the glitzy half-thought-out shows of today. If you knew the music used on tv shows of the period, you would know how groundbreaking Dominic Frontiere's scores where. What tv shows challenge the mind as much as this show? Truly, as show out of some other time-stream.

The Chicken

Hi Lydia,

I agree that there are things that might be said to get around such examples. For example, people who like to emphasize the "treating people as ends and not means" idea typically qualify it by saying that they are only against using people merely as means. (Kant himself makes this qualification.) Or they say that what they are really on about is affirming that there are absolute rights and duties that form a trump against all merely utilitarian considerations.

The trouble is that when all the qualifications are made, it seems pretty clear that it isn't really the "don't use people as means" idea that is doing the work after all, and that the idea doesn't really add anything that is both new and plausible. In that respect, it is like "self-ownership" talk. There is no doubt a sense in which we "own" ourselves, but when all the necessary qualifications are made in light of the natural law understanding of rights, it turns out that everything we can say in terms of "self-ownership" can be said in other and less misleading ways.

BTW Bobcat, there are some links I've put up over at my own blog concerning the A-T view of Kantian metaphysics and epistemology that you might find of interest:


Thanks for the response!

I guess I still don't see exactly how this point cashes out:

they amount to a deification of man, ascribing to him what from an A-T point of view can only intelligibly be ascribed to God.

Here's what I think I'd say about Kant. The self-legislation of a rational being turns out to be a fairly weird and special property. Does it mean that a rational being can make his own laws? No. Does it mean that a rational being creates his own nature? No. It means, insofar as I can gloss it in a combox comment, that a rational being has a moral imperative to act in accordance with his rational nature -- a rational nature, which, it seems would be identical for an angel, a human, or a rational being found in the ammonia clouds of some distant planet.

So when you say:

"In no sense are we the source of the nature that determines our ends, including the end of reason itself; God alone is that." I find myself wondering: what do you mean by *source*?

If source means "efficient cause" then I think Kant would simply agree. So no blasphemy there. If you mean source as something like "warrant" then again, I suspect Kant would agree. Can you say more about what aspect of divine *source* Kant is denying?

As a hardcore Aristotlean-Thomist for years - since I read the ST and SCG - this blog is incredible. I've only just read a bit of it so far, but I really like what I'm seeing and the general quality of the replies, even if I disagree with them. I'm also a traditional Catholic (as in anti-Vatican II), and have always strongly been repelled by modern philosophy (pretty much anything past Descartes, categorically), so this post in particular really rings true to me. I also wonder if the name of your site is taken from Chesterton, perhaps?

In my view, the epistemological obsessions of the past four centuries or so all lead down this same path, not by necessity but by human nature. Anyone who doubts the basic underlying principles for reality that we all take for granted will necessarily reach a nihilistic conclusion unless they contrive some sort of stopgap measure. We naturally find nihilism abhorrent, so instead of embracing the terrifying consequences of doubting reality, we construct some way to save ourselves from it.

That's Kant, in my opinion. He saw where the general trend led, along with the views of his contemporaries, and tried to devise a mechanism of thought that could support a more traditional mental and ethical framework within that void. But I agree entirely that, for those who reject the underlying premises, Kant is not only unnecessary, but destructive.

But to the modern mind, the concept of God as THE standard by which all things are measured and the end to which all things are ordained is difficult to grasp. It doesn't mesh with our social programming; especially in America, political thought from the Founding Fathers onward is based roughly upon that intellectual trend which rejects the idea.

I can't remember the exact quote, but Chesterton said in Orthodoxy that most modern philosophy consists of this: grant me one ridiculous assumption, and I'll build a perfectly logical worldview from it.

Ben A,

By not positing to God the role of Supreme Lawgiver and the standard of moral order, one has to ascribe that role to man if he or she hopes to preserve any (pseudo-)objective morality at all, since he would be its only other rational basis. Kant says on the one hand that man has this role to self-legislate morality while at the same time ascribing moral obligations to him (traditional morality and the duty to develop one's abilities, etc).

In essence, then, man is (in his view) both the ends and the cause of moral law. That's a role reserved to God alone in A-T thought. So Kant, in trying to basically salvage reality and morality from modern philosophy, totally undermined its rational underpinnings.

That's what I think, anyways.


Yes, the site has a profoundly Chestertonian appeal to it. If I remember correctly, a reporter asked G.K. Chesterton "What's wrong with the world", and he replied, "I am". Such humility is to be lauded.

As for the "Anti-Vatican II, how can that be, considering that most of it is so incredibly vague? The truth is still within, but it is tumbling amidst a host of errors. In fact, I find it rather useful in driving modernists into gibbering madness when quoting the documents verbatim. After all, the error is the point of departure, and once the departure is exposed, those who have followed such false ends are left with naught but shrieking nonsense.

Yes, the documents were made terribly vague, and in that vagueness they were abused towards (often pre-determined) error. Even so, I will count it as a blessing that those who had no good intents upon the Church made it clear within their material heterodoxy where they stood. It is much like a pimple; while it lies deep within a follicle it cannot be reached, but when it rises to the surface, it may be lanced.

I think the documents from Vatican II are intentionally vague and ambiguous. The commentator above referenced a tactic by Marx where he would almost lull you into complacency before floating out a non-sequitur. V2 does that in spades. Most encyclicals pre-V2 were anywhere from 3-10 pages long, and very meaningfully written. V2 docs are 75 pages of platitudes, with 2 or 3 sentences thrown in that seriously warped Catholic doctrine.

I mostly use Vatican II as the real turning point, however, and that is what I see as its significance more than the documents themselves. It's when those at the Vatican started spouting the same cliches about "profound human dignity" and such that were previously the domain of liberals.

You hit the nail on the head though, Patrick, when you said that that it is "tumbling amidst a host of errors." Therein lies the problem; Ecumenical Councils aren't filled with errors. I know they said that it was merely a "pastoral council," but the fruits of it clearly demonstrate the actual intent. As you said, it was intentionally vague so as to exploit it towards pre-determined error. If things went badly, and there had been more of a Lefebvrist response to it in general (I'm not SSPX by the way, but sedevacantist), then they could have backtracked and approached it more gradually. But even in that case, intentional ambiguity has been explicitly condemned by the Popes of the past.

I think that God often demonstrates who is within and without the Church by allowing heresies to flare up; after all, anyone who was truly devoted to God and His Church would hardly go along with heresy. So you're right in that it exposes the corrupt, though I'd say "heterodoxy" is too soft a term. Heresy is what it is. The same thing happened with Arianism, the Greek Schism, the "Reformation," and Vatican I. Eventually the mess will get sorted out - of that I have no doubt - but it won't be pretty, and the damage done in the meantime is as upsetting as it is reprehensible.

That's my two cents, anyways. :)


Thanks for the response. I still don't think it's correct to call man the *cause* of moral obligation for Kant -- or at least, I'm puzzled about the connection being asserted.

And I'm worried that the thought at work here:

"By not positing to God the role of Supreme Lawgiver and the standard of moral order, one has to ascribe that role to man"

is definition by exclusion in a way that doesn't quite capture what Kant is after.

Let me make a *very tenuous* analogy. And let me again stress the tenuousness at the outset. One more time!

OK, here goes. Let's say we ask about the ways in which the number 2 is prime, what makes it be prime. I suppose one could say -- that's just something about the nature of the number 2; 2 has to be prime to be what it is. Now, in making this statement, I don't think any *negative* claim is implied about a) the existence of God, b) God's role as ultimate reality, c) God's role as in some sense being the standard for all truth. And this could even be true if we took the hard position that the existence of God is a *necessary precondition* of the existence of the number 2, and of its nature.

To extend, I think it is possible to see Kant as saying something about a free will very similar to this. The laws that determine the moral constraints on a free will derive from the nature of the will itself (autonomous not heteronomous). But this doesn't mean that every free will wasn't created by God. Or that the nature of the free will doesn't have whatever relationship with God that per essentialist metaphysics *all natures* have to God.

Keith Ward paraphrases Kant saying faith consists in 'theoretical agnosticism, but practical commitment.' This is consonant with so much biblical text on the nature of faith and our proper response to creation. I cannot see why this upsets so many; surely no one is certain in their belief in the true nature of God. (Thanks to the Codgitator for reminding us of this link)


I am going to go way out on a limb here at W4 and propose that we consider other religions/belief systems that likewise speak of God as ineffable, unfathomable, yet the cause of natural order and so moral direction. From a different website on philosophy, I urge you folks here to listen to this lecture and see the clear unity of thought with Kant.


There is nothing new under the sun, we only need look around.


Keith Ward paraphrases Kant saying faith consists in 'theoretical agnosticism, but practical commitment.'

Just Thinking, this does not distinguish "faith" from any other act by which I land practical use out of my fellow man's testimony (which I cannot prove). When I get on an airplane, I am certainly a theoretical agnostic on whether the mechanics, engineers, and pilots both know what they say they know and that they intend to fly the plane properly to my destination. I make enough of a practical commitment as to get on the plane, that is both totally practical, and extremely committed. But it is not religious faith.

Or rather, if this is faith, then religious faith has no special place in the lexicon of mental and spiritual acts. It is, moreover, a far cry short of what the saints and mystics describe as their acts of faith, descriptions which don't involve any room for theoretical agnosticism. At all.

surely no one is certain in their belief in the true nature of God.

That is, perhaps, a valid comment for people in this life. But it fails to capture a deep mystic's experience of God, which is not one of "belief in the true nature of God" so much as a first-hand experience of One so vastly above and beyond us as to defy satisfactory depiction. That experience is indeed "so certain" as to exceed that of ordinary beliefs by a clear difference.

Can I say that I am going to scream if I hear one more person refer to Kant's antimonies as if they amounted to anything worth the least, tiniest bit of respect? They are JUST PLAIN STUPID! Usually, BOTH sides of the antimony constitute really sophomoric nonsense that any graduate philosophy student should be able to demolish in 5 seconds with one hand tied behind his back. Further, the fact that he posits them in a few short sentences (subjects about whole books have been written to make the necessary distinctions), is further proof that he was being puerile in even proposing them. Whatever OTHER aspects of Kant's work that might qualify for respect, the antimonies are not there.


...a deep mystic's experience of God, which is not one of "belief in the true nature of God" so much as a first-hand experience of One so vastly above and beyond us as to defy satisfactory depiction. That experience is indeed "so certain" as to exceed that of ordinary beliefs by a clear difference.

I have spent so much time throughout my 55 years wanting just such an experience. I have had a few that were close, but really, I have never experienced such certainty.

Nevertheless, I have never lost the sense of being pursued by the 'Hound of Heaven.'


For those here not wishing to listen to a lecture on Buddhism, I would at least urge you to go to 25 min into the Burke Lecture link to see just how Buddhist Kant's TI really is (not to mention Hume).

I have spent so much time throughout my 55 years wanting just such an experience.

Just Thinking, I too have never had the kind of mystical unitive experience of God that the mystical saints talk about - the kind of experience that is, while short of "seeing Him face to face, as He is in Himself", it is far beyond mere visions, mere interior speaking, beyond even the peaceful enveloping of the senses into an overwhelmed quiet, to a direct experience of God that no creature can mimic, and no recipient of such an experience can mistake as to its origin. THAT kind of experience only comes to those whose will is totally united with God's. I have many, many steps to tread before I might be there.

But that's not the only kind of experience in the realm of religion that holds certainty. The martyr who accepts beheading instead of denying God has it, whether he is mystical or not. He is more certain of his faith than he is of the beheading that is about to take place, and MUCH more certain of his faith than of any reason to fear beheading. But many, many believers hold their faith in Jesus this way, not just the few martyrs.

Thinking and Tony,

I have. And I am, without a sliver of doubt, absolutely certain not only that God is, but who He is. To say that this certainty comes only through reason would be selling it short, but reason definitely played a part in opening me up to it. I am utterly convinced of the proof of God's existence by the Five Arguments from Aquinas (et al). Supplement that with my mystical experiences, and there is literally zero doubt in my mind.

And this is not because I haven't thought about it. I was raised Lutheran, became agnostic, studied and participated in paganism and Buddhism, became a universalist, then a non-descript Christian, until I finally became Catholic. Religion and God have been and still are the focus of my life.

I couldn't say for sure why God blessed me with this and not other people; I do know that my commitment to discovering who He was was absolute, even to the point of explicitly promising God that not even fear of death would restrain me. But of course, as a Thomist, I believe all good comes directly from God, so whatever good was in my disposition was itself granted by Him; I merely consented to it.

Tony: I believe Kant is, particularly in the respect you mentioned, highly overrated. But I don't think that there is anything wrong with treating someone else's views as something to consider and debate rationally, even if you find them laughably naive or foolish. Respect begets respect, right?

Ben A: I see your point. I suppose I rather should have said that Kant's approach seems to make morality derivative of man, rather than caused by man.

You said: "The laws that determine the moral constraints on a free will derive from the nature of the will itself (autonomous not heteronomous). But this doesn't mean that every free will wasn't created by God. Or that the nature of the free will doesn't have whatever relationship with God that per essentialist metaphysics *all natures* have to God."

To that I would say that, from my point of view at least, this is a problem. I'm struggling to find the right words here, so forgive me if I misspeak... But goodness, including moral goodness, is a resemblance to God, the standard of good. The will is unique in that its goodness is determined not by the perfection of its nature and/or use, but by its object as well. A fully realized will, directed toward evil ends, is still an evil will.

This means that morality is not a mere perfection of the nature of the will or something inherent or derivative from it, but something outside itself. Kant, by ascribing moral constraint to the will's nature (like the primacy of 2, in your example), fails to recognize its relationship to God, which is its perfection. I hope I explained that well enough. :)

Oh, one last thing. Tony: my experience wasn't of course that sort of permanent union of the will with the Divine, the post "Dark Night of the Soul" type of sanctifying experience that results in Spiritual Marriage. But it was unitive and contemplative, utterly unmistakable and rapturous, and left me unaware (or outside of) my physical body. It was totally transformative and beyond the limits of what can be put into words. And for it, I feel truly blessed; even if I end up in Hell, as I would rightly deserve, I would be thankful for it (were it possible to be thankful in Hell, of course).

Was it the absolutely simple God of classical theism that raised the disgusted worldwide revolt against the rampant pedophilia within the clerical ranks of the catholic church of that God, or more accurately the outrage of the community of humanity that said it is intolerable in society.

Kant says to act as though what you do would be a universal imperative. In this manner, we are continuing where our ancestral cousins left off…


(Scroll halfway down for a good vid discussion with the author.)

And hey, thanks for the lively discussion of Buddhist and Kantian metaphysics – very revealing!

d-senti: If Kant were here to listen to a debate on his theories, I would not laugh at him when he presents his antimonies - out of respect for him. But it does no harm to laugh at the truly laughable outside of the hearing of the one who posits it. It isn't a lack of respect for his person. It is, indeed, a form of lack of respect for his IDEAS. I have contended in the past, and suggest now, that lack of respect for an idea is, actually, an appropriate posture for some ideas which seem to comport themselves as the antithesis of respectability. Ed Feser raised this point quite some time ago: for some ideas proposed, to argue them down is to grant them far, far more weight than they deserve and more than is good for the listener to the debate. An argument that proceeds by logic to prove that logic is imaginary would, it appears, to be just such a risible case.

An argument that proceeds by logic to prove that logic is imaginary would, it appears, to be just such a risible case.

Isn't this precisely what Wittgenstein and fellow analistic philosophers have weaved in and out of for the past century?

Actually, using something to nullify itself would seem to be the stuff of quite a bit of philosophy, no?

Tony - I agree. I meant more in relation to the people arguing in favor of Kant. But I see your point.

JT, I was about to comment about Wittgenstein, but then I realized that I personally have forgotten more about Wittgenstein than I ever knew about his stuff.

JT, I was about to comment about Wittgenstein, but then I realized that I personally have forgotten more about Wittgenstein than I ever knew about his stuff.

Ha! That is wisdom. Heck, even he told us to forget his first work and he started anew.

So we are just taking his lead by forgetting Wittgenstein II to again start anew.

Ah, logic can be such fun when it isn't taken too seriously.

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