Kant's Categorical Imperative and the Ethics of the Church.
Comprehending ethics in the modern world can be unbelievably difficult. For one, we have our limited and broken beings trying to comprehend something that is far beyond our senses. For another, we disagree constantly on what is universally True. How often have we seen two antithetical answers appear ethical from two different viewpoints? Ethical law is an immaterial, intangible, and seemingly distinct human problem. The conceptual abstraction of ethics has lead many people to believe that they, the individual, are the true diviner of what is ethical and what is not. This conviction may be conscious or subconscious, but it almost always manifests itself in the same fashion—egoism. If one egoist believes in A (for example, supporting Capital Punishment) and another egoist believes in B (not supporting Capital Punishment), we are suddenly faced with the problem of contradiction. Who is the correct diviner of morality?
Many scholars in the philosophical and theological communities continuously struggle with the same problems, and old arguments are made new by new minds. Without question, one of the most famous ethical arguments is the “Categorical Imperative,” devised by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. The Categorical Imperative seeks to found morality on pure practicality and reason. If an action is not permissible by everyone, then it may not be permissible at all. Kant writes, “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end” (Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals). This idea rather sounds like the “Golden Rule”—and I agree with it whole heartedly (as can most people in the Western world today). Of course, while some would agree with this argument from a secular humanist position, I must agree with it from a Christian position. Let me explain why.
The Categorical Imperative only works in a world where there is an overarching ethical reason for following the Categorical Imperative—in other words, there must be a primary ethical constant that allows all other ethical laws to exist in their ethical-ness. Socrates would have called it the “Form of the Good.” We, as Christians, call it the law of God. Secular humanists might call it “being kind for kindness sake,” or “simply loving the world that you are a part of,” and here’s where the Categorical Imperative dies without its source code.
As we can see, without a line of ethical authority that affirms the Categorical Imperative as Good, we cannot believe it to be anything more than an opinion. It may be right, in the mind of a secular humanist, to help those in need. Indeed, they may be absolutely right in their actions, but there is nothing outside of a primal utilitarian urge to establish that helping those in need is Good. Why are kindness and the preservation of other people Good, but attaining exceptional amounts of power for oneself not Good? Why is it wrong to steal from someone when the one who steals is benefitted? Who are we to proclaim anything either Good or Not Good based on an ethics that may not even exist at all except within the confines of our complex biological framework? Is ethics simply humanity’s way of preventing utter chaos, and if so, should we even be worried about ethics at all? Does anything matter? Yes—but only if God truly exists.
There is no question: without a direct line of moral authority, there is nothing that is truly definable as Good or not Good, and no reason to believe in anything except one’s own judgment (in which case, why not become a self-focused, self-preserving, stone-cold, Machiavellian?).
We should seriously consider the blessing that we have been given in our faith. We understand the temptation to become that heartless Machiavellian, but resist it for the sake of our Savior. We are tempted to create our own moralities, but we submit our hearts and minds to the only One who makes morality possible: GOD. We repent of sin instead of justifying it, we follow an ancient moral law instead of creating one. There will be times when we are in contradiction with what the world calls ethical, but our ethics is tied to the source of all ethics, to the source of all that is Good. In the end, it is our faith which remains the most rational and ethically sound position; and we are being made better by it.
“Holiness does not consist in one exercise or another, but is a disposition of the heart, which renders us humble and little in the hands of God, conscious of our weakness, and confident, even daringly confident, in His fatherly goodness.” ~St. Thérèse of Lisieux
“For without a pure mind and a modeling of the life after the saints, a man could not possibly comprehend the words of the saints.”
“In matters of prudence, man stands in very great need of being taught by others, especially by old folk who have acquired a sane understanding of the ends in practical matters.” ~St. Thomas Aquinas