Immanuel Kant and the Human Moral Situation Part 1

by Max Andrews

The human moral situation, according to Kant, is one of a generally evil nature.  By and large man possesses a propensity to act in a way that is evil, as opposed to possessing a propensity to act in a way that is good.  Only if the propensity can be considered as belonging universally to mankind can it then be called a natural propensity to evil.  This natural propensity to evil is exemplified in three degrees: human “frailty,” “impurity”, and “wickedness.”  To say that one is evil, according to Kant, is to say that one is “conscious of the moral law but has nevertheless adopted into his maxim the (occasional) deviation therefrom.”  In summation, an evil man is one who is aware of how to act in accordance with the moral law, yet chooses to act otherwise.  This is the human moral situation.

The human moral situation should be much different.  Rather than knowing what act is good and choosing otherwise, man instead should act in accordance with the moral law.  Mankind should be committed to strict adherence and obedience to the Categorical Imperative.  In short, man should do his duty, that duty being compliance to the moral law.  The reason the human moral situation should be one characterized by goodness is that it brings the ruination and subordination of evil.  Further, by the prevailing of good over that of evil, the Kingdom of God on earth is being actualized.  The Kingdom of God is an “ethical commonwealth”, a “people of God” compliant with “ethical laws.”

The Kingdom of God cannot be brought about by God, but rather the Kingdom of God actualizes as more and more individuals become increasingly obedient to the moral law.  The Kingdom comes by way of the church, which is a community of individuals who aid in developing “sonship” in one another by motivating one another to keep the Categorical Imperative.  Individuals are to strive to become “sons of God”, with the archetype (Jesus) ever before them.  The idea is to make oneself acceptable so as to be capable of receiving grace.

Upon several instances Kant seems to want to say that humans are not evil at all, they are but in poor habits or conditions.  Though tempted, Kant does not explicitly make an argument for human goodness.  Yet by failing to do so it seems Kant is falling into inconsistency.  The notions that man is the achiever of the Kingdom of God and at the same time “naturally” evil, do not seem compatible.  It does not appear, by reflection upon history, that man is able to perfect himself, but of course Kant does not directly say this.  Rather, Kant thrusts himself into the dilemma of arguing for divine impartation of grace to aid man along in the enterprise of self-perfection, and at the same time argues that one must make oneself worthy of such an impartation.  Consequently, one may receive grace only if one does not need it.  Kant’s exaltation of man pervades, and is the intention of, the entire work.  But whose Kingdom is it?

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