Kant’s Moral Argument for the Existence of God

Immanuel Kant  (1724 – 1804) is considered by many philosophers to be one of the most important of Western philosophers, if not the most important.  His Critique of Pure Reason (1781, 2nd edition 1787) is often considered as the most important work in Western philosophy, a turning point, affecting all those sufficiently informed that came after it (some philosophies chose to ignore the problems he demonstrated affecting traditional empiricism and rationalism).  One of Kant’s ideas central to his philosophy was that the mind of men and women was not passive in the knowing process (as empiricists had believed) but that the mind imposed order on its sense data, we cannot help but think in causal categories to make sense of the world.  Yet he also accepted that external objects necessarily existed in themselves though we experience them only as phenomena and so also rejected the scepticism of pure Rationalism that had concluded that there was no non-circular way to prove the existence of an external world; that is, the rationalist maintained the real is limited to thought, the content of the mind (viz. idealism) and there is no necessary external world.  However, in agreement with the empiricists, he also placed a premium on reasoning and natural science, and so is seen to both embrace and reject aspects of empiricism and Rationalism which is why the 19th century and perhaps much of the 20th, can be seen as a series of responses (often in radically different directions and implications) to his complex, opaque and critical philosophy.

He was considered to have demolished many of the traditional arguments for the existence of God:  the ontological, cosmological (design) and the evidential – though the latter half of the 20th century breathed new life into these previously “solved” problems of philosophy, particularly in the works of Alvin Plantinga.  He maintained that if the premises of a rational argument pertain to the natural world, the conclusion of the argument could only ever pertain to the natural world, i.e. there could never be any rational proof of God’s existence.  He thus dismissed classical Thomist (Catholic) apologetics in its entirety (which had also exerted a large influence on Reformed apologetics) and it was thus surprising and disappointing to many of his Enlightenment contemporaries who were working to destroy the perceived intellectual hegemony of the Church, that he maintained that God was a postulate of practical reasoning – that is, the existence of God was required to make moral sense of the world:  if we ought to do something, we can (must be able to) and should do it unless morality itself was illusory.

The greater good, he proposes, is that Man should not be made unhappy by the pursuit of the highest good.  Happiness should be proportional to virtue. However, Kant observes that this is not our moral experience as men and that God must be the agency that reconciles these two requirements.  There is no natural connection between virtue and happiness so there must be a supernatural one.

This short 1000 word essay was part of on-going assessment that the philosophy lecturer (professor for the US-readers!), where rather than give one large essay at the end of the course, he gave three short ones!  The second essay, also on Kant, is found here and the third one on Hume here – a contemporary of Kant whose anti-religious scepticism was credited with “awakening me [Kant] from my dogmatic slumbers”.

A PDF of this essay is found here.

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