Kant’s Struggle with Moral Autonomy and Free Speech

Excerpt from The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism, by Paul Cliteur (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). Reprinted with permission from the author.

From Chapter 4: Moral and Political Secularism

Kant’s Struggle with Moral Autonomy and Free Speech

In the first paragraph of Chapter 3 it was demonstrated that Mill, in On Liberty, formulated a manifesto for free speech that continues to fascinate each new generation of liberals. British intellectual Noel Annan (1916–2000) wrote in 1968: “The Essay burnt itself into the consciousness of each succeeding generation of liberals: whatever else they discarded from mid-Victorian radicalism, they retained the Essay – it troubled the conscience of converted Marxists and mellowed the convictions of British socialists.”[232] This is perfectly true, but, as Brand Blanshard reminded us, this could also make us forget that, in most parts of the world, Mill’s doctrine would be regarded as radical if not revolutionary. “It would be rejected by all the Communist governments,” Blanshard wrote in 1984, “by most of those of the so-called Third World, and by some even in the ‘free world’.”[233]

We also have to remind ourselves that less than a century before Mill wrote his essay, Kant wrestled with the same problems and could not write what was on his mind openly. Kant was a cautious writer and he certainly did not want to get into trouble with the authorities.

The skeptical or secular strain in his work manifests itself in Kant’s contribution to science. He developed what has come to be known as the “Kant–Laplace hypothesis.” This is the astronomical theory that explains the origin of the solar system out of a primordial nebula, making use only of physical laws and without calling upon the intervention of God in nature.

Writing God out of science was not without danger in those times, and Kant was read critically by the authorities of his day. Kant scholar Lewis White Beck (1913–1997) wrote: “Perhaps the only real excitement in his otherwise quiet life was provided by the royal prohibition on his teaching and writing on the subject of religion. This censorship ban was applied soon after his chief work on religion was published, though he had been having trouble with the censor during its publication and had had to employ somewhat tricky procedures to have it published.”[234]

How could a Prussia where Voltaire had attained the status of a court philosopher now suddenly ban the work of that other great Enlightenment philosopher, Immanuel Kant?

Kant was writing under Frederick William II (1744–1797), King of Prussia from 1786 till 1797. As long as Frederick the Great was alive (1712–1786) there was no official interference with Kant’s publications. This changed when Frederick died in 1786 and was succeeded by his nephew, Frederick William II. Frederick William was a bigoted opponent of Enlightenment thought and one of the first things he did was to appoint a culture minister by the name of Wöllner.[235] Wöllner issued two important edicts. The first (the so-called Religionsedikt) threatened the dismissal of all civil servants (including university teachers) who deviated from adherence to biblical doctrines. The second (the Zensuredikt) had to do with censorship. It required an official imprimatur for all publications dealing with religious topics. Despite the edicts, Kant managed to have his Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone published in 1793, but in October 1794 he received peremptory notice from the king.

Our most high person has for a long time observed with great displeasure how you misuse your philosophy to undermine and debase many of the most important and fundamental doctrines of the Holy Scriptures and Christianity; how, namely, you have done this in your book, Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, as well as in other smaller works … . We demand of you immediately a most conscientious answer and expect that in the future, towards the avoidance of our highest disfavor, you will give no such cause for offence … . If you continue to resist, you may certainly expect unpleasant consequences to yourself.[236]

This was no encouragement to Kant to further develop his ideas on moral autonomy, as can be easily understood. Kant decided to cave in. He replied that his books had been misunderstood. He tried to convince the king that he had not aimed to undermine Christianity and wrote: “I hereby, as Your Majesty’s most faithful servant, solemnly declare that henceforth I will entirely refrain from all public statements on religion, both natural and revealed, either in lectures or in writings.”[237] One may regret this answer, but we should always remind ourselves that Kant was (like Galileo complying with Church authorities) seventy-one, and, as Paul Edwards rightly remarks, had every right to live out his life in peace.[238] Besides, he had done a lot. His philosophy of religion had been published in 1793 and his seminal essay on Enlightenment in 1784. The king could not turn back the clock to a pre-Enlightenment era. What he could do, of course, is slow down the pace of events.

When the king died, Kant again felt free to publish his thoughts on religion, because he felt bound to the king himself, not to his successors. So in the later editions of Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone Kant felt more free.

Kant’s work always was a curious blend of radicalism and adherence to traditional doctrine.[239] In his previous work, mainly the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant had held that the theoretical proofs of the existence of God are fallacious. Nevertheless he did not say that God did not exist. He denied only that we could know it. In a famous sentence he declared: “I have found it necessary to deny knowledge, in order to make room for faith.”[240] In the work of Kant, faith is contrasted with knowledge, not with reason. It is possible to entertain a reasonable form of faith. What binds Kant to Hume (1711–1776) is that both writers undermined the rational theology that was popular in their time,[241] but with Kant there is not a trace of irony in his religious philosophy, as is the case with Hume. Kant took religion seriously, as did Rousseau (1712–1778).[242] Hume did not.

The question is: how could Kant have founded his rational faith if not on the basis of knowledge? The answer is: it was based on morality.[243] Initially, Kant seemed to reject all traces of religion in the edifice of his thought. He rejected the divine command theory of ethics. Kant said that we respect the moral law because it is a law which we, as reasonable beings, legislate for ourselves. So in that sense morality is not dependent upon religion. Nevertheless, the religion that was in a way thrown out of the window by Kant in his theoretical philosophy is smuggled in again through the backdoor of his practical philosophy. Kant was impressed by the fact that the most virtuous people are not always the happiest. And he thought that in a rational world our moral values and expectations could not always be out of concord with what the world is like. There should be some proportioning of punishment and reward in the world. If this proportioning can not take place in this world, then it should be the case in the world after this one, in the hereafter. According to Kant, God is a postulate.

Let us now see how Kant struggles with the question of moral autonomy. How can Kant harmonize moral autonomy with an eternal legislator for this world whom he did not want to abolish – at least not explicitly? To answer these questions we have to go back to the story of Abraham and Isaac, because, as indicated before, Kant also contrasted his own ideas on the source of morality with the divine command theory as manifested in the biblical story of Abraham. In Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, the book that caused him to be censured by the Prussian government for having “misused his philosophy to the detriment of disparagement of many fundamental tenets of Holy Scripture and Christianity,”[244] Kant started from the presupposition that nobody is free to take anybody else’s life on the basis of religious convictions.[245] If God seems to have issued a command as horrific as the one we encounter in the story of Abraham, we should be skeptical about its content.

Kant was a very cautious thinker who tried his best not to give offence to the authorities or the clergy of his time. Nevertheless, implicitly, his comment on the story of Abraham implies a radical critique of the concept of revelation, as the censor was not slow to figure out.

It is illuminating to compare the cautious way of dealing with this topic by Kant with the more straightforward and heretical position of the British freethinker Thomas Paine (1737–1809), who was Kant’s contemporary. In his controversial book The Age of Reason (1794), published one year after Kant’s Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, Paine commented on Moses receiving the Ten Commandments from above. This was a “revelation,” so Paine tells us, but he adds: “revelation to that person only.”[246] He meant: only a revelation to Moses, not to us.

When Moses told the children of Israel that he received the two tables of the commandments from the hand of God, they were not obliged to believe him, because they had no other authority for it than his telling them so … .[247]

The same is true, of course, of the revelations to Mohammed. Paine writes:

When I am told that the Qur’an was written in heaven, and brought to Mahomet by an angel, the account comes to near the same kind of hearsay evidence, and second hand authority, as the former. I did not see the angel myself, and therefore I have a right not to believe it.[248]

What we know about revelation is always mediated by what I have referred to before as “religious leaders.” So anyone who believes the Ten Commandment to be true does not do this on account of God’s authority but on the basis of the authority of Moses.[249]

Kant’s position does not fundamentally differ from that of Paine, but he was at pains to put it far less bluntly than Paine did.[250] What both writers had in common was a skeptical attitude towards what comes “from above.” Even if the command seems to be a command from God – as Abraham appeared to think – we have to leave open the possibility that we ourselves make a mistake in interpreting the command, or that the religious leader makes a mistake.[251]

Now, how would the theoreticians of the divine command theory answer Kant? And, more importantly, do they have an answer?

I think they do. What Abraham and other advocates of divine command morality could answer to the great philosopher from Königsberg is that there is a contradiction between what he claimed to be doing and what he was actually doing. Kant was ostensibly trying to determine the will of God, but, once he decided that he would never accept any injunctions as “divine” (in the sense of coming from God) that violated moral conscience, he was actually establishing moral conscience as his final arbiter, not God. So de facto Kant only accepted moral autonomy as his guiding principle.

The mechanism is adequately analyzed by Richard Robinson with regard to Matthew Arnold (1822–1888). Arnold sees religion as nothing other than a picturesque or mythical form of morality. This was his position in Literature and Dogma (1887) where he wrote that “religion is … morality touched by emotion.”[252] Arnold pictured God as “the eternal Power, not ourselves, that makes for righteousness.” But Robinson comments that at this stage people make no independent effort to communicate with their god or find out his nature; they infer his nature from their own moral views.

It is comprehensible that the theoreticians of the divine command approach object to this. For the final result of Kant’s approach (and Arnold’s) will be that he simply eradicates all elements from the theological heritage that do not fit in with his Enlightened moral principles.

The dilemma we should confront Kant with is the following. “Is it possible that an interpretation of one of the injunctions of Holy Scripture might lead to something that would horrify us from a moral point of view?” To this question Kant would answer “no.” In the Critique of Practical Reason he wrote: “Religion is the recognition of all duties as divine commands.”[253] This seems to be the language of the divine command theory. But that is only appearance. The reason why there is only a superficial and no real similarity with the divine command theory is because, for Kant, what is a moral duty cannot be decided by simply listening to the voice of God or reading His Scripture. Our moral duty has to be delineated purely by philosophical reasoning. The starting point of his moral reasoning is, therefore, not God’s command, but moral autonomy. But the final outcome of his moral reasoning Kant called “divine.” Would it, under those circumstances, not be more appropriate to say that, from Kant’s perspective, God is not legislating for man, but man is legislating for God? Or, to put it differently, religion is not the basis for morality but the other way around: morals are the basis for religion. Lewis White Beck sums up Kant’s position: “Any religion that requires anything of man other than earnest and conscientious morality is mere superstition and idolatry.”[254] This is, basically, no different from John Stuart Mill who in his essay Theism wrote: “If the moral character of the doctrines of an alleged Revelation is bad and perverting, we ought to reject it from whomsoever it comes; for it cannot come from a good and wise Being.”[255]

This is something the adherents of divine command theory simply cannot accept. They see this as an unacceptable limitation of the divine personality. God is a person. God must have a “choice.” If God could not do otherwise than what he actually does, he would not be a person. He would be an automaton, a “Dieu machine” [machine God], a Spinozistic Deus sive Natura [God or otherwise Nature], not the theistic personal God that we encounter in the scriptural tradition.[256]

Here the response from the side of divine command moralists appears to be convincing, I would say.

As I said before, Kant always tried to avoid trouble with the authorities. He certainly did not volunteer for martyrdom, like Thomas More (1478–1535). His attitude might be characterized adequately in the words of Montaigne (1533–1592): “I shall support the good side as far as (but, if possible, excluding) the stake.”[257] So Kant struggled to reconcile his predilection for moral autonomy with confessional orthodoxy.

Kant addressed the same question five years later in Der Streit der Fakultäten [The Conflict of the Faculties] (1798),[258] and here, as he had done in Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, he dwelled on the problem of Abraham. In Der Streit he assures us that even if God seems to speak to humankind, we can never be sure that it is God who is speaking. Kant used what might be called “the agnostic argument”: man will never be able to understand an Infinite God with his finite capacities.[259] In some cases it is even possible to contend with absolute certainty that we cannot hear the voice of God, viz. if what is commanded flatly violates the moral law. That voice may sound majestic, Kant told us, but it should be considered a fraud.[260]

As an example of this state of affairs Kant referred to Abraham’s sacrifice and called this a myth. The poor unknowing child brought the wood for the fire himself, Kant wrote. Abraham should have answered: “that I should not kill my son is clear, but that you, appearing to me as God are really God, is far from certain, not even if your voice were to cry aloud from heaven.”[261]

It is remarkable that such a “dry” author as Immanuel Kant talked in such emotional terms about the story of Abraham. And what is also remarkable: he called it “a myth.”

This is plain language. Kant qualified a central part of Holy Scripture as mythical.

Excerpted from The Secular Outlook by Paul Cliteur. Copyright © Paul Cliteur, 2010. All rights reserved.


[228] Kant, Immanuel, Religion innerhalb der Grenzen der bloßen Vernunft [Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone], 1793, in: Immanuel Kant, Die Metaphysik der Sitten [The Metaphysics of Morals], Werkausgabe, Band VIII, ed. Wilhelm Weischedel, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 1981, pp. 649–879.

[229] Ibid., p. 861.

[230] Ibid.

[231] See on this: Rae, Murray, “The Risk of Obedience: A Consideration of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling,” Journal of Systematic Theology, 1, no. 3 1999, pp. 308–321, p. 217.

[232] Annan, Noel, “John Stuart Mill,” in: J.B. Schneewind, ed., Mill: A Collection of Critical Essays, Macmillan, London 1968, pp. 22–46, p. 40.

[233] Blanshard, Four Reasonable Men, p. 93.

[234] Beck, Lewis White, “Kant,” in: Lewis White Beck, Six Secular Philosophers. Religious Themes in the Thought of Spinoza, Hume, Kant, Nietzsche, William James and Santayana, Thoemmes Press, Bristol 1997, pp. 63–83, p. 65.

[235] See on this: Edwards, God and the Philosophers, p. 108.

[236] Quoted ibid.

[237] Ibid.

[238] Ibid., p. 109.

[239] This is well described by: Heine, Heinrich, On the History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany, translated by Howard Pollack-Milgate, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2007.

[240] Quoted in Beck, “Kant,” p. 71.

[241] See for Hume: Hume, David, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, ed. Henry D. Aiken, Hafner Press, New York 1948 (1779).

[242] There is a long discussion among Hume commentators on the question of what exactly Hume’s position is on religion. See: Mossner, Ernest C., “The Enigma of Hume,” Mind, New Series, 45, no. 179 1936, pp. 334–349; Mossner, Ernest C., “The Religion of David Hume,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 39, no. 4 1970, pp. 653–663.

[243] Hare, God and Morality.

[244] Beck, Six Secular Philosophers, p. 77.

[245] Kant, Die Religion innerhalb der Grenzen der bloßen Vernunft, p. 861.

[246] Paine, Thomas, The Age of Reason, 1794, in: Thomas Paine, Collected Writings, The Library of America, New York 1995, pp. 665–885, p. 668.

[247] Ibid., p. 668.

[248] Ibid.

[249] Similar arguments, although more cautiously formulated and represented by the figures in a dialogue, we find in Hume’s Dialogues concerning Natural Religion.

[250] Paine’s biographer John Keane writes: “Attacks on Christianity were, of course, nothing new, but the plebeian style of Paine’s text quickly frightened members of the clergy, who otherwise could live with the mannerly scepticism of a David Hume or an Edward Gibbon or polite deistical speculations in parlors and coffeehouses.” See: Keane, John, Tom Paine. A Political Life, Bloomsbury, London 1995, p. 393.

[251] Kant, Die Religion innerhalb der Grenzen der bloßen Vernunft, p. 861.

[252] Arnold, Matthew, Literature and Dogma: An Essay towards Apprehension of the Bible, Watts and Co., London 1887, p. 47.

[253] Kant, Immanuel, Critique of Practical Reason, translated L.W. Beck, Macmillan, New York 1956, p. 134.

[254] Beck, Six Secular Philosophers, p. 76.

[255] Mill, John Stuart, “Theism,” in: John Stuart Mill, Three Essays on Religion, Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY 1998 (1874), pp. 125–257, p. 216.

[256] Analogous to La Mettrie’s L’homme machine [The Machine Man]. See: La Mettrie, Textes Choisis. L’Homme-Machine, Histoire Naturelle de l’Ame, e.a. [The Machine Man, Natural History of the Soul], Éditions sociales, Paris 1974.

[257] Montaigne, Michel de, The Essays of Michel de Montaigne, translated and edited by M.A. Screech, Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, London 1991, p. 894.

[258] Kant, Immanuel, Der Streit der Fakultäten [The Conflict of the Faculties], 1798, in: Immanuel Kant, Schriften zur Anthropologie, Geschichtsphilosophie, Politik und Pädagogik [Writings on Anthropology, the Philosophy of History, Politics, and Pedagogics], 1, Werkausgabe XI, ed. W. Weischedel, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 1981, pp. 267–393.

[259] Ibid., p. 333.

[260] Ibid.

[261] Ibid.

Paul Cliteur is professor of Jurisprudence at Leiden University, the Netherlands. He was also professor of Philosophy at the Delft University, the Netherlands (1995-2002), and visiting professor of Philosophical Anthropology, Ghent University, Belgium (2014). Prof. Cliteur’s research is in the field of ethics, the philosophical foundations of the law, more in particular moral dilemmas around multicultural society, fundamental rights and the relationship between law and worldviews. He is the author of The Secular Outlook (Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, 2010).

The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism
By Paul Cliteur
Wiley-Blackwell; 1 edition (13 August 2010)
ISBN-10: 1444335219
ISBN-13: 978-1444335217
£20.69

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