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Part 13: An Imaginary Conversation between Aristotle and Kant on the Basis of Morality
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2013-06-26 10:46:48
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Kant: Good morning, professor Aristotle. May I join the conversation on the basis of morality that you have been conducting lately.

Aristotle: But of course. How could I not allow it. I consider you my most worthy colleague in philosophy. I left an imprint on antiquity while you have left a permanent imprint on modernity.

K: Thank you for your kind compliment. As you know, in 1788 I wrote a book titled The Critique of Practical Reason which made the case for ethics being based on reason with no need for any religious claims.

A: yes, I have read the book and as a fellow-rationalist I cannot but agree with its premise. However, if it’s ok with you I’d like to take the opposite view and defend the position, accepted by most religious people, that claims that if the claims of religion are not true there wouldn’t be any basis for morality.

K: by all means, let’s have a convivial dialogue on this thorny issue. At the end we may still disagree but at least we will have further clarified our respective positions.

A: as I said I am being and advocate of the religious position but it does not mean that I necessarily agree with it one hundred per cent. The argument goes something like this: if what religion claims is false, there wouldn’t be any good reason for anybody to act morally.

K: and what would such a good reason be?

A: the fact that after death God punishes wrongdoers and rewards good people.

K: this sounds more an argument with prejudice toward atheists and agnostics and less an argument for ethical conduct. As a matter of fact, in an rational and orderly society there are rewards and punishments and moral rules enforced legally and even by informal social pressure.

A: true enough, but you and I know that often enough people get away with all kinds of transgression, sometimes even with murder. Religious people on the other hand have an added imperative besides that of not getting caught; that of doing good and avoiding evil. Unlike the police or a court of law, God knows everything and therefore ultimately everyone will get what they deserve depending on how they have behaved.

K: but dear Aristotle, do you realize that you are in effect advocating a morality of slavery, based on fear of getting caught either by the police here on earth or ultimately by God beyond time and space. As I explain in my above mentioned book, the categorical ethical imperative demands that one does what’s right because it is right and not to avoid punishments or gain rewards. It is not the threats and promises that makes people moral. Those are just techniques for keeping people under control and are therefore no basis for morality.

A: That may be so, but you’d have to admit that without the motivation of religion, most people wouldn’t be ethical by reading my Nicomachean Ethics or your Critique of Practical Reason, even if they had the inclination to read such works. And besides, there are many other sources of moral teaching besides our own. Let’s not be hubristic here.

K: I get your point, but what we are trying to get to in this dialogue is whether or not one can be ethical without belief in God, isn’t it?

A: Indeed professor Kant.

K: well then, the fact that religious belief may make for a more moral society, does not rationally prove that religion is true or that the stories religion tells are true. They may be, and one can remain a believer, as I did, but we ought not to mix too easily religion and philosophy. You know what Marx thought of religion; that it is the opium of the people.

A: I’d like to offer another consideration as offered by Dostoyevsky in his novel The Brothers Karamozov wherein the atheist brother make the case that an all good, all knowing, all powerful God would not have created the kind of world we live in, to which the other brother, the seminarian, answers that if there were no God everything would be permitted and lawful.

K: here again we are mixing up philosophy and theology. I made a distinction in my book: a philosopher ought to deal with the phenomenon and set the limitations of reason. The mystic or the saint, or religion if you will, deals with the numenon. Right and wrong can be determined by reason even without the aid of religion. Scientists discover many facts about the material world but hardly ever they discover moral facts. Those are not material, discoverable by observation and experiment. I believe you called them virtues. They are about another sort of reality that is not culture bound and that’s why they are universal and universally applicable.

A: but that’s what religious people claim: the Commandments are universal principles, categorical ethical imperatives if you will expressing God’s will, what he desires that we ought to do and how we ought to behave. Granted, they don’t show that God exists but they show that there are ethical facts and they are universal. Most people find the commandments reasonable and commonsensical.

K: I agree that ethics must have some objective underpinning but that objectivity is derived from reason and not religion. As Kierkegaard argues in Fear and Trembling, if somebody, imitating Abraham, were to take his own son up a mountain with the intention to kill him because he thought it was God’s will, we would drag him before a court of law as a criminal. So the word of God may perhaps be interpreted through cultural views. The Bible after all was written by fallible people.

A: If I understand you correctly, you are saying that morality is not at bottom based on God’s will.

K: indeed. As a believer myself but also as a rationalist, I propose that one comes across Divine law one must first decide whether such a law tells one to do what is right and forbids what is wrong. In other words, you subject those laws to the light of reason to decide what’s really the will of God and what’s merely cultural or personal opinion. In a way, God’s will too is based on universal ethical rules. Morality is ultimately based on reason because even God cannot remain all good and condone irrational or evil actions.

A: as a rationalist I understand that morality too has to be based on reason, but the point I was trying to make was that religion makes ethics objective and sensible and without it would simply be a matter of opinion, relative to the society to which it is applied with no grounding in reality.

K: and my point is simply that if one does not ground ethics in reason then even belief in God will not provide an objective basis for morality. He may turn out to be a capricious and irrational God. One of my most famous saying is “the starry night above, the moral law within.” It is there that we need to search for the moral law as a universal law applicable to all humans.

A: we ancients did not pose so many complicated questions concerning God’s role in the ethical life although in the Symposium Plato does pose the question as to whether the gods are also subject to the moral law. In any case, you have given me plenty of food for thought for one day. We’ll have to pick up this interesting conversation some other day. Good day professor Kant.

K: by all means. Good day professor Aristotle.


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