What is a Catholic to think of Kant?

The Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant is famous for his categorical imperative, which could be seen as the foundation for a secular morality. Kant’s famous saying is:

Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction.

In short, do only that which could be universal practice without resulting in problems.

How should a Catholic view Kant’s moral system, especially since he was sort of agnostic?

Stops the celibate priesthood in its tracks, doesn’t it. Kant seeing it getting off the ground really as to many terms are left ill-defined. Puts Decartes before the horse. Will we for simplicity ever Lonergan? I personally don’t give a Rats Zinger.

The problem with using this as a basis for morality is that it’s impossible for an individual to determine if a concept or philosophy could act as universal law. They can assume, but it’s impossible to know. Since it’s impossible to know if something could function as a universal law, it’s impossible to determine if an action is moral or not, rendering the whole philosophy pretty much worthless as another piece of relativistic drivel.

I think that is a misinterpretation of the categorical imperative.

A proper interpretation is exemplified by the case of theft. If theft were universal, no one could morally own property since all property would be morally subject to being taken by others. If there is no owned property, there can be no such thing as theft, which is defined as taking without permission that which belongs to someone else. Therefore according to the categorical imperative, theft is self-contradictory.

The celibate priesthood, on the other hand, is not such a case. There is no definitional problem with the priesthood being universally available as an option for all men that satisfy the definitional requirements of the state of being a priest. In fact it already is universal in that sense. What you are probably referring to by your emphasis of the celibate nature of the priesthood is that if all men became priests, there would be no more babies. But that would not result in a contradiction. Furthermore, it would never happen because so few men actually want to become priests. Whereas if theft were made universally acceptable and everyone really believed it, practically everyone would become a thief.

Actually, the priesthood is no different than any other occupation, with respect to the categorical imperative. What about being a butcher? A baker? A candlestick maker? If any one of these occupations became universal in the sense that everyone became that, then there would be no firemen or policemen or teachers or doctors, and society would collapse. I’m sure Kant would not say that being a butcher is contrary to the categorical imperative in the same way that being a thief is contrary. So I think the priesthood is safe too.

I am reminded of the old Sesame Street bit about “You mean you all brought watermelon? Didn’t anyone bring potatoe salad?”. How is that for the categorical imperative?


I don’t think it is correct to call Kant an agnostic. He believed God’s existence was highly probable, but rejected using reason to prove His existence, as he said “deny reason to make room for faith” - the rejection of reason isn’t very Catholic, so perhaps on that ground he isn’t the best example to follow. Moreover, the word agnostic wasn’t even around when Kant was alive.

But in principle his moral theory has one point a Catholic could agree with: in theory it’s certainly not relativistic. But then, as ProdglArchitect pointed out, leaving the individual with the decision to decide what is moral/immoral does, in practice, lead to relativism. But, like Aquinas, Kant highlighted the existence of a Universal Law we are all aware of and feel obliged to follow e.g we all know rape is wrong. Also, Kant vehemently rejected consequentialism - a notion that is also rejected by Catholic thought.

His moral theory has aspects a Catholic could agree with, but he ain’t a patch on Aquinas!

He wasn’t an agnostic with respect to the existence of God, but there is a sense in which his metaphysics is “agnostic”–at least compared to Catholic claims that the existence of God can be known through natural reason, as well as fundamental truths about the human person.

It’s not bad. But the trouble with Kant is reining him in, which is difficult to do in a consistent way (honestly because the categorical imperative leaves too much wiggle room, and seems like it will have to be parasitic on some other moral basis in order to decide on substantive matters). There are lots of “Kantians.” The most influential one in the last century was Rawls, whose ethics are not compatible with Catholicism.

Another question worth asking is whether the categorical imperative is compatible with the principle of double effect. It seems to me like it is possible to read it in some sense as compatible, and in other sense as incompatible, depending on how the “imperatives” are described. But therein lies the rub, because if “similar” moral objects can be under different descriptions and yield different results with the categorical imperative, then one is using a different moral system on which the categorical imperative is piggybacking.

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