Religion Within the Bounds of Mere Reason

by Immanuel Kant
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In Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten (1785; Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Ethics, 1895; better known as Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, 1950), Immanuel Kant introduced the concept of the categorical imperative, the absolute moral law for his duty-based, or deontological, ethics. Kant presented the categorical imperative in five different but closely related formulations, which are generally referred to as 1, 1A, 2, 3, and 3A: “Act only according to the maxim which you could will to become universal law,” “Act only as if, by your will, the maxim of your action would become universal law,” “Act only so that you treat humanity as an end and never as a means,” “Act only as if your will, by its maxims, were the universal lawgiver,” and “Act only according to the maxims of the universal lawgiver in the potential realm of ends.”

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The premise of Kant’s entire ethical philosophy, including his philosophy of religion, is the categorical imperative. It is derived from the principles of individual freedom that he developed in Kritik der reinen Vernunft (1781; Critique of Pure Reason, 1838), one of the most revolutionary books in the history of philosophy. For Kant, only a free person can be a moral agent, because moral action requires ethical decision making, and only a rational being with free will is capable of that kind of thought. Moral action consists in freely obeying one’s duty as known through conscience, without coercion or compromise and regardless of one’s personal feeling, inclination to the contrary, or expectation of certain results. Kant seeks to purge emotion from ethical reasoning, moral action, and religion. Conscience, as a gift of God, reveals the categorical imperative to each individual in each problematic ethical situation.

Because Kant reduces not all religion, but true religion, to ethics, so the philosophy of freedom in the Critique of Pure Reason and the exposition of the categorical imperative in Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals must be presupposed throughout Kant’s philosophy of religion. Religion Within the Bounds of Mere Reason is unusually accessible among Kant’s works, yet it cannot be fully comprehended unless the reader has first assimilated the basic ideas of the other two works.

Religion Within the Bounds of Mere Reason is divided into four parts, which respectively examine, first, the radical evil inherent in human nature; second, the battle between good and evil principles for dominion over humankind; third, the victory of good over evil and the founding of an earthly Kingdom of God; and finally, the difference between true and false service to God.

Kant immediately sides in part 1 with the school of thought that regards humans as born evil rather than either good or morally neutral. He is particularly opposed to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s optimistic view of human nature that held sway in the Romantic atmosphere of the late eighteenth century. By evil, Kant means inclined toward selfish acts inconsistent with natural moral duty. Evil stems from a Rousseauian prerational or antirational state of innocence. Reason is the remedy for evil. The advent of reason is the beginning of the triumph of goodness.

Part 2 shows Jesus as the personification of the good principle and posits the devil as the evil spirit who holds God-given legal authority over the evil principle. Conflict between good and evil may be regarded as originating from the devil tempting humans to choose him rather than Jesus as lord. God remains in control of evil, yet humans remain free to choose evil and reject God. Kant’s model of this familiar conflict is legalistic; humans are caught between God’s law and another law that is opposed to God’s but that God still allows. God is thus the ultimate lawgiver of both good and evil. Kant admits being unable to explain why God...

(The entire section contains 957 words.)

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