The editor of the UK magazine, Spiked, Brendan O’Neill, wrote an article entitled ‘Why won’t we tell students that Kant is better than the Koran?’ (1). Brendan appears to argue that (the Secular Liberal philosophy of) Kantian ethics offers a superior ethical system to religious (Islamic) systems, and therefore, people should feel free to teach students the superiority of Kant.
‘Kant is worthy of close and serious study. Kant is better than the Koran’ (1)
However, I think Brendan may not realise the full extent of Kant’s opinions.
Immanuel Kant (1726-1804), born in Königsberg, Germany, is viewed as one of the great luminaries in Western Liberal moral philosophy. He wrote many famous books, ‘Critique of Pure Reason’ (1781, 1787), the ‘Critique of Practical Reason’ (1788), and the ‘Critique of the Power of Judgment’ (1790) contributing to a system of Morality later called ‘Deontological Ethics’.
Kant’s arguments were a counter to Consequentialism (e.g. Utilitarianism) which posits morality is only judged by the consequence of actions, not their intentions or their intrinsic moral worth.
Kant argued that people should do actions based upon whether they would want such actions to be universal and done by everyone to everyone – put more crudely: do unto others as you would have done unto yourself. Kant argues that to demand people treat you better than you treat them, would constitute a contradiction, and therefore philosophically invalid (this is why Kant’s ethics are called deontological, because they do not require any external measure of morality except rules of people’s duties mainly justified by the law of non-contradiction).
The problem with Immanuel Kant’s ethics was that people differ on what they would be happy to do unto others and have done unto themselves, as well as the problem that sometimes following a universal rule may lead to bad consequences, for example, if truth should always be told, but a woman asks to hide in someone’s house from a serial killer, who moments later turns up at that person’s door brandishing a gun, and asks if they have seen the woman. How should the person act? Truthfully or risk getting both himself and the woman killed?
Other problems with Kant’s deontological ethics may reside in clashes between two ethics, for example, one rule says that people should do in their house as they like. Another rule says that people should be concerned for their neighbours. Which rule takes precedence when one person hosts a party until late at night? Kant’s Deontological ethics provides no clear answers without need of other philosophies.
Despite this, Liberalism’s moral philosophy was greatly bolstered by Kant’s moral calculations. However there is a ‘dark side’ to Kant’s ethical judgements that Liberals who uphold his calculus seem to forget about, or seem to be unaware of – Kant used his same system of morals to justify rules and laws that some Liberals today would balk at.
Kant’s ‘Apostasy’ law
Whilst Kant does not prohibit people from publicly questioning their religion, Kant does, however, argue that raising questions about the legitimacy of a state, its law or its intellectual basis is tantamount to sedition, and could be punished by death – even if there was no violence, or incitement to violence or rebellion.
This is because -as you will see in the quote below – Kant’s ethics gives to the state, law and government the status of an absolute and semi-divine ‘holiness’ that leads to potentially serious consequences for those raising public questions about it. Kant argues that people do not have the right to question the intellectual basis of the supreme power they live under (i.e. government). For people to publicly voice (presumably even with no intentional malice) their doubts about the basis, validity or authority of the laws of the land is “practically a crime”, and could be subject to being “punished, destroyed or outlawed”:
‘The Origin of the Supreme Power is practically inscrutable by the People who are placed under its authority. In other words, the Subject need not reason too curiously in regard to its origin in the practical relation, as if the Right of the obedience due to it were to be doubted (jus controversum). For as the People, in order to be able to adjudicate with a title of Right regarding the Supreme Power in the State, must be regarded as already united under one common legislative Will, it cannot judge otherwise than as the present Supreme Head of the State (summus imperans) wills. The question has been raised as to whether an actual Contract of Subjection (pactum subjectionis civilis) originally preceded the Civil Government as a fact ; or whether the Power arose first, and the Law only followed afterwards, or may have followed in this order. But such questions, as regards the People already actually living under the Civil Law, are either entirely aimless, or even fraught with subtle danger to the State. For, should the Subject, after having dug down to the ultimate origin of the State, rise in opposition to the present ruling Authority, he would expose himself as a Citizen, according to the Law and with full Right, to be punished, destroyed, or outlawed” (2)
Kant then explains that because the law is the ultimate contract between a people, all law should be viewed as ‘holy’ and inviolable, and treated as such. Therefore, Kant argues that to cast doubt upon it is practically a crime:
“A Law which is so holy and inviolable that it is practically a crime even to Cast doubt upon it, or to suspend its operation for a moment, is represented of itself as necessarily derived from some Supreme, unblameable Lawgiver. And this is the meaning of the maxim, ‘All Authority is from God ‘ which proposition does not express the historical foundation of the Civil Constitution, but an ideal Principle of the Practical Reason. It may be otherwise rendered thus, ‘It is a Duty to obey the Law of the existing Legislative Power, be its origin what it may.’ (3)
In essence, citizens who raise intellectual challenge about the legitimacy of their state would have committed apostasy against the ‘holiness’ of their state, according to Kant that is. Kant argues using his deontological ethics that to allow people to cast doubt upon the law of the land is a contradiction of their being under the law. This would effectively render such people out-laws. If people do not want to be outlaws, and want to be under a supreme law, then they cannot question or undermine the rule of their governments and its laws. Kant argues that if people want to challenge or deny the validity of the laws, it would be a contradiction.
“In order to be entitled to offer such Resistance, a Public Law would be required to permit it. But the Supreme Legislation would by such a Law cease to be supreme, and the People as Subjects would be made sovereign over that to which they are subject ; which is a contradiction”. (4)
Immanuel Kant makes clear that resistance can mean either the non-violent kind (sedition) or the violent kind (rebellion):
“Resistance on the part of the People to the Supreme Legislative Power of the State, is in no case legitimate ; for it is only by submission to the universal Legislative Will, that a condition of law and order is possible. Hence there is no Right of Sedition, and still less of Rebellion, belonging to the People”. (5)
Kant then puts forward a philosophical discussion on criminality. He argues that so long as a criminal commits a crime while acknowledging that what he/she is doing is a crime, then the criminal is only responsible for that crime. However, if a criminal commits a crime and argues that he/she does not recognise it to be a crime, then he implies they have publicly renounced the law and would have committed a sedition (6).
Kant’s ethics lead him to conclude that the state can never be resisted, even if unjust and oppressive. He argues that the state doesn’t even have any duties to the people, only rights over them (that they must fulfil).
“it follows, that the Supreme Power in the State has only Rights, and no (compulsory) Duties towards the Subject. Further, if the Ruler or Regent, as the Organ of the Supreme Power, proceeds in violation of the Laws, as in imposing taxes, recruiting soldiers, and so on, contrary to the Law of equality in the distribution of the political burdens, the Subject may oppose complaints and objections (gravamina) to this injustice, but not active resistance. There cannot even be an Article contained in the political Constitution that would make it possible for a Power in the State, in case of the transgression of the Constitutional Laws by the Supreme Authority, to resist or even to restrict it in so doing” (7)
Kant argues that people must bear dictatorship and abuse of any kind:
“It is the duty of the people to bear any abuse of the Supreme Power, even then though, it should be considered to be unbearable. And the reason is, that any Resistance of the highest Legislative Authority can never but be contrary to the Law, and must even be regarded as tending to destroy the whole legal Constitution. In order to be entitled to offer such Resistance, a Public Law would be required to permit it. But the Supreme Legislation would by such a Law cease to be supreme, and the People as Subjects would be made sovereign over that to which they are subject ; which is a contradiction” (8)
Other Kantian Arguments
Kant also argued, using his ethical system, for mitigating punishment for ‘honour based murders’ (9), and not punishing them to the same level as ordinary murder. Kant argued that murder can never be forgiven, even if the family of the deceased decides to commute the punishment and not have the murderer executed.
While Kant’s arguments against sedition bare a similarity to other law systems, many of his other points do not. Muslims and non-Muslims are free under an Islamic government to raise questions and debate anything they like without it being considered sedition (Irtidad). Rulers under Islamic governments are not beyond accountability in Islam, and if a ruler turns tyrannical, then they can be removed by the people. Islam doesn’t mitigate the punishment for honour-based murder, and treats it the same as others murders. In Islam, murder can be forgiven by the relatives of the murdered, whereas Kant argues that such a crime can never be forgiven under any circumstance (meaning Islam is actually more merciful than Kant’s ethical system).
Some Liberals may hurried respond ‘Kant was a man of his time’, however this does not remove the problem that Kant wasn’t merely stating his personal opinions and tastes, but producing ethical rulings derived from the ethical system he had constructed. In essence, these ruling are based upon his philosophy, of which can’t be disentangled easily.
Despite all this, Liberals unabashedly demand that Muslim students in the West should be taught Kant instead of the Quran as somehow superior!
(1) Why won’t we tell students that Kant is better than the Koran?, Brendan O’Neill, 2nd March 2015: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/why-wont-we-tell-students-that-kant-is-better-than-the-koran/16736#.VusBB4yLQy4
(2) The Metaphysics of Morals (1797), Immanuel Kant
(6) ‘Any transgression of the law can and must be explained only as arising from a maxim of the criminal (to make such a crime his rule), for if we were to derive it from a sensible impulse, he would not be committing it as a free being and it could not be imputed to him. But how it is possible for the subject to form such a maxim contrary to the clear prohibition of lawgiving reason absolutely cannot be explained, since only what happens in accordance with the mechanism of nature is capable of being explained. Now the criminal can commit his misdeed either on a maxim he has taken as an objective rule (as holding universally) or only as an exception to the rule (exempting himself from it occasionally). In the latter case he only deviates from the law (though intentionally), he can at the same time detest his transgression and, without formally renouncing obedience to the law, only want to evade it. In the first case, however, he rejects the authority of the law itself, whose validity he still cannot deny before his own reason, and makes it his rule to act contrary to the law. His maxim is therefore opposed to the law not by way of default only (negative) but by rejecting it (contrarie) or, as we put it, his maxim is diametrically opposed to the law, as contradictory to it (hostile to it, so to speak). As far as we can see, it is impossible for a man to commit a crime of this kind, a formally evil (wholly pointless) crime, and yet it is not to be ignored in a system of morals (although it is only the Idea of the most extreme evil)’
The Metaphysics of Morals (1797), Immanuel Kant
(8) The Metaphysics of Morals (1797), Immanuel Kant
(9) ‘There are, however, two crimes deserving of death, with regard to which it still remains doubtful whether legislation is also authorized to impose the death penalty. The feeling of honor leads to both, in one case the honor of one’s sex, in the other military honor, and indeed true honor, which is incumbent as duty on each of these two classes of people. The one crime is a [unmarried] mother’s murder of her child [after giving birth to it] (infanticidium maternale); the other is murdering a fellow soldier (commilitonicidium) in a duel..In all instances the acts are undoubtedly punishable; but they cannot be punished by the supreme power with death’
The Metaphysics of Morals (1797), Immanuel Kant