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Kantian Ethics

  Kantian ethics are based on the system developed by Immanuel Kant in the 18th century, which had an inestimable impact on Christian theology, particularly on Anglicans and Lutherans. Kant taught that natural theology was an illusion, but that the voice of conscience would establish truth where reason could not. A sense of duty assures one that the idea of freedom is real, and since God is required to establish justice and freedom, there must be another world in which he can redress the balance.

Kantian ethics are based on three fundamental ideas. First, moral principles are a priori knowledge. One is not taught the difference between right and wrong; one knows by instinct what is right. How one does what is right, the application of moral principles, may depend on experience and observation. Such moral principles, or rather the sense of duty, should be obeyed for their own sake, and from love of one\'s neighbour, but, ultimately, duty is more important than motive. This idea made Kant an implacable opponent of the views that ends justify means, and that making a mistake is less serious if one had the right intentions. In Kantian ethics, for example, if it is wrong to lie, as conscience declares it is, then it is always wrong to lie even if someone will be injured if the truth is known.

Second, Kant stated ‘Act so as to treat humanity both in your own person and that of every other man always as an end and never only as a means.’ The high value set on every individual treating fellow human beings as ends in themselves meant the death knell of slavery, exploitation and the denial of human rights.

The third principle was ‘the idea of the will of every rational being as a universally legislating will’. This is the pinnacle of the Protestant principle, that each individual is responsible for making his or her own ethical decisions in the light of their conscience, and is little more than the restatement of the principle of universalism.

In 1793 Kant wrote a treatise on religion, relating his ethical principles to traditional Lutheran theology. He handled this under four headings: the existence of radical evil in human nature, the conflict between good and evil principles, the victory of the good and the foundation of a Kingdom of God on Earth, and religion and priestcraft. He asserted that religion was no more than the recognition of all our duties as divine commands. The moral law had no purpose beyond itself, there was no need of a personal saviour, and a moral person had no need of prayer. In view of such opinions, it is hardly surprising that he found himself in trouble with the authorities. EMJ

Further reading A.D. Lindsay, Kant.



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