Immanuel Kant and Soren Kierkegaard are two philosophers whose approaches to the concept of morality and the true way of life are strikingly different, yet possess many similarities. This essay compares Kant and Kierkegaard’s thoughts through their two major works, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals and The Sickness Unto Death.
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Immanuel Kant wrote his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals in 1785, while Kierkegaard wrote The Sickness Unto Death in 1849. However, since Kant was a rationalist and Kierkegaard a devout Christian, the two works have major methodological differences. Kant argues the case for morality to have certain apriori basis defined by his concept of ‘Categorical Imperative’ that simply put is nothing but standard of rationality from which all moral requirements are derived. Categorical imperative can also be simplistically defined as the unconditional command of our conscience to carry out acts that subscribe to common sense of goodness. For example it is common sense goodness not to use expletives in a conversation. Kierkegaard on the other hand looks at morality from the viewpoint of religious faith, specifically Christian faith in particular. Kierkegaard does not prescribe everyone to being Christians but to become like Christians. Kantian logic is based on analytical systematic rigors of rationalism where reason rules and the existence of God cannot be proved, Kierkegaard takes the same argument with an assumption that the world exists the way it is because of God. Kierkegaard uses the example of the New Testament story of Christ’s raising of Lazarus from the dead to argue that while the human body dies, the spirit lives on and thus it is not fear of physical death that should worry mankind but the spiritual sickness that pervades it. Man is given to despair and he loses his ‘self’ if he does not imbibe the ways God had laid out for him.
While the ‘self’ forms the core of Kierkegaard’s argument, the ‘Categorical Imperative’ becomes Kant’s main standpoint. To further explain his theory of the Categorical imperative, Kant uses the tool of maxims which can be defined as a rule followed in any deliberate intentional act. Kant’s first maxim “act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law (Kant 43)”, emphasizes the case for moral acts to be based on pure practical reason and the need for universality of application and acceptance of such acts. Kierkegaard holds that man has an impure freedom of choice because he strays away from God while the Kantian logic looks at the impurity of the choice solely on his inability to apply pure practical reasoning. However, Kierkegaard’s emphasis on following ‘God’s will’ runs into an ethical dilemma for which the philosopher’s reasoning has no satisfactory answer. This pertains to the story of Abraham’s willingness to kill Isaac just because God told him to do it. Abraham’s faith that it was a command from God which allowed him to make an unethical choice, whereas he could have doubted that God was good instead, or decided that God was not really speaking to him are some critiques of the Kierkegaardian model of ethics. By extension, the reasoning provided by Abraham allows further justification for people to carry out unethical acts in the name of God.
Kant’s rationality follows through with considering every rational act committed by one human towards another “as an end and not just means to an end (Kant 36). While both philosophers are talking about the same aspect of morality, Kant looks at morals through a rationalistic prism while Kierkegaard sees morals as an extension of the Christian way of life. Kant believes in the existence of a ‘true will’ that can “act as if he were through his maxim always a legislating member in the universal kingdom of ends” (Kant 43). In simple terms, what Kant is trying to explain is that everyone knows what the right thing to do is. For example no one can justify that it is right to kill another human being for personal gains. Therefore any action is moral as long as it is universal rule of behavior. Therefore, man must forego such actions that tend to exploit, manipulate and disrupt the nature that otherwise could have been achieved through more ethical means. Kierkegaard holds that true realization only comes to those who can transcend above the finite and the conscious and realize the truth of God’s omnipotence and his role as the creator. Man’s inability to rise up to this ideal results in three kinds of Despair; “Despair Considered without Regard to its Being Conscious or not, Consequently Only with Regard to the Constituents of the Synthesis” (Kierkegaard 29), not wanting in Despair to be Oneself, and wanting in Despair to be Oneself. The first kind of despair is born out of ignorance, the second out of expediency of the moment while the third knows that a self exists but refusing to acknowledge the creator.
Kant’s rationale for the existence of God borders on agnosticism whereas Kierkegaard’s rests on following God’s plan. Kant’s analytical reasoning and rationalism and Kierkegaard’s reasoned spiritualism however, point to similar ideas on morality albeit, following different methodologies.
Kant, Immanuel, translation by Ellington James W. Grounding For the Metaphysics of Morals 3rd edn. Hackett, 1785, 1993.
Kierkegaard, Soren. The Sickness Unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition for upbuilding and Awakening. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.