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Thursday, April 21, 2011  

So Rational I Can Hardly Stand It

And another thing, regarding my rant below: it's remarkable how language can be abused by modern thinkers in the process of their self-flattering depictions of history. Take this dissent on Yglesias' aforementioned reference to Kant as a "Christian pietist":

In fact, Kant was no kind of Christian at all — let alone a fanatical Pietist. As Manfred Kuehn puts it like this in his biography of Kant (the provocatively titled Kant: A biography), “…Kant himself was not religious and was opposed to any form of external religious worship… [p. 250]"

Kuehn also observes that, according to Kant, “Only moral service will make us pleasing to a moral God. Prayer, liturgy, pilgrimages, and confessions are worthless. [p. 371.] \It is true that God — the philosophical God, not the Christian God — has an important place in Kant’s moral system. (It’s also true that his parents were Pietists.) But if we think of Kant as a fanatic — like, say, Swedenborg — it’s hard to understand why he would have insisted on the absolute rationality of moral action.

Let's try to apply this supposed rationality to another sphere of life. I love my wife. But my love is so chaste, so moral, so pure, that I refuse to put it into words, to praise her to others, to mark our anniversary, to make her dinner, to go anywhere with her, or to tell her I love her. Is this "rational"? Or is it insane? Obviously the analogy has limits, but the limits would all argue in favor of a more extravagant expression of devotion in religion than the one called for by marriage. To insist that religion, or any other attachment, have no "external" form is the true fanaticism here. Creating an idol of emptiness and then calling your perverse worship of that void 'rational' doesn't make it so. I don't know enough about Kant to agree that this is what he in fact did, but it's telling that anyone should be able to persuade themselves that this is a splendid philosophical move.

And then, while I typically don't make points based on something some guy says in comments, I thought this response to the original post was interesting:

If you don't have to worry about heaven or hell why shouldn't you just do the best that you can within societal expectations?

"Do the best that you can" is today's version of Gabriel Biel's facere quod in se est, the seemingly realistic command to "do what is within you." Of course even Biel wasn't so godless as to imagine that this alone constituted moral sanctity, but only that in return God would not fail to extend the grace that empowered truly good works. But who, really, can claim to have done the best that he or she can? Maybe when it comes to MarioKart or ice-fishing. But in relations that have a moral dimension, is anyone ever persuaded that there was literally nothing more they could do in a given case? Rarely, I would imagine. What seems like an accommodating standard can either be shorthand for general moral shlumpiness ("I tried!") or, for those who actually take it seriously, it can be a genuine torment whether or not there's a God involved.

And consider the second half of the formula, "within societal expectations." I might be inclined to call Strom Thurmond a racial demagogue, but no--he did the best he could within societal expectations!

The most charitable way to read things like this is to imagine that their writers haven't given them much thought. But examining our ways of thinking without fear or apology is exactly what abolishing religion is supposed to allow us to do. Right?

posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 10:08 PM
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