Berdyaev contra Kant

Luke 10:27

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and, love your neighbor as yourself.

Your neighbor is a Person – the highest possible good, along with God. Your neighbor’s supreme value comes from the fact that he is made in the image of God, with an immortal soul and shares in God’s eternal nature.

Kant gets close to this when he writes “treat yourself and others always as an end, and never merely as a means.” However, Kant posits the moral law as of supreme value. It is possible to see that this is where his true devotion lies. This is the fatal mistake of elevating something higher than the individual, concrete, Person in conjunction with God. This accounts for the intuition that there is something ascetic, forbidding and anti-human in Kant and his willingness to seek to achieve an illusory moral purity, through, for instance, never lying under any circumstances; a moral purity being unattainable in a fallen world.

In the hypothetical situation of a would-be murderer coming to the door of a house and asking if Steve the prospective victim is home, Kant argues that, even if Steve is in fact home, the would-be murderer should be told the truth. Kant contends that the householder would be morally innocent of contributing to Steve’s death in this case. However, if he lies and says that Steve is not home, but he is in fact mistaken and thus contribute to the murderer finding and killing Steve, he will now be held morally culpable. The fact that protecting innocent life is actually more important than lying in this context as most people can see, means that Kant has elevated the moral law above the value of the life of the individual person. Kant treats moral purity as paramount.

Kant, the Idealist, directs his affection at an abstraction; not the individual Person.

Berdyaev writes: “In his doctrine of the Categorical Imperative and the pure moral will Kant had already embarked upon the path of denying the soul, the living concrete man. Thus an ideal norm, an ideal value, becomes a means of suppressing man and his emotional life. The spiritual life is truth, but it is also the life of man, of the whole man. The elimination of the human element in the name of either an ascetic war against sin or some ideal value is equally perverse, false and sinful.”(Spirit and Reality, p. 40)

Kant adopts the typical error of the intellectual in identifying the soul, and thus the valuable in man, with the intellectual component only as can be seen with his Kingdom of Ends entered via rationality.

Any higher value other than Person and God ends up being sacrificial and in principle, murderous. This alternative postulated value expresses the willingness to sacrifice the Person in the name of this highest value; ironically enough, in this case, the moral law.

6 thoughts on “Berdyaev contra Kant

  1. We know that the demand of the golden rule can be met because the love it demands is no greater than the love that we already give to ourselves. The demand of Kant’s imperative has never been met, and likely never could be met, because it abstracts morality from social reality.

    Social life means making use of other people. I say making use rather than using because I wish to indicate a relationship that is neither instrumental nor benevolent. This is the relationship I have with, say, the dentist I will visit in a few hours. I recognize that he does not exist solely to fix teeth, and that he has value beyond his ability to fix teeth, but I do not submit to having my teeth fixed out of charity to my dentist. I have known this man for may years, and our relations are friendly, but these friendly relations exist only because he is my means for keeping teeth in my head and I am one of his means for keeping a roof over his head.

    I can satisfy the golden rule with respect to my dentist if I respect his humanity as much as I would like my students to respect my humanity. Students obviously look upon me primarily as a means to acquire credit towards graduation, and there is nothing wrong with this so long as it is tempered with some respect for my humanity. If I held my students to the Kantian standard, I think they would just pay tuition and leave me alone.

  2. When you say “I would like my students to respect my humanity”, what specifically are you asking for? I presume, you want them to refrain from committing overtly disrespectful acts. But I also get the sense that you desire some additional mental state from them – or am I mistaken?

  3. I came to the conclusion that our neighbours, are different from acquaintances, strangers, and enemies. The premise of course is that we make a conscious choice as to who we decide will be our neighbours – this of course presumes we are conscious (which most people aren’t.) One has to use a certain amount of discernment concerning the golden rule – bearing in mind not to throw pearls to swine. I can’t take Kant seriously.

    • Hi, shaun: I agree that Kant is misguided of course. But “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is nothing other than fairness and justice and reciprocity – a principle that is written on every human’s heart without exception – even a psychopath will probably vow revenge if you cross him. If I spend the day helping you move and you reward me with a punch in the face, I say “that’s not fair.” No human has any doubt in that regard.

      Some years ago a charimatic Catholic (I had never heard of such a thing) commented to me that your “neighbor” is not just any old Tom, Dick or Harry. I’m afraid, that’s exactly who your neighbor is. The Samaritan was chosen in the parable of the Good Samaritan precisely because Samaritans were despised by Jews – in the “out” group, not the “in” group.

      If you remember, Jesus even counseled us to love your enemies.

      • Richard – Thanks for your response. We will have to agree to disagree about our meaning of neighbour. The dubious characters I have no choice but to associate with will not get the same treatment of those who I choose as my neighbours. This can all be navigated by keeping the horizontal and vertical parts of the law – and bearing in mind the cardinal virtues to guide in our decision making. Loving your enemies can just mean crossing the street to keep the peace, or banning someone from a store because they’ve robbed you once too many times, or for that matter calling the police.

      • Hi, Shaun: We might not be as far apart as you think. I definitely believe in prosecuting miscreants and removing from your life pathological and seemingly irredeemable types. Your last sentence in particular I agree with. Forgiveness is about not harboring active anger, hatred and resentment towards someone, but does not necessarily mean having anything further to do with them.


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