Summary of Chapter 2 of John Hare’s The Moral Gap


This chapter is entitled “God’s Supplement,” and Kant will appeal to God’s assistance to close the gap between the high moral demand and our limited natural capacities. As a pure rationalist, Kant uses Christian doctrines, but tries to translate them within the “pure religion of reason.” Hare will eventually argue that this translation project fails.

Kant thought revelation can be held to include the pure religion of reason, but at least the historical part of revelation can’t be included in the pure religion of reason. Hare sees a parallel with Kant’s treatment of ethics here: the pure religion of reason, because it is universal like the pure principles of morality, has to be shorn of all reference to individuals and particular times and places.

Kant himself was not closed to special revelation; the pure rationalist can accept special revelation; nevertheless Kant did not think its acceptance is without qualification necessary to religion. We can and should believe various religious propositions, Kant thought; we just can’t claim to know these things. It wasn’t that Kant was, in the ordinary sense, an agnostic about God. He thought there are good moral grounds for theistic belief—Kant had a narrow sense of knowledge as “grasping the infinite through the senses.”

Kant thought a person who already understands the claims of duty will find the teachings of Christianity worthy of love, even though they are not objectively necessary. “[Christianity] is able to win itself the hearts of men whose understanding is already illuminated by the conception of the law of their duty.”

Perhaps owing to his Pietistic background, Kant shows in his work a primacy on practice over theory in the life of faith, a distrust in natural inclinations, and a vision of a world-wide moral and spiritual renewal. In this light, perhaps his polemic was against what he saw as a corruption of Christianity rather than against Christianity itself. Hare counsels to avoid hearing Nietzsche in Kant’s work louder than Luther.

For Kant a “mystery” was an object of reason that can be known from within adequately for practical use, and yet not for theoretical use. Theoretical reason can’t give him what he needs in order to make sense of the moral life, and the central Christian doctrines in their traditional forms are beyond his reach as a philosopher, in his estimation. Among things inscrutable are the original predisposition to do good, the subsequent cause of the propensity to evil, our re-ascent from evil to good, the divine assistance which makes this possible, and how the ethical commonwealth is translated into actuality. There’s thus inscrutability in creation, fall, redemption, and the second coming.

Kant tried an experiment of seeing whether he could use the doctrines about these focal points as mysteries, that is, as capable of being known from within adequately for practical use. It’s an experiment of translating items in the outer circle of revelation into the language of the moral concepts. The overall aim is to make ‘scrutable’ as much as he can the core of the traditional faith. We may have to believe that supernatural assistance is available, even though we can’t use this belief in theoretical or practical maxims.

Why is belief in divine assistance necessary? The problem is this that we encounter: how can be become other men and not merely better men—as if we were already good but only negligent about the degree of our goodness? Kant was profoundly skeptical we can do away with out sinful inclinations on our own. The problem is too deep.

A revelation of the will is called for. All of us, on Kant’s view, start off with our wills subordinate to the evil maxim which tells us to put our happiness first and our duty second. We are thus corrupt in the very ground of our more specific maxims, all of which take their fundamental moral character from this one. Our happiness comes first, duty second; this needs reversal, which we can’t effect on our own.

If such a revolution is our duty, it must be possible, since ‘ought implies can’. But it’s not possible on our own, since a propensity to evil is radical and inextirpable by human powers, “since extirpation could occur only through good maxims, and cannot take place when the ultimate subjective ground of all maxims is postulated as corrupt.” The result is an antinomy, an apparent contradiction, which is solved by appeal to a “higher, and for us inscrutable, assistance.”

Kant divides divine assistance into work of the Father, Spirit, and Son. Each person of the Trinity answers to a different difficulty arising within practical philosophy. Singular reference is removed by thinking of God the Son as humanity in its moral perfection, the Holy Spirit as the good disposition which is our comforter, and God the Father as the Idea of Holiness within us.

Regarding God the Father, three things must be held together: first, God is just and not indulgent; second, rational but finite beings never reach, at any point in their infinite progress, to holiness of the will; and third, God gives us (rational finite beings) a share in the highest good which is only justly given as a reward for holiness. How can they hold together?

Kant appeals to the world of experiences versus the world of things in themselves. After the birth of the new man, the heart, as seen by God, is “essentially well-pleasing to him”—even though all we can ever experience is gradual improvement, infinitely extended. God judges us as a completed whole “through a purely intellectual intuition.” Intellectual intuition in Kant’s doctrine is productive—God isn’t passive, he makes it so. When God looks at us, he sees his Son, because he is imputing to us his Son’s righteousness. Luther’s influence on Kant on such scores is obvious.

God the Son is translated as humanity in its moral perfection and God the Father as the Idea of holiness (the idea of a morally perfect life). The work of God the Spirit concerns primarily our present experience, while the work of God the Father concerns our fitness for future reward. Hare thinks Kant was attempting to provide a doctrine of the assurance of salvation. As we can’t see our disposition directly, we can see it only indirectly via actions. If there’s an improvement in those, we can hope there has been a revolution in our inner disposition.

Another troublesome triad arises; consider the tension between these three propositions: (1) God is just, not indulgent; (2) We humans have all lived under the evil maxim; and (3) God gives us a share in the highest good which is justly given only as a reward for holiness in an entire life.

Kant’s solution maintains all three, once more, by means of the distinction between the world of experience and the world of things in themselves. Vicarious atonement plays an important role in the Christian account, but two problems attend it before it can enter the domain of reason. The first is the objection to historical reference, and the second is that there is no transmissible liability for evil, which could be handed over to another person like a financial indebtedness. Hare will take up the second point in a later chapter.

What Kant does is translate God the Son as the new man, humanity in its complete moral perfection. The new man suffers sacrifices (remorse, self-discipline, reparation) vicariously, on behalf of the old man, who properly deserves them. It is thus, as in the traditional doctrine, the innocent who suffers. What God sees (by intellectual intuition) is revolution; what we experience is reform. We can’t see by introspection into our own hearts. We experience merely the outworking of the revolution in a gradual process of reformation which, Kant thought, we will not at any time experience as complete. We are still sinners so we’re still capable of subordinating duty to the inclinations, even though we’re moving in the direction of not being able to do so (which is holiness).

Hare considers Kant’s translation project a failure overall. Hare thinks it doesn’t give Kant “mysteries” which allow him to solve the antinomy within practical reason produced by the moral gap. In large part Kant’s failure pertains to his affirmation of the Stoic Maxim, which says a person must make or have made herself into whatever, in a moral sense, whether good or evil, she is to become. But this stands in rather obvious tension if not patent contradiction with the other part of Kant’s moral system that said supernatural assistance is needed. His failure was to show how we can appeal to such assistance given the rest of his theory, and in particular given the Stoic maxim. He had to show that he can appeal to such assistance given the rest of his theory. This is what he failed to do.

One illustration of the failure can be seen considering the work of God the Father. If the notion of extra-human assistance is retained, now Kant has additional resources to show the possibility of a revolution of the will, but can’t continue to insist on the Stoic maxim. If divine assistance is rejected, how can our fundamental disposition come to be characterized by the Idea of holiness as instantiating humanity in its moral perfection? How is this possible given the radical evil of our nature?

The reason for Kant’s failure? When he came to the project of seeing whether the doctrines of Christianity lead back within pure rational religion he carried this out in a way that does not make reference to extra-human assistance. This was true of all of these things: election, call, atonement, justification, assurance, and sanctification.

The incoherent result? Kant’s own account within the pure religion of reason assumed that we can by our own devices reach an upright disposition; but Kant was not justified, in his own terms, in supposing that we can do so. What produces this result is that Kant has subtracted from the traditional understanding of God’s work in salvation any mediating role for anything that is not already human.