Thursday, January 20, 2011

Is Natural Law Descriptive or Prescriptive in Immanuel Kant's Practical Reason?

When it comes to ethics, Immanuel Kant is most well known for his formulation of the "categorical imperative." In short, this rule states that we should act in such a way that our actions would be in accordance with a principle that would suffice as a universal law. Kant arrives at this rule after a lengthy argument, but the purposes of this post really is limited to his distinction between the "form" and "matter" of a universal law.

The "form" of a universal law is generally what it sounds like, the basic form of the law that makes it universal by nature. The "matter" is the specific object of that law. "Forms," according to Kant, are arrived at through pure practical reason. "Matters," on the other hand, are discerned through the human senses.

From these premises Kant argues that in order for a person's will to be truly "free," it must be determined on the basis of the form of universal law (which he concludes to be the categorical imperative through an argument not relevant here), not the matter. Natural laws, so Kant urges, are only discernable by using the human senses (something Kant calls "appearances"), therefore they are not the subject of pure reason and belong to the category of "matter." If the human will were determined by the operation of natural laws then it would not be truly free (i.e., the result of the will would be mechanically determined by the operation of those laws). This allegedly would not be a problem if the will could be determined by universal laws that can be cognized through pure reason without appealing to anything perceived via the senses. By being determined by the form of universal law as opposed to the matter of the natural law (which is only perceived through the senses), the will avoids the danger of losing its freedom. Therefore, a will that is determined by the form of a universal law is free whereas one determined by the matter is not.

Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason claims to demonstrate that just such a universal law is practical in the form of the categorical imperative. Therefore, a free will is one that is determined by the categorical imperative (which Kant says is synonymous with the moral law). Kant believes we must assume the moral law exists. But if so, this carries with it the entailment that free will also exists. Because we must assume the moral law exists, we similarly must assume the existence of freedom.

In many respects I agree with Kant. For example, as I have argued elsewhere I agree that we must assume the existence of free will before any rational discussion can begin. While I also have several issues with Kant's argument, the point of this post is to focus on only one subpart. Specifically, in working his way toward the conclusion of free will, Kant claims that the determining basis of anything that is determined in accordance with the natural law must lie amongst things that are objects of the senses. However, Kant appears to be smuggling in two mutually exclusive perspectives on the laws of nature in order to support his argument. The laws of nature may be viewed either as descriptive, meaning the statement of a “law” is merely a description of what we have generally observed to happen in the past with no guarantee that this will continue to hold true in the future, or prescriptive, meaning they are fixed rules like the laws of logic and will continue to operate into the future regardless of whether we have ever perceived them to operate in the past. In order for the laws of nature to mechanically determine a will it appears to me that they must be prescriptive, meaning they operate whether we perceive them or not. But in order for the natural law to belong to the category of “appearances” (i.e., objects of the senses, a necessary premise in Kant’s argument for the freedom of a will determined by universal legislation) it must be only descriptive. In one breath Kant wants the laws to be prescriptive so they can determine a will but in the next he needs them to be descriptive so that they are only appearances and cannot be the subject of pure theoretical reason.

It seems to me that Immanuel Kant attempts to have his cake and eat it too.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


There is an unfortunate human tendency to assume that we have all the necessary knowledge to render an opinion on a subject, even when we don’t. On my way into the office this morning I was listening to a presentation by Ravi Zacharias in which he was discussing whether people actually live consistently with their worldview (for the vast majority the answer is “no”). Most people act one way but preach something else entirely, without ever pausing to think whether their actions are consistent with what they claim to believe. That is a subject for another day (and another post), but it gave me some food for thought as I looked through the news this morning. Just as people often fail to stop and reflect on their own actions before rendering an opinion, people also jump to conclusions about someone else’s actions without truly examining whether they really have all the necessary information to form a judgment. Where there are gaps in our knowledge, we just fill them in with unwarranted assumptions that will inevitably lead us to the conclusion we have already decided we want to reach.

There is a story on Yahoo! News this morning about the new Alabama Governor Robert Bentley and some comments he made soon after his inauguration. He went through the official inauguration ceremony at the state capitol then moved on to Dexter Avenue King Memorial Church, a Christian congregation. While speaking at the church, Governor Bentley said, “Anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I'm telling you, you're not my brother and you're not my sister, and I want to be your brother.” Also, “If the Holy Spirit lives in you that makes you my brothers and sisters. Anyone who has not accepted Jesus, I want to be your brothers and sisters, too.”

Needless to say, the outrage then commenced. Bill Nigut, president of the Anti-Defamation League was shocked. “His comments are not only offensive, but also raise serious questions as to whether non-Christians can expect to receive equal treatment during his tenure as governor.” Nigut also said that if the Governor was advocating for Christian conversion, “he is dancing dangerously close to a violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which forbids government from promoting the establishment of any religion.”

First of all, please understand that this is not a political speech. I am admittedly far less involved in the political marketplace than I probably should be as a responsible citizen and prior to today I had never even heard of Robert Bentley. I could not even tell you the political party with which he affiliates himself (I could, of course, hazard a guess, but alas that would be inappropriate without actual knowledge).

My point here is that sometimes I think Americans spend their day to day lives looking for an excuse to be outraged, and if they find something that almost fits the bill, they’ll fill in whatever holes are necessary to enable their blood to boil. It puzzles me why so many people seem to live for animosity.

Preliminarily, while Mr. Nigut is eager to cite the Establishment Clause, he needs to remember the Free Exercise Clause as well. The Constitution equally protects the right of any citizen to freely exercise their religion, and they don’t lose that right when they accept public office. As far as I can tell from the Yahoo! News article, this was a speech at a private church to a Christian audience, not a political speech on the floor of the governor’s mansion. The mere fact that Mr. Bentley has been elected Governor does not require him to forfeit his right as a private citizen to speak on his Christian faith in a church setting.

But leaving the Constitution aside, was Governor Bentley really implying that he would treat his Christian constituents more favorably than non-Christians? What did he mean when he said those who accepted Jesus Christ as their savior were his “brothers and sisters?”

We live in a pluralistic society. That (in and of itself) is not a bad thing. But many of the worldviews that are gaining steam have a different idea of “brothers and sisters” than what Governor Bentley was discussing, and that idea has permeated our culture. New Age beliefs claim that we are all connected. “All is energy and all is connected. We all live, move and have our being both inside the Quantum Ocean and the Mind of God, at the same time.” In this sense we are all brothers and sisters. Postmodernism tells us that there is no objective truth. What one person believes to be true is no more “right” than another. All beliefs are on equal footing and “tolerance” demands that we hold all people’s worldviews to be equally valid. The subtle influence of these (and other) worldviews has instilled an assumption in our culture that “brothers and sisters” must refer to everyone. We should all be living in harmony. Our entire society should live together as brothers and sisters.

Expressed as that general principle, Christian doctrine would not disagree, and I doubt Governor Bentley would either. But is that really the sense in which he was using the phrase “brothers and sisters?” Viewed from this global perspective, it looks like Governor Bentley was making a conscious effort to exclude all non-Christians from the brotherhood and sisterhood of humanity. People who bring this universal family mentality to the table (and who then seek to impose it upon Governor Bentley, assuming this is what he must have intended in his comments) are outraged that the Governor does not believe he owes the same legal or moral obligations to those who do not share his belief system.

But what these critics fail to acknowledge is that the Governor was a Christian man speaking to a Christian audience. When a Christian heard his comments in context, what would they likely hear?

There is a close bond between family members. No, we do not always get along like we should, but the old axiom “blood is thicker than water” at least tells us the ideal. At a minimum, we share a biological connection to our family members that we do not share with others, but in a healthy family the connection extends to an emotional level as well. Christianity teaches that when you accept Jesus as your savior, you are also adopted into an extended family. The church is charged with looking after you just as a healthy family ordinarily would. For those of us with strong family bonds, this extends our bonds even more broadly. For those who grew up without such bonds, it provides encouragement that they can still enjoy that familial relationship. “In Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” Romans 12:5.

I have two brothers. Is it offensive for me to tell them that they are my brothers or to tell anyone else that they are not? Of course not, so long as I am speaking of the biological connection that we share. Similarly, so long as Governor Bentley is speaking of the familial-type connection shared by fellow Christians, it should not cause offense for him to say that those who accept Jesus are his brothers and sisters whereas those who do not are not. Only by refusing to accept the context in which his comments were intended and imposing someone else’s definitions upon his statement can we give ourselves a reason to feel offended.

Clearly in this context Governor Bentley was speaking of his brothers and sisters in Christ. He was speaking to a Christian audience who, if they were the least bit versed in Christian teaching, would understand his comments in that manner. He even qualified his comments with the express condition that makes someone a brother or sister in Christ, acceptance of Jesus as savior.

To suggest that the Governor was somehow excluding non-Christians from the global community, or suggesting that he did not owe a moral responsibility toward them also ignores Christian teaching.

“Jesus said: ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

“‘Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?’ The expert in the law replied, ‘The one who had mercy on him.’ Jesus told him, ‘Go and do likewise.’”
Luke 10:30-37.

Christ clearly commands us to be a neighbor to everyone, regardless of whether they share our religious beliefs. Again, those who step up to criticize the Governor are erecting a straw man, deciding in advance what his beliefs must be without putting forth the effort to investigate what he really believes. Christians are guilty of this too. All too often we assume to speak for Muslims, Jews, Atheists or even our fellow Christians from other denominations by evaluating their statements from the perspective of our own preconceptions. Before anyone condemns the opinions of another, we should always be wary when we are on the outside looking in.

Monday, January 17, 2011


Today marks the five year anniversary of Ten Minas Ministries and I would personally like to thank each and every person who has supported us over the years, contributed their thoughts to our blog (whether they agreed with me or not) and especially those who have graced TMM with their prayers and constructive criticism.

We were originally incorporated as a Maryland non-profit on January 17, 2006. When TMM first began, we really were struggling for direction. We had a website without much content other than the "Argument for Christianity" series of articles (articles that I keep meaning to revisit and update, but alas other obligations keep getting in the way). The "Ten Minas Talent Pool" came and went. It was an effort to match up volunteers with particular skills with people in need who would benefit from those skills. Unfortunately, it never gained enough steam to support itself, but it did get TMM its first radio exposure through an interview on a Baltimore Christian radio station.

After the Talent Pool we moved on to the Disaster Relief Project and helped raise money to rebuild a home in Gulfport, Mississippi that was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. We also started "Preparing Your Answer," the series of podcasts on apologetic and theological issues. The "Ten Minas Ministries Prayer Network" brought together prayer requests from people around the world with any "prayer warriors" who visited the website and saw their requests.

As time went on, TMM began to focus more specifically on apologetics. Theology still served as an important foundation (after all, how can you defend something without first knowing what it is you are defending?), but it became clear that my forte and interests really went in the direction of helping Christians prepare their answers to a skeptical world. I have spoken to the people in the pews, taught in a classroom format (contact TMM if you would like me to come to yoru church) and have had countless valuable interactions on the TMM blog with believers and non-believers alike. I know I have benefitted from the experiences (even the more frustrating ones) and I hope my partners in dialogue can say the same.

If I have learned anything over the past five years, it is that apologetics cannot be approached like a legal argument in a courtroom. When you are speaking to someone who disagrees with you about the most fundamental questions of our existence, there is no judge in a black robe who will speak up at the end of our discussion and tell one if us that we are wrong (at least not in this life). The moment I look at a debate as an opportunity to "tear down" my opponent is the moment I lose sight of the whole purpose. My companion in the discussion is not only my ideological opposition, he or she is also the person I am trying to convince. I am not here to win points. I am here to encourage open and honest discussion. If anyone is interested in having that kind of talk, I invite you to join in the conversation as we hopefully continue for at least another five years.

God belss you all.

Ken Coughlan, President
Ten Minas Ministries