In the development of Kant’s critical philosophy, he sought to save religion and morality from what he perceived as a threat from the mechanistic science of his day. This essay will focus on Kant’s argument for the immortality of the soul, a belief that has warrant based on a morality that is derived from the categorical imperative and practical reason.
Kant held that if religion is not connected to our practical lives, then it is worthless. Thus, various tenets of religious belief – which would include immortality of the soul – cannot be grounded in the lofty, metaphysical arguments of the rationalists. In order to ensure that religion is both practical and reasonable, Kant connected religion to morality, which can be derived rationally from ‘practical reason.’ Practical reason is chiefly concerned with the question of how we should live – a question that quickly leads into morality.
Kant postulated that moral considerations begin with an understanding of the will. If one wishes to be intrinsically good without conditions, then one needs a morally good will. Other factors – such as being smart or possessing large sums of money – are not intrinsically good because there are various states of affairs in which it would be bad to possess those qualities. For example, a smart evil individual is more dangerous than a dumb evil individual. However, retaining a good will is proper and moral in all states of affairs.
How, therefore, might we acquire a good will? A morally good will must follow the proper duty. Following a proper duty means one must act according to the right maxim, which must be a principle that applies necessarily and universally. Kant labeled this the “categorical imperative,” which states that one must “act only according to the maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law” (Kant, 4:421). If we take this moral law seriously, then we ought to also hold other postulates of practical reason as well. Such postulates would be the existence of a soul, God, and the immortality of the soul.
Here, I shall highlight Kant’s arguments for the existence of a soul and for the existence of God, which provide further influence and foundation for believing the soul is immortal. Then, Kant’s argument for the immortality of the soul based on the Highest Good will be explained. From Kant’s conclusion, I shall indicate what seems to be a lacking facet in Kant’s understanding of immortality.
The idea of a soul ultimately lies beyond our scope of reason. Furthermore, the concept of a soul does not rely upon scientific evidence. In Kant’s philosophy, science is restricted to firm boundaries, which means it cannot comment on matters such as the soul. However, this does not necessitate that belief in the soul is arational. Rather, the belief is derived from another facet of reason, which Kant labels “practical reason.”
Using practical reason, we have warrant for believing that the soul is the thing which owns our experiences. We do not experience the soul itself, but reason can guide us to this belief. Because reason is a faculty of inference, we possess the capability to make three kinds of syllogisms: the categorical, the hypothetical, and the disjunctive. From the categorical method of inference (All A’s are B’s. All B’s are C’s. Thus, all A’s are C’s), we may postulate the existence of a soul, which is always a subject but never a predicate. This “paralogism of reason” is derived from thinking of ourselves as existing things, which means we must also exist.
Kant is famous for critiquing standard arguments for the existence of God. He did not believe religion and faith should rest within the lofty realm of metaphysics. Instead, religion must be something practically maintained in our daily lives. Thus, although Kant rejects argument for the existence of God, he is not against the belief in God.
Kant conceived humanity as living in a “Kingdom of Ends.” Each individual is a rational agent within this kingdom. However, beyond the members who compose this kingdom, there is a Sovereign, who is a “completely independent being without need and with unlimited power” (Kant, 630). The Sovereign (God) is not under moral obligation in the same way as humanity because His will is holy and perfect, which means he will always do the right thing. Humanity, on the other hand, does not automatically do what is moral because our wills are inconsistent. Thus, we need moral obligations and reason to girdle ourselves to the categorical imperative.
We, therefore, have warrant for belief in the soul and God, which are derived through our commitment to the categorical imperative. However, the existence of the soul, God, and the categorical imperative do not, on their own, provide us with what Kant calls the “Highest Good.” The Highest Good obtains when the world is composed of the optimal amount of morality and happiness. Neither morality nor happiness guarantees the other; thus, they are incomplete on their own. Therefore, the complete good can only be achieved when this optimal state of affairs is realized. This is what Kant labeled as the “Highest Good.”
Kant said the following about this Highest Good: “PURE practical reason postulates the immortality of the soul, for reason in the pure and practical sense aims at the perfect good (summum bonum), and this perfect good is only possible on the supposition of the soul’s immortality. It is the moral law which determines the will, and in his will the perfect harmony of the mind with the moral law is the supreme condition of the summum bonum” (Kant).
Kant believes happiness is an objective quality and not merely the result of subjective passions. Furthermore, happiness is an objective good, and it is rational for humans to desire obtaining it. However, the categorical imperative is deontological and thus concerned with duties and obligations. Whether or not happiness results from following the categorical imperative must not be a consideration for one’s actions. Additionally, the two concepts meriting warrant from the categorical imperative – the soul and God – do not, in themselves or without further argument, provide guarantee that the Highest Good will obtain.
The Highest Good, in which happiness is distributed in exact proportion to morality, can be rationally conceived and bears in the mind as an end in-itself, the ultimate ideal. Not only is the Highest Good an ideal, but humanity is also conscripted with a moral duty to work at seeing this state of affairs achieved. Such an obligation would require humanity to be perfect. Thus, a significant problem arises: humanity has a moral obligation to actualize the Highest Good, which would require moral perfection, but the Highest Good cannot be actualized in this world in a finite time.
Kant strongly maintains that “ought implies can,” a belief required by a deontological framework. Therefore, if humanity ought to actualize the Highest Good, it means we can actualize it. And if this state of affairs cannot be achieved within this life, then there must be another life to achieve it. Thus, death is not the final end of a person. Although we cannot prove the immortality of the soul, an understanding of our duty to achieve the Highest Good provides us with warrant for a moral faith. We have no knowledge of the afterlife, but practical reason encourages us to believe in its existence.
Further considerations ask in what way God and radical evil fit into this framework of immortality. The belief in God actually fits rather nicely into Kant’s system. If we are to believe that morality and happiness can be in some way connected – that this universe truly is moral – then we ought to believe we live in the creation of a supremely moral being. If we truly live within a “Kingdom of Ends” under the reign of a supremely good Sovereign, then we should believe that this Sovereign created the world in such a way that morality and happiness can synchronize. Or, we may believe that this Sovereign has the power to actualize this state of affairs.
But what of the problem of radical evil? It is a well-known truth that humanity consistently fails to follow the categorical imperative. In fact, individuals contain a seemingly unfathomable propensity to commit heinous crimes – such as the Holocaust, 9/11, and the recent chemical bomb attacks that killed many civilians and children.
Kant, as a product of the Enlightenment, seems to hold a naively optimistic view of reason. One can arrive at an understanding of the categorical imperative simply through using one’s rational faculties. An individual is most human when he or she is rational, according to Kant’s perspective. However, merely reflecting on reason often does not hold enough power to change a malicious or erratic will. Our passions constitute too much of who we are, and those passions may not always align with our moral duties. If this is the case, then how might humanity achieve the Highest Good if our will can so easily fall into evil?
From a Christian perspective, however, humanity is not left to seek the Highest Good merely by our own power. Rather, God’s Holy Spirit has the ability to transform our will into alignment with his holy nature. The possibility of this moral transformation and the realization of the Highest Good are further given promise through the crucifixion of and resurrection of Jesus, in which Christ demonstrates both victory over evil and provides a means by which the will can be transformed. However, such a position of Christian salvation is not espoused in Kant’s work.
Nonetheless, for those who are sincerely committed to morality, fighting for the liberation of the oppressed, and seeking wholeheartedly for more goodness to be realized in this world, then Kant’s argument for the immortality of the soul, based on moral considerations, can hold much warrant. Furthermore, Kant’s position is given additional warrant if one believes that God has revealed himself in a way that promises to see this Highest Good eventually realized.
Kant, Immanuel. “Immanuel Kant: The Immortality of the Soul.” Immanuel Kant: The
Immortality of the Soul. Public Bookshelf, n.d. Web. 17 Apr. 2017.
Kant, Immanuel. “4:421.” Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals: With on a Supposed Right
to Lie Because of Philanthropic Concerns. New York: Publisher Not Identified, 2010. N.
Kant, Immanuel. “630.” Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals: With on a Supposed Right to
Lie Because of Philanthropic Concerns. New York: Publisher Not Identified, 2010. N.