The Two Commandments of Today’s Secular Gospel

Law. Law with a capital ‘L.’

We all want to know what is The Law, what are the sets of principles we should live by – no, what are the rights and duties we must have and must live by – and what are the principles, rights and duties we expect others to have and to live by. Every culture wants to know the answer to this question.

One answer to the fundamental question of Law is provided in the Gospel of Luke. Christ Jesus was reported as saying  “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 neighbour as yourself.”(NIV) These two Commandments are held to encapsulate the entire Torah with its web of rules and judgements.

For much of the Christian era, there was emphasis placed on both sides of the equation. On the one hand, there was a ceaseless devotion to the Almighty, and then this informed the question of what ‘Love’ (another capital ‘L’) entailed. This ceaseless devotion involved exploring what the Commandments of God were. Following on from this, one couid determine whether they were benefiting or harming their neighbour, whether they should show tough or soft love. Affection for our neighbour was secondary to our relationship with the Creator.

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As Europe secularized during the Renaissance and Enlightenment, the theological foundations of neighbourly love were eroded. What remained were reformulations of the ‘love thy neighbour’ component, but expressed in more scientific and humanist language. We find reformulations by the English cleric Hooker and in Thomas Hobbes. Perhaps the most celebrated version is by Immanuel Kant. One formulation of his ‘categorical imperative’ is

Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.

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This has the ring of the passage I’ve quoted from Luke. In style it is very different however and sounds more like a mathematical axiom. More important are the words “you can … will.” In the quote from Luke, the obvious source of neighbourly love (i.e. morality) resides in the Commands of God (which in turn are interpreted as emanating from an objective source of Law). However, the subject of Law (the one who makes the ‘commands’) in the Kantian categorical imperative is none other than the individual. The individual ‘wills’ those laws which can then apply to as broad a mass a people as possible. The attraction of Kant’s ‘golden rule’ is that it grants the individual autonomy.

However, how sensible is it to construct rules of morality upon the personal caprices of individuals? Someone could argue of course that individuals must avoid personal caprices and instead become vessels of reason. Yet reason, and the laws emanating from the use of reason, are means to an end. In Christ Jesus’ formulation of the golden rule, the Love for one’s neighbour is not separated from the end which is the highest Love. In Kant’s re-statement, the ends are those ends that the individual wants. These ends somewhat disappear in the wording but they are presupposed. Those ends can only be considered objective if reason is considered objective. But given that reason only metaphorically reveals itself and does not explicitly do so, reason comes to be something of a means to an end itself.

As an example, let’s say someone is wanted for a violent crime. Religiously, murder is forbidden because life is sacred. The accused may have violated a sacred law. In a reason-based account, someone could argue that it was reasonable to commit murder because someone else stood in their way of achieving their own selfish ends. While this view is rarely upheld between two people who have been born, these sorts of arguments are often advanced in the case of abortion and have been advanced by eugenicists. If other humans ‘get in my way,’ I can dispose of them.

When you look at Kant’s categorical imperative – and not forgetting that Kant is probably the most influential moral philosopher of the last 200 years if we are talking about practical application of a particular moral philosophy – then one can argue that he is really telling us to love ourselves with every faculty of our being and then love your neighbour as yourself. These are Kant’s two commandments in the secular Gospel. But the replacement of a God whose Commandments can be objectively known (if one accepts the Divine origin concerning the promulgation of the Commandments) provides a common basis for neighbourly love. By contrast, a formulation like Kant’s leaves it to individuals to decide what ends they are going to strive for and then leaves it up to them to decide what is universal. Unless morality is cast as being some sort of business market – and I would argue strongly that this isn’t tenable – then Kant’s two commandments have the air of a doctrine of hedonism about them. Not only that, but constructing an objective morality from the interplay of subjective wills is a doomed task, especially when we debunk the idea that reason can replace the Divine.

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