Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative is his moral compass which says the morality of an act decreases to the degree that we enjoy it or gain any benefit from it. Actions are only good if the actor is disinterested in the act. Therefore to the degree that we are disinterested in our actions, we are virtuous people doing our duty. If we seek any type of reward, joy, or gain, (in any way) from the act itself, we are not moral. Ayn Rand stated it like this, “An action is moral, said Kant, only if one has no desire to perform it, but performs it out of a sense of duty and derives no benefit from it of any sort, neither material or spiritual. A benefit destroys the moral value of an action.” It should be stated that this mindset has become the mindset of Christianity to a large extent, so much so that Christians today see this ‘disinterested’ mindset as Biblical to the core. The question of its usefulness comes down to this; is it Biblical? If it is, let’s use it! If it’s not, let’s stay away from it! Well, which is it?
I think it is unbiblical and therefore useless in acting as our moral compass. Jonathan Edwards thought the same, he said in Resolution 22, “Resolved, to endeavor to obtain for myself as much happiness in the other world as I possibly can, with all the power, might, vigor, and vehemence, yea violence, I am capable of, or can bring myself to exert, in any way that can be thought of.” C.S. Lewis agreed and said, “It is a Christian duty, as you know, for everyone to be as happy as he can.” What caused these two prominent writers think this way? Two massive reasons, at least.
First, all throughout the Bible God is portrayed as having one motive behind every action; His own glory. If we follow Kant’s reasoning God would not be doing His proper duty by pursuing His glory in His works. But, it would be evil of God to not express His glory to us. If God withheld the expression of His glory and beauty to us, the foundation of our joy would be lost! For when His glory goes public, His people are filled with infinite delight! This was David’s desire in Psalm 27:4 when he yearned to see the beauty of the LORD. God commands that we be happy in Him in Deuteronomy 28:47-48. This was the very reason Jesus became human in Romans 15:8-9, so that God would be glorified for His mercy. If Kant is right, God is wrong to seek His own gain in all His works. If God is right, we get delight and God gets the glory He seeks! The application of this truth is that God is not glorified where He is not treasured and enjoyed! Thus, when we seek God for our satisfaction in Him, He is more glorified than if we we’re merely disinterested in coming to Him.
Second, many passages tell us to seek our own gain. Hebrews 11:6, “Without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.” If we come to God not seeking a reward from Him, we do not come to God rightly! 1 John 1:4, “These things we write, so that our joy may be complete.” John wrote his letters so that his own joy would be made complete. God loves cheerful givers (2 Cor. 9:7), not disinterested givers. Okay, but didn’t Jesus tell us to deny ourselves? Yes He did, in Mark 8:34-35. But do you see that in this charge to deny ourselves there is an appeal to do it for our own good, even for our own happiness? If I want to save my life, I must lose it!
Is Kant’s categorical imperative useful? If it is, I lose my happiness in God, therefore it is not. If we are to obey Scripture, and feast on the God who is a river of delight (Psalm 36:8), which is the most moral act we can ever do, we must drop Kant’s categorical compass and take up God at His Word, coming to Him for own gain and benefit.