Ever since I first read Kant’s Groundwork, I have been struck by a puzzle that I have never seen
In a footnote in Section 2 (G 430n), Kant makes some rather
dismissive remarks about the Golden Rule (he calls it “the trivial quod
tibi non vis fieri etc.”).
At best, he argues, this “trivial” Rule is a consequence of the Categorical Imperative, and it holds only “with various qualifications”. It cannot be
a “universal law”, for three reasons: it obviously cannot ground our
duties towards ourselves; it cannot ground our imperfect duties
towards others (since a fortunate person might well prefer not to be helped by
others, in exchange for his not being obliged to help them); and it
also cannot ground our perfect (or “owed”) duties to others (since if the judge were
in the criminal’s shoes, he would prefer not to be punished as he deserves).
But surely Kant knew that this “trivial” Golden Rule comes
from the Sermon on the Mount: “Therefore all things whatsoever
ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law
and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12). How
can Kant have been so dismissive of such a central part of Christ’s ethical
It is not as if Kant was ignorant of the Bible. His Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone
is full of apparently intentional echoes of Biblical passages. Moreover, surely
many of his readers in late-18th century Germany would have recognized the
Golden Rule as "ein Christuswort".
So what is going on in this footnote in the Groundwork?
It is a further puzzle that Kant – who was raised
Lutheran – quotes the Rule in Latin, rather than in Luther’s German translation
(“Alles nun, was ihr wollt, daß euch die Leute tun sollen, das tut ihr ihnen auch.”)
St Jerome’s Vulgate translation of the Rule is as follows: “omnia ergo quaecumque vultis ut faciant
vobis homines et vos facite eis”. Kant’s Latin verson differs
from this in some grammatical details (the verb is second-person singular rather
than plural, and Kant talks about what you want not to happen to you, rather than about what you do want people to do to you). Still, the meaning seems to me to be the same in all philosophically
significant respects. So Kant really is criticizing the Golden Rule of the Gospels.
I find this all quite puzzling…