A Puzzle: The Groundwork and the Golden Rule

Ever since I first read Kant’s Groundwork, I have been struck by a puzzle that I have never seen
adequately explained.

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
teaching?

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…

20 Replies to “A Puzzle: The Groundwork and the Golden Rule

  1. I’m not quite sure why it’s puzzling. Kant was raised a Christian (in a spin-off of Lutheranism, Pietism) but wasn’t an orthodox Christian, at least by the time the _Groundwork_ was written. That this is so seems clear from Alan Wood’s discussion of Kant’s views on religion in the Cambridge Companion to Kant. It seems very doubtful that he thought that Jesus was literally divine in any sense, for example, and he didn’t seem to think revelation was a valid form of moral knowledge (again, mostly going from Wood here) so given this that he’d not think something Jesus said was a valid form of the moral law doesn’t at all seem surprising to me. Or am I missing something?

  2. Thanks, Matt!
    You’re quite right, of course, that Kant wasn’t an orthodox Christian by any means. Nonetheless, everywhere else he goes out of his way to express the greatest respect for Christian teaching. (For example, consider his discussions of the “passages in Scripture where we are commanded to love our neighbour”.) He also knew full well that he had political reasons to avoid any excessively obvious criticism of the religion of the Prussian State.
    In general, his usual approach to Biblical passages (when he discusses them at all) is to give some (occasionally rather acrobatic) interpretation of the passages in question, while claiming that these passages are a symbolic way of conveying some deep a priori moral truth. (He does this time and again in Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone.) This is why it seems so odd to me that he takes such a different approach to the Golden Rule in the Groundwork.

  3. Ralph,
    I’m not sure I’ll be much help, but I do have a few thoughts. Kant’s attitude toward the conflicts between the CI and the golden rule is indeed puzzling, given his background and even despite his hesitance with regard to religious dogma. Still, the fact that he would give a kind of priority to the CI, or at least ‘ordinary moral consciousness’, over revealed rules is evident very early in his ethics. It’s quite explicitly there, for instance, in Herder’s lecture notes from the early 1760’s. One reason Kant apparently thought that religious ethics must be subordinate in some sense to philosophical ethics is that philosophical ethics establishes itself on an account of the motivational structure of rational agents (of course, it’s a quite extraordinary structure in Kant’s view). Revelation could have a practical upshot, apparently, only if its commands comport with those very motivational capacities that are the subject of philosophical ethics. I take it this means that we need philosophy to tell us what we’re capable of, which makes it prior in Kant’s mind to religious commands. (This probably makes Kant sound more internalist than he actually was, but it does seem to be close to what he was thinking.)
    Now I would have thought that we’re as capable of conforming to the golden rule as any other rule (and perhaps better than the CI). The issue, I’m guessing, is which should have precedence given a conflict. Since we know there are conflicts, Kant gives priority to the CI, because he thinks revealed rules should be modified to conform to our philosophical ethics. And he thinks that apparently because (again) revealed commands can have practical authority for us only to the extent that they conform to our best philosophical account of moral psychology.
    That still doesn’t explain the dismissive attitude, but maybe it helps explain the position.

  4. Just a thought:
    As Ralph and Robert have both pointed out, Kant does appear to go to great lengths in many of his works to stress the seeming compatibility of his transcendental approach with the Christian Faith.
    Further, I am hesitant to dismiss this fact as either insincere or tongue-in-cheek. I don’t think there is any really compelling reason to think that these are just “public” statements intended to keep his philosophy from being attacked by the religious powers that be.
    But just because Kant makes a sincere attempt at reconciliation does not mean that it had to have been successful. Perhaps what we see here is evidence of an internal tension in Kant’s thought. Most of the time when that tension bubbles up, he takes the time to try to provide an answer (the “acrobatics” Ralph mentioned), but there is no reason to think that he “caught himself” and did so for every instance of tension.
    I do think it is significant that we are discussing a footnote here. It’s removed from the body of the main text. It’s a relevant but not central aside. It’s exactly the kind of thing that could fly under even the most cautionary radar. Sure, he thinks about it and makes the point that the CI is primary, but isn’t it understandable that he might simply have not given it the kind of reconciling thought that he gave to points in the main body of his texts?

  5. I suspect that Jeff’s suggestion probably is the most plausible. To put it more bluntly than Jeff does, perhaps Kant had simply forgotten, at the time that he wrote that footnote, that “the trivial quod tibi non vis fieri etc.” was the Golden Rule of the Gospels. It was just something that bubbled up from his memory as one of those ethical rules that he had heard somewhere.
    If this suggestion is correct, however, then it seems most likely that by 1785 it must have been a long time since Kant had read the Sermon on the Mount, and his memory of his childhood Bible study sessions had by then become distinctly hazy.
    This would certainly be historically interesting information about Kant (and indeed about the culture of the German Enlightenment). But it would prevent us from using the passage to understand Kant’s view of Christian ethical teaching, if he really had simply forgotten that the Rule that was criticizing was a central component of traditional Christian ethical thought.

  6. It’s important to note that Kant is not, in fact, criticizing the Golden Rule (note that he gives a negative version, which is not the same as the positive version). He’s criticizing Thomasius, who makes the negative form central to his account of justice. How much this reflects on the Golden Rule itself is not clear.
    I’m also not sure he’s actually being derogatory; his comments are actually quite vague, and can be interpreted as saying that it’s a triviality, or simply as saying that it’s a commonplace. He doesn’t reject it — he says it is, with additional suppositions, deducible from the categorical imperative, which means that it is right for at least a limited range of human life — what he criticizes is the attempt to use it as a categorical imperative. And he denies (rightly, given what he thinks a categorical imperative can do) that it can even remotely perform that function.

  7. Hi Ralph. I’m just speculating, without any particular expertise, but I wonder whether Kant might have been reacting to a dismissive *criticism* of the CI — “Isn’t that just the Golden Rule?” or the like — that prompted his own dismissive tone in the footnote, in contrast to his more controlled references to Christianity in the text.
    Incidentally, I’ve learned just recently from Arnulf Zweig’s account of Kant’s life in the Oxford edition of the *Groundwork* that Kant was so turned off by his religious secondary school education that he refused ever to set foot in a church for the rest of his adult life, even for a colleague’s wedding (I think it was). So there may have been a bit of animus lurking there for the sort of person who might have been likely to claim on religious grounds that the CI was “nothing new.”

  8. About Patrick’s suggestion, anti-clericalism is one thing, irreligion is another. I always read Kant as a deeply religuous thinker, but that doesn’t make him an adherent of any particualr doctrine. I scarecely find plausible the suggestion that he “forgot” that it was the Golden Rule. Rather, I always tended to think that something like Brandan’s suggestion is right—the negative form of the principle is not the principle enunciated in the Gospels.

  9. This is probably far-fetched but could it be that he thought that this central component of Christian ethics does not deserve further discussion because of his main arguments in the book against the whole of Christian ethics?
    There’s the discussion against morality being based on the examples of Jesus and God where Kant points out that:
    “But don’t think that with God the father we have at last found the example or model from which we can derive our concept of morality. Where do we get the concept of God as the highest good from? Solely from the idea of moral perfection that reason lays out for us a priori and which it ties, unbreakably, to the concept of a free will.”
    There’s of course also various remarks about the idea that if the moral principles were based on the fear of God and his commands, they would be hypothetical. Because they cannot be hypothetical, therefore moral law cannot be God-based.
    Now, if you think this, it wouldn’t be surprise that the Golden Rule doesn’t deserve a further discussion than the remark that it could be valid in a restricted way on the condition it is a consequence of the more basic Categorical Imperative.
    Also, as the Golden Rule is formulated it seems to make morality based on what one happens to want. This would make ethics a posteriori and hypothetical.

  10. There are loads of interesting points here – thanks, PEA Soupers!
    I’m particularly intrigued by Brandon’s suggestion (tentatively endorsed by Mark) that the negative principle (“what you want not to be done to you …”) is importantly different from the positive principle of Matthew 7:12 (“whatever you want people to do to you…”).
    I find this suggestion intriguing, but not really plausible. The trouble is that while words like “doing” (including the Latin and German words that would have been used in versions of the Rule that Kant was familiar with) can sometimes bear a strong sense — on which (e.g.) doing something contrasts with allowing something — they can also bear a weaker sense — in which they effectively function as schemas that can take the place of any verb whatsoever. (This weaker sense is perhaps especially likely to be carried by the Latin word “fieri”, which really can just mean to “happen”, as well as to “be done”.)
    Now, surely the principle that Kant is criticizing involves this weaker sense of “doing”. (So, e.g., one thing that you might want “not to be done” to you is to be allowed to die as a result of natural causes.) But then it seems to me that these “doings” probably form a Boolean algebra: not F-ing is just as much a “doing” as F-ing.
    If that is right, and the domain of “doings” that we are quantifying over has this Boolean structure, then there isn’t any difference at all between the positive and negative versions of the principle.

  11. As far as interpreting Kant is concerned, I think we have to ask ourselves who Kant is quoting; and the fact that he puts it in negative form makes clear he is not quoting the Gospel, which is in positive form. As I said, the form he actually quotes is found word-for-word in Thomasius, and Kant’s actual criticism (that it can’t be a universal law because it overlooks principles of duties to oneself, etc.) is a pretty cogent criticism of the use Thomasius makes of it. And context, as they say, is the root of meaning; the positive version, which suggests the Gospels directly, is in context a practical summary, not a foundational principle, of law, whereas the negative form, which would be better known from more contemporary philosophy, is treated in that context as a principle of reasoning from which other ethical principles can be deduced.
    But, setting this aside, I think that there is pretty clearly a difference between the positive and negative forms on the face of them, although I think Ralph’s right that it can’t be glossed in terms of doing and allowing. Rather, the real distinction is between self-restraint and action, and thus the negative and positive versions overlap, but are still importantly different, as nonmaleficence and beneficence, or nonmalevolence and benevolence. Even if the two were the same extensionally, so to speak, that’s somewhat different from saying that there is no difference at all between them, since what they treat as the criterial element, restraining oneself from acting in one case and acting in the other, is very different, even if all acting involved restraining and vice versa (I’m not convinced they do always involve each other).

  12. I doubt that Kant is here dismissing something he thought was not really the golden rule of the Gospels, or that he assumed his readers would know he was actually being critical of some other philosopher. For one thing, he didn’t feel it necessary to quote the entire rule. The most straightforward reading is simply that he was trying to ward off misunderstanding of his view, viz., “I’m not saying that false promises are wrong because one fails to treat another as one would want to be treated.” Perhaps he’s just being dismissive, not of the rule, but of those who think morality is easily explained by appeal to one’s Bible.

  13. This has been a really interesting discussion, and I think, perhaps, a number of the insights that have come up here can be synthesized into a possible account:
    I agree with Brandon that Kant knew he was quoting Thomasius.
    I also agree with Mark that someone like Kant probably did not forget that Thomasius’ articulation is significantly (to say the least) related of the Golden Rule of Christian ethics.
    Further, I think Robert is right in saying that there is little compelling evidence to think that Kant was expecting his readers to make the subtle distinction between Thomasius and the GR.
    Also, Patricia’s psychological point makes sense – it would be understandable for Kant to be sensitive to criticisms that would try to reduce the CI to the GR.
    Finally, I think that the point I made in my first response regarding the nature and context of the footnote remains significant.
    So here is my best guess:
    While writing the main text, Kant’s mind goes to the relation of the CI to the GR. He sees the possible objection that the former is reducible to the latter and wants to address this. Given that it is only partially relevant, he opts to make this a footnote. He knows Thomasius, so he quotes him: Good enough for a footnote. He addresses the imagined objection and moves on. Back to the main text.
    Typically I’m wary of trying to do this sort of historical reconstruction, but I think in this case the main point remains that, given the context, it’s understandable that Kant didn’t bother to provide a detailed reconciliation between Christian sensibilities and his philosophical thought.

  14. How much the quod tibi non vis fieri principle is really connected to the Golden Rule, other than the fact that the two sound verbally similar when translated into English, I’m still not sure. In Latin the similarity doesn’t quite jump off the page; and as Ralph said in the original post, it isn’t clear why Kant would be thinking of Scripture in Latin, anyway, or, for that matter, why he would be quoting it in Latin for his readers. In Thomasius it’s a principle of natural law, but is appealed to primarily as the first principle of reason on which legal justice is based. By the end of the nineteenth century almost everyone who mentions it associates it with the Stoics, not the Gospels, because a closely similar principle is found in Lampridius’s life of Severus Alexander (Section LI). I don’t know how pervasive this association would have been in Germany during Kant’s lifetime.
    As to Robert Johnson’s argument, Kant seems to me to assume quite regularly make allusions to other philosophers as if expecting them to have been read; and Thomasius was someone most educated people could have been expected to have at least some acquaintance with him, because he and his followers deliberately targeted a wide audience well outside the university; and when Kant gives us Latin it’s usually a reference to widely used technical terms or well-known philosophical texts. But actually I think one can argue that Thomasius is not the direct target here; rather, as some commenters have suggested, he’s removing a possible objection some people might have based on a ‘common’ principle. But that the principle was a ‘common’ principle in this particular form would have been due to Thomasius, and Kant would surely have known this. This is consistent with a number of different ideas about what Kant himself thought he was doing. It’s still possible that the Golden Rule was in view, but I don’t think that’s something we can read off this brief footnote.
    I didn’t really intend to be contentious in any of this; my primary point wasn’t so much any of the above, but just to suggest that getting from Kant’s text to the Golden Rule involves quite a few more interpretive assumptions (not all uncontroversial) than one might think, and that there’s a wider space for alternative interpretation than might be suggested just from the verbal similarity between the standard English translations of the Golden Rule and the English translation of Kant’s Latin reference.

  15. The Golden Rule is not specific to Christianity but is found independently in a number of different ancient moral codes, not all of them religious. For example, Judaism “Love thy neighbour as thyself” Leviticus 19:18; Confucianism “Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you” Analects 15:23; Islam “No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself” 40 Hadith of an-Nawawi 13; Hinduism “One should not behave towards others in a way which is disagreeable to oneself. This is the essence of morality” Mahabharata, Anusasana Parva 113.8; Buddhism, “Hurt not others in a way you would find hurtful” Tripitaka Udana-varga 5:18
    The negative formulation is not the same as the positive formulation of Christ (cf Confucius). Failure to pick up a baby drowning in an inch of water offends the positive but not the negative formulation. The positive formulation, if taken literally, is an impossible standard to live up to.
    The one formulation of the CI which has moral content (Always act so as to treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of others as an end, and not as a means) insofar as it deals with how we should behave with respect to others is indistinguishable from the -ve formulation of the Golden Rule, properly understood. Kant’s criticisms of the Golden Rule don’t amount to anything at all. So the GR requires us to treat others as if we were them, not as Kant states as if they were us. It requires that we treat all others as if we were them, the judge would be acting wrongly in relation to everyone else (including himself) if he didn’t sentence the criminal, and so on.
    Kant’s defensiveness is typical of an author trying to argue that what he is saying is new and radical, and not just a restatement of something everyone knew already.

  16. I think this “puzzle” is generated by the translation. Kant uses the German adjective “das triviale”, which isn’t best captured by the English word “trivial” in its contemporary analytic philosophy sense. The German adjective, I believe even in contemporary German, also has the reading: everyday, familiar, simple, common, folksy (cf. the common term “Trivialliteratur” which means roughly “lowbrow literature” – Mills & Boon being our favorite example in the anglophone world).
    I’m no authority on the German language, least of all 18th century German, but this not-necessarily-dismissive use of “trivial” apparently used to be common in English as well. Here’s the OED, showing how the meaning of the word has shifted:
    ” II. 5. Such as may be met with anywhere; common, commonplace, ordinary, everyday, familiar, trite. Now rare (passing into 6).

    6. a. Of small account, little esteemed, paltry, poor; trifling, inconsiderable, unimportant, slight.”
    Maybe Kant would be better translated as speaking of the “familiar”, “common”, “ordinary” or “everyday” Golden Rule, in which case he was merely making an observation about its popularity and simplicity. Of course, he thought his Categorical Imperative was also superior to the ordinary Golden Rule, but that’s not because he thought the Golden Rule doesn’t tell us anything useful, but because the two rules are not precisely analytically equivalent; in particular the Categorical Imperative explains certain duties that the Golden Rule does not.
    In other words, Kant took the same attitude to the Golden Rule as he took to the ordinary moral conscience: it’s a pretty good rough guide, and that’s why God gave it to us, but it can be misleading. Pure reason and the categorical imperative are even better.
    Are there any German speakers out there who could confirm this?
    (It’s highly implausible to suppose that Kant had forgotten what the Golden Rule of the Gospels was on independent grounds: he discusses elsewhere in the Groundwork what is the correct interpretation of the biblical injunction to love your enemy. It would be very odd for him to have remembered that injunction yet forgotten the Golden Rule!)

  17. So, we have three main approaches to the interpretation of this passage:

    1. The “trivial quod tibi non vis fieri etc.” is not in fact the Golden Rule of the Gospels. (Brandon defends this view.)
    2. Kant is aware that this is the Golden Rule of the Gospels, but his comment on it is either not as dismissive as it seems (as Simon suggests), or else reveals the low regard that Kant is willing publicly to reveal for traditional Christian ethics (as Matt suggests).
    3. Kant has forgotten that this is the Golden Rule of the Gospels, although in fact it is. (This is my rather blunt gloss on Jeff’s interpretation.)

    It seems clear that there are obvious reasons to doubt each of these three interpretations.
    1. Brandon’s interpretation (1) seems incredible to me. The similarity between what we have in this footnote of Kant’s (“quod tibi non vis fieri”) and the Vulgate translation of the Golden Rule (“quaecumque vultis ut faciant vobis homines”) seems to me staggeringly close. (After all, “tibi … vis” is simply the singular of “vultis … vobis”; “fieri” is simply the passive of “faciant”; and “quod” and “quaecumque” clearly mean the same in this context.)
    The only potentially significant difference is the presence of “non” in Kant’s footnote. But as I explained in my reply to Brandon above, this may not be significant at all if the word ‘do’ (‘faciant’ / ‘fieri’) has a broad enough sense. Moreover, Kant clearly makes nothing of this: He thinks that the “trivial” principle has just as much trouble accounting for the positive duty to help others, as for the negative duty not to evade just punishment. So I think it really is the Golden Rule.
    2. Simon is doubtless right that in 18th-century German “trivial” does not mean the same in modern English. But it is still surely a distinctly pejorative word — on this, see Grimm’s German Dictionary, which is almost contemporary with Kant (“mit ausgesprochen abschätzigem Beisinn”). So the comment in the footnote really is dismissive. And I still find it incredible that Kant would speak in this tone about something that he and his readers recognized as ein Christuswort.
    3. So this leaves the third interpretation. The problem with this interpretation is obvious. But contrary to what Simon says, the fact that Kant remembers the source of some Biblical passages does not make it much more implausible that he might have forgotten the original source of certain other Biblical passages. So I’m weakly inclined to think that the third interpretation is the least awkward.

  18. Ralph, I certainly don’t intend or mean to beat a dead horse on this one, but rather, I have a question for you:
    It seems to me that you and I differ in our interpretations to a certain degree. You seem to want to say that Kant “forgot” that it was the Golden Rule, whereas I have been arguing that he probably knew it was the Golden Rule but simply didn’t feel compelled by the context to provide any sort of reconciliation.
    Since you have twice taken the “forgot” stance, I’m wondering if you have any particular reason? Do you think it more likely that he forgot than that he would have known it was the GR and failed to respond?

  19. Ralph: Thanks for the link to the Grimms Dictionary. I think, if I am reading it right, that it supports what I already suggested: see definition (2), which says (I hope I’m getting this right!) that the German “trivial” may be used to denote: an idea or body of thought which has become hackneyed and lost its originality through frequent use or popularization. There are also quotes there as well from Kant’s contemporaries Herder “das schöne wort menschenliebe ist so trivial worden” (the beautiful word ‘charity’ has become so trivial) and Goethe “das allzu leichte und durch predigten und religionsunterricht sogar trivial gewordene neue testament” (the all too straightforward new testament which has even become trivial as a result of preaching and religious education).
    Kant’s dismissiveness, if he did indeed express any, was directed not at the Bible, but at his contemporaries. To say that the Golden Rule is a hackneyed phrase is not to attack it’s originator, but rather to attack the everyday users of it who use it as a slogan, and may have lost sight of its true meaning and significance.

  20. Simon’s view seems pretty sensible to me. I think there is indeed dismissive attitude in the footnote, but it is surely directed at those contemporaries who might tout it as a fundamental moral principle. It’s not fundamental, since whatever true modification of it is derivable from the CI, nor does it generate all of the duties we think we have.

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