Kant, Mormons, and Pragmatism

I’ve only taught for about four years so this may not be a general thing.  I’ve noticed that when I teach Kant’s ethics, the people who are LDS don’t particularly like it.  Actually, the people who are very religious and very LDS, but have critical and analytical thinking skills seem to like it.  But those are the rarity.  I mean the people who come from an LDS background, are who claim to be that religion, but they aren’t really religious.  I would’ve thought that they would have liked deontological ethics because it would somewhat reflect their view of God and God’s laws and somehow it’s congruent with the moral law.  But as I thought about it, it probably makes sense for Mormons not to like it.

Just a recap: Kant’s ethics basically starts off by saying there’s an absolute right or wrong.  There are no contexts or situations; it is absolutely right or wrong.  So for example, if slavery is wrong today, then it’s wrong for all time.  It just happens that the people back then got it wrong (as opposed to the saying “it was right for them.”  Kant would disagree with that view.)

Mormons have a different view of the afterlife.  There are three “levels” of heaven: the terrestrial kingdom, the telestrial kingdom, and the celestial kingdom.  Now here’s the kicker: what you do in this life determines which heaven you’re going to go into.  In other words, there are situations and contexts.  Thus, it isn’t written in stone, it’s not a strong of a view as Kant’s ethics claims to be.  Now given this, it makes sense that non-religious LDS people don’t like Kant’s ethics: it’s too rigid, too non-contextual and part of their belief system isn’t congruent with that.

Then it hit me, this is a lot with what the pragmatists were saying.  The experiences in life is what bears out your truth, your beliefs in life.  Pragmatists like William James says that you have a will to believe if it coheres with the rest of your beliefs.  This works out well with what the Mormons were reacting against with Kant’s ethics.  Since his ethics are too structured, it doesn’t cohere with the Mormon belief.  No wonder Mormons don’t like Kant’s ethics.

On the otherhand, I’ve mentioned before that the really critical thinkers do like Kant.  But I’ve also noticed that those who claim to be Mormons by name but know absolutely nothing about the Mormon religion somewhat like Kant.  After investigating, it’s because they view the afterlife as a one-shot deal, there’s only one heaven and hell.  But they obviously don’t know what their beliefs are supposed to be.  So I think it’s structured like this.

Mormons by name—–“Standard”, somewhat religious Mormons—–Critical Thinking Mormons

It’s the “standard”, somewhat religious Mormons that don’t like Kant.  Maybe they like Pragmatism?  I’ve never thought of teaching it that route, but perhaps I’ll give it a try sometime.

About shaunmiller

I have just completed a visiting position as an assistant professor at Dalhousie University. My ideas are not associated with my employer; they are expressions of my own thoughts and ideas. Some of them are just musings while others could be serious discussions that could turn into a bigger project. Besides philosophy, I enjoy martial arts (Kuk Sool Won), playing my violin, enjoying coffee around town, and experimenting with new food.
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15 Responses to Kant, Mormons, and Pragmatism

  1. Killer J says:

    I don’t understand something. Three kingdoms of varying degrees of ‘heavenliness’ are set for people to get in based on earth performance. I’m not sure why this is in contrast with an moral absolutist point of view.
    If I have less than 100 sins in my life, I get into Celestial, 500 or less gets me into terrestial, and above 500 gets me into telestial… or whatever.

    There’s no contexts or situational based morality necessary to have a three tier system in my mind. There can still be absolute truth, and to which degree an individual is able to adhere to those truths throughout a lifetime determines which kingdom he gets into.

    Am I making sense? haha

  2. shaunmiller says:

    I think Kant’s ethics is actually stricter than the Mormon sense of the afterlife, unless I’m misunderstanding something.

    So here’s a typical example that goes against Kant’s ethics: suppose you were hiding Jews in your attic during WWII. The Nazi’s come by and ask if you’re hiding any Jews. Now, you can’t lie because that would be unethical (it breaks the categorical Imperative). If lying is wrong, it’s always wrong, no matter what.

    But I’m sure that if you lied, you will still get to the top tier of heaven according to Mormon theology. So Mormonism still has some contexts that Kant won’t allow.

    On top of that, I consider you more of the critical and analytical thinking type. So you’re part of the exception.

  3. Killer J says:

    The jew example explains it perfectly. I’m probably down with the MoMo view even though I don’t like anything reeking of moral relativism.

    What would Kant really say in a dilemma like that?

    Lying is against the categorical imperative, but handing over an oppressed people to savages must be against C.I. too, right?

  4. shaunmiller says:

    Right. One of the major problems with Kant’s ethics is a conflict of duties. In this case, you have the duty not to lie, and you have the duty to not hand over people to someone like the Nazis. They are both against the C.I. In Critique of Practical Reason, Kant considers lying, suicide, and breaking promises wrong no matter what. So what do you do? Interestingly, Kant provides two answers:

    1. If Nazis come by and asks, “are you hiding any Jews?” You don’t say anything. In this case, you’re technically not lying.

    2. The second answer I find very interesting. If Nazis come by and asks, “are you hiding any Jews?” You say “yes” but you stand your ground, blocking the Nazis from entering your home. The reason is because being moral means being responsible for your actions. And so when you say “yes” you are responsible for killing Jews. Thus, you stand your ground so that the Nazis don’t enter.

    Many have replied back, “but you’ll easily be killed by the Nazis if you don’t say anything or if you say ‘yes’ and you stand against them.” Perhaps, but Kant’s ethics focuses on intentions rather than the consequences. Indeed, he considered any form of ethics that looks at the consequences as not true ethics.

    In my interpretation, the Nazi example looses focus of ethics and instead shifts to integrity. So standing up to the Nazis may not be an ethical thing to do, but you’re full of courage and integrity if you do so. Of course, it may not be the smartest thing to do either. However, lying is always wrong according to Kant because it always breaks the Categorical Imperative.

    • pyramidasa says:

      In The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom, Corrie tells of a lady hiding Jews who would not lie. When the Nazis came she kept praying they would not ask this lady for she was sure to tell. Of course they ask her. She tells them they are hiding under the table. The Nazis, not wanting to look like a fool (how could they be hiding under the table, obviously you could look and see no one) laughed at her and the Nazis left. Under the table was a trap door, hiding the Jews. Take it however you want.

      Also, because I am looking up references for Kant in the views of LDS leaders, I have this link: https://www.lds.org/search?lang=eng&query=kant

      We are learning logic in a math/science homeschool class that I mentor and since we are LDS I wanted an understanding of their views on him. Interesting.

  5. Victor says:

    No comment on this, just wanted to let ya know I’m still reading, so keep writing the blogs!


  6. shaunmiller says:

    Sweet. Although I’ve noticed that you mostly reply on posts that deal with ethics. Should I post more of ethical issues?

  7. Killer J says:

    You should post a ridiculous argument every once in a while too.

  8. Killer J says:


    Q: What’s the difference between a duck?

    A: They both have handlebars except for the duck. But on him, one leg is the same.


    Q: What would you rather do or fall off a log?

    A: One makes rice, the other makes nice. One has food, the other is good.


  9. shaunmiller says:

    Wow, I don’t even know where to go with that.

  10. Adam Ring says:

    I just found this relatively old post while researching Mormon responses to Kant’s religious philosophy, and I wanted to ask a question even though this discussion ceased 3 years ago.

    Killer J’s original question cuts deeper than I think you’ve acknowledged. The question is this:
    Is moral absolutism compatible with the view that moral desert comes in varying degrees?

    You reply to this question by bringing up the standard objection to Kant’s view that lying is always wrong. The counterexample of lying-to-protect-the-innocent-from-evil is so standard that is brought up in just about every undergraduate philosophy course that deals with Kantian ethics. But what does this counterexample show? Only that our moral intuitions seem to support a greater degree of contextualism than Kant would seem to grant. If those intuitions are right, than moral absolutism is wrong.

    But what does that have to do with the question we’re asking about the compatibility of moral absolutism with the view that moral desert comes in varying degrees? The reply doesn’t obviously address this question at all. Instead, it sort of preempts this question by disproving moral absolutism before we even have to seriously consider its compatibility with a certain conception of moral desert.

    What’s more: the moral intuitions underlying the counterexample are not uniquely Mormon intuitions — I’ve taught this material on several occasions to a diverse student body, and almost everyone seems to share these moral intuitions (at least initially). So I’m not seeing what is distinctively Mormon about this response at all.

    So I’m curious to hear more about how you would answer Killer J’s original question, and whether you think there’s something particularly Mormon about your students’ response to Kantian ethics.

    • shaunmiller says:

      The way you rephrased Killer J’s question is excellent. So can moral absolutism be compatible with the view that moral desert comes in varying degrees? I think they can be compatible. In terms of moral deserts, I’ve never taught that to Mormons so I can’t say whether they would like it or not. I’m sure they can find them compatible as well given Kant’s view of moral absolutism. So what are the reasons as to the Mormons who don’t like it? After re-reading my post, it doesn’t make sense. Perhaps I should erase this post? But you are correct: there’s nothing particularly Mormon about the students’ response to Kantian ethics, at least not that I can see. Thanks for clarifying up the issue.

      • Adam Ring says:

        In that case, I agree that the post doesn’t sufficiently answer your original question, which I think is a great one: What reasons would people who come from an LDS background have for rejecting deontological ethics?

        I don’t think that’s a reason to delete the post, though. I’d be interested in seeing more discussion of this issue, not less. Perhaps an incomplete answer will inspire others to take a stab at the original question (if you don’t get back to the issue first).

        Thanks for an interesting read. All the best.

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