Sagan and Kant on Atheism and Morality

By Philip McPherson Rudisill
11/26/2011, with slight editing on 7/23/2018


Sagan reads Kant to mean that we would not know to be moral unless God told us to be so. Sagan then maintains that we can have developed animal-pity or compassion via evolution, and in any case can figure out on our own what helps humans, and we can make laws accordingly and engage police to enforce these laws; hence there is no need for any God. The counter argument here of the Kantian is that Sagan is right in our ability to figure out laws on our own, but wrong in thinking that we would obey such laws privately without God. In other words: we know how to be moral without God, but (and this is Kant's actual assertion) we do not know why anyone would be moral without God; and this is especially true in those cases where the police and compassion play no role.

Sagan's "Refutation" of Kant on the role of God in the moral act

In his Varieties of Scientific Experiences Sagan conveniently brings to the fore pretty much all that is to be considered when “proving” the existence of God, and in so doing provides an important consolidation and consideration of all of the various arguments.

Each of these proofs Sagan seeks to encapsulate and then to show its flaws. One of these is the “moral proof” by Kant. Regarding this he states in The Varieties Of Scientific Experience:

“Then there is the moral argument for the existence of God generally attributed to Immanuel Kant, who was very good at showing the deficiencies of some of the other arguments. Kant's argument is very simple. It's just that we are moral beings; therefore God exists. That is, how else would we know to be moral?

“Well, first of all you might argue that the premise is dubious. The degree to which humans can be said to be moral beings without the existence of some police force is open at least to debate. But let's put that aside for the moment. Many animals have codes of behavior. Altruism, incest taboos, compassion for the young, you find in all sorts of animals. Nile Crocodiles carry their eggs in their mouths for enormous distances to protect the young. They could make an omelette out of it, but they choose not to do so. Why not? Because those crocodiles who enjoy eating the eggs of their young leave no offspring. And after a while all you have is crocodiles who know how to take care of the young. It's very easy to see. And yet we have a sense of thinking of that as being somehow ethical behavior. I'm not against taking care of children; I'm strongly for it. All I'm saying is, it does not follow if we are powerfully motivated to take care of our young or the young of everybody on the planet, that God made us do it. Natural selection can make us do it, and almost surely has. What's more, once humans reach the point of awareness of their surroundings, we can figure things out, and we can see what's good for our own survival as a community or a nation or a species and take steps to ensure our survival. It's not hopelessly beyond our ability. It's not clear to me that this requires the existence of God to explain the limited but definite degree of moral and ethical behavior that is apparent in human society.”*

* The Penguin Press, New York, 2006, pp. 159 - 160.

Kantian Analysis and Treatment

Sagan has Kant thinking like this: how would we know to be moral except that God tells us? From there Sagan reasons that we have a sense of animal pity and also we have intelligence and by means of these two we have been able to figure out on our own what is good for our species, and (as I presume he wants to conclude) that is how we could know to be moral without God having to tell us, i.e., by passing laws and establishing police departments (to serve as a proxy-god) in the enforcement of these laws.

If my reading of Sagan here is correct, then Sagan's reading of Kant is incorrect, or at least incomplete. I will seek now to clarify this.

Kant reasons in this wise: quite independently of any God, we rationally conceive of a free realm and realize that the law of such a realm would be the moral law of universal human dignity.* When we conceive of this law we realize that we are able in that way to determine our will and actions without any need of an object of desire, and indeed even in opposition to any such object.** Furthermore we are affected via our emotions in one unique way which is not animal pity*** as rather a respect for the moral law (called a moral feeling****) and in this dual way: on the one hand we are humiliated by this law at having to disregard our own interests and desires with respect to the law and, at the same time and on the other hand, we find an exaltation of the moral law (and in that way we also recognize our own dignity). Accordingly then we are made to be moral beings, i.e., able to be moved by the moral law alone, and without any need of God whatsoever***** and without any need of sympathy or compassion (beyond the moral feeling cited just above).

* Essentially the moral law requires us to universalize our maxims (personal principles of action). If we can do this, they are moral; if not, they are not moral. For example to have a maxim of lying anytime it is safe and advantageous could not be universalized because then no one could be trusted.

** In this way, therefore, and in this way alone, Kant concluded that we recognize our own freedom. See Kant's Moral Proof of Freedom.

*** By animals pity we are refering to the sort of feelings most people experience when witnessing the mistreatment and abuse of helpless people or animals, especially dogs, cats, horses, cattle, etc.

**** Kant makes much of this feeling and declares it is the only feeling that arises by virtue of an Idea alone (the moral realm). I may discover feelings which could only be aroused through some exposure, e.g., my response to a great symphony or a drama. The moral law is similar in that it needs to be aroused, but it is different in that the arousal is only by virtue of an Idea of pure reason, namely this moral law. And in this wise the moral feeling is unique.

***** And this point ties in well with Sagan's assertion that humans are able to figure things out and come up with their own laws. For this is precisely what we do with the moral law.

Kant's Utilization of God

How then does God enter the equation for Kant? It is only by means of the Idea of God that we are able to justify a purpose to the moral law, this law which imposes itself so emphatically upon us. We know rationally that there must be a purpose to the moral law in order that it (as with any rule of conduct) not be considered inane and farcical and irrational. Also, and as rational beings with feelings, it is impossible for us to disregard our natural and personal drive for happiness which is so often at odds with the demands of the moral law. The only way these two, the moral and happiness, can be reconciled is via a common purpose called the Highest Good which calls for the attaining of moral perfection by the individual which is then linked with a happiness commensurate to that perfection. So the Highest Good is a necessary and final purpose of the moral law for human beings. The only way this purpose can be accomplished with respect to the individual human is a future life (immortality) for the sake of attaining both moral perfection and the happiness that belongs to that (which is not possible during earthly life). And the only way this happiness can be expected is via an omnipotent moral judge (God) who is able to force nature to provide the appropriate happiness (in that subsequent life).

So then the role of God in Kant's equation is not in order for us to know that we are to be moral (in the sense of being told to), but rather to rationalize the moral act (which, as indicated above, we know in advance of any knowledge of God) by unifying it with the natural demand for personal happiness (via the Highest Good, a/k/a Justice), and in this way actually making the moral act the most prudent act possible, and with God serving as the necessary condition for such a morally necessary state,* i.e., where happiness is commensurate to one's moral deserving of happiness. In this way alone can the zero-game tradeoff between morality and individual happiness be avoided.** ***

* Thus Kant declares (The Critique of Pure Reason, Canon, Third Section, Par. 17.4, beginning on or near page 679) that he is “morally certain of the existence of God”.

** See the "Cheating Perjurer" below.

*** It seems then that according the traditional view of things, God directly issues the moral law and also then justifies that law via reward and punishment. According to Kant (and per my personal take on this), God provides humanity with our rationality by means of which we conceive of the moral law by ourselves, and then God provides the rationale for this law via Kant's Highest Good.

In a word: we know that we are to be moral without any reference to any God, and we also know how to be moral independently of any God, but we cannot rationally imagine why we would be moral at the lack of God (and via the Highest Good as the purpose of the moral law).*

* Some theists assert that practical rationality was a gift of God to all humans in order for them not only to act rationally in general, but especially to recognize the moral law and through that their own freedom (à la Kant) and in that way finally for all humans to recognize the existence of God (via the Idea of the Hightest Good), and finallly also then to realize that this God will never call for any human to do anything immoral.

Superiority of Kant's System over that of Sagan

Now Sagan himself reveals the limitation of his system of morality, for he shows that it is dependent upon the police (and animal pity) and that without that we could not be expected to act like moral beings. And this is not the case at all for Kant. To make this clear I want to leave the realm of public morality, where we can all easily recognize and acclaim the work of the police and where we can make popular judgments about the immorality of other people, e.g., Hitler and Stalin and Mao, and instead enter the private, secret arena and consider how we would act given Sagan's conception and then also Kant's.

Kant and the Cheating Perjurer

Consider Kant's example of a man who is in a position to safely cheat another person and enrich himself and whose most fundamental maxim is that of personal happiness or pleasure.*

“If an intimate friend, otherwise endeared to you, thought to justify himself in your eyes regarding a falsely rendered testimony by first pleading the--as he put it--holy duty of personal happiness, then by enumerating the advantages he acquired by doing this, mentioning the prudence he observed in securing himself against any disclosure (including even that on your part, to whom he reveals his secret only because he is able to deny it at any time); but then allowing in dead seriousness to have performed a true human duty; you would either immediately laugh in his face, or cringe with abhorrence; even though, if you had guided your principles solely by personal advantage, you would be unable to say anything at all against your friend's measures.”

* Critique of Practical Reason, No. 8, Remark II, Par. 4, beginning on or near page 45.

Here the Saganian atheist would have no fear of the police, and so the only reason that he might resist the allure of this opportunity is if it had to do with animal pity, i.e., that he would feel sorry for the victim enough to withstand the temptation to cheat; or if he might have so much money that he wouldn't want any more. If we assume that the victim would never know that he is being cheated (which is the clear implication here)* and if we could conclude that the victim would not suffer as a result, namely that he had enough to get by without the benefit of what the cheat was taking (which would negate the role of animal pitty), then we see that it would be impossible (irrational) for the cheat not to have acted as Kant has described.

* It is easy to imagine situations like this. Perhaps you and a friend have purchased lottery tickets and he has left his in his desk drawer. You get the results while alone and discover that he has won, but then by switching tickets you are able to collect the full reward, and without him knowing that he has been cheated. See lottery cheat. And another one.

Now according to the Kantian system, such cheating would be an impossibility (conceptually speaking). Since the moral act is no longer simply a moral act, but rather is one aspect of a larger purpose, i.e., the Highest Good, and where personal, albeit future, happiness is already included with that moral act (or rather with the moral disposition leading to that act), the Kantian theist (again conceptually speaking) would have no reason for duplicity.*

* This conception may be helpful in this regard: if an atheist gives up some immediate happiness in order to comply with the moral law, that happiness is given up forever; while if a theist gives up a like happiness for that same reason, he does not give it up forever, but only for now. Happiness lost for the atheist is only happiness delayed for the theist.


Animal pity and the police are insufficient for producing moral-like conduct (thinking here universally and thus also of the private, secret morality), while the moral law and God are sufficient to account for moral conduct. Sagan may be able to account for a public moral* world (of the police and media), but not a private one; while Kant can account for both. The practical aspects of this have to do with the trustworthiness of an atheist versus that of a theist when making and keeping promises, e.g., regarding such things as a contract or a marriage or keeping a confidence.

* Perhaps it would be better here to speak of "a public legal world" rather than "moral".

Returning to Sagan's original assertion concerning Kant, we can now say that we know how to be moral by virtue of the moral law (which we ourselves fashion by means of pure practical reasoning and without any help or knowledge of God), and that we know why to be moral, namely by virtue of God (along with immortality) being a condition of the Highest Good which "rationalizes" the moral law by unifying it with personal happiness and in that way provides it with objective meaning and purpose. Otherwise and rationally speaking, the moral law would be a silly vanity. As Kant puts it:

" . . . since, therefore, the moral precept is simultaneously my maxim [a practical and personal rule of conduct] (as also reason commands that it be), I will invariably believe in the existence of God and a future life, and am confident that nothing is able to shake this belief, because otherwise my core moral principles themselves would topple, which I cannot renounce without being worthy of abhorrence in my own eyes."*

* The Critique of Pure Reason, Canon, 3rd Section, paragraph 16.4, on or near page 678.

For more on this theme see also:

1. Multiverse for a consideration of the official "faith" of the scientist and how it seems to be very similar to the Christian's faith in God as Creator with respect to credibility and reasonableness and evidence.

2. Discussions Between Christians and Atheists.

3. A concise presentation of Kant's thinking regarding knowledge and practice. And finally

4. A sketch for an imagined Lecture at an Atheist Youth Camp which also includes consideration of some other atheists, e.g., Buddhists and Spinoza.

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