What Did Abraham Actually Know?
“But was he really as strongly convinced of such a revealed doctrine, and also of its meaning, as is required for daring to destroy a human being on its basis?”
—Immanuel Kant, Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason §4, transl. George di Giovanni
What would you do if a voice told you to sacrifice your child?
In the next section of this passage, which deals with the example of an inquisitor who seeks to put a heretic to death, Kant explains why Abraham was just as wrong to follow God’s command and take Isaac to be sacrificed. (Gen. 22:1-10)
Maybe God did speak to Abraham, and if so, maybe it would be theoretically appropriate to follow God’s command. But Kant raises the question of certainty. His objection to Abraham’s action is more about what we can know, rather than about what is (in theory) permitted behavior.
Kant makes two claims: (1) We know that murder is wrong, and (2) we can never be sure that we received or understood God’s words accurately. For Kant, the essence of morality is known with certainty (Kant’s own principle, the “categorical imperative,” is related to the better-known Golden Rule), and so our conscience is always a check on our actions. In contrast, we can never be certain about what we believe to be a communication of God’s will. And so, regardless of religious convictions, Kant insists that valuing human life always comes first.