How Ethics Arise - comparing Luther Kant and Shantideva

Care for others is often assumed to be a central theme in ethical discourse. Ethical or ‘right’ action within a western context often assumes an inherent value to the human ‘individual’, and to their basic ‘rights’ as people. However conceptions of what factors comprise the ‘individual’ and what the nature of the ‘individual’ is did not spawn from an intellectual vacuum. Rather, these conceptions are based in the ethical traditions of several theologians and philosophers. Outside of western traditions, ethical care still involves a principle of care for others, however the bases for the assertion of said principle should not be assumed to be the same across traditions or contexts. Martin Luther and Immanuel Kant of the western traditions and Shantideva of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition each assert in their work a principle of care for others from different conceptual frameworks. Thus, while it is generally agreed that others should be cared for, why they should be cared for and the intended goals of this care vary.

Martin Luther, German theologian and one of the initiators of the reformation hold several assumptions in his exploration of ethical behavior. Luther assumes that: 1 God exists and the definition of what is ‘good’ comes from God and His commands only 2 Humanity is inherently totally depraved(corrupted) and has neither ‘good’ intention nor does ‘good’ work, and is in fact capable of neither good work nor intention 3 Man is justified to God by Gods grace and mercy using their faith and in this way gains the capability for doing and intending good (virtue) 4 Man lives once and then faces either salvation or damnation 5 This choice to seek Gods grace is individual and can be made by each individual for himself through his faith only. Nothing is earned or merited. 6 The Bible is the word of God and the source of knowledge about his commands along with the church.

From these assumptions, the conclusion that it is by Gods action (grace and mercy) that man gains virtue (and can follow the commands of God) is derived. On the surface, there is no explicit ethic for caring for others within Luther’s system.

The ethic focuses on ones personal relationship to God and keeping Gods commands (whatever those may be). However, assumption 5 provides a defacto ethic of care in that caring for others is a major theme of the Bible which is taken to be the immutable word of God and therefore the definition of what is good and ethical. Note points 43-46, 52-54, 62,and 92-94 of Luther’s 95 theses . Point 62 Declares explicitly Luther’s doctrine of scripture (which is implied in many other points of the theses). Points 43-46 show that caring for the poor and needy comes from love for them. This is definitely a strong declaration for an ethic of care. However, it is only within the context of this ethics being promoted by God through his Word(52-54).

In the hypothetical situation where an ethic of Care was not delineated by God in His revealed word, then such an ethic would also be absent in such stringent terms from Luther’s work. However, Luther’s writing and posting of His 95 Theses also shows that in principle he held an ethic of caring for others in that he sought to oppose and rectify what he saw as behavior that was unjust wand was taking advantage of people for monetary gain. The pursuit of this justice for others speaks towards an ethic of care within Luther’s psyche and it cannot be definitively determined if he would still have acted from care had his faith in God not called him to do so. However, the call for care in Scripture plays the central and key roll both in Luther’s lifestyle and for his ethical position in discourse and without said call the ethic of care would be neither theoretically present nor acted out in the life of Luther

On the other hand, the secularist philosopher Immanuel Kant also held the principle of care derived from a rationalist rather than theistic position. Kant also makes several assumptions and several conclusions: Assumption: Human reason is the source of perceived in word, as opposed to an inherent. orderliness of the world itself. In other words knowledge of order is ‘a priori’ Conclusion - Because a priori knowledge is central to our perception of world order:

1 Morality must be derived from other a priori concepts and ones desires cannot be moral a moral act comes from good will irrespective of consequence 2 Universal law that supports a categorical imperative (one that doesn’t care about outcome and can be willed without contradiction to be universally applied)) is possible and must be the judge of morality. 3) because there is a knowledge of worth in reason which is neither conditioned or contingent, care for others comes from persons being viewed as ends in and of themselves as opposed to means

Kant’s position assumes an absolute and independent source of good like Luther. However unlike Luther he does not choose an entity outside of humanity and a specific text as the arbiter of understanding this source of absolute good but rather places that source within the human capacity to reason and view order. He places great value in the human ability to so what “might be” or what will “necessarily occur” in a given situation without observing it happening first and derives that part human knowledge comes from an a priori ability. This apriori ability is the true basis from which he derives all oh his other concepts. Kant moves on to say that a moral act is one that must be able to be willed for all, without being contradictory and irrespective to its outcome in practical situation. For example, telling a promise one knows one will break would , if made a universal law destroy the abilities to make promises or have honest transactions of any kind and therefore cannot be moral. This hold true even if not telling the promise in the current situation will have “negative” consequences for me as an individual.

Kant is basically defining moral actions as actions which help bring order to our society at large and stabilize human interactions in a way that allow for cooperation and collective action. There is no God involved. Ultimately, Kant arrives at a principle of care because he believes that, as agents of reason, humans have worth irrespective of the fact if they have worth “for me”. Just as an act follows ‘duty’ and is moral irrespective of if the outcome will “benefit me”, so too have humans value irrespective of the fact that I benefit from this value. Kant then, unlike Luther who holds an ethic of care because God said so hold one because he was able to derive it from his reason and argument.

Shanitdeva of the Buddhist tradition also holds a principle of care as part of his ethics, but does so for a vastly different slew of reasons. He too holds many assumptions

1) suffering is universal and can be escaped 2) all is emptiness / humans posses ‘no-self’ 3) Reincarnation occurs 4)human interaction is a assumed to be a zero-sum game, (gains I pursue for ‘myself’ are inherently losses for others (8:165)

The worldview described by these assumptions produces an ethic of care as well but it is supported by several different types of argument which can be confusing and in some way contradictory. The assumption of emptiness and no self does is argued to lead to an ethic of care because the suffering on ‘another’ in no different that the suffering of myself. However, Care and generosity are also to be pursued because these virtues encourages an ethic of unselfishness and makes the wisdom of no-self more readily understood. Therefore no-self should promote care, but care is promoted in order to encourage the conception of no self.

The concept of no-self plays out in the idea of any gains one seeks for the provisional ‘self’ are in fact at the expense of others, rather than perhaps helping others at the same time. But at the same time, it is implied that any loss is a loss for all beings and so in seeking gain for ones self one causes loss for ones self as well as the gain ones gets for oneself. This seems to ignore the possibility on a base level that the pursuit of gain for oneself might also be the pursuit of gain for all and not merely evil. Shantideva does discuss how seeking good and becoming a Buddha is good for all, but it doesn’t seem to reconcile with the idea that one should never seek gain for ones self.

The assumption of reincarnation is used to mitigate nihilistic tendencies within an emptiness/no-self framework as well. Because of Karma and reincarnation, actions have consequences that lead into many future lives. Shantideva laments that a human rebirth where virtue can be pursued is rare and that the faults within him will damn him to aeons in the hell realms with no chance of earning more merit. Through care for others, one gains wisdom and becomes a bodhisattva and ultimately a Buddha and escapes such future imprisonment and torment but this escape is for the good of all because Buddha’s are never ending streams of merit. The motivation seems to be one of self preservation, but also one of helping others and the tension between these two ideas is unresolved. The tendency for self preservation is seen as the enemy of enlightenment in that it helps cultivate an attention and an attachment to the ‘self’ which is fact is illusory.

Another effect of the assumption of Karma is that it assumes that all beings have suffered horribly at some point in their existence, even if not in this present life, and it assumes that all beings have been good and loving to all other beings at some point in time in the past and are thus worthy of care now. Oddly enough, this idea of being worthy of care seems to also perpetuate the idea of individual selves that are of benefit to other individual ‘selfs’ and that it is because of the benefit others have given that they should in essence be re-paid by current care.

In comparison, Shantideva provides a series of complex and somewhat contradictory assertions based in a reincarnational worldview for why caring for others is important and at the core of His ethics. His main weakness lies in his tension and even contradiction for providing a reason for an ethic of Care. Luther turns to the arbitrary instruction handed down from the Almighty and Kant turns to the a priori abilities of humanity. Luther’s main weakness is in his assumption of an Absolute Good from an Absolute God. If he is in error concerning his assumptions about this God, then his entire system, at least in terms of providing an ethics of care breaks down. Kant on the other hand relies on Human reason and the fact that all people everywhere may reason that the same things should be universal goods. This does not take into consideration cultural normative difference, socioeconomic difference, or even the ‘quirks’ of an individual.

Despite their varied starting assumptions and weaknesses in their system for providing an ethic of care, each system still arrives at a very similar position in terms of conclusion- Others are to be cared for. What this ‘caring’ means isn’t concretely defined in any of the systems totally beyond nebulous terms like ‘love’ or ‘avoiding suffering’ or ‘respecting as an end in and of itself”. However, in terms of practical application, it seems that they would all agree to certain basic tenants like feeding those in need and such care seems central in many ways to a definition of what is Ethical.

Appendix A 43Christians should be taught that one who gives to the poor, or lends to the needy, does a better action than if he purchases indulgences.

44Because, by works of love, love grows and a man becomes a better man; whereas, by indulgences, he does not become a better man, but only escapes certain penalties.

45Christians should be taught that he who sees a needy person, but passes him by although he gives money for indulgences, gains no benefit from the pope's pardon, but only incurs the wrath of God.

46Christians should be taught that, unless they have more than they need, they are bound to retain what is only necessary for the upkeep of their home, and should in no way squander it on indulgences.

52. It is vain to trust in salvation by indulgence letters, even though the indulgence commissary, or even the pope, were to offer his soul as security.

53. They are the enemies of Christ and the pope who forbid altogether the preaching of the Word of God in some churches in order that indulgences may be preached in others.

54. Injury is done to the Word of God when, in the same sermon, an equal or larger amount of time is devoted to indulgences than to the Word.

62. The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.

92. Away, then, with those prophets who say to Christ's people, “Peace, peace,” where in there is no peace.

93. Hail, hail to all those prophets who say to Christ's people, “The cross, the cross,” where there is no cross.

94. Christians should be exhorted to be zealous to follow Christ, their Head, through penalties, deaths, and hells.


QR Code
QR Code how_ethics_arise_-_comparing_luther_kant_and_shantideva (generated for current page)