is about the gap between the moral demand on us and our natural capacities
to live by it. The book belongs in a series on Christian ethics, because
I focus on what the Christian tradition contributes to the discussion of
this gap. I start with Kant, because of the influence of his ethical theory
on contemporary moral philosophy and because he is still close enough to
the Christian tradition to make use of its resources when he thinks he can.
Starting with Kant has the advantage of making conspicuous the places where
moral philosophers influenced by him no longer use these resources and the
effect of their self-denial on the coherence of their theories. The book
has three divisions, corresponding to the parts of the subtitle. The first
is about Kant. Chapter I treats of his ethical theory and Chapters 2 and
3 his moral theology. The second division of the book, Chapters 4 to 7,
is about various unsuccessful strategies proposed in the contemporary philosophical
literature for dealing with the gap between the moral demand and the limits
of human natural capacity. The first strategy is to keep the moral demand
as high as Kant said it was and to exaggerate our natural capacities to
live by it. The second strategy is to agree that there is a gap, on the
Kantian understanding of the moral demand, and therefore to reduce the moral
demand. The third strategy is to concede the gap and find a naturalistic
substitute for God's assistance in bridging it. The final division of the
book, Chapters 8 to 10, discusses the traditional Christian doctrines about
God's assistance. In Chapter 8 I describe Kierkegaard's attack on the self-sufficiency
of the ethical life. In Chapters 9 and 10 I give an account of human and
divine forgiveness and the Christian doctrines of atonement, justification,
The book is written from the perspective of belief in what I will call 'traditional Christianity'. I will not try to define this phrase. One way to proceed would be to take the content of traditional Christianity to be given in the creeds and confessions that Kant would have learnt as he grew up in Königsberg, for example Luther's Small Catechism, which came at the end of the Prussian Catechism. I do not want, however, to imply that traditional Christianity is Lutheran as opposed to Calvinist, or Protestant as opposed to Catholic, or Catholic as opposed to Orthodox. I will not therefore, consciously rely on any doctrines or practices peculiar to, say, Calvinism, unless I make it explicit that I am doing so.
Writing from the perspective of traditional Christianity will already make the project suspect to much of the audience I would like to reach. I intend the book for two groups and their intersection: both for those who call themselves Christians, or at least take the claims of Christianity seriously, and for those interested in the academic study of ethics. This makes the project problematic, since many of those who fall into the second group find the attitudes and commitments of the first group incomprehensible or, if comprehensible, entirely unattractive. From the perspective of the academic study of ethics, it can seem that belief in traditional Christianity is possible for the uneducated, perhaps even desirable; but that for those who are fully alive to the movement of thought over the last two hundred years, it is no longer a serious option.
I believe, however, that a strong case can be made that this attitude within academic philosophy has led to a bad misreading of the great philosophical texts on which academic philosophy depends. I have an advantage here from an accident of my education. I did Greats at Oxford, in which the syllabus took a leap from Aristotle to Frege; and then a Ph.D. in the Classical Philosophy programme at Princeton, in which I read nothing between Aristotle's medieval commentators and Bradley. 'Modern' philosophy is therefore something I have read on my own, directly from the primary sources. I have been constantly struck by how often the Christian content of these sources has been ignored by the standard interpretations in the secondary literature. This is notably true of Kant, as I shall try to show. His system does not work unless he is seen as genuinely trying to 'make room for faith'. Failure to see this has led to heroic measures, either excising portions of text as not properly 'critical', or attributing his views to a desire to appease the pious sentiments of his faithful manservant. What is true of Kant is also true of Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Leibniz, and even Hume. We are given a reading of modern philosophy that leads from its birth in the new science of the sixteenth century to its maturation in the death of God and the death of metaphysics. Descartes is seen as an incipient atheist, bringing in God not because of personal faith but to appease the Church. Large sections of Leviathan, where Hobbes talks about the will of God, are ignored as though they were inessential to the project of the whole. In Bertrand Russell's critical exposition of the philosophy of Leibniz, God appears in none of the five original axioms. Hume is seen at the end of the Dialogues as insincere in portraying Philo's change of heart. It is no doubt tempting, if you cannot take Christianity seriously yourself, to interpret your favourite philosophers as sharing this distaste; but it leads to a distortion of the texts. Those engaged in the academic study of ethics ought to try the experiment of seeing what the world looks like from the perspective of traditional Christianity, even if merely to understand their own tradition. This book can be seen as such an experiment.
The second reason for attempting this is that there are problems in understanding the moral life on which traditional Christianity can shed some light. This should not be surprising, because our conception of the moral life has been deeply influenced by Christianity. We should expect to have difficulty understanding morality if we narrow the scope of considerations that can respectably be entertained so as to exclude these theological sources. 'Kantian' moral philosophies inherit, just as Kant did, concepts and problems from the Protestant Reformation and before. I try to justify this claim in this book, but it has an initial plausibility independently of the book. In the history of Western art, it would be foolish to try to understand our present situation by ignoring the contributions of the tradition of Christian theory and practice. It would be foolish even though artists in the modern period have repeatedly thought of themselves as starting afresh. The same is true of morals and moral philosophy.
The first part of the intended audience of this book consists of those who call themselves Christians or at least take the claims of Christianity seriously. The overwhelming majority of those in this group will not want to read a book of technical philosophy. They may, indeed, be as suspicious of academic philosophers as academic philosophers are of them. Paul tells us in his letter to the Colossians (2: 8) to beware of those who would spoil us through philosophy and vain deceit. It is probable that Paul has in mind here a particular philosophy, rather than philosophy in general. He allows himself, for example in his address in Athens, to use what philosophers of the past have said. But the warning has merit, even if it is taken generally. Educated Christians have got used to philosophy telling them that their beliefs are no longer possible for a responsible thinker in the twentieth century. They are now discovering that philosophy is less assured than it used to be of the grounds of its objections. It would be sad if they took this as a reason for paying less attention to philosophy. It should be, rather, the reverse. Academic ethics and traditional Christianity are now in a better position for 'constructive engagement' than they have been for a long time. But this requires the Christians to read philosophy as well as requiring the philosophers to try the experiment I referred to earlier of seeing what the world looks like from the perspective of traditional Christianity.
Christians need to think about moral philosophy because their understanding of the moral life will already have been influenced by moral philosophy, just as moral philosophy has been influenced by Christianity. It is possible to take different attitudes to this influence. Some may want to find out where the influence is in order to remove the contamination, just as some philosophers may want to find out the traces of Christianity so as to root them out. But the influence is there both ways round.
I will try to make this book accessible to those without extensive formal education in philosophy. This will be hard, because I am trying to cover such a large number of difficult topics. Kant alone is hard enough. It is discouraging to see how those who write about him, unless they are very skillful, end up writing in the same convoluted way that he does. I am also attempting to talk about Kierkegaard, who is formidably obscure in his own idiosyncratic way. Finally, I am trying to engage in contemporary discussions in ethical theory, and these discussions have reached a level of technical sophistication which makes them all but inaccessible to the general reader. It will not, therefore, always be possible to write in a non- technical way. I have found in preliminary field tests that the educated but non-academic Christians to whom I have shown the typescript have indeed found some of it too technical. I have also found that the academics have found the book too Christian. There is one group whose concerns and training fit the whole book well, and that is the group of academics who have specialized in Christian Ethics. For academic ethicists with a low tolerance for theology, I recommend excluding Chapters 8 and to. For Christians with a low tolerance for technical philosophy, I recommend omitting Chapters 2, 4, and 7. I have tried to write the book in such a way that leaving out either group of chapters will leave a coherent remainder.