Kant, as I understand him, is sensitive to these issues. It's not so much that I'm wedded to his particular formulation of the categorical imperative (for an overview, read this). Nor do I wish to get embroiled in debates about the autonomous modern subject; any appropriation of Kant today, certainly, would require a bit of critical revision. My concern, simply put, is to find some basis for affirming a universal ground of the good as the condition for the possibility of all contingent -- and thereby partial and imperfect -- moral judgments, and Kant provides one way of doing this without committing me, say, to some sort of natural law theory or virtue ethics. To refresh the reader's memory, a classic statement of the categorical imperative, as articulated in the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, goes thusly: "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law."
But I see that that desire has its dangers too. "Foundationalism!" cries the postmodernist. "Cultural imperialism!" objects the multicultural theorist. I'm not insensitive to such criticisms. A little closer to my own areas of study, moreover, weighty theological objections to such a project emerge: A key risk would be that I, mere mortal as I am and a misearble sinner to boot, would grasp onto some vision of the good or some ethical ideal and reify it. A biblico-theological term for this move would be idolatry.
I recently ran across this striking quote in Pannenberg, and it stopped me cold:
Adolf Eichmann insisted at his trial that he had always acted according to Kant's imperative. He clearly envisioned the extermination of the Jewish people as a universal law to be universally followed. Fanatics of other strains can likewise wrap themselves in Kant's formal imperative. Kant's formal ethics does not in fact provide certain guidance toward the humanistic ideal he espoused. (Wolfhart Pannenberg, Theology and the Kingdom of God, ed. Richard John Neuhaus, Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975, p. 104.)
Eichmann was a Nazi administrative official responsible for deporting some 1.5 million Jews to extermination camps in Eastern Europe. (You can read more about him here.) He was captured in Argentina, tried in Jerusalem and hanged in 1962 for crimes against the Jewish people. His basic defense during the trial was that he was, essentially, doing his duty by following orders. What could Pannenberg's claim mean here? I've begun poring through our copy of Hannah Arendt's classic, Eichmann in Jerusalem, to see if I can find anything more about this. (By the way, I highly recommend the film, starring Margarethe von Trotta, about Arendt's coverage of this trial.)
Pannenberg's objection to the Kantian categorical imperative, clearly, is its abstract formality. (There are other considerations, of a more metaphysical nature, that have some bearing upon this critique, but I'm not going to get into that here.) He is drawing a contrast between an abstract rule of duty versus the dynamics of lived experience in history. This does not mean, if I'm reading him correctly, that Pannenberg is embracing a consequentialist ethics per se, though I discern some signals that he is, over all, more sympathetic to more empirically grounded accounts of moral decision making.
This worry about abstraction, which (he implies) entails some sort of dichotomy between an abstract rule and its concrete instantiation, is reinforced in a follow-up point, which gets at the tension between concrete individuality and any kind of universalistic claim whatsoever. Hence:
An additional problem with the rule that one's own actions should be suitable as a principle of general legislation is that it tends to deny individuality. The individual in his particularity and in his own distinctive moment can, at least at times, behave in a way that defies formulation as a principle suited to universal application (ibid.).
Backing up one page helps elucidate this, which occurs in a very concise summary of modern challenges in ethics -- a discussion which leads into Pannenberg's own constructive position framed by his distinctive eschatology. He recounts the effects of Nietzschean relativism: All values are the result of the will to power and the irony is that the gap created by this ethical rootlessness is filled by arbitrary rules. "It may seem strange that the relativizing of ethical standards should result in conformity" -- that is to say, "superficial adherence to conventions" without any corresponding existential conviction (p. 103). That's an interesting argument; I'll have to ruminate on it some more.
Appeal to divine commands, Pannenberg argues further, has become increasingly implausible in a "rationally organized world", in which people respond to rational principles (p. 104). I have some critical reservations about this assertion: Just how "rational" are we, and how averse to divine commands? If some quasi-divine figure such as David Koresh or some official in the Church of Scientology says "jump", some portion of the population seems more than willing to answer "how far?". Yet, more to the point of Pannenberg's own discussion, I find this claim about modern rationalism, on the face of it, to be in some tension with the notion that people allow themselves to be ruled by arbitrary conventions, but perhaps that's just another aspect of the paradoxical situation of modern societies. Moreover -- and this gets more directly at my main concern -- conscience fails to provide an adequate ground for moral behavior, since it clearly is mutable and subject to manipulation by self interest, rational or otherwise. Some of the worst atrocities, he points out, have been committed in the name of conscience. Thus, as Eichmann testified at trial, his conscience was clear: His, remember, is a duty ethic. He did his job; he followed orders -- deontology taken to absurd lengths.
What interests me is this: What I find most appealing about the notion of a categorical, universal, even transcendental ground for goodness is precisely the hope that it stands above arbitrary appeals to idolatrous claims, contingencies and the manipulative power of self interest. Pannenberg certainly is going to want to provide his own foundation for ethics that is both ethical and rational, and in the text I'm reading, he goes on to sketch an agapic ethic grounded in his notion of the Kingdom of God, the center and goal of Jesus' preaching and ministry. But is this kind of biblical and theological basis for ethics necessarily incompatible with a categorical ethical schema along the lines that Kant commends? Say we were to play the Nazi trump card against any notion of a transcendental categorical imperative and were, instead, to plunge into the murky depths of Christian origins and the brutally compromised history of the church as an alternative basis, will we have any greater defense against our incessant tendency to label evil as good?