Bringing a long history to its culmination, Kant put duty at the center of ethics, even speaking of a “duty of virtue.” For Agamben ( Opus Dei: An Archaeology of Duty ), this is a development from Christian conceptions of liturgical action, but with a decisive difference: “If in office the guarantee of effectiveness of the liturgical action ex opere operato is in Christ, what takes the place of Christ as guarantee of the effectiveness of duty in Kant is the law” (112). Replacing Christ with law, shall we say, smacks of Judaizing.

The Judaizing continues: According to Kant, respect for the law is what makes the “auto-constraint of moral duty operative.” This respect is not a feeling but, in Kant’s terms, “consciousness of the subordination of my will to a law” (113). This sense of subordination is a negative feeling of humiliation: “The effect of this law on feeling is merely humiliation, which we can thus discern a priori though we cannot cognize in it the force of the pure practical law as incentive but only the resistance of incentives of sensibility.” There is “no pleasure” in submission to a law as command but “displeasure in the action” (116).

No wonder Lacan discerned an inner connection between Kant and de Sade. In Agamben’s summary of Lacan, “the virtuous Kantian and the masochist indeed coincide precisely in the fact that both find their proper element solely in duty and humiliation, that is, in the execution of a command.” Agamben wants to stats this differently: If Kant were a straightforward masochist, he would find pleasure in the humiliation of submission to law; thus, it is necessary to say “the masochist finds pleasure in the fact that the law finds pleasure in humiliating him. The masochist does not find pleasure in pain and humiliation, but in procuring for the sadist a pleasure that consists in inflicting pain and humiliation. The masochist . . . causes the law . . . to get off” (117).

It is worth considering how deeply Kantian humiliation before command has infiltrated Christian ethics, that is, how much Christian ethics has been infected by Kantian Judaizing.

More on: Philosophy, Theology

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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