What's the Kantian response to the idea of martyrdom? Say, for example, that a town is under a curse of misfortune and demise, but one of the shamans casts a spell on a child who's meant to experience the total and concentrated effects of the curse and in turn making the child immortal. Years pass and the child is forgotten as a folklore tale around the village, but one day the child reveals itself to the townsfolk in an attempt for the villagers to unbind him. So, the dilemma appears: is it better to release the child or let him suffer?

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    I think you can ask about Kant's response to the idea of martydom - does he expressly consider it or can a response be derived - constructed - from from his texts ? - without including the imagined conditions you describe. Your question can stand alone, unaided by a thought-experiment of the shamanic spell-casting kind or any other. It is btw a thoroughly interesting question.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Jul 20, 2022 at 9:02
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    Martyrdom is supposed to be voluntary. Forcing suffering on someone for the benefit of others is against everything Kant's anti-utilitarianism stands for, he was even against lying to the murderer at the door to save the victim.
    – Conifold
    Jul 20, 2022 at 9:20
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    As signaled by conifold, what op refers to is less martyrdom than scapegoating, as described by René Girard (which is yet distinct from the rhetoric/politic tactic of scapegoating). Scapegoating consists in using a person as a mean to relieve social pressure without consideration for their own dignity as a person, which is clearly against Kantian morale.
    – armand
    Jul 22, 2022 at 1:58

3 Answers 3


In the second Critique, Kant warns his readers about something translated(?) as enthusiasm, which is similar to, but not quite the same as, the kind of "excitement" that goes by said name nowadays. Here is the context:

But if it is asked: "What, then, is really pure morality, by which as a touchstone we must test the moral significance of every action," then I must admit that it is only philosophers that can make the decision of this question doubtful, for to common sense it has been decided long ago, not indeed by abstract general formulae, but by habitual use, like the distinction between the right and left hand.

We will then point out the criterion of pure virtue in an example first, and, imagining that it is set before a boy, of say ten years old, for his judgement, we will see whether he would necessarily judge so of himself without being guided by his teacher. Tell him the history of an honest man whom men want to persuade to join the calumniators of an innocent and powerless person (say Anne Boleyn, accused by Henry VIII of England).

He is offered advantages, great gifts, or high rank; he rejects them. This will excite mere approbation and applause in the mind of the hearer. Now begins the threatening of loss. Amongst these traducers are his best friends, who now renounce his friendship; near kinsfolk, who threaten to disinherit him (he being without fortune); powerful persons, who can persecute and harass him in all places and circumstances; a prince, who threatens him with loss of freedom, yea, loss of life.

Then to fill the measure of suffering, and that he may feel the pain that only the morally good heart can feel very deeply, let us conceive his family threatened with extreme distress and want, entreating him to yield; conceive himself, though upright, yet with feelings not hard or insensible either to compassion or to his own distress; conceive him, I say, at the moment when he wishes that he had never lived to see the day that exposed him to such unutterable anguish, yet remaining true to his uprightness of purpose, without wavering or even doubting; then will my youthful hearer be raised gradually from mere approval to admiration, from that to amazement, and finally to the greatest veneration, and a lively wish that be himself could be such a man (though certainly not in such circumstances).

Yet virtue is here worth so much only because it costs so much, not because it brings any profit. All the admiration, and even the endeavour to resemble this character, rest wholly on the purity of the moral principle, which can only be strikingly shown by removing from the springs of action everything that men may regard as part of happiness. Morality, then, must have the more power over the human heart the more purely it is exhibited. Whence it follows that, if the law of morality and the image of holiness and virtue are to exercise any influence at all on our souls, they can do so only so far as they are laid to heart in their purity as motives, unmixed with any view to prosperity, for it is in suffering that they display themselves most nobly.

Now that whose removal strengthens the effect of a moving force must have been a hindrance, consequently every admixture of motives taken from our own happiness is a hindrance to the influence of the moral law on the heart. I affirm further that even in that admired action, if the motive from which it was done was a high regard for duty, then it is just this respect for the law that has the greatest influence on the mind of the spectator, not any pretension to a supposed inward greatness of mind or noble meritorious sentiments; consequently duty, not merit, must have not only the most definite, but, when it is represented in the true light of its inviolability, the most penetrating, influence on the mind.

It is more necessary than ever to direct attention to this method in our times, when men hope to produce more effect on the mind with soft, tender feelings, or high-flown, puffing-up pretensions, which rather wither the heart than strengthen it, than by a plain and earnest representation of duty, which is more suited to human imperfection and to progress in goodness.

To set before children, as a pattern, actions that are called noble, magnanimous, meritorious, with the notion of captivating them by infusing enthusiasm for such actions, is to defeat our end [emphasis added]. For as they are still so backward in the observance of the commonest duty, and even in the correct estimation of it, this means simply to make them fantastical romancers betimes. But, even with the instructed and experienced part of mankind, this supposed spring has, if not an injurious, at least no genuine, moral effect on the heart, which, however, is what it was desired to produce.

All feelings, especially those that are to produce unwonted exertions, must accomplish their effect at the moment they are at their height and before the calm down; otherwise they effect nothing; for as there was nothing to strengthen the heart, but only to excite it, it naturally returns to its normal moderate tone and, thus, falls back into its previous languor.

Principles must be built on conceptions; on any other basis there can only be paroxysms, which can give the person no moral worth, nay, not even confidence in himself, without which the highest good in man, consciousness of the morality of his mind and character, cannot exist. Now if these conceptions are to become subjectively practical, we must not rest satisfied with admiring the objective law of morality, and esteeming it highly in reference to humanity, but we must consider the conception of it in relation to man as an individual, and then this law appears in a form indeed that is highly deserving of respect, but not so pleasant as if it belonged to the element to which he is naturally accustomed; but on the contrary as often compelling him to quit this element, not without self-denial, and to betake himself to a higher, in which he can only maintain himself with trouble and with unceasing apprehension of a relapse.

In a word, the moral law demands obedience, from duty not from predilection, which cannot and ought not to be presupposed at all.

Let us now see, in an example, whether the conception of an action, as a noble and magnanimous one, has more subjective moving power than if the action is conceived merely as duty in relation to the solemn law of morality. The action by which a man endeavours at the greatest peril of life to rescue people from shipwreck, at last losing his life in the attempt, is reckoned on one side as duty, but on the other and for the most part as a meritorious action, but our esteem for it is much weakened by the notion of duty to himself which seems in this case to be somewhat infringed.

More decisive is the magnanimous sacrifice of life for the safety of one's country; and yet there still remains some scruple whether it is a perfect duty to devote one's self to this purpose spontaneously and unbidden, and the action has not in itself the full force of a pattern and impulse to imitation. But if an indispensable duty be in question, the transgression of which violates the moral law itself, and without regard to the welfare of mankind, and as it were tramples on its holiness (such as are usually called duties to God, because in Him we conceive the ideal of holiness in substance), then we give our most perfect esteem to the pursuit of it at the sacrifice of all that can have any value for the dearest inclinations, and we find our soul strengthened and elevated by such an example, when we convince ourselves by contemplation of it that human nature is capable of so great an elevation above every motive that nature can oppose to it. [edited: added paragraphs]

Kant discusses enthusiasm again in the third Critique (of judgment):

Let me dwell a little on that last point. If the idea of the good is accompanied by affect [as its effect], this [affect] is called enthusiasm. This mental state seems to be sublime, so much so that it is commonly alleged that nothing great can be accomplished without it. But in fact any affect is blind, either in the selection of its purpose, or, if that were to have been given by reason, in [the manner of] achieving it. For an affect is an agitation of the mind that makes it unable to engage in free deliberation about principles with the aim of determining itself according to them. Hence there is no way it can deserve to be liked by reason. Yet enthusiasm is sublime aesthetically, because it is a straining of our forces by ideas that impart to the mind a momentum whose effects are mightier and more permanent than are those of an impulse produced by presentations of sense.

He also says in that document:

This pure, elevating, merely negative presentation of morality brings with it, on the other hand, no danger of fanaticism, which is a delusion that we can will ourselves to see something beyond all bounds of sensibility, i.e. to dream in accordance with fundamental propositions (or to go mad with Reason); and this is so just because this presentation is merely negative. For the inscrutableness of the Idea of Freedom quite cuts it off from any positive presentation; but the moral law is in itself sufficiently and originally determinant in us, so that it does not permit us to cast a glance at any ground of determination external to itself. If enthusiasm is comparable to madness, fanaticism is comparable to monomania; of which the latter is least of all compatible with the sublime, because in its detail it is ridiculous. In enthusiasm, regarded as an affection, the Imagination is without bridle; in fanaticism, regarded as an inveterate, brooding passion, it is without rule. The first is a transitory accident which sometimes befalls the soundest Understanding; the second is a disease which unsettles it.

In the casuistical section of the Doctrine of Virtue, where Kant discourses on suicide, he notes that we might think there is something valiant about killing oneself, at least so far as it requires a lot of courage to do so. And he asks after instances where sacrificing oneself might be credited to us as virtuous. But in Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, even with respect to the Crucifixion, he favors a metaphorical gloss according to which that story is an image of our own self-crucifixion, spiritually, in our eternal redemption.

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    I don't understand the edit. I do feel like I might've been better off culling the quoted sections of the 2nd Critique, since as it stands, my answer is pretty blob-like, but the edit makes it sounds like I'm saying a bunch of things that Kant said. As for the blob problem, on the other hand, well, Kant wrote like that anyway, so at worst, I'm just answering the OP per what the OP requested. Jul 22, 2022 at 1:44

Christian Martyrdom has unanimously distinguished between "martyrdom" and "voluntary martyrdom" as separate phenomena, practices and categories form the second century onward


I've not read the article, etc.. Anyway, if the difference can be maintained, then I imagine that we're talking either suicide (boo) or murder (boo). He asks if it is "heroism", but says

I can never be allowed to sacrifice my life intentionally or to kill myself in fulfilment of a duty to others... a soldier... is merely risking his life (Vigilantius lecture).

  • dunno why I felt the need to reply.
    – user61846
    Jul 22, 2022 at 1:19
  • it's his lecture! I believe @GeoffreyThomas
    – user61846
    Jul 25, 2022 at 20:23
  • Okay, fair enough: it might be useful to indicate that you are not referring to (as might appear) Kant's 'Vigiltantius lecture' but to lecture notes taken by J.F. Vigilantius - and to indicate which translation you are using.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Jul 26, 2022 at 8:04
  • Kant discusses and disallows suicide in many texts. In the Vigilantius notes, the impermissibility of suicide is taken up in §92 and elsewhere. In §92 the Cambridge translation goes: 'It is permitted to venture one's life against the danger of losing it; yet it can never be allowable for me deliberately to yield up my life, or to kill myself in fulfilment of a duty to others ... when a soldier pits himself against the foeman's steel, he is merely risking his life' : I. Kant, Lectures on Ethics, tr. P. Heath, Cambridge: CUP, 2001: 370.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Jul 26, 2022 at 8:40
  • ok, thanks for the note @GeoffreyThomas
    – user61846
    Jul 26, 2022 at 10:10

Well, I don't really believe in witches, wizards, warlocks and the like. So lets take some actual examples of martyrdom, say martyrdom in Christanity.

Far from the early church being persecuted the Romans considered Christians bizarre and their rituals distateful but more or less tolerated them. There was no empire wide policy of persecution.

One of the earliest historical record that we have of a concerted persecution policy was in the French city of Lugdunum in AD 177 during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, the stoic emperor. An account of this persecution is in a letter preserved Eusebius's Ecclesiastical History.

Before the actual outbreak of violence the Christians were prevented from going to the marketplace, the forums and the public baths. They were accused of:

Thyestean banquets and Oedipean intercourse

The Thystean reference is to so-called 'cannabilism' in the Christian ritual of Communion and the 'incest' reference to Agape, neighbourly love. Eventually this moved to violence of property and then of person. 48 Christians were massacred and in the history of the church they became martyrs.

What would Kant make of this? Well, in the opening paragraph to his Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, he wrote:

So far as morality is based upon the conception of man as a free agent who, just because he is free, binds himself through his reason to unconditioned laws, it stands in need neither of the idea of another Being over him to apprehend his duty ...

And this is true, but what is true of the man who believes in no higher being is just as true for those who do, that is to "apprehend their duty". And this is exactly what those 48 men and women did.

Kant also had a notion of a duty to self. That is to treat oneself as an end and not as a means. Now the martyrdom of these men and women were not sought. They did not seek to die for their faith. Rather they were hounded, rounded up and then made to die for their faith. To suggest that they then sought their martyrdom is to invert the culpability of the action. They had done no wrong by the laws of the city they lived in, nor by Roman laws or even the laws of the gods: the Roman empire was a multi-ethnic and multi-faith empire. The Romans were much too astute as empire-builders to demand conversion to their religion but merely that it was the institutional and civic religion and that one did not insult the gods.

To describe these martyrs as seeking their fate is only to victimise again the victims of this hideous cruelty. The culpability lies squarely on the local French/Roman administration and not on the victims. In fact, the author records the fact that they themselves refused that designation:

Though they had attained such honour, and had borne witness, not just once or twice, but many times - having been brought back to prison from the wild beasts, covered with burns and scars and wounds - yet they did not proclaim themselves martyrs, nor did they suffer us to address them by this name.

That they were called martyrs by the church is to memorialise and honour them. And this is no different in any essential way to the many rituals and memorials to the millions who died defending their country in the first and second world war. None at all.

Another, more contemporary example would be the 'martyrdom' of Palestinian suicide bombers during their long campaign to regain what was stolen from them by a disgraceful British administration and then Israel. These were not 'martyrs' in the sense that this word is usually understood. They died fighting against injustice. They did not seek to die, rather they fought against being dispossesed of their lands, their homes and their nation. They died because, as Kant said, they could "apprehend their duty" as free men and women.

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