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  • Writer's pictureJude

Evil: A Critical Assessment Of Kant’s Theory of Evil

In his book “Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone” Immanuel Kant offers his theory of radical evil. Unlike the various theories of evil before Kant’s theory was the first to be secular as it does not attribute its existence with the divine. Kant also had no intention of making this theory a response to specific forms of evil acts, another reason why this theory is unique and disappointing for most theorists, as previously most theories of evil attempted to somewhat suggest how we avoid or understand its presence in order to deal with it. For example: Associating natural evils with penance for the original sin, or the moral evils of man being incited by the devil. As an alternative Kant’s theory is created through reflection of Human nature and does not take the approach of theodicy. In summary he makes these observations; Human beings are radically free, we are naturally inclined toward good and we are naturally inclined toward evil. In this essay I shall critically assess Kant’s theory of evil, including criticisms of various Philosophers and my own.

Kant presents his theory in the books first essay “The bad principle existing alongside the good i.e. The Radical Evil in Human Nature”. It is separated into several sections to explain different parts of the theory. He begins by stating the World lies with evil and there is a consensus amongst the religions that the World began in a good state, highlighting testimonies of the religious and historical notions of the past – a Golden Age, a life in Eden or an understanding with Celestial beings. Evidently a theme within each story is a harmonious beginning. However for Kant gradually this state of euphoria diminishes and evil is prevalent, somewhat implying the leaders of such periods allowed mankind to reach a bad state. Philosophers have always offered optimistic accounts for the state of the World’s karma, suggesting it is leaning toward good. A reoccurring thought is the notion Human beings have innate goodness within them. Reasoning that Human beings are born sound in body without defects, hence there is no reason why assuming the soul of this body is not the same. Through this thought nature inclines toward good. On the other hand there are theories which argue that Human beings are evil by nature. However Kant argues that both sides could be wrong, pointing out there could be a middle ground between good and evil.

He states we call a man bad not because of his actions which are contrary to the Law but because it represents bad maxims. We understand that unlawful actions are performed with the awareness they aren’t lawful, but we cannot understand a maxim through observation – hence Kant rules out experience as a way to understand. He then states to call a man bad we must infer a priori reasoning, which is deduction from knowledge without evidence, from several consciously unlawful acts, or from the one which is an underlying evil maxim. A maxim is like a rule of conduct. If someone has a maxim that doesn’t represent a general rule of conduct it is a bad one. He also attributes such behaviours to a basis for all man’s evil maxims. Kant doesn’t provide examples but this would suffice for what he means: A man could pick up an unattended wallet. He knows it could be considered stealing but his reasoning is that he can get away with it. If applied to everyone this maxim is chaotic, hence it is an evil maxim.

According to Kant when an action is claimed to be by nature it means it is not free, implying the action is neither morally good nor evil. He states within Human nature there is a subjective basis of the exercise of man’s freedom, man must express his freedom through it or, likewise to the nature of animals, his action is not good or bad. Kant denies that evil is not something natural, as if a man has acted by nature and not through choice utilising his freedom it is simply inclination or a natural impulse. Seeing money on the floor and picking it up instantly before anyone else does, is acting out of natural impulse. Kant states for these reasons we cannot associate man being good or bad with nature. Despite this middle ground, Kant states the ambiguity surrounding the capacity of good and evil within Human beings threatens the point of maxims. For instance; why should we obey the maxim which leans toward the good if the evil is personally more beneficial? Kant reasons that it goes against the moral law, which if followed correctly is morally good.

For Kant reason judges that the moral law is in itself an incentive, hence anyone acting in accordance to it, making it their maxim, is morally good. However there is another factor when acting morally good. Kant argues that if someone acts in accordance to moral law and his will was not focused on acting that way, it must have been influenced by another incentive. For instance: Not stealing because in this situation you will get caught, instead of not stealing because it is wrong. This incentive becomes a maxim, in this case it makes you bad. Going back on his point of the middle ground, Kant states you cannot have a maxim which abides by the moral law and in some ways be morally bad as this implies your maxim has exceptions, it is a contradiction. He furthers this point by claiming this shows your inborn alignment. If you abide by the law all your life and seem to be morally good, yet suddenly commit a crime – Kant believes your disposition was always evil. That stance must have been chosen by your free choice, if that is not the case you would not be the one to blame for your own actions. This leads back to Kant’s original idea, that it cannot be claimed this was done by nature, as that would mean they are good or evil by not their own choice but impulsively.

In the section “The Original Predisposition to Good in Human Nature” Kant proposes three elements which represent mankind. After defining them he explains their use in action. For the sake of brevity I shall summarise after stating each element. The first states; as a living being man has a predisposition to animality. Kant states this predisposition is physical and purely mechanical self-love, reason is not needed and self-love is the aim. This includes actions such as succumbing to sexual desire, gluttony and wild lawlessness similar to that of an animal. The second; as a living and reason-possessing being man has a predisposition to humanity. Kant claims this is also a self-love, only difference is utilising reason. Our happiness is judged in comparison with others, desiring for equality we realise some are not endeavouring for equality but superiority. Hence we ourselves strive for superiority in defence of ourselves to gain the upper hand. Lastly; as a reason possessing and morally accountable being man has a predisposition to personality. This is the capacity to have respect for moral law as an incentive. Kant states this is only a possibility if it is within our nature to will to abide by such moral feeling.

The next section “The Propensity to Evil in Human Nature” is where Kant discusses the subjective ground of the possibility of a habitual desire which mankind can experience, which makes them liable to commit evil acts. Similarly to the previous, this section also highlights three elements in this capacity for evil. As I did before I’ll explain what Kant means by each element. The first; the weakness of the human heart in the general observance of adopted maxims. He quotes the Apostle Paul, who states: “What I will to do I don’t do!” showing the will to do good is an irresistible incentive. Nevertheless when actually following the maxim of the moral law, it is weaker than the inclination of evil. The second; the propensity for mixing immoral with moral incentives. This impure sense of morality requires the agent to have other incentives to motivate him to act morally good, instead of just the moral law. The third; the propensity to adopt bad maxims. This is the corruption of the human heart, as it can perverse the will to act on maxims which upstage the incentive of the moral law. Kant states there’s a difference between a man of good morals and a morally good man. A man of good morals can act in accordance to law, yet the most influential incentive is not the moral law – tendencies such as self-love, sympathy, ambition are. A morally good man follows the law according to the letter. Hence a man despite his morally good deeds can still be evil. Furthering his idea Kant points out another factor in the propensity to evil. Every propensity is either physical, willing the man as a natural being or moral, willing the man as a moral being. Hence there’s a contradiction in the propensity to evil when it is physical – as that means it is not a free choice. Kant reasons a propensity to evil can adhere only to the moral part of the will, and the only thing that is bad are actions we can be held morally accountable for.

In the third section “Man is bad by Nature” Kant claims man understands the moral law, but has occasionally departed from its guidance – excusing it from his maxim. Through experience we understand that man has the capacity to commit evil, this evil is inbuilt and necessary to man. Hence describing it as a natural propensity to evil. Kant states that such a corrupt propensity must indeed be rooted in men as we feel the guilt of our actions. This is what Kant deems to be the radical innate evil in Human nature, as we are responsible for our actions and bring this evil upon ourselves. He uses the example of the state of the World, which at that time was known for atrocities such as War between France and Great Britain, the fighting over American soil & rights and the constant likeminded approaches to exacting evils between various countries as evidence for this propensity for evil. He continues his point by saying we naturally have this evil within – because it is natural we cannot be held accountable for being evil, although the will and the freedom of choice we have to act distinguishes us between being morally good and morally evil. Removing that freedom reduces man to mere animality. In Kant’s view this evil cannot result in the corruption of reason, stating it is impossible as reason understands the moral law is desirable.

He uses the example of the lowest man, one indulging in self-love yet abiding by the moral good, who has adopted both the moral law and sense related incentives into his maxim. In this scenario what makes him either good or evil is the form of his maxim. Despite his self-love his actions may be the same as one who conforms to the law, this occurs when both incentives are utilised together into a single maxim, to achieve happiness. He uses the example of truth – the urge of truthfulness allows us to avoid the anxiety of multiple lies. Empirically the character of such a man reasoning this is good. Nevertheless Kant states the intelligible character was bad intentioned. He claims both good and evil can coexist, but the balance tilts toward evil when three features of Human nature arise. Frailty; the man is not strong enough to follow the principles of the moral law – and impurity; man’s failure to distinguish between incentives, hence he conforms to the law because it is necessary – not because he is motivated to uphold the moral law. Although one may not act outside the moral law, it shows there is a perversity to evil within the Human heart. The first two features Kant states man experiences the guilt unintentionally. The third is deliberate guilt, which represents the fraudulence of the Human heart as the man deceives himself about his own good and bad attitudes, regarding himself as justified before the law. The thought of Richard Nixon claiming “when the President does it, (in reference to committing a crime), that means that it is not illegal”

The last section “The Origin of Evil in Human Nature” is an attempt to explain the origin of moral evil. Kant points out that original sin is a clumsy explanation, as inheritance of such is not necessarily ours. He argues this point by quoting Ovid, who states “Birth and ancestry and anything else that we didn’t do ourselves I hardly consider to be ours.” He states the search for the reason-origin of bad actions should start in assumption that everyone starts off in innocence, and this fall from innocence is not a hopeless condition. Although we cannot eradicate the evil within us it does not mean we cannot endeavour to prevent willing for it. He believes a propensity to evil can inhere only in the moral capacity of our will. Therefore nothing is morally evil, except the act. He states this propensity is an act and also not an act. Kant thought the word act refers to the wills exercise of freedom as it endeavours to find the supreme maxim, or it is used to refer to the exercise of freedom in accordance with that maxim. Exercising freedom to find a supreme maxim is considered an intelligible action, and utilising freedom to act in accordance with that maxim is a sensible action. Kant claims the propensity to evil is an intelligible action, hence it is not an act performed sensibly as the will is said to precede all acts and therefore it is not an act itself. It shows the will chooses self-love as its supreme maxim, this is not an empirical action.

In conclusion of his essay, Kant describes this propensity to evil as the original sin – and although we cannot prevent this original sin from existing, we possess a good will which can endeavour to act morally good without succumbing to this original sin. Hence despairing about the condition of humanity is unnecessary. Kant states a persona needs a gradual reform in his sensuous nature, which is a mix of his understanding and senses regarding evil and good. This will eventually lead to progress for Humanity in terms of karma, resulting in morally better people.

In the critiques of Kant’s theory there seems to be a lesser convincing endeavour to refute it, mainly due to his avoidance of pointing out specific acts. Claudia Card criticises Kant for his notion there is a middle ground between good and evil, stating there are degrees and mixtures of good and evil within people. Her own idea is that if someone is driven by greed or impatience, likewise with Kant’s ideas of incentives, they cannot be held accountable for their actions as they are not acting rationally. In contrasting example; Kant is identifying the will as the cause of evil, I could act good my entire life and want to commit a vice contrary to the moral law such as stealing, though I understand I could be caught and go to jail hence I do not. For Kant this is still showing signs of evil as my incentive was not the moral law but my own preservation. Card would argue we get these thoughts from impatience and greed, acting upon them is irrational therefore we cannot claim this person to be evil since they were irrational at the time of action.

Evidently there are some questions surrounding Kant’s approach to evil. As he only describes the radical evil within, and does not touch upon acts or the different levels of evil which conspicuously shows some acts are of greater evil than another. Instead in his theory Kant associates a man with evil or good, good being totally pure and yet straying from this good even in thought places you in the bad alignment. An example of where this does make sense; I could be totally angered by the actions of another person, have the thought to do them wrong maybe by harming or deception – but I calm down and do not. This shows the propensity to evil within for Kant. However I can orchestrate a genocide, like a Nazi Officer who is acting in accordance to his law, which obviously is not moral law, but this is a greater evil than simply willing it. Kant does not have an explanation for the different levels of evils.

Richard Bernstein also points out a contradiction in Kant’s theory. As Kant believes we are responsible for succumbing to the propensity to evil and can opt for self-love incentives over the highest incentive of the all, the moral law. Bernstein states if this is the case, we cannot be held responsible for the propensity to evil as it is an innate quality. We are not in control of innate qualities they are simply there and we cannot remove them from our being. This point reminded me of Socrates’ endeavour to recollect knowledge from within by teaching a slave boy geometry. He created a diagram and encouraged the slave boy to resolve the problem without helping him. This shows mathematical truths are an innate quality. If we see two grapes on the floor separate from each other, this innate quality for mathematics within our minds will point out there are two grapes. We do not have to count it and it is not a quality we can forcefully remove or undo. Similarly we cannot undo this propensity of evil or work against it.

Although Kant’s theory is a stray away from the norm, insofar it attempts to reason why evil is a possibility, we can still highlight some areas in which Kant’s theory was influential. Hannah Arendt utilised Kant’s theory of radical evil in many of her texts, more specifically in “Origins of Totalitarianism”. At first Arendt had a view of Kant’s theory which led her to believe it was the reasoning behind such acts during her time, that of the Nazi’s. Although it was perverse interpretations of Kant’s work which took away from its original idea. In studying it she used it to form her own views of the then present extreme evils within the World. Her attempt to understand the Nazi’s actions is similar to Kant’s notions. The Nazi’s believed their actions were justified in the name of the Furher, the incentive toward those actions is like Kant’s idea of the will and the moral law being the greatest incentive. Arendt points this out and claims the Nazi’s believed they were in the right, hence these evils came naturally to most of them and did not appear to be wrong. In the third section of his essay, Kant highlights three elements which make man are bad by nature. The third, deliberate guilt, is where man believes himself to be justified whilst engaging in evil acts. I used the example of a Nazi Officer, similarly Arendt reasons the same.

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