With the looming end of the election “coverage” that I have allowed myself on this blog, I am slowly getting back to reading and thinking about all things philosophical – well, not really, but one must think of a good transition to the “regular” broadcast schedule. What better place to start than good old Kant? Another important “traditional” aspect of this blog is expressing annoyance with things. So I give you – expressing annoyance with general lack of engagement with Kant’s discussion of “radical evil”! Or so it seems.
I have always been somewhat confused why Kant’s discussion of “radical evil” in Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason is hailed as some sort of a prophetic vision of the future crime of humanity – in fact, I think Kant’s “radical evil” has much more to do with the discussion of the obligatory force of the (moral) law and I am yet to see a good engagement vis-a-vis this “force of law” and, say, Derrida’s discussion of the similar topics in “Force of Law” – disclaimer: “I am yet to see” in this case means exactly what it means, I am sure there must be essays and maybe even books on this issue out there, I’m a yet to see them though.
Kant’s famous explanation of the obligatory force of the moral law is well-known: only that action that is done from respect for the moral law is truly moral, i.e. no external incentive is required for my will’s determination, and this very fact – self-legislation – is what compels me to obey the law. If I obey only the law that I give myself, then the question is naturally – what prevents me from breaking the law that I give to myself? Kant’s rather extended engagement with this point is again easily summarized: I give myself the law, I am motivated to obey my own law because its obligatory force comes from the very fact that I autonomously determine my own will, but – a very important “but” – I don’t have to obey my own law, if I choose to act against my own law (that is based on Categorical Imperative and therefore on reason).
The more I read about it in Kant and in the secondary lit, the more I see the point about the “radical evil” as the point concerning the very possibility to both self-legislate (auto-nomos) and act against the law. There is no coercion in the moral law, only compulsion. However, to guarantee that I freely choose to obey my own law, I must have an “evil inclination” to act against my maxim.
We call a human being evil, however, not because he performs actions that are evil (contrary to law), but because these [actions] are so constituted that they allow the inference of evil maxims in him. (6:20)
This acting against the moral law (“abuse of the human being’s power of choice with respect to the moral law”), therefore, gets our attention precisely because without this possibility we cannot theorize freedom. Kant’s discussion of “evil” here seems to be very commonsensical yet he is arguing that if we are to truly understand such things as “evil maxims,” we cannot rely on experience and need to find our how acting against the very law one makes for oneself is possible, not whether certain actions can be judged as “good” or “evil.” Kant’s understanding of “evil” is thus:
…the statement, “The human being is evil,” cannot mean anything else than that he is conscious of the moral law and yet has incorporated into his maxim the (occasional) deviation from it. (6:32)
This “propensity to evil” or “radical innate evil” is therefore nothing but our ability to act against the law we posit for ourselves (and, of course, others as rational beings) – this possibility of breaking the law is an essential part of the law-giving ability of reason. If one goes through Kant’s argument in Religion, it is easy to see that, for Kant, the propensity to evil 1) does not originate from natural inclinations and, most importantly, 2) does not come from some “corruption of the morally legislative reason.” (6:35) Kant argues that “evil” then results from acting from any other incentive but that of the “respect for the moral law” – an action can be perfectly compliant with the moral law, but not done for the sake of the law and, therefore, evil. All of this is well known and pretty clear to any reader of Kant – the question is, however, why do we think of Kant’s “radical evil” as a discussion of the corrupt and evil human nature that leads to all kinds of despicable crimes when his example of “radical evil” can be a simple act of helping a friend in need while being motivated by self-interest? If we go further and agree with Kant that this “propensity to evil” must be assumed, what exactly are the implications for the obligatory force of the law? It is rather obvious that the self-legislation is not discredited by the very possibility of deviation from the law, but in a sense this possibility of breaking the law adds to the force of law that insists we follow it.
All of this is, of course, reminisient of Derrida’s discussion of Benjamin’s law-establishing and law-preserving violence in “Force of law” – Kantian view of that discussion could be that they are mostly dealing with the area of right rather than moral law. However, as Eckart Förster argues in Kant’s Final Synthesis, Kant’s vision of the relationship between morality and right in Opus Postumum is far from simple – eventually the issue of the goal of morality does raise a number of questions concerning the relationship between the moral law and the regular law/right. One of the intriguing discussion in KFS is the reevaluation of the role of (the idea of) God as “an omnipotent moral being, whose willing is categorical imperative for all rational beings…” (22:127) The connection between the principle of morality and the principle of right is, of course, necessary for Kant: without such connection there is no way to think the “highest good” or “the kingdom of ends” or, as some recent political theorists phrase it, “cosmopolitan justice.” What would a reading of Kant’s moral law with Derrida/Benjamin’s discussion of law (and justice) look like? I dont’ really know, but it looks like a project someone needs to take on or, if it was already done, I need to find out about and read.