Kant’s Radical Evil Revisited.


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.

8 thoughts on “Kant’s Radical Evil Revisited.

  1. Not trying to complicate things, but I wonder how this would appear under the light of Kant’s discussion of the sublime in the 3rd Crit. Although, your suggestion is of the law, or the unconditioned conditioned, cashed out as various conceptual Kantian pieties as well as with the Derridean/Benjaminian idea of force of law, the sublime may be too um..psychoanalytic.

    Now, I don’t really have a question, just an annoying and narcissistic comment, you know, one of those “oh when I read this I thought of this so let me not be self-conscious enough to keep it to myself!”

    Anyway, in the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant writes that the conception of law is a “pure concept, which is however, oriented toward a practical activity” [VI 205].

    The ideas of reason, pure concepts, are of course for Kant, the devices that indicate our moral direction; they represent a limit where the impossibility of any sort of objective morality is possible since we respond according to these limits.

    Likewise, Kant’s sublime is to be sought in ideas. In fact, Kant deploys his transcendental investigation of the subjective sources of the feeling of the sublime in the nature of our cognitive faculties. So, the sublime is no more than a complex mental state, including the feeling for the supersensible arising from the futile endeavor of the imagination to realize intuitively the idea of absolute greatness. Hmmm…Not so unlike Kant’s claim that we recognize an alternative purposiveness identified by reason, independent of all worldly threats, viz., the supersensible destination, the task of practical reason is this: from the conditioned epistemic status of moral duty, we endeavor to effect the noumenal unconditioned.

    One more comment though. Given the historical context of the Critique of Judgment, it seems to me that Kant is deploying the language that will later allow Hegel (with the help of Montesquieu) to describe all of those “religions of the sublime.” It is these religions which, if we want to talk this way, vis a vis an overwhelming experience will both enslave their constituencies and subject individuals to their power. So, in this early example of absolute subjection as Kant explains it, combined with Montesquieu’s despotic-subject, is repeated in Holocaust literature in the figure of the Muselmann. Like Kant’s continual articulation of the Jew and the Muslim as being slaves to their God (picked up by Derrida and more recently, Agamben of sorts), the Muselmanner becomes the figure of those with absolutely no power, those who are weak and wholly subjected to the despot.

    Ok, so perhaps, perhaps, we could return to some sort of question or pursuit of origins, or for the more Agambenian question, which at bottom is the task of ethics: to generate ethical thinking out of this indistinction (Morality/Terror, political life/bare life etc).

    Ok, another comment/angle. I wonder if sometimes Kant ends up more like a perverse form of Levinasian ethics has do to with Kant’s insistence throughout the Groundwork that morality itself is the highest good, it is unconditioned. This means that if its intention is to be ‘good’, morality has to be served by action. Yet, and here’s the next logical question: does not the unconditioned then become a conditioned? Well, yes.

    Kant wants to allow for the unconditioned’s dependency upon the condition since the conditioned makes up the unconditioned. The conditioned depends upon the unconditioned because we need the idea of an absolute good to condition any action whose thrust is towards the good. E.g. if the conditions, i.e. the intentions, are good then the conditioned good is-of course-good. The highest or absolute good, in short, the unconditioned, is a necessary precondition for the possibility that the conditioned subsist as good at all.

    In other words, from the perspective of Levinas (or the perspective I read Levinas as holding) Kantian legalism maintains a trajectory inherited from Aristotle and continues on to Husserl, viz., the understanding of the infinite as the indefinite potentiality of a series of growth, which can be extended through addition or division, and whose magnitude can be divided–Bad Infinity! For Kant, infinity appears as a limiting idea, not something to be drawn on through the understanding. For Levinas, who takes on Descartes “idea of the infinite” as a surplus of obligation the mind cannot attain. The infinity functions as an “and” that always appears when I assume my responsibilities, a sort of transcendence within immanence.

  2. Allow me then… Actually a great comment since my post was mostly thinking-aloud kind. I have to admit that I am shamefully unaware of the issues of the sublime – not because I haven’t read all that stuff in the 3rd critique, but because it is still a bit of a mystery to me vis-a-vis the rest of Kant’s corpus. I was actually reading sections of it this week regarding issues of teleology and such.

    Concerning “psychoanalytic” – I think Kant’s discussion of reason and its workings is not very different, when approached from a certain angle, than Freud’s discussion of the workings of the unconscious, if I may say so and I’m sure I’m not the first to point it out, but Freud’s theory is very rational/reasonable at least the way Kant understands “reason” and not as a sort of instrumental/technical rationality that Adorno/Horkheimer claimed we’ve inherited from the Enlightenment. So sublime then – again, from what I understand, it’s not that mystical and “psychoanalytic” since it deals (still) with Kant’s overall theory of perception/cognition (and will?), i.e. it is the type of interaction between various faculties – it’s basically about judgment which is pretty rational for Kant. I’ll leave it at that since, again, rereading the Analytic of the Sublime is on my list of things to do soon.

    Concerning morality/moral law as the highest good – I think when I started reading Kant some years ago, he seemed to me to be very much personal-conduct oriented and I couldn’t quite get the notion of the “highest good” – now however I think it is easy to see that not only the practical reason/activity-oriented perspective is what guides most of his critical work, but the problem of the “goal of morality” – if the moral law is based on the rationality of the CI and that rationality is what makes us (not just me) human, then if we all autonomously produce moral laws, we will produce identical laws, wouldn’t we? Therefore, the kingdom of ends is nothing but this ideal of the completely rational community without any mixture of inappropriate inclinations, therefore no need for violence/coercion and maybe even the “state of law”…

    Concerning Levinas/Kant – you know more about that, you should post something on this “perversion” angle, I’m reading that Zizek essay Joe pointing out – I’m also meeting a certain Irish-and-proud mutual Kantian friend for lunch, so I will have to give up now trying to over-comment your comment…

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