Kant and Radical Evil (Part 2)

In part 1 we saw how Kant defines evil as radical in relation to free will. In this segment, we will address how Kant’s arguments necessarily reject an ethical code of human flourishing (eudaimonia) as the proper moral ground, and how he argues that ought implies can.

For Kant, the human being is evil because he is morally culpable in a very particular sense: he is conscious of the moral law and yet has incorporated the deviation from it into his maxim. This aspect of Kant’s moral philosophy is a direct parallel to the Scriptural principle that the law is “written on [people’s] hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.”

This propensity for evil is innate but not a natural predisposition, since a natural predisposition does not admit of moral responsibility or accountability. Neither is it a corruption of the morally legislative reason, for reason still knows the moral law and thus it is accountable to it. The human being knows the moral law and never repudiates it because that law imposes itself “irresistibly” upon him as a result of his moral predisposition; the problem is that he incorporates incentives other than the moral law into his maxims, which then work against it.

The choice of maxims contrary to the law must be accidental, even while “entwined with humanity itself and, as it were, rooted in it: so we can call this ground a natural propensity to evil . . . we can further even call it a radical innate evil in human nature (nonetheless brought upon us by ourselves).”

Kant understands that humanity, even at its best (e.g. persons of good morals living in highly civilized societies that are more propitious for the flourishing of virtue and the restraint of vice) still is forced to recognize at least mixed motives in all it wills and does. This is a root problem of the heart, and not of natural inclinations that arise from the sensual nature of human beings – for, as we have seen, the natural inclinations are guided by the will. Even the best human being is evil because he reverses the moral order of his incentives in incorporating them into his maxims; the moral law is mixed with incentives of self-love and is indeed subordinated to it.

Eudaimonia? Bad!

Again, the actions that result will often be empirically good. But as Kant sees it, it is a perversion of the heart to do the good because of the benefits it affords. An eudaimonistic ethic would, for Kant, be something that will only yield good deeds accidentally, because the heart is corrupted at its root when it chooses based on the maxim of self-love, self-flourishing, good living, and general happiness. The empirical character can become good, but the “intelligible character is still evil;” as seen in the Gospels, the type of the real sinner is the Pharisee.[1]

This evil is radical because it is a natural propensity to evil that corrupts the ground of all maxims. The propensity is natural but it is still found in a free power of choice, and therefore it is imputable, and thus morally evil.

It is also radical, and therefore, it cannot be extirpated through human forces, since that would entail precisely the inversion of maxims which would have the moral law itself as the highest – which will not occur if the ground of the power of choice, to begin with, is already operating through the maxim of self-love, and thus will not submit this self-love to the moral law. But if this is the case, how can the problem possibly be fixed?

Ought Implies Can

Here Kant runs into a very difficult problem. How can one become morally good? Kant does not allow for direct divine intervention, for that would be outside the scope of the boundaries of mere reason. Yet the human being seems trapped: what he is makes it impossible that he becomes what he ought to be! The human being has made self-love the maxim to which everything else, including the moral law, is subordinated (and thus he has become evil) and the only way to become morally good (as he ought) is for him to choose to restore the moral law as his supreme maxim, so that duty is the only incentive for his choices and deeds – and this is precisely what his self-love will not do.

Kant’s answer here is a principle and an answer to which he will return continually: ought implies can. The law commands, duty has its claim, and reason recognizes that the moral law has to be obeyed for duty’s sake – therefore, since reason knows that to be the case, then it necessarily follows that the reorientation of the human being – the inversion (or reversion) of maxims – must be possible.

Evil and the Fall

This question of turning from morally evil to morally good, of course, is inseparable from the question of the origin of evil. If human beings have a propensity to evil that has encroached upon the predisposition to the good, we can only get out of this predicament if we can understand how we got into it in the first place. But precisely these two questions – how does a human being with a predisposition for the good corrupts his heart and earns a propensity for evil, and how does he overcome this innate evil? – are the ones Kant seems unable to fully answer.

As to the origin of evil, he states that “the most inappropriate [way of explaining it] is surely to imagine it as having come to us by way of inheritance from our first parents”  for in whatever way that is described, it would remove culpability and accountability from the agent. As a result, “every evil action must be so considered, whenever we seek its rational origin, as if the human being had fallen into it directly from the state of innocence.”

Why? Because each time a choice is made that is morally evil (i.e., corrupted to the core by a mixture and/or inversion of incentives, even if the action itself is good), the moral law is still commanding the human being to act for respect of the moral law and for duty alone. And, insofar as the moral law is still commanding it, the human being must be able to do it – ought implies can:

However evil a human being has been right up to the moment of an impending free action (evil even habitually, as second nature), his duty to better himself is not just in the past: it still is his duty now; he must therefore be capable of it, and, should he not do it, he is at the moment of action just as accountable, and stands just as condemned, as if though endowed with a natural predisposition to the good (which is inseparable from freedom), he had just stepped out of the state of innocence into evil.[2]

masaccio,-the-expulsion-from-the-gardenAs a result, Kant argues that we cannot inquire into evil’s origin in time, but only into its origin in reason. For this, he uses the aid of the Scriptural representation of the Fall. Evil has a beginning in human nature – not from a fundamental propensity to it (which would remove freedom and thereby moral accountability) – but from the choice to transgress the divine command (standing for the moral law).

Instead of obeying the command absolutely, as the only incentive, man chose to look for other incentives, and thereby subordinated obedience to the principle of self-love (he saw that “it was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise”).

The book of Genesis presents this account in temporal categories, but a religion within the bounds of mere reason dispenses with this temporal framework. Genesis merely confirms what we can find by pursuing the course of reason: Adam did not count the moral law as a sufficient incentive to action, but mixed in other incentives, and indeed inverted the order of incentives within his maxim; sensory inducements were brought in and he sinned.

The result is that we are all like Adam: every moral choice is a kind of a fall. The narrative also symbolizes the fact that there is no discoverable ground for evil. It comes from a choice, yet our predisposition is to the good. How does evil arise? Kant does not seem able to provide an answer:

[T]his propensity to evil remains inexplicable to us, for since it must itself be imputed to us, this supreme ground of all maxims must in turn require the adoption of an evil maxim. Evil can have originated only from moral evil (not just from the limitations of our nature); yet the original predisposition . . . is a predisposition to the good; there is no conceivable ground for us, therefore, from which moral evil could first have come into us. The Scriptures express this incomprehensibility in historical narrative . . . by projecting evil at the beginning of the world, not, however within the human being, but in a spirit   . . . and so for the human being, who despite a corrupted heart yet always possesses a good will, there still remain hope of a return to the good from which he has strayed.

Thus it is incomprehensible that we have fallen into a state of innate evil, of propensity to evil; it has come not from our natures, but it has encroached upon it; yet every choice guided by the maxim of self-love is, as it were, another Fall to which we are accountable. How can we turn back to the state of moral good?

As we have seen, human beings cannot be partially morally good and partially morally evil; hence, this change cannot happen gradually – at leas not in the heart, even if it might seem so empirically. But how can this change come about? This seems as incomprehensible as the origin of evil in reason. As he states, “How it is possible that a naturally evil human being should make himself into a morally good human being surpasses every concept of ours.”[3] But once again, Kant returns to one of his foundational concepts: ought implies can. “For, in spite of that fall, the command that we ought to become better human being still resounds unabated in our souls; consequently, we must also be capable of it.”[4]


The restoration of that original predisposition to good is not an acquisition of a lost incentive to the good, since that has never been lost; we know the moral law and we respect it. We have a predisposition to the good. Rather, it is a recovery of the purity of the law as the supreme ground of all of our maxims, the law itself being incorporated into the power of choice, not merely bound to other incentives nor subordinated to them. When this happens, the individual becomes morally good, and only then the “empirical character” can begin to show the new condition of the heart, and “little by little” virtue is acquired.

Here Kant makes room for the idea of habituation, a gradual reformation of conduct where one passes from a propensity to vice to a propensity to virtue – but this is merely the empirical character, which can also be mimicked by a mere change of mores. To become morally good, there has to be a revolution in the disposition of the human being in his core, the moral law becoming the only incentive and the supreme maxim – this is the revolution that, according to Scriptural usage, brings forth what is called the “new man” though a kind of rebirth, a kind of new creation.[5]

But how can this revolution, this rebirth take place if the human being is corrupt in the very ground of his maxims? Ought implies can: “Yet duty commands that he be good, and duty commands nothing but what we can do.”[6] So what needs to take place is a “single and unalterable decision” by which a human being reverses the supreme ground of his maxims and thereby can begin his journey of gradual reformation of his actions, which is the incessant laboring that creates character and makes one worthy of hoping for future happiness.

This revolution begins an ever-continuing striving for the better, and endless process (which, he argues, God sees as a unity) of gradual reformation of the propensity to evil and the perverted attitude of the human mind. Kant continues to revert back to the question: “but does not the thesis of the innate corruption of the human being with respect to all that is good stand in direct opposition to this restoration through one’s own effort?”[7]

He answers, once again, with ought implies can:

Of course it does . . . if the moral law commands that we ought to be better human beings now, it inescapably follows that we must be capable of being better human beings.[8]

We might not have an insight into how this happens, but we can know it does. This, of course, presupposes the moral law as commanding us to effect that self-rebirth; but this kind of argument, when it fails to account for the how this can happen, might at the end make plausible arguments that would question precisely that presupposition (especially the aspect of the self­­­ regenerating itself). One could perhaps argue that the fact of radical evil makes it impossible that one could reorder his maxims, and so one possibility is to conclude that we ought not to effect a moral revolution in our characters because we cannot.[9] External intervention is necessary.

Quit Praying and Get to Work

However, as Kant emphasizes, this restoration is through one’s own effort. He sharply criticizes religious schemes (what he calls religion of rogation) in which one either believes that God will forgive his debts and make him eternally happy without any need of moral reformation, or else that moral reformation is done by God in the individual through his asking. For Kant, prayer (to an omniscient being) is “no more than wishing” which amounts to “doing nothing.”[10]

In contrast, he argues for a moral religion, one in which one must do as much as it is in his power to do so he can hope that what does not lie in his power (i.e., future happiness) will be made good by cooperation from above.[11]

This, of course, generates a rational religion which, at the same time that it eliminates God as an agent that answers prayer and changes individuals, it also requires God as an agent that will hopefully reward one’s efforts in the final judgment. Not only that, Kant’s need for a God who, as an agent, will bestow happiness in the day of judgment upon those who make themselves worthy of it, also requires an agent who will also rectify injustices in this life by punishment as he remedies them in the next life.[12]

Wait. What?

In Kant’s thinking, religion has its intellectual foundation in what he calls the “postulates” or practical reason: the freedom of the will, the immortality of the soul, and the existence of God. The first is a condition for moral action, the second provides the ground for the attainment of a human being’s final end as a moral being, and the third provides the agent who bestows or denies happiness in the final day, according to the judgment of moral lives.[13]

The difficulty is that this agency seems at odds with Kant’s purely rational faith.

For him, pure rational faith is a necessary need of reason, which needs to presuppose the existence of a highest being, but can never prove his existence one way or another. God is a pure rational hypothesis which explains certain given effects, and so he is a postulate of reason.[14] Yet, one can and should hope: “it is not essential, and hence not necessary, that every human being know what God does, or has done, for his salvation; but it is essential to know what a human being has to do himself in order to become worthy of this assistance.”[15]

In the next segment we’ll see how Kant present Jesus Christ as the prototype and model of what we are to do and become.

[1] Bernard M. G. Reardon, O 1975. “Kant as theologian.” Downside Review. (1975, 93 (313)):256.

[2] Wood & Giovanni, 87.

[3] Ibid., 90.

[4] Ibid., 90.

[5] Ibid., 92.

[6] Ibid., 92.

[7] Ibid., 94, emphasis mine.

[8] Ibid., 94, emphasis in the original

[9] Philip L Quinn, “Original sin, radical evil and moral identity.” Faith and Philosophy (April 1984, Vol. 1, No. 2), 199.

[10] Wood & Giovanni, 95.

[11] Here one hears the echo of the late medieval maxim that facientibus quod in se est Deus non denegat gratiam.

[12] David McKenzie, “A Kantian Theodicy.” Faith and Philosophy. (April 1984; Vol. 1, No.2),  245

[13] Bernard M. G. Reardon, O 1975. “Kant as theologian.” Downside Review. (1975, Vol. 93):254.

[14] Wood & Giovanni, 14.

[15] Ibid., 96.


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