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Philosophical Review
The Missing Formal Proof of Humanity's Radical Evil in Kant's "Religion"
Author(s): Seiriol Morgan
Source: The Philosophical Review, Vol. 114, No. 1 (Jan., 2005), pp. 63-114
Published by: Duke University Press on behalf of Philosophical Review
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ThePhilosophicalReview,Vol. 114, No. 1 (January 2005)
The Missing Formal Proof of Humanity's Radical Evil
in Kant's Religion
Seiriol Morgan
Of all his texts in the area of practical philosophy, Kant's Religionwithin
the Boundaries of Mere Reason has long been widely held to be the least
satisfactory.1Quite at odds in tone with the bulk of his earlier work on
the subject, in which he champions human freedom and exalts the dignity of rational agency and the nobility of the good will's commitment
to morality, the Religionpaints a dark portrait of humanity as a race perpetually in bondage to its own sinful nature; its central claim being that
all human beings possess a radical propensity to evil that makes evil
deeds inevitable for us. The book has been attracting controversy ever
since its publication, which notoriously was greeted with dismay by
many of those who had previously been most enthusiastic in their
praise of him. Goethe and Schiller, for example, both viewed the claims
of the Religionas arbitrary and unjustified concessions to pre-Enlightenment prejudice in a particularly pernicious form, that of a broadly
Augustinian theology of original sin, concessions entirely unmotivated
by any consideration internal to the basic Kantian project. Nor, by and
large, have more recent commentators been any more sympathetic.
Their criticisms tend to be built less on a visceral opposition to the
encroachments of an allegedly misanthropic Christianity, resting
instead on a careful analysis of the particular claims Kant makes
throughout the text. Nevertheless, the conclusion that again is most
frequently reached is that Kant's position in the Religionis untenable.
Numerous authors have accused him of trying to have his cake and eat
it too, by attempting to squeeze into one position two incompatible
theses, neither of which he can bring himself to give up. The result is
predictably a hopeless confusion, they argue.2
Even more telling, perhaps, than the almost uniform verdict of failure handed down by those who have explicitly addressed the claims of
the Religionis the widespread silence on the matter from those providing exegeses or defenses of Kantian moral philosophy in general.
Clearly, if true, his assertions regarding a universal human propensity
to evil could not but have significant implications for moral psychology
and ethics in general. And yet numerous standard twentieth-century
textbooks on Kant's moral philosophy say nothing at all on the matter.
Nor, by and large, has this changed over the last fifteen years or so, during which there has been a very significant upsurge of interest in Kantian ethics, with the rise to prominence of a number of Kant scholars
responding on Kant's behalf to the anti-Kantian critique associated
with the recent renaissance of virtue ethics. Although collectively these
philosophers have offered a formidable arrayof sophisticated interpretations and defenses of various aspects of Kant's program in moral philosophy, the arguments of the Religionare rarely among them. Rather,
these arguments are simply ignored in their work, or the pessimism of
the text implicitly contradicted. It seems safe to conclude then that a
large majority of Kantian moral philosophers of the last century and
this agree with the explicit critics' assessment of Kant'sviews on radical
evil, and treat the claims he makes there accordingly, as at best an
eccentric and inessential addition to the fundamental Kantian project,
and at worst an embarrassment, to be largely ignored either way.3
Perhaps the most obviously problematic aspect of the text is the
yawning gap at the heart of the argument, at the point where solid
argument is most needed. For, lacking as he obviously does empirical
acquaintance with the behavior of each and every human being past,
present, and future, Kant will need to present an a priori argument in
order to earn the right to assert that all human beings have such a propensity. Indeed, since he thinks that this characteristic is necessary (R
6:32), even if he were per impossibile to have such an acquaintance,
this would still not underwrite the modality of the claim. There are certainly various indications in the text that Kant is perfectly aware that
some kind of formal argument will be needed to establish his position.
For instance, at the beginning of part 1, he states that in order to call
a human being evil, we must be able to infer a priori from her actions
an evil maxim, and consequently an evil common grounding of all her
particular evil maxims (R 6:20). And on pages 32 to 33 of the Prussian
Academy Edition of the Religion,he clearly implies that such a proof is
available. But famously he does so in the course of relieving himself of
the burden of providing it, "in view of the multitude of woeful examples that the experience of human deedsparades before us." Two pages
later, he tells us that the existence of the propensity to evil in human
nature "can be established through experiential demonstrations of the
actual resistance in time of the human power of choice against the law"
(ibid., 35). But as many have indignantly pointed out, it cannot. All that
the woeful parade of human deeds can show us is that there are evil
people, or at most, that evil is common and widespread. It would be an
entirely reckless generalization to conclude from the undeniably
extensive litany of the crimes that human beings have carried out that
every single human being has a propensity to evil, and indeed actually
is evil, and that the root of this evil lies in human nature. Furthermore,
it is clearly a central tenet of the Critiqueof Pure Reasonthat transcendental propositions such as this cannot be confirmed by appeal to
examples from experience (KrVA 554/B 582). So his claims are crying
out for a transcendental deduction that he does not provide. Obviously
the suspicion has to be that he does not do so because he has no such
argument to hand.
None of this bodes well, and I have considerable sympathy with the
complaints of Kant's critics. The text of the Religionis convoluted and
difficult, with inadequate exposition of central concepts and confusing
articulation of important claims. And in fact matters are worse than
this, because it does indeed turn out that the view outlined there is selfcontradictory. Unlike the critics, however, I will be attempting to provide a sympathetic reconstruction of Kant's argument. Whereas they
almost alwaysthink that the very idea of incorporating a claim about an
inherent human propensity to evil into the moral philosophy outlined
in the earlier works is a grave error, I think the problem lies in Kant's
execution. Despite the entirely natural suspicion his breezy assertion
about sparing us the formal proof raises, I will be arguing that a synthetic a priori argument for a universal human propensity to evil is in
fact available, at least within the bounds of the Kantian critical philosophy. Of course, I will not be able to defend every part of Kant's selfcontradictory position, but I will be arguing that granted this context a
significant majority of Kant's claims can be defended. One important
claim in particular cannot be vindicated, however, so it will turn out
that the nature of the propensity cannot be understood in precisely the
way Kant wants.
This much seems to be generally agreed about what Kant is claiming.
According to Kant, every human being has a fundamental disposition
(Gesinnung) towards either good or evil (R 6:22), which consists in the
free adoption of a fundamental maxim, or "meta-maxim,"which regulates the adoption of the specific maxims that determine the agent's
particular actions.4 These dispositions are mutually exclusive, so every-
one's willing is regulated in its entirety either by a commitment to good
or a commitment to evil (R 6:25). This view is known as rigorism.
Whether a human being's disposition is good or evil depends upon the
relative priority he assigns to the two basic incentives that we all experience, morality as respect for the moral law as embodied in the Categorical Imperative, and self-love as the pursuit of happiness through
maximal satisfaction of the inclinations (R 6:36). The good person subordinates the incentive of self-love to that of morality, permitting himself to act on inclination only when such actions do not conflict with
the requirements of duty, though Kant thinks that when it does not so
conflict the pursuit of happiness is good. The evil person subordinates
duty to the gratification of his desires, acknowledging moral ends only
insofar as they do not proscribe his pursuit of what he wants. So evil for
Kant consists neither in the inclinations themselves (R 6:34), nor in any
corruption of reason's ability to grasp what is morally required or a diabolical decision to take a maxim's morality as a disincentive (R 6:35),
but in a free choice of the will (Willkiir)to prefer the self-centered realization of its own happiness to the moral actions it knows it is dutybound to perform.
In Kant's view, all human beings have a general predisposition
(Anlage) to good, which manifests itself in three particular ways (R
6:26-28). First,we have a predisposition to animality, a kind of mechanical self-love through which we are naturally inclined to take care of our
interests as natural social beings- through self-preservation by the
consumption of food and avoidance of harm, the preservation of the
species through sexual congress, and the maintenance of our natural
communities through an impulse to sociability. Second, we have a predisposition to humanity, an innate tendency to use our powers of reason to advance our interests. This tendency is displayed in our use of
our intelligence in the pursuit of happiness, through the satisfaction of
current desires and in our ingenuity in creating objects or devising
activities that we think will bring us pleasure. Third, all human beings
have a predisposition to personality. This is simply our susceptibility to
the moral law as incentive, which gives us the ability to determine ourselves to action by the thought that something is morally required
alone. According to Kant, all these predispositions belong essentially to
human nature, so no human being could lack or lose them.
And yet we are all also subject to a propensity (Hang) to evil. Unfortunately, it cannot be said that Kant is particularly clear on what exactly
such a propensity might be, defining propensity cryptically as "the sub66
jective ground of the possibility of an inclination, insofar as this possibility is contingent for humanity in general" (R 6:29) before
notoriously going on to illustrate the idea with the example of the
alleged propensity of all "savage"people for intoxicants. This is quite
unhelpful, since such a propensity would be the disposition to develop
an ongoing desire for a substance upon experiencing its intoxicating
effect for the first time. Evil however cannot lie in the inclinations, for
then it would be a function of the causal laws of the world and not free
choice, and consequently would not be imputable (R 6:21). Admittedly, Kant distinguishes between physical and moral propensities, with
moral propensities attached to the faculty of choice (Willkiir) and
hence outside the sphere of causality (R 6:31). But this just increases
the mystery about how the example is supposed to be informative.
What does seem clear is that Kant is claiming the following. The propensity to evil differs from a predisposition because even though it is
innate, it is appropriately thought of as having been brought by the
human being on herself (R 6:29). It is the ground of the possibility of
our adopting specific evil maxims (ibid.). It is universal and "woven
into human nature" (R 6:30), but nevertheless is rooted in the will's
free choice, so despite being subjectively necessary for everyone, it
must be thought of as an accidental property of the human being (R
6:32). The propensity is evil in itself (R 6:37), and it is inextirpable (R
6:31), but since it is rooted in our freedom, it must be possible for freedom to overcome it (R 6:37).
In human action, the propensity manifests itself in three different
degrees: frailty, impurity, and depravity (R 6:29-30). Kant takes the
apostle Paul to be describing the phenomenon of frailty when he
reported that "I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate"
(Rom 7:15). An individual manifesting frailty is someone who has
adopted a good maxim, but finds himself acting counter to it because
the incentive provided by the moral law that his will endorses is somehow weaker than that provided by cajoling inclination. In the case of
impurity, once again the agent's fundamental orientation is good, in
that his will endorses a maxim that aims at compliance with the moral
law. But for such a person, the moral incentive is insufficient to determine the will by itself, and so in order to actually perform an action
required by the Categorical Imperative, the agent needs some additional motivation from the inclinations, and so his performance of the
right action relies on heteronomous considerations. Such an action
would be an impure action; an agent's heart is impure when he fre67
quently or invariablyrequires this self-centered stiffening of his supposedly moral resolve. Finally, in depravity or corruption, the individual's
descent into evil is complete. Here the maxim is not good at all, since
the corrupt person has made a perverse choice to reverse the appropriate priority of the incentives, by subordinating the moral law to her
own self-love, and simply acts accordingly. Kant characterizes the first
two grades of the propensity to evil as unintentional guilt, but the final
stage is clearly deliberate (if self-deceptive) guilt (R 6:38), and consequently those who perversely subordinate the moral maxim to that of
self-love are to be designated evil people (R 6:30).
As part 1 of the Religion continues, Kant's account becomes even
more pessimistic, with its assertion at the beginning of section 3 that in
fact all human beings are evil and are so by nature (R 6:32). That is, we
are conscious of the moral law but nevertheless incorporate into our
maxims deviations from it, and that we do so universally as a species, so
that even the best of us can be presupposed to have on occasion subordinated morality to self-love in the manner of the depraved. So not
only do we all have a propensity to evil, we all actuallyareevil on Kant's
view. Indeed, on closer examination, there seems little to distinguish
the propensity to evil from the state of being evil itself, since (at R 6:43)
Kant explicitly states that the propensity to evil involves the adoption of
an evil supreme maxim. Furthermore, this is a presupposition both of
his argument against the suggestion that it is self-contradictory for such
a propensity to be imputable (R 6:31), and his argument for the inextirpability of the propensity (R 6:37), as well as his claim that the common ground of particular evil maxims is itself a maxim (R 6:20). Yet this
isjust what it is to possess an evil disposition, and so to be an evil person.
Nevertheless, there is still moral hope for humanity, since, despite the
inextirpable nature of the propensity, a germ of goodness remains in
even the most depraved individual (R 6:45). Every human being is
aware of the call of conscience (ibid.), and due to the predisposition to
personality built into human nature, we all can at any time freely will to
do what we ought to do, whatever the depth of our prior corruption.
Since to do so requires adoption of a good maxim, one in which we
have subordinated the incentive of self-love to that of morality,we must
be able to embrace as a fundamental maxim the priority of morality.
Consequently it is within our power to come to possess a good disposition. Hence we are all able by our own effort to restore ourselves to the
rightful condition of humanity, though the effects of our former perversitywill still be present in our habits and sensibility, so that the moral
life from then on will at best be one of constant progress in the struggle
to overcome and reform these acquired tendencies to evil (R 6:47-48).
So much for the view Kant holds. It is easy to see that on the face of
it there is much that is puzzling and problematic about it. For instance,
one might well ask what the difference between a predisposition and a
propensity is supposed to be, and how it could be possible for us to possess both a predisposition to good and a propensity to evil at the same
time. But most centrally, it is difficult to see how something that is
imputable to our power of free choice could be universal and necessary, even if merely "subjectively necessary" and hence not an essential
property of the free being. For one would presume that we are to be
held responsible only for things that we freely choose, and if we freely
choose something, we must have been free not to choose it. So Kant
seems to be claiming that we necessarily freely choose one way rather
than another, whereas freedom and necessity surely exclude one
another. Richard Bernstein expresses the worry well:
Kant is at war with himself. For, on the one hand, he never wants to compromise the basic claim of his moral philosophy: that human beings as
finite rational agents are free, which means that they are solelyand completelyresponsible for their moral choices and the maxims they adopt. If
we become morally good or evil, this is our own doing and a consequence
of our own free will (Willkiir). On the other hand, Kant also wants to
affirm that all human beings have an innate propensity to moral evil. In
order to have his cake and eat it too, he is then driven to claim that even
though this propensity is woven into the fabric of human nature, it is a
propensity that springs from our freedom, and one for which we are
Nevertheless, as we will see, matters are actually more complicated
than the critics make out. I will have to postpone discussion of this,
since I need to do quite a bit of preliminary work to explain why. But it
is certainly true that there is a muddle in his exposition, because the
position he ends up producing is internally inconsistent. For (at R
6:31-32) he asserts that the propensity is universal and inextirpable,
and he implies this at various other points in his discussion (for example, R 6:37). As we saw, Kant explicitly equates the propensity to evil
with possession of an evil disposition. But he also claims that we can
develop a disposition to good, claiming that arousing the mind's contemplation of "the sublimity of our moral vocation" is a means of awakening moral dispositions, thereby restoring the original ethical order
among the incentives (R 6:50). He then goes on to assert that although
the possibility of such a restoration is incomprehensible,
granted the
depth of our corruption, such a restoration is indeed possible (ibid.).
Yet if the propensity to evil is inextirpable, and the possession of such
amounts to possession of an evil disposition, in such a circumstance a
human being would possess both a good and an evil disposition. But
this would be syncretist latitudinarianism, in flat contrast to the rigorism Kant insists upon.
So whatever we end up concluding about Kant's overall position in
the Religion,we will not be able to accept everything that he says there,
since at least one of these claims will have to go. But once again, let me
postpone discussion of which claim it should be. It seems to me that the
best way to come to understand why Kant thinks there is a universal
human propensity to evil is not to try to grapple head-on with this
impenetrable text. Rather, we will achieve much better results if we
begin with the earlier work, and ask whether we can construct anything
that looks like an argument for a propensity to evil out of the materials
available there. I am going to argue that we can, because the seeds of
the formal proof are indeed already present in the writings of the
1780s, in particular, the Groundwork
of theMetaphysicsof Morals.
is the highly ambitious one of providKant's project in the Groundwork
he takes to be the central commonvindication
ing complete
sense views about morality, both in terms of its content and its
authority. To do so, he needs to show that moral obligation is an overriding rational requirement upon all human beings, or indeed any
other beings who are like us in the relevant ways. His strategy is to work
backwards, as it were, beginning with our ordinary everyday understanding of moral worth, and aiming to vindicate it step by step, by
showing how this is implicitly grounded in a principle that rational
beings such as ourselves are committed to acting upon. To this end, the
is to outline and clarify the concept
aim of section 1 of the Groundwork
of duty as it is understood in everyday moral consciousness, and to
bring to light the principle of action implicit within it. Kant proceeds
by presenting us with a series of examples, some of morally worthy
behavior and others where the action in question lacks moral worth,
reflection upon which is supposed to assist us in systematizing our
moral intuitions and grasping the reasons that implicitly underlie our
judgments. He clearly thinks that there will be no serious disagreement
about the results of this reflection, at least among those who have not
been corrupted by bad philosophy or self-centered rationalization (G
4:405, 409-10), which are that moral action must be based upon the
motive of duty rather than inclination (G 4:397), the worth or otherwise of an action lies not in aiming at or achieving some purpose but in
the principle of the will underlying it (G 4:394, 399-400), and that acting from duty requires acting out of respect for the moral law for its
own sake (G 4:400-401). Kant then argues that the principle upon
which the moral person acts is "never to act in such a way that I could
not also will that my maxim should become a universal law" (G 4:402).
This then essentially turns out to be the first formulation of the Cat2. Kant's strategy in
egorical Imperative as it is derived in Groundwork
this section is to overcome the sophistry of "popular moral philosophy," which pretends to find morality's ground in sundry loosely connected empirical considerations (G 4:410), and replace it with the firm
foundations of an a priori metaphysics of morals. Insisting that a law
must be universally valid for all rational beings in order for it to count
as a moral law (G 4:412), Kant proceeds by searching for a principle of
action which could have this universal validity. Since the inclinations of
rational creatures vary (and even if they did not, this would be a merely
contingent conformity), he concludes that no empirical consideration
could possibly ground the universal necessity of moral requirements,
since nothing could be a moral requirement if one could be exempted
from it due to having or lacking a particular desire or nature. We are
therefore obliged, Kant argues, to seek the principle of morality in the
one thing we necessarily have in common as rational agents, which is
pure practical reason itself. Such a principle could have no material
component, and so can be valid solely in virtue of its form. The only
principle suitable to command solely in virtue of its form is the first formulation of the Categorical Imperative, "Act only in accordance with
that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become
a universal law" (G 4:421). So the philosophical search for a principle
which could be valid for rational beings as such converges on the same
principle as that which is presupposed by our everyday idea of morality,
so vindicating it. In what remains of Groundwork
2, Kant further elucidates the nature of the Categorical Imperative by outlining the two
other formulations to which the Formula of Universal Law is equivalent, and shows that for an agent to act according to it requires autonomy as opposed to heteronomy of the will (G 4:440), and hence
So by the end of Groundwork2, Kant has demonstrated to his own satisfaction what morality must be and what it presupposes. But in terms
of his overall project, he has merely demonstrated what morality would
have to be and what conditions it requires, if there is any such thing as
morality. He has not demonstrated that the concept is not a "mere
phantom of the brain" (G 4:445). To achieve this, he needs to move
from a metaphysics of morals to a critique of practical reason. What he
still needs to do is show both that agents such as ourselves possess the
freedom required for us to be moral agents, and that as free agents we
do not merely possess the capacity to act in accordance with the Categorical Imperative, but are rationally committed to doing so, or as Kant
puts it "a free will and a will under moral laws are one and the same" (G
4:447).6 Consequently Groundwork3 contains two subarguments. Much
of this third section is taken up with the first question, containing an
exposition of transcendental idealism aimed at demonstrating the possibility of our freedom, and an argument that freedom is required of us
as a practical postulate. But it also contains an argument for the latter
claim, and it is this argument that concerns me here. Once again it
runs right through Groundwork3, and is unfortunately tangled up with
the strands of the argument for the former. It is possible to tease them
apart however, and a very compressed statement of it in full is presented at the beginning of the section.
This is the passage:
Since the concept of causality brings with it that of laws in accordance
with which, by something that we call a cause, something else, namely an
effect, must be posited, so freedom, although it is not a property of the
will in accordance with natural laws, is not for that reason lawless but must
instead be a causality in accordance with immutable laws but of a special
kind; for otherwise a free will would be an absurdity.Natural necessity was
a heteronomy of efficient causes, since every effect was possible only in
accordance with the law that something else determines the efficient
cause to causality; what, then, can freedom of the will be other than
autonomy, that is, the will's property of being a law unto itself? But the
proposition, the will is in all its actions a law unto itself, indicates only the
principle, to act on no other maxim than that which can have as its object
itself as a universal law. This however is precisely the formula of the categorical imperative and is the principle of morality; hence a free will and a
will under moral laws are one and the same. (G 4:446-47)
The passage makes his overall argumentative strategy clear. He is
going to argue that a being with a free will must have its willing regulated by some law or principle. But obviously the principle by which its
willing is regulated must be one that it chooses for itself rather than
one that is externally imposed, for otherwise it would not be free. The
only principle that would be suitable then to regulate the willing of a
free will is one that it would choose for itself. But any principle appropriate for it to choose itself must then be one which expresses its autonomy, its property of being a law unto itself. The only principle that does
this is the Categorical Imperative. Therefore, the only principle that is
suitable for the will to choose is the subordination of self-love to morality. Hence every free will is in some sense committed to choosing morality as its principle, and "a free will and a will under moral laws are one
and the same."
But what isn't at all clear at this point is why we should buy the two
central steps in the argument, that the free will must be regulated in its
willing by a law, and that the only law suitable for doing so is the Categorical Imperative. Indeed both these claims seem on the face of it
counterintuitive. So why should we accept them? Let's take them in
turn. Kant's official reason why the free will must be regulated by a law
is that as it is a causality it would otherwise be a causality operating independently of laws, which is a contradiction. But actually Kant never substantiates this assertion, since he is relying on the argument he presents
in the Second Analogy of the Critiqueof Pure Reason (A188/B232A211/B256). Unfortunately, all that the argument there purports to
establish is that a materialcausality must operate according to a law, and
he is not entitled simply to extend this conclusion without argument to
free causalities. Indeed, we have every reason for thinking that any
attempt to argue for such an extension will fail, since an argument
which purports to tell us how objects must behave in the manifold of
our experience will tell us nothing about things in themselves (G
4:459). So, to my knowledge, nowhere in Kant's work is a clear case
made for this claim.
But contemporary Kantians have stepped in to provide an argument
on his behalf, which rests upon a claim about the necessary conditions
of agency.7 The argument proceeds as follows. What one might be
tempted to think is that freedom and this kind of regulation are incompatible, because the free will would be constrained by any kind of law,
even if it gives that law to itself, because to the extent that it is regulated,
it is not free. But if the will has no principle governing its willing, then
it can't be thought of as acting for reasons, since reasons require consistency. To be responsive to reasons is to take various considerations to
provide one with a reason whenever they occur, ceteris paribus. If there
were no principle regulating one's willing, this kind of consistency
could not be expected. On some occasions, the will would take a set of
considerations to count as a reason for action, on others that very same
set to provide no such reason, or a reason against the action. This
makes it very difficult to view any of the will's volitions as genuinely
responsive to reasons at all, as opposed to mere whims. But if the will
does not act for reasons, then it is hard to see how it can actively be
making any real choices,rather than just "plumping" for one option or
another through a random "volitional spasm." So the free will without
a principle would not look like the will of an agent,but rather a site of
uncaused happenings, and such "blind chance" would not be freedom
(KpV 5:95).
This argument seems to me to be a genuinely Kantian one, in that it
appeals to considerations we would expect him to endorse. So let us
grant for the sake of argument that the will must choose a principle to
regulate its willing. Why is the Categorical Imperative the only principle it is suitable for it to choose? One would think that any number of
governing principles would provide the consistency necessary for
agency, most obviously the principle of self-love, which would be the
subordination of considerations of morality to those of inclination.
The problem, as Kant admits, is that it is difficult to see how the moral
law can be practical, and, furthermore, on what ground the moral law
is binding (G 4:449). What is it that motivates us to moral action, and
why are we rationally obliged to act upon it? We can easily imagine, as
Kant does (G 4:449-50), someone asking for the reason why he should
make his maxim of action one which he could will as a universal law, the
"interest"he should take in morality. Obviously, the interest we provide
him with cannot be an appeal to any of his inclinations, for then ipso
facto the action would not be moral. But if the incentive is not an inclination, what could it be? Kant then raises the suspicion that our belief
that we have a reason to act morally involves covert circular reasoning.
We take ourselves to be justified in acting morally because moral action
is what makes us personally worthy. But the idea that moral action confers worth on an individual presupposes the validity of morality, which
is precisely what the skeptic is putting in question.
This time Kant does provide an argument, but it is cryptic and difficult. His solution is essentially to introduce the idea of the two standpoints, which he claims is easily grasped by common understanding, as
it considers the difference between its passivity in reception of sensation and its activity in its production of ideas. This leads us to the dis74
tinction between the sensible and the intelligible worlds. The laws of
nature in the form of causality apply to the sensible world, but the intelligible world is governed by the laws of reason. Since the human being
is conscious of both his receptivity in his experience of sensation, and
his spontaneity in his free operation of reason, we must conceive of
ourselves as rooted in both the sensible and the intelligible worlds (G
4:451). As rational beings then, qua intelligence as Kant puts it, we
must conceive of ourselves as part of the intelligible world and so as
pure spontaneity, since anything with respect to which we are not spontaneous but receptive comes not from the free power of reason but the
passive effect of sensibility. As such, our causality lies in reason's spontaneous action alone (G 4:452). But it is precisely this separation which
indicates why freedom commits us to morality. Freedom requires
autonomy, because if reason were not autonomous, then it would be
determined not by itself but by some outside cause, and so would not
be spontaneous. "Whatelse then can freedom of the will be but autonomy-that is, the property which the will has of being a law to itself' (G
4:446). So spontaneity's principle must be a principle of autonomy. But
the only principle of autonomy is the formal one of the Categorical
Imperative, since material maxims are rooted in the empirical world's
causal contingencies. Hence reason commits us via spontaneity to
morality, and to the extent that we conceive of ourselves as rational
inhabitants of the intelligible world, we are required to embrace it.
Of course, we can also conceive of ourselves as sensible beings subject to the causal laws of the world of appearances. But Kant argues that
we must regard ourselves as belonging more fundamentally to the
intelligible world. This is because the intelligible world contains the
ground of the sensible world, he tells us, emphasizing the claim to
stress its importance (G 4:453). He is referring here to his conclusion
in the Critiqueof Pure Reasonthat causality is one of the pure concepts
of the understanding, one of the categories by means of which (we
know a priori) the mind must present the manifold of experience in
order for a world to appear to a subject at all, rather than a feature of
the world as it is in itself (KrV Bxxvi-xxviii, B233-34). His thought
seems to be that our experience of the world of causality, and the sensible inclinations that it throws up in us, depends upon the spontaneous activity of the mind as prior to it. Unfortunately, it is not made too
clear what the force of that observation is supposed to be. But one
thing that is clear is that Kant insists that the intelligible, purely spontaneous aspect of the self is the "proper"self, and that the inclinations
cannot be imputed to this real, core element of our identities (G
4:457-58). Our free wills are our egos as they are in themselves (G
4:451), and their spontaneous activity expresses only the self's activity,
whereas the inclinations are, from the point of view of that ego, a kind
of alien effect of an external causality, tempting us to betray what we
truly are by willfully rejecting our essence (G 4:454-55). Kant seems to
think that we know this intimately, through our experience of reasoning on the one hand and both sensing and desiring on the other, and,
in any case, that it is philosophically confirmed by the transcendental
idealism of the first Critique.Consequently he takes himself to have
shown that we must view our freedom, and hence its preservation
through the choice of morality as the principle of autonomy, as trumping any consideration that sensibility might, on the face of it, seem to
present to us as a reason for choice. If this extended argument goes
through, Kant will have demonstrated the universal rational authority
of morality.
One could be forgiven for thinking that this does not make things a
great deal more perspicuous. But consider the following thought
experiment, which I think very effectively brings out the way we are
meant to take these complicated considerations.8 Imagine the free will
deciding before it enters the world how it's going to make its choices
when it gets there. According to Kant, this means arriving at a principle
upon which it will make its choices. This is because the will is a causality,
and all causality acts in accordance with laws (KrV A539/B567). But
since it is a will, it is a free and not a natural causality, and so cannot be
determined to act according to any principle imposed on it by a force
external to itself. Hence it must choose its principle for itself (G 4:446).
In effect, the task the will is faced with then is choosing what is going to
count as a reason for action for it when it gets into the world. Various
reason-generating principles might spring to mind, but for the sake of
argument let's confine ourselves within Kant's strictures and limit the
choice to that of self-love or morality. So the will has to choose what will
count as supreme reason for it when it arrives in the world, the satisfaction of its own inclinations or the conformity of its choices with the Categorical Imperative. In deciding which of the principles to give
overriding status, it is deciding which to subordinate to the other. So
the choice it has to make is one between a good and an evil disposition.
But how is it to make the choice? Since it is deciding what is going to
count as a reason for it in the future, what reason could it have to guide
it now? Certainly no appeal can be made either to morality or self-inter76
est, conceived as the satisfaction of inclination, since any such appeal
would be a circularjustification. So one might think that the will would
be in a condition prior to all reasons, and that any choice it makes
would simply be a random exercise of its spontaneity, an utterly unmotivated "leap of volition."
This would obviously be unacceptable for Kant, partly because he
shares the view of many in the philosophical tradition preceding him
that a will possessing pure liberty of indifference would be unable to
make anything that could be meaningfully thought of as a choice at all
(KpV 5:95), but much more importantly because it would entirely
undermine his project of grounding morality in bare practical reason.
If the rational authority of morality were found to be contingent upon
an unjustified leap of volition, it would have no rational authority at all.
However, it is at this point that Kant really demonstrates his ingenuity,
in making the most extensive possible use of the very limited resources
available to him. The problem we face is that in imagining the will making a choice between morality and self-love, prior to its immersion in
the world, we have pared away virtually every element of the self that
might provide it with reasons-its desires, its emotions, its values, its
membership in a society, its history, its individual identity. All that
remains is the sheer power of choice, the will's spontaneity. And so it is
precisely within spontaneity that Kant locates its reasons. Kant'sreasoning is that since all the will is is freedom, the only thing that can possibly
provide the will with a reason is spontaneity itself. As freedom is its
inner nature, the will has reason to choose the principle which best
preserves and expresses it. Of course, according to Kant, this principle
is the Categorical Imperative.
The reason spontaneity provides the will with reason to choose
morality as its principle lies in the nature of the alternative (G 4:462).
Someone whose fundamental principle of action is self-love acts to
secure her own happiness, that is, the greatest possible satisfaction of
her inclinations. But as Kant conceives of the inclinations, they are a
phenomenon of the sensible world, fundamentally external forces
whose presence lies beyond the agent's control. Human inclination is
a function of causalityjust as much as animal inclination, or indeed the
behavior of ordinary physical objects. So what we desire is not chosen
by us. It is a function of our animal bodies, our contingent history and
socialization, and various other causal factors. Therefore, the agent
who chooses self-love as her principle has no further input into the
unfolding of her life. As the world generates desires in her, she will act
to satisfy them, and so her behavior is effectively determined by the
causal mechanisms of the phenomenal world. She will consequently
behave as though she were not the possessor of a spontaneous will at
all. A choice of self-love is therefore the abrogation of freedom, something that it is quite unintelligible for the will to will. But this is not the
case for morality. Even though morality constrains the will, it is not an
infringement of the will's spontaneity, because this is a constraint that
is a function of the will itself, and not a determination by some heteronomous cause external to it. The good person is not just determined
by the world's causalityby wayof her desires. She makes use of the spontaneous capacity of reason, which allows her to step back from the
promptings of desire and intervene to redirect the forces of causality
when human dignity requires it. Her will uses its freedom to make a difference in the world, and so expresses its inner nature, whereas the heteronomous will does not. Hence if this argument works, any free being
has reason to take the prescriptions of the Moral Law as authoritative.
3, that
Assuming the success of the second subargument of Groundwork
rational beings actually have free wills, the extended argument as a
whole takes us to morality's universal authority for rational beings,
which is what Kant is most fundamentally concerned to show.9
The thought experiment is a conceit, of course. There is no such
thing as the will making decisions prior to its entrance into the world.
But it is not misleading, since its elements mirror those of Kant's
account appropriately. Kant sees the seat of our freedom as lying in the
noumenal realm, and consequently outside the temporal order (KrV
A34-36/B51-53). The agent freely chooses his fundamental disposition, but this is not something he does at any particular moment in
time. Rather, the particular choices that the will makes at any particular
time presume the disposition that is its fundamental object of choice.
The inclinations are experienced in time, a function of causality. So
although there is no time that the human agent actually lacks inclinations, their subjective normative force is alwayswhat the will chooses to
allow them, and so whether an inclination presents itself to us as a reason requires a prior choice of maxim, and ultimately (conceptually but
not temporally) of some meta-maxim. Hence they cannot sway the
choice of disposition, and it wasjust this that the imagined pre-embodiment of the will of the thought experiment was intended to represent.
Various objections to this line of argument might immediately spring
to mind.10 But let's put these to one side, since Kant thinks it works,
and our purpose is to try to understand Kant on evil and to produce the
transcendental argument he alludes to but omits to provide. The
important lesson to take from this argument for our purposes is that
Kant thinks that the will can have reasons simply qua free will, and that
any such reason is a function of its own nature. Of course, at root the
free will only has one reason. Since only the preservation and affirmation of its spontaneity could provide it with a reason, the only reason it
has is to choose morality as its unifying principle, since only morality
preserves freedom. But weknowthat at leastsomewills do not choosemorality.Any such choice is clearly irrational, since the only thing that could
provide the will with a reason is its spontaneity, and that is only
respected by choosing morality. Hence choosing morality is what it has
overriding reason to do, and a candidate reason that opposes an overriding reason is no reason at all. But nevertheless such choices are
made, and the only way to account for this is to see the will as presented
with an incentive to make a different choice, an incentive which it takes
to provide it with a reason, but which is in fact merely a pseudo-reason.
What might this incentive be?
One might be immediately inclined to appeal to the pull of the individual's inclinations, the thought being that the evil will prefers the
pleasure provided by their gratification to the autonomy it can achieve
by disciplining them in accordance with the Categorical Imperative.
This answer is strongly implied by some of the things Kant says in the
Groundwork(for example, G 4:405). But it cannot be Kant's answer,
because, as he explicitly states in the Religion (R 6:23-24), the inclinations only present themselves as reasons to the will insofar as the will
has chosen to incorporate their satisfaction into its maxim. What we
are looking for is an elucidation of what motivates the choice to make
the inclinations legislative over morality in the first place, so any appeal
to the pull of sensuality misses the point. Once again, the incentive that
the will acts upon when it makes that choice can only be a function of
its nature as pure spontaneity. As pure spontaneity is its nature, only
freedom itself could be an incentive for it,just as only freedom can provide it with its genuine reason. So the pseudo-reason must lie in the
will's erroneous representation of freedom to itself, in such a way that
it is tempted in pursuit of this freedom to make a choice that in fact selfdestructively renounces it.
A clue as to how it does this is present in the contrast Kant draws
between freedom conceived positively and freedom conceived merely
negatively (G 4:446). Conceived negatively, freedom is simply the
power of activity in the absence of alien determination; conceived positively, it is autonomy in the form of the Categorical Imperative. Kant
then remarks that the negative idea of freedom, although not mistaken
as such, is "unfruitful for insight into its essence" (ibid.). Someone
understanding freedom merely negatively would possess only a partial
conception of it, and so would have failed to understand it properly,
because although she would have correctly grasped a necessary condition of being free, she would not have grasped what is additionally
required for an agent to be fully or truly free. Clearly no one can be free
if their actions are determined or restricted by alien causes, indeed; but
neither are they genuinely free if they allowtheir actions to result from
these causes, by embracing a heteronomous principle. So we see here
how it might be possible to mistake what freedom really is, if one were
to take what is necessary for it to be the whole of it.
is the impersonal theoKant's perspective on this in the Groundwork
retical perspective of the philosopher, and his characterization of the
negative conception of freedom there is a metaphysical one. But the
important question for our purposes is how freedom might be understood and misunderstood from the first-personal practical perspective.
Clearly, if it is correctly understood from the first-personal perspective,
it will be understood just as it is from the impersonal viewpoint, as
autonomy, and the agent will affirm her freedom as autonomy in her
choice of principle. But what of the agent conceiving of freedom
merely negatively? How would she try to affirm her spontaneity? She
cannot do so by affirming her spontaneity as freedom of action in the
absence of alien causation, for that is a metaphysical condition her will
is in whatever she chooses, and so would provide no positive criterion
for making any particular choice rather than another. Rather, the
incentive masquerading as a reason opposed to that provided by morality must be negative freedom presenting itself not in the form of lack of
alien determination, but lack of restraint.A will embracing its self-affirmation in this way seeks like every will to express its spontaneity in the
principle it chooses to regulate its willing. But the way it tries to do this
is by affirming the unlimited indulgence of anything and everything it
might will. Its principle is simply to do what it wills to do, and to treat
as an obstacle to be overcome any other will which stands in the way of
its achieving it. Its choice is therefore untrammeled license.
It is not difficult to see how the will could make such a choice under
the aspect of securing its freedom, for doing so involves a subtle perversion of the truth that it can easily conceal from itself. This is because
the absence of interference in one's choices by the agency of another
is a genuine criterion of freedom. When an agent legitimately chooses
to 4,if she is prevented from doing so by some other agent, then to that
extent her freedom has been violated, and so the will of the other is an
obstacle to her freedom. Indeed Kant actually defines freedom
(Freiheit) as "independence from being constrained by another's
choice (Willkiir)"in the Rechtslehre
(MS 6:237). This can't be the whole
story course,
very important sense in which heteronomous agents lack freedom, since they do not possess autonomy, and
lack of autonomy can coexist with complete freedom from constraints
arising from the wills of others. And indeed Kant is thinking of a very
particular sense of freedom here, which he calls "outer freedom," contrasted with inner freedom, which is the exercise by the virtuous individual of his "capacity for self-constraint... by pure practical reason"
is of outer free(MS 6:396). All discussion of freedom in the Rechtslehre
dom, since the subject matter of this division of the MetaphysicsofMorals
is the nature of our 'juridical obligations," that is the conduct that can
be legitimately enforced by agencies such as the government, the
courts, and so on. What Kant is doing in this division of the book is asking about the nature of the rules that are appropriate to govern a society that takes freedom to be the most important value to be respected
in our social relations with one another, as of course any legitimate
society should. His conclusion is that right actions are those that "can
co-exist with everyone's freedom in accordance with a universal law"
(MS 6:230). These are the actions that such a society is justified in legislating to ensure, and in totality they constitute the sphere of what
then outlines what these
Kant calls "legality."The bulk of the Rechtslehre
specifically are. What is entirely irrelevant from the point of view of the
doctrine of right is the moral worth of any particular action. Since the
inner maxim underlying an action is always unknown to us, and it
would be pointless to legislate that people behave in ways we could
never in principle verify, the doctrine of right concerns only the performance of actions in accordance with the principle of right, not from
the motive of duty.We can havejuridical obligations only to perform or
not to perform observable actions, and so inner freedom through the
adoption of virtuous maxims is a matter of indifference as far as the
question of right is concerned (MS 6:231). It is concerned only with the
legality and not the morality of actions, though of course any action
which does not fall within the bounds of rightness will be an immoral
one. Consequently the discussion of freedom within the bounds of the
can understand the concept only negatively.
Outer freedom may be an incomplete conception of freedom, but it
remains a genuine condition for freedom for all that. Since interference by others reduces freedom, then, it seems clear that an agent's
freedom is increased if such interference is removed. Kant agrees,
claiming that hindering the hindering of freedom, as the state does
when it lays down laws forbidding coercion, amounts to promoting it
(ibid.). So the agent must become freer the more she is able to do what
she chooses. The conclusion of this line of thought might seem to be
that the agent is completely free if there are no such restraints at all.
But this is true only insofar as the absence of restraint consists in the
absence of the coerciveagency of others, since the increase in freedom
with the will's increasing capacity to exercise its power of choice has its
limits. If it were taken beyond the bounds of legality, then the drive for
ever more freedom would undermine itself. This is because an illegal
act cannot result from a universalizable maxim, and so the agent performing it must have acted upon a heteronomous principle. At least to
that extent, the agent must therefore lack autonomy, and hence genuine freedom. So a condition of the agent's extending his "outer freedom" beyond the boundaries of legality would be the abandonment of
his inner freedom, and since inner freedom as autonomy is freedom
properly understood, it must trump any increase in outer freedom,
and so the anticipated increase in freedom as such would be illusory.
But this is of course what the evil will actually does. It pursues its
whims whatever effect this may have on the legitimate choices of others, and we know that the incentive to do so is provided by its pure
spontaneity. The evil will must therefore take freedom as such to be
outer freedom, and complete outer freedom to be the absence of any
and all restraints upon its willing. It does not demand just the removal
of any unjustified interference in its own legitimate choices by others;
it demands the removal of any restriction on its choices whatsoever,
and takes itself to be free only if there are no restraints of any kind on
what it might choose to will. Since any number of things it might will
are restricted by the moral claims that the dignity of others as free
beings confronts it with, a will single-mindedly determined to maxi82
mally extend its outer freedom must will to be free of the constraints of
morality. So the evil will revolts not only against the overextension by
others of the domain of their free choice, but against their freedom
simpliciter, and hence against their very being, as the ends in themselves they most fundamentally are. This is why it is appropriately
described as evil. Of course, from the perspective of the autonomous
agent, the will that tries to affirm its spontaneity in this way is making
a tragic blunder. Outer freedom only extends as far as the bounds of
legality, and trying to push it any further is to become less rather than
more free. But from the perspective of an agent who takes outer freedom to be freedom simpliciter, this latter fact would be quite invisible.
Consequently he would see no reason when attempting to affirm his
spontaneity as outer freedom to rein in his choices at the point at which
they begin to conflict with those of others. The individual who fetishizes outer freedom and focuses his attention entirely on it in his
attempt to be free will be led by a kind of confused but compelling dialectic to the embrace of license.
It might be objected at this point that Kant himself denies this, since
a fundamental claim of the Rechtslehre
is that the principle of right can
be derived analytically from the concept of outer freedom (MS 6:396).
This might seem to suggest that reflection on the negative concept of
freedom demonstrates that outer freedom extends only to the bounds
of legality. But recall that the Rechtslehre
is written from the impartial
aiming promote outer freedom as such, and
The answer, which we arrive at a priori, is
that it is promoted by allowing everyone as much freedom as possible
compatible with an equal amount of freedom for all others. Therefore,
it is a fact that Kantian legality is the way to promote outer freedom on
the social plane. But analysis of the concept merely shows us what rightness is, and nothing about that fact itself compels anyone to take any
practical interest in it, and govern his behavior according to the principle of right. Rather, the only thing that could motivate an individual
to respect the outer freedom of the others with whom he interacts,
besides fear of their personal power and that of punitive authority, is
morality. From the amoral perspective of a particular agent considering his de facto relationship with other agents, rather than that of
someone taking an abstract view of the de jure relations between
agents in general, nothing about the idea of outer freedom itself calls
for its restriction when it begins to encroach upon the choices of others. Kant is quite explicit about this:
Thus the universal law of right, so act externally that the free use of your
choice can coexist with the freedom of everyone in accordance with a universal law, is indeed a law that lays an obligation on me, but it does not at
all expect, far less demand, that I myselfshouldlimit my freedom to those
conditions just for the sake of this obligation; instead, reason says only
that freedom is limited to those conditions in conformity with the idea of
it and that it may also be actively limited by others; and it says this postu-
late is incapableof furtherproof.- When one's aim is not to teach virtue
but only to set forth whatis right,one maynot and should not represent
that lawof rightas itself the incentiveto action. (MS6:231)
We have here then a clear statement by Kant that there is nothing in
the idea itself which could present an agent with a reason to limit his
outer freedom in accordance with the claims to freedom of others. On
the contrary, the inner logic of the pursuit of outer freedom alone
leads inexorably in the direction of license. Unlike the moral will,
which values autonomy as such and its own freedom in doing so, the
will taking freedom to be outer freedom cannot value spontaneity as
such, since its own spontaneity and that of others are not in harmony,
but frequently in conflict. Therefore, it can value only its own outer
freedom. In pursuing its own outer freedom, itjust affirms its freedom
from restraints upon the choices it might choose to make. Consequently it is difficult to see what could motivate it to curtail that affirmation at any point prior to complete affirmation of anything that it
might choose. Any concession on its part that some set of choices that
it might have some incentive to make are out of bounds for some reason beyond its own whim would have to look like a totally arbitrary
renunciation of the principle that governs its existence, and so as unintelligible. Obviously, an acceptance that its freedom should be constrained by a requirement to respect that of others would be just such
a concession. This is the dialectic, which is a term that in a context like
this Kant alwaysuses negatively (for example, G 4:405), to mean a train
of thought that takes us in the direction of a false but usually congenial
conclusion, via a series of tempting missteps. Viewing outer freedom as
the whole of freedom is a wholly erroneous conception of it. But someone single-mindedly wedded to this idea would quickly come, by seemingly rationally respectable steps, to the conclusion that freedom is the
untrammeled license to do whatever one feels like doing.
The mystery is beginning to unravel, then, as this line of reasoning
provides as far as possible an answer to the baffling question of how the
will could fail to respond to its one overriding reason. Motivated by the
allure of a distorted picture of freedom, it is blinded to the reality of its
choice. But we are certainly not to conceive of the fundamental problem here as a kind of intellectual mistake, as if the evil will were the fruit
of a confusion about a matter of fact. The evil person is not someone
who has made a subjectively rational decision on the basis of false information, who at most we could convict of culpable ignorance. The evil
person is someone who willfully does what in some sense she knows to
be bad. But this is exactly how Kant conceives of her, because all free
agents are presented with the incentive of morality, and they all know
in their hearts that acting morally is what they should do. No one can
escape the call of conscience (MS 6:400). We can refuse to heed it but
not to hear it, and the most we can do to resist it is temporarily to dull
our senses to it (MS 6:438). This is what the evil will does when it
focuses its attention on the idea of outer freedom, and it does so not
because it is ignorant of morality, but because it does not wish to be
bound by it. So it is the will for the absence of restraint upon our willing
that precedes our endorsement of the idea of it. We come to take outer
freedom to be freedom because that is what we would like it to be. What
the will really yearns for is the kind of freedom and power possessed by
a very different kind of will, the infinite unlimited will of God. It wants
unfettered power and choice. But as finite beings we can never have
such a power, because our natures are not self-sufficient, and we find
ourselves in the midst of a world not of our making that we do not control. At root then, the will's affirmation of license is a revolt against its
own being, a futile attempt to be more than it is. There is a deep irony
about this, of course, since in attempting to pursue its freedom at the
expense of the freedom of others, the evil will ends up annihilating its
own autonomy, in a self-imposed fall into causality.11
I think it is entirely appropriate to think of the propensity to evil asjust
this incentive to embrace unrestrained license. The picture that
emerges is of the human being as of her nature inclined to a kind of
gratuitous willfulness, in which she simply fetishizes and elevates to a
supreme value, trumping all other considerations, the unlimited indulgence of her whims. Put this way,it certainly sounds like such an incentive would draw us toward evil acts. Indeed, one might think it sounds
too evil, for on the face of it the affirmation of license sounds very like
the diabolical will that Kant explicitly rejects, rather than the mere subordination of moral concerns to ones of self-interest, which is what
Kant says evil consists in. But although it is not immediately obvious, in
fact the incentive as I describe it gets the relationship between will and
inclination exactly right. Kant wants to say both that evil is something
actively perverted, the willful embrace of something that presents itself
as transgressive of what we know in our hearts to be morally required,
and that it consists simply in the pursuit of inclination on those occasions when inclination conflicts with morality. On the face of it, this
looks once again like Kant trying to say two incompatible things at
once. But the will's overabundant affirmation of its own freedom will
mean, in practice, the subordination of morality to self-love. This is
because the will cannot will anything unless it has some incentive to do
so (R 6:35), and the will's licentiousness is not the source of specific
incentives, only the general one to do what it wills to do. The bare
power of choice can give the will incentive (and reason) to choose freedom over unfreedom, but it cannot provide it with incentive to choose
to j rather than xy.So the only specific motives the will can have are the
incentives presented to it from outside itself, from sensibility. It is for
this reason that Kant remarks that if we were lacking in incentives of
sensibility, moral considerations would inevitably function to determine the will (R 6:36). Therefore the licentious will ends up indulging
all its whims by doing whatever the agent wants to do, just as Kant said,
and license and self-love turn out to be identical.
Furthermore, the argument I have provided is the formal one we
have been looking for. Such an argument moves a priori from some
accepted phenomenon to the reality of its conditions of possibility. The
phenomenon in this case is the fact that human beings commit acts
that are contrary to morality. In order to have performed an act that is
morally reprehensible, an agent must be free, or else he would not be
responsible for what he did. But in order to have made an imputable
choice to flout morality's requirements, the agent must have had some
incentive to do so, for the will can choose to do only what it has incentive to do, otherwise it would not be free but a locus of blind chance.
The incentive for any particular evil act will be an inclination. But since
a free will is not determined in any way, the fact that it is motivated by
inclination means that it must have incorporated self-love as legislative
into its maxim. Once again, it must have had incentive to do so, and
this time the incentive can come only from the will's nature as pure
spontaneity. The only way the will can have been motivated by its spontaneity to subject itself to causality in the form of the choice of self-love
is through its representation to itself of freedom as the unlimited indul86
gence of all its whims. How else could freedom provide an incentive
that in reality places the will into bondage when followed?
The only empirical claim is the explanandum, that human beings
perform immoral acts. That is hardly going to be controversial, at least
on the assumption that we are free. Kant takes himself to have good
reason for thinking this is the case, of course; in any case we are investigating whether Kant is entitled to his claim about the propensity to
evil within the bounds of the practical philosophy as a whole, and if we
are not transcendentally free then the whole project has failed. The
argument that we are not determined by material causes is itself a formal one, and all the other steps are a priori. Consequently the argument also establishes the universality of the propensity. We know that at
least some wills are attracted to evil, because some agents perform acts
that clearly subordinate moral considerations to ones of sensibility.
Since sensuous incentives cannot determine the will except insofar as
the agent has incorporated them into his maxim, the evil will must have
been presented with an incentive from its own nature to do so. But its
own nature is pure spontaneity, a nature it shares with every other will.
Hence if any will is motivated by its own nature as bare freedom to
incorporate evil into its maxim, every will must present itself with
incentive to do so (R 6:25-26). And since the incentive emerges from
its innermost nature in this way, it does not seem unreasonable to consider it inextirpable, but possible to overcome in practice, again as Kant
said. Compare it to the moral incentive that is the predisposition to
personality, with which the will is presented simply as a consequence of
its own nature. Kant is quite clear that this cannot be extirpated (R
6:35). It belongs with necessity to human nature, and so one could not
be a human being if one lacked it (R 6:28). But of course it can be
flouted, and usually is, since most human beings subordinate the moral
incentive to incentives of self-love. So an inextirpable but combatable
incentive to evil seems to be exactly what one would expect, as the
appropriate mirror image of the moral incentive for the will.
Of course, it must be frankly admitted that the argument I have presented is simply not present in the text of the Religion.But this can't be
a surprise; if it had been, then Kant would not have been accused of
lacking the necessary formal proof. And it does strongly chime with
some suggestive remarks that he makes there and elsewhere. For
instance, he respectfully criticizes the Stoics for mistaking and hence
underestimating the enemy of morality, which on Kant's account they
took to be the undisciplined inclinations of the unwise person. Kant
denies that evil can lie either in the inclinations themselves or in mere
folly, insisting instead that it must lie in an active malice, which he
describes as "an invisible enemy, one who hides behind reason" (R
6:57). Since the will is practical reason, this "hiding behind reason"
appears to indicate that the enemy of morality is the will's misuse of its
rational powers to conceal its freely chosen wickedness from itself. He
then goes on in a footnote on the next page to state explicitly that evil
lies in the perverted maxims of "freedom itself' (R 6:58). Granted that
he hasjust described evil as the malice of the human heart, we can take
him to have asserted that an impulse that is appropriately described as
malice lurks within the human will. An incentive emerging from our
spontaneity to embrace license, and with it the subordination of the
wills of all others to one's own, strikes me as just the kind of incentive
he might be referring to here.
He also says a number of things in the Anthropology
from a Pragmatic
Point of Viewthat strongly suggest the line of thought I have been outlining. For instance, when discussing the passions, which in their various ways are all deeply entrenched inclinations to subordinate the wills
of others to our own (ApH 7:270), he says "the mere sensuous idea of
outer freedom, by analogy with the concept of Law, raises the inclination to continue in it or extend it to the point of vehement passion"
(ApH 7:269). The particular passion he is discussing here is the natural
passion for freedom, which is precisely a generalized habitual desire to
subordinate the claims of other people to the choices of one's own will.
Consequently Kant seems to be saying here that those agents who
develop such passions do so simply as a result of reflection on the idea
of freedom as the ability to do whatever one wants to do. This is not
quite an explicit endorsement of my claim about the nature of the
incentive the evil will follows, since as an inclination a passion is a quality of sensibility rather than a disposition of the will, and he does not
directly say it is the idea of an unlimited outer freedom which does the
work. But this claim about the passions is one that someone who
accepted the argument of section 4 would be likely to find very congenial. Later, in a discussion of the character of the species, he asserts that
"man's self-will is always ready to break forth in hostility towards his
neighbors, and alwayspresses him to gain unconditional freedom, not
merely independence of others but mastery of other beings that are his
equal by nature" (ApH 7:327). This statement is an even clearer indication that Kant holds the human will as such to be subject to an incentive to limitless self-assertion.
In any case, understanding the propensity to evil as it is outlined above
allows us to make good sense of a lot of what Kant does say in the Religion, including many of the elements that his critics have found most
problematic. For one thing, the account nicely treads a fine line
between doing too much and doing too little. Kant is adamant that evil
cannot be explained, repeating the point like a mantra throughout
part 1 (for example, R 6:21, 32, 39-40). To explain evil is to explain it
away,since to explain it is to place it within the causal order. Hence to
some extent, evil must remain a mystery. But this need not mean that
everything about evil-doing must be utterly incomprehensible to us. I
think we can draw a useful distinction between explainingevil, by giving
some kind of rationalization of it, or a causal account of its origins,
either of which would be self-defeating, and elucidating it, which is
important and useful (R 6:31). To elucidate evil is to give an account of
the psychology of the evil person in order to show what kinds of considerations attract her to wrongdoing, and what it is about human
beings that make it the case that we can be attracted to it in this way.As
long as no part of the elucidation implies that evil is determined by
alien causes, we will not have explained away the responsibility that is
essential to wrong-doing. The above account appropriately elucidates
evil within the bounds of the Kantian framework. It describes the primal motivation of the evil person, the self-assertive determination that
no limits be placed upon the choices the agent may make. It preserves
freedom and responsibility by locating that insistence in a fundamental
choice of a free will. It informatively locates the incentive for such selfassertion in the essence of freedom itself. But ultimately, it leaves the
mystery of evil in place. No rationalization of evil is provided, because
evil remains utterly without intelligible justification. Since all free
agents have overriding reason to secure their autonomy by choosing
the Categorical Imperative as their guiding principle, none have any
reason to choose evil. Whatever reason freedom as self-assertion might
present itself as providing, a putative reason that opposes an overriding
reason is not a genuine reason at all. Hence self-assertion is self-defeating and its choice unintelligible. We know what it is that motivates us
when we choose evil, but we don't grasp, except through a glass darkly,
howit could be motivating.
On the other hand, this account is not trivial, an accusation that has
recently been leveled by Allen Wood against an alternative attempt to
outline a transcendental justification for the ascription of a universal
propensity to evil.12 The argument is advanced by Henry Allison, who
draws on an observation made by Sharon Anderson-Gold in a very
influential paper.13 It proceeds as follows. As part of his account of
humanity's predispositions to good, Kant asserts in the Religionthat all
human beings have an inextirpable predisposition to personality (R
6:27), that is, we have the ability to move ourselves to appropriate
action by the mere representation of its requirement by the moral law.
This amounts to the same thing as the claim that there exists for everyone an incentive for the will to choose moral maxims, which receives its
transcendental proof in Groundwork
3, as we saw. Since there is such an
countervailing incentive then the will would
adopt it automatically. But we know that the incentive is not automatically adopted, since we sometimes act contrary to morality. So there
must be an incentive that functions as a counterweight to that of morality to explain how it is that many of us fail to act as we ought, for if the
incentive to act according to the moral law were never actively opposed
by some other incentive, then it would alwaysbe sufficient to motivate
us to action. Therefore the will has within it an innate tendency to be
drawn to flout the law, and it is this that is the propensity to evil. Allison
then goes on to note that Kant equates the propensity to evil with the
adoption of an evil Gesinnung. If moral propensities amount to the
adoption of good or evil meta-maxims, then rigorism says that everyone must have either a propensity to good or a propensity to evil. The
grounds for ascribing the propensity to evil universally to the human
race can be seen when we imagine what it would be like for a human
being to possess a propensity to good. According to Allison, an individual with a propensity to good would have a spontaneous tendency to
subordinate the incentive of self-love to the moral incentive, and so
would have no temptation to act wrongly. But there are no human
beings in so fortunate a state (KpV 5:122). Hence no human being can
possess a propensity to good, and so we all must possess one to evil.
The triviality is supposed to lie in the alleged fact that Allison has
demonstrated no more than that we are capable of doing wrong, or
that when we don't do what we are morally required to do, somehow
the will is attracted to perform the immoral action instead. At most this
would rule out holiness on the part of the human will. Wood's criticism
is that Kant clearly took himself to be advancing and defending a substantial thesis, not the uncontroversial claim that any one of us can be
motivated to do wrong. To an extent, I think the triviality charge is
unfair, since the argument does succeed in showing that there must be
something in the will's nature that provides it with incentives that
actively run counter to the incentive provided by the predisposition to
personality. This tells us something about the roots of wrongdoing, for
instance, that it does not lie in a clouding of the intellect that allows an
ordinarily unproblematic inclination to determine action in an inappropriate circumstance. Admittedly, it doesn't tell us very much, and is
consequently rather unsatisfying. Nevertheless the problem seems to
be one of incompleteness rather than triviality. But in any case, my
argument supplies just what is needed to complement Allison's. It
shows not only that we must be motivated in a way that actively runs
counter to the moral incentive, it shows howwe are, as well as demonstrating why the motive must be universal to humanity if ascribed to any
member of humanity. In addition, in providing an elucidation of the
motive as the individual's willful self-assertion, my argument describes
this motive in a way that gives some substance to the claim that the will
is evil. Wood claims that Kant clearly wanted to do something more substantial than merely make the declaration that we are motivated to do
wrong. My argument shows how the root of such wrongdoing is a
deeply disturbing competitive standpoint taken by the agent towards
the social world, and whatever the justice of the original charge, this is
not an anodyne and uncontroversial claim.14
Finally,viewing the propensity to evil as freedom's inner incentive to
self-assertion can allow us to make good sense of the claim that has
been found most problematic by critics, Kant'sview that the propensity
to evil is both innate and imputable. His problem is that he needs the
propensity to be on the one hand universal, and on the other something we are responsible for in virtue of our freedom. But of course the
idea of something being freely chosen seems to undermine the claim
that it can be universal, because any particular individual could make
the contrary choice. The propensity's universality suggests that it is part
of human nature, and if so, it is difficult to see how it could be something we are responsible for. Kant does indeed insist that the propensity is rooted in or woven into our nature (R 6:30), but never clearly
explains how something woven into our nature can simultaneously be
a freely chosen deed (R 6:31). The confusion that inevitably results has
led commentators to argue that Kant is trying to outline the nature of
an incoherent entity, because he is attached to two incompatible theses
and refuses to give up either one of them. But the problem can be
resolved if we take the propensity to evil to lie in the self-assertive ten91
dency of the will. As we saw, the attraction to limitlessness is a function
of its bare freedom, and consequently is a feature of the will as such and
hence of every free will. So it is universal, and we can see how it can be
described as innate. Nevertheless, the temptation is something that the
will offers to itself. Through the idea of outer freedom, the will represents to itself the unlimited indulgence of all its whims, and it finds the
idea attractive. This representation of an untrammeled self-indulgence
in a positive light is precisely a kind of primal collusion with wickedness
on its part. And the collusion is a consequence of its freedom, since if
the agent were not free, there would be no such incentive. So the
incentive bubbles up from freedom itself, and since it emerges from
this source it cannot be caused, since freedom cannot be thought to
deterministically cause anything without contradicting its essence as
free. Hence the propensity is something it brings on itself. Nothing else
in the world could be its source, so it can be imputed only to the will.
Admittedly, many people will be inclined to view this as a sleight of
hand. It's all very well to insist that the presence of the incentive is not
the result of some causal factor external to the will; what matters for
imputability is whether the agent had the freedom to do anything
about it. Since Kant wants to insist that the propensity is universal, we
must assume the agent did not have this freedom, and so we cannot be
responsible for the propensity's existence, and hence neither it nor we
can appropriately be thought of as inherently evil. Or so they will
argue. But in my view we are justified in holding that Kant would reject
this objection, since it rests upon a presupposition about the nature of
freedom that he explicitly repudiates in TheMetaphysicsofMorals.15The
argument he provides there draws on traditional philosophical discussions of freedom, which standardly distinguished two senses of freedom, "liberty of spontaneity" and "liberty of indifference." To possess
liberty of spontaneity is to be oneself the cause of one's own actions; liberty of indifference is the power to do otherwise than one actually does,
so that one can either n or not 0. The objectionjust mentioned assumes
that the power to do otherwise is a necessary condition of any act or
choice being free. But although Kant certainly holds that freedom very
frequently manifests itself in the form of indifference, and that we do
possess it with regard to the vast majority of our choices, he denies that
it is necessary for freedom, or that freedom must be understood in
terms of it:
But freedom of choice cannot be defined-as some have tried to define
it-as the abilityto makea choice for or againstthe law (libertasindifferen92
tiae), even though choice as a phenomenonprovides frequent examples of
this in experience. For we know freedom (as it first becomes manifest to
us through the moral law) only as a negativeproperty in us, namely that of
not being necessitatedto act through any sensible determining grounds.
But we cannot present theoretically
freedom as a noumenon,that is, freedom
regarded as the ability of the human being merely as intelligence, and
show how it can exerciseconstraintupon his sensible choice; we cannot
therefore present freedom as a positive property. But we can indeed see
that, although experience shows that the human being as a sensiblebeingis
able to choose in oppositionto as well as in conformitywith the law, his freedom as an intelligiblebeingcannot be definedby this, since appearances cannot make any supersensible object (such as free choice) understandable.
We can also see that freedom can never be located in a rational subject's
being able to choose in opposition to his (lawgiving) reason, even though
experience proves often enough that this happens (though we still cannot comprehend how this is possible).-For it is one thing to accept a
proposition (on the basis of experience) and another thing to make it the
expositoryprinciple (of the concept of free choice) and the universal feature for distinguishing it (from arbitriobrutos. servo);for the first does not
maintain that the feature belongs necessarilyto the concept, but the second requires this.-Only freedom in relation to the internal lawgiving of
reason is really an ability; the possibility of deviating from it is an inability.
(MS 6:226-27)
The point Kant is making in this difficult passage is this. Human freedom is rooted in the noumenal world, since every phenomenon must
be determined according to the laws of causality, and freedom and
causal determination are incompatible. But as finite, sensible beings
our natures straddle both the noumenal and the phenomenal worlds;
we have active spontaneous powers in our reason and imagination, and
are receptive to the effects of intuition and sensibility. Sensibility presents the will with incentives in the form of inclinations, and in doing
so opens up the possibility of the will choosing to act to gratify them
instead of following the moral law. As a result, human beings have a liberty of indifference that gives us the option of either conforming to the
law or not, when some inclination provides an incentive to act in opposition to it. We are then naturally inclined to take this indifference to be
the essence of freedom. But this is a mistake, because the true essence
of freedom is not its manner of manifesting itself when it interacts with
the unfree sensible aspects of our nature, but what it is in itself. This is
"the ability of pure reason to be of itself practical" (MS 6:214), or what
amounts to the same thing, our ability to determine ourselves to action
through our own spontaneous activity, undetermined by any causal factor. Pure reason's capacity to be practical consists solely in its ability to
determine itself to action by the fact that its maxim qualifies as a universal law. Consequently the essence of freedom is the power to act
according to the moral law, which can be possessed both by those who
also have liberty of indifference with respect to their morally required
actions, and those who don't. In the latter category, God for instance is
literally incapable of acting contrary to the law, but this certainly does
not mean that God is thereby unfree. On the contrary, he is as free as
it is possible to be, since there is obviously no question of him betraying
the principle through which freedom is actualized. By contrast, our
own "power"to violate the law's dictates simply amounts to the possibility that any one of us may fail to achieve genuine autonomy.
So Kant maintains a conception of liberty that allows for "originary"
acts of freedom, acts that are free because they are spontaneous, even
though we do not possess liberty of indifference with respect to them.16
The will's primal self-enticement to license can only bejust such an act.
Hence the fact that we did not bring the propensity to evil upon ourselves through a choice we could have avoided does not mean that it is
not our free doing, and so it is still something for which we can be
appropriately condemned, as the epithet "evil" clearly indicates.
Unfortunately, it is quite beyond the scope of this paper to provide a
defense or even a discussion of the conception of freedom to which
Kant subscribes. But this is not something I am strictly required to do,
since my purpose here is just to show how an argument for a universal
yet imputable propensity to evil is available within the bounds of Kant's
critical philosophy. What I have to show is that granted his understanding of freedom, it makes perfect sense to say that the propensity is universal and yet imputable to each one of us individually, and this I take
it I have done.
But the account of the propensity I have been sketching cannot be
squared with everything Kant says about it, of course, since he asserts
contradictory things. Recall that he wants to claim that all human
beings have a propensity to evil, that the propensity consists in the
adoption of an evil disposition, and that such a propensity is inextirpable, but also that human beings can come to possess good dispositions. This would imply that some human beings come to possess both
good and bad dispositions at the same time. But rigorism denies that
this is possible. Which of these claims then should we drop or modify?
The short answer is, whichever one we like, since when a philosopher
presents us with an incoherent position, he cannot complain when we
do our best to modify it so that it makes sense. We are entirely justified
in experimenting, by exploring the implications of dropping any one
or more of the conflicting propositions that seem to us could be sensibly denied, and seeing whether any resulting position strikes us as at all
plausible. But if what we are trying to do is produce on behalf of the
philosopher the best position available to him within the bounds of his
philosophy as a whole, we need to be sensitive to questions such as
whether a particular claim is central or peripheral to the main argument, whether its denial would cause the central argument to unravel,
and so on. In what follows, I will try to be sensitive to these considerations, and I will suggest that certain commentators who have suggested resolving the problem differently have produced positions
which are much more anti-Kantian than they think.17
Which claim or claims should be abandoned, then? Denying the universal propensity to evil will seem to many an attractive idea, and this is
what in fact has been surreptitiously done by those Kantian ethicists
who just say little or nothing about the claims of the Religion.But if my
earlier argument is successful, we have a formal proof of the claim, so
we can discount that possibility here. We might also like the idea of
dropping the claim that the propensity is inextirpable. But once again,
this would undermine the claim about our universal susceptibility to
evil that Kant is set on making, and suggests the possibility of a kind of
self-achieved moral purity that is entirely alien to the Christian tradition with which he is obviously trying to reach some kind of accommodation. Denying that anyone can develop a disposition to good seems
a recipe for despair and threatens to annihilate moral responsibility.
Not only that, but it flies in the face of our experience of our freedom
and our consciousness of moral obligation (R 6:50). Our only real
options then are to drop the claim that the propensity to evil amounts
to the adoption of an evil disposition, or else to reject rigorism. The latter will probably strike most people as the more attractive of these two.
But I think the former is actually Kant's best option.
Kant argues for rigorism as follows. Against the indifferentists, who
assert that a person may have a disposition committed neither to good
nor to evil, he points out that the only way an incentive can coexist with
the free spontaneity of the will is for that incentive to be able to determine the will only if the will incorporates that incentive into a maxim.
But we know that the moral law serves as an incentive for the will, and
the will can only act upon those things for which it has some incentive.
Therefore, if the agent acts in a way contrary to the dictates of morality,
then not only must she have an incentive to do so, but she must have
actually incorporated that incentive into her maxim. Presumably,indifferentists are committed to the idea that people sometimes act against
the requirements of morality, since otherwise there would be no motivation for their position. Hence they must accept that agents incorporate incentives into maxims through the embrace of principles, which
is what they wanted to deny (R 6:24). Against the syncretists, he argues
that if an agent were actually to be genuinely good in some area of his
life, he would have to have embraced morality by incorporating the
moral law into his maxim. But genuinely to incorporate the moral law
into one's maxim is to incorporate it universally, since morality claims
universal authority over an agent's willing. Hence if the agent were also
committing himself to evil in some other area of his willing, then he
would have had to have embraced morality as both universal and yet
particular, which is a contradiction (R 6:25).
The arguments are once again brief and cryptic, but actually Kant
has seen something important here. Returning to the thought experiment, let's ask whether it would be possible for the will to choose some
latitudinarian mixture of principles as its fundamental ground of
action. On reflection we will see that it could not, because from the perspective of the noumenal will such a compromise would obviously be
self-defeating. This is because for each "standpoint," a compromise
with the other would entirely undermine the goal it aims to achieve.
Consider the point of view of the will as pulled towards morality. What
attracts the will here is its freedom conceived positively, an affirmation
of its nature in the rejection of determination by alien causes and a corresponding commitment to autonomy. For the will so minded, humanity acquires a dignity, morality acquires a sublimity, and the free wills of
others acquire an absolute value placing them on a par with that which
one values most highly in oneself. How could such a will take the attitude that it could be acceptable to endorse these ends in part?For if the
will were to compromise on the Categorical Imperative, it would partially affirm its nature and partially affront it. It would partially express
its essence and partially violate it, allow itself to be determined sometimes by alien causes, and sometimes take the autonomous agency of
itself and others to be of absolute worth, and so on. But in trying to do
so, the will would actually fail to achieve in any measure any of the
things it half-heartedly attempted to commit to. You do not live up to
the demands of your nature at all by committing yourself to do so to a
certain extent, and you cannot appreciate the sublimity and dignity of
the ideal of humanity if you resolve to respect it only now and then.
This wouldjust show that you had failed to grasp the importance of any
of these things. So the attraction of the ideals of autonomy and morality disappears when they are compromised in this way. Neither could
the will choose no principle, since it has incentive to endorse both selflove and morality, and a lack of a principle could not of course provide
the necessary competing incentive. So indifferentism is ruled out
So rigorism is actually firmly rooted at the center of Kant's moral
philosophy, contra philosophers such as Stephen Engstrom, who have
argued that it can and should be dropped in order to square Kantian
moral theory with common sense.19 But if we must keep rigorism, what
then are the implications of rejecting the claim that the propensity to
evil consists in the adoption of the evil meta-maxim? I suggest that they
are largely unproblematic, and that this is what we should do in order
to make best sense of the Religion,and vindicate within the bounds of
his framework as many as possible of the claims Kant makes. For one
thing, such a rejection is intuitively well motivated, for it seems on the
face of it odd and ultimately pointless to equate the endorsement of
the subordination of morality to self-love as one's fundamental principle with the possession of a propensity to evil, since having an evil disposition just is what it is to be an evil person. A "propensity"ordinarily
understood suggests susceptibility to a kind of behavior, some characteristic that makes it more likely that certain choices will be made by a
particular person than by someone without the propensity. It does not
suggest that a person is in a constant state of whatever kind. So someone who frequently resorts to violence when angered might be appropriately described as having a propensity to violence, but someone who
is married is just married. She does not have a propensity to marriedness. Yet possession of an evil disposition is not something that happens
to or is chosen by an agent from time to time. Gesinnungis a constant,
an atemporal orientation providing us with the fundamental model for
the regulation of our particular temporal choices. So even were we to
take Hang to be a technical term badly translated by the English word
'propensity', there still seems to be no conceptual space for any distinction between having such a Hang, however we might conceive it, and
simply being evil, if having it is taken to be equivalent to possession of
an evil disposition.
Why then does Kant insist on what looks like a conflation of the two?
His argument seems to rest on the imputability of the propensity, combined with the claim that the only thing that could be imputable to an
agent is a maxim embraced by the will. Since the propensity to evil is
imputable, and the only thing that is imputable is a chosen maxim,
then the propensity to evil must be such a maxim, and the meta-maxim
of subordination of moral considerations to considerations of self-love
when they conflict seems like the only available candidate. So it turns
out that having the propensity to evil just is being evil (R 6:31). Kant
wants to say that the only thing that is imputable is one's own deed, and
also that a propensity must be something that precedes a deed, in this
case as a "determining ground." But this threatens a contradiction, as
he acknowledges, because he insists that the propensity to evil is imputable. His attempt to escape it consists in the drawing of a distinction
between two senses of deed, one sense as the choice of a meta-maxim
and one as the choice of a particular action in accordance with it
(ibid.). The particular evil deeds of the power of choice for which the
propensity is the subjective determining ground are those particular
evil maxims adopted by the agent. The determining ground of these
maxims is the evil fundamental maxim, and so the propensity to evil
must be the meta-maxim itself.
But this is very unsatisfying, for at least two reasons. First, in stating
that the concept of a propensity is that of "a subjective determining
ground of the power of choice," hejust defines it in a way that stipulates
Kant himself
that it must be the meta-maxim. In the later Anthropology
defines 'propensity' differently, as "the subjective possibilityof generating a certain appetite, which precedesthe idea of its object" (ApH 7:265);
indeed, he even emphasizes the word 'possibility' when advancing the
definition to stress it. This is a definition of a physical proAnthropology
pensity, but the corresponding one for a moral propensity would be
"the subjective possibility of eliciting a certain choice," and not "the
determining ground of the power of choice." The subjective possibility
of eliciting the choice of an evil action would be the incentive that motivates it, of course, which ultimately is freedom's willfulness. We never
receive a proper explanation of why the concept of a propensity to evil
is supposed to be that of the determining ground of evil actions, so it
is not made clear in the Religionwhy we should accept the claim on
which Kant tries to build a great deal. And on reflection the later definition has to be a better one, because there must be a gap between possessing a propensity to be or do something and being or doing that
thing, otherwise the concept of propensity is entirely redundant, as the
ordinary understanding of the term suggests.
Second, the requirement that the adoption of a maxim by an agent
is necessary if anything is to be imputed to her is unmotivated in this
special case. To see this, consider why maxims are required for imputability in the standard case. Most immediately, the maxim underlying
an action is a statement of the general reason-generating principle
accepted by the agent that elicits this action in these circumstances,
and consequently of what she intended to accomplish by it. Thus they
serve to distinguish a willed action from a mere bodily movement or
something done by an agent who does not intend to perform an action
falling under a particular description that nevertheless in fact applies
to it. (The latter may still leave the agent the appropriate subject of
blame, of course, if the ignorance itself is culpable; but the nature and
probably the degree of the agent's culpability will be different.) But
also, action upon freely chosen maxims is the only way that the will's
freedom can coexist with our pursuit of self-love. Clearly, at least the
vast majority of human actions are actions performed from the motive
of inclination. As we know, were sensibility to determine the will, it
would not be a true will at all, merely an arbitriumbrutum.Consequently
for any desire that we gratify, it must have been the case that we need
not have performed the action that aimed at doing so; that is, we must
possess liberty of indifference with respect to the desire. It is the fact
that a maxim stands between desire and action that guarantees this.
The reason the action gets performed is not because I have the desire;
it is because I have freely embraced a principle of taking the existence
of such desires as a reason to act to gratify them in circumstances such
as these.
So the existence of the maxim serves to ensure the necessary element of indifference, which allows us to act on inclination without
being necessitated by it, and hence be responsible for what we do in
pursuit of it. However, as we saw, Kant must deny that we possess liberty
of indifference with respect to the propensity, on pain of having to
abandon his claim that it is universal. Whatever the propensity turns
out to be, its genesis must be an "originary"spontaneous upsurge from
freedom itself. So the propensity conceived of as evil meta-maxim
would be a very unusual kind of maxim, and one that would not possess
the property that makes maxims uniquely suitable to ground imputability in everyday cases. What Kant seems to have done then, in insisting that the propensity must be a maxim because it could not itself be
evil if it were not imputable, is to assume that because only a maxim can
be imputable in standard cases, a maxim must be required for imputability in all cases. But this is illegitimate; an incentive cannot be imputable in the standard case because it is an incentive of inclination, and
therefore external to the will, but the incentive to embrace license can
arise only from freedom itself. An "originary" incentive to embrace
license is therefore just as good a candidate for spontaneous generation by the will as an "originary"embrace of the evil meta-maxim, and
consequently is something we could equally well be responsible for. So
there is nothing in the nature of the evil Gesinnungthat gives it a better
claim than the incentive to be the propensity to evil. Of course, I take
my arguments earlier in the paper to have shown that a self-created
incentive to license must exist in the will, as a condition of the possibility of wrongdoing. By contrast, there is no solid argument for holding
that we all must have embraced an evil fundamental maxim; hence
Kant's insistence that propensity and Gesinnungmust be one and the
same is groundless. Since all the other claims that generated the inconsistency in his position are either firmly anchored in the Kantian system, or else fundamental to the very idea of radical evil, this then is the
claim that should be abandoned.
If on behalf of Kant we dispose of the claim that the universal propensity to evil amounts to the same thing as the universal adoption of an
evil disposition, we will have to tone down somewhat his indictment of
the human race. What the formal argument I outline above demonstrates is not that all human beings have an evil disposition, but that all
human beings are drawntoward evil by the will's inner yearning for limitless self-assertion. Since bare freedom is what makes wickedness
attractive, it is attractive for every agent with such a will. But that the
illicit exerts an inevitable pull on all human beings does not of course
entail that everyone embraces evil as their fundamental commitment,
merely that anyone may choose it, and we all feel an incentive to do so.
Sensitivity to the lure of evil is an entirely different thing to its willful
endorsement as one's meta-maxim, and so his Lutheran insistence on
the ubiquity of human worthlessness must be abandoned. But this
seems to me to be something we should be prepared to jettison on his
behalf, granted that he cannot have everything he wanted to have.
After all, the claim is intuitively highly implausible for post-Enlighten-
ment thinkers, and his threadbare defense of this particularly extreme
claim does suggest just that uncritical adoption of Augustinian Christianity's misanthropy of which his entire project in the Religionwas
accused. Nevertheless, Kant can hang on to his claim that the human
being is by nature evil, as long as that claim is understood in the rather
weaker sense that evil is a part of our nature. He is not entitled to maintain that we are all willfully committedto evil, but he can assert that there
is something about the human will as such that is evil, both in that we
are all attracted to it, and because inevitably we all succumb to this
attraction from time to time, even if our general commitment is to the
moral law.
This latter suggestion in particular may immediately strike some as
wrong-headed, as it is often assumed that the relationship between
Gesinnungand the particular maxims underlying specific actions is one
of governance; that is, the quality of the particular maxims is determined by the disposition, so that they all line up together in accordance with the meta-maxim. This would entail that if one possesses a
good disposition, one performs only moral actions, and if one has an
evil one, one performs only self-centered actions.20 And admittedly
there are occasions where Kant says things that seem clearly to commit
him to this view, such as when he asserts early on in the Religionthat in
order to call a human being evil "it must be possible to infer a priori
from a number of consciously evil actions, or even from a single one, an
underlying evil maxim, and, from this, the presence in the subject of a
common ground, itself a maxim, of all particular morally evil maxims"
(R 6:20). The implication here appears evident, that anyone performing an evil act must be acting on an evil maxim, and hence must possess
as a ground for it an evil meta-maxim. Rigorism then ensures that the
exact contrary has to go for any action motivated by respect for the
moral law, which entails that every agent performs actions of one kind
or the other, but not both. But on reflection, this cannot be Kant's considered view. For one thing, he says things that appear to contradict it
elsewhere in the book, asserting for instance that "between maxim and
deed there is still a wide gap" (R 6:47). The context here makes it clear
that Kant is talking about the moral meta-maxim, so this strongly suggests that he holds that we can be committed to good, and yet sometimes fail to act in the way that morality dictates; since all intentional
action is on a maxim, this would mean that a good meta-maxim can
coexist with an evil specific maxim on some particular occasion. But
much more importantly, the notion that an agent's specific maxims
must all be a function of her fundamental maxim would make a nonsense of his account of virtue.
Kant's discussion of virtue is rather unsystematic, and he uses the
term (Tugend)in a number of different senses. For instance, in the Religion he distinguishes
between virtus phaenomenon and virtus noumenon,
empirical and intelligible virtue (ibid.). Intelligible virtue in this context just is the possession of a good disposition, whereas someone possessing empirical virtue has the entrenched habit of acting in a way that
conforms to the requirements of the moral law. The empirically virtuous person thus presents the appearance of being a good person, to
others and probably herself; nevertheless, she may not really be so,
since her conformity to the moral law might be motivated by some
other factor than respect for it, for instance, some settled pattern of
inclination, such as a powerful desire to be thought well of by other
people. As such, empirical virtue simply in itself cannot actually be genuine virtue at all; as Kant says, not the slightest change of heart in the
evil person is needed to develop empirical virtue, merely a change of
an account of virtue is provided
mores (ibid.). But in the Tugendlehre,
that gives the notion some content as virtue proper, distinct from the
simple embrace of the moral meta-maxim. Here Kant defines virtue as
"the strength of a human being's maxims in fulfilling his duty" (MS
6:394). The good agent requires strength of moral resolve (fortitudo
moralis)because sensibility continually presents us with powerful forces
acting as obstacles to our doing as we should (MS 6:380). Strength is
plainly something that is a matter of degree, and indeed Kant makes
clear that virtue understood this way is not an all-or-nothing matter:
Virtue is always in progressand yet always starts from the beginning.-It is
it is an ideal and unatalwaysin progressbecause, considered objectively
tainable,while yet constantapproximationto it is a duty.That it always
basisin human nature,which is
startsfrom the beginning has a subjective
affectedby inclinationsbecause of whichvirtuecan never settle down in
peace and quiet with its maximsadopted once and for all but, if it is not
rising,it is unavoidablysinking. (MS6:409)
Elsewhere Kant similarly affirms that virtue in its highest form is an
unobtainable ideal (MS 6:383), and says that while everyone has the
capacity to resist inclinations running counter to the moral law, the
capacity "asstrength" is something that must be acquired by enhancing
the power of the moral incentive (MS 6:397). Since this is something
that is achieved through contemplation and practice (ibid.), it must be
something that is done over time, little by little. But of course the very
idea of virtue as a strength that one can have more or less of requires
for its sense the possibility of those who possess some degree of it failing
to live up to it. If anyone possessing virtue were guaranteed to perform
all those actions that morality requires, then the idea of having more or
less strength-and hence ultimately the idea of virtue as strength at
all-would become meaningless. So it must be the case that virtuous
individuals can nevertheless perform immoral actions; their degree of
virtue is determined by the extent to which they succeed in maintaining their resolve to do only what duty allows and demands. Kant's
whole discussion clearly presupposes that virtuous individuals possess
good dispositions; in any case, it is hard to see how he could think anything else, for otherwise they would possess merely simulacra of virtue.
Consequently he must hold that it is possible to possess a generally
good disposition, and yet at some particular point fail to live up to one's
commitment, acting instead on a specific evil maxim.
As it turns out, this is precisely what we see in Kant's account in the
Religionof the condition the good agent is in after undergoing the revolution in mode of thought (Denkungsart)that leads to his transformation from an evil person to a morally worthy one (R 6:47). The newly
worthy agent becomes a subject "receptive to the good" (R 6:48), but
does not enter into a state in which its pursuit is automatic or easy.
Rather, he enters onto a path of "constant progress from bad to better,"
an "ever continuing striving" (ibid.) against an evil within him that is
never totally defeated in the course of an earthly lifetime. Since evil
actions presuppose a maxim on the part of the agent, Kant must think
that although the will is committed to the Categorical Imperative, it is
still perennially tempted to betray that commitment, and inevitably
does so from time to time, succumbing to frailty,as it is described in the
Religion,when it does so (R 6:29). So not only does Kant admit the possibility of moral lapses by the virtuous agent, he thinks that occasional
failure of our strength cannot be avoided, no matter how robust our
commitment to morality. Indeed, he thinks this an ever-present danger
for the good person, and describes the life of the individual who has
passed through the revolution in his cast of mind that is needed to
renounce evil as one thereafter requiring "unremitting counteraction" against "a depravity of our power of choice" (R 6:51), as he
fights against the traces remaining in his character of the corruption of
his prior disposition. Although we can achieve increasing success in
this endeavor, no human being will ever fully succeed in achieving the
complete conformity of his will with the moral law (KpV 5:122). The
best we can do is continually to increase our virtue, which is simply to
strengthen our resolution to do what is required of us (MS 6:390). So
the moral life for the good person is a never-ending battle, in which her
primary opponent is herself (MS 6:405). We see then in Kant a particular picture of the human being as a dangerous creature, one that can
never be fully trusted. We can never be fully trusted because our wills
never cease to be susceptible to the attraction of forbidden fruit, and
anyone may find herself flirting with evil at any time. This freedom to
misuse it is the price of a free will.21
Much of this pessimism rests on the claim that everyone committed
to morality at any time in their lives will at some prior time have been
an evil person committed to the pursuit of self-love at morality's
expense. During that time, Kant thinks they will inevitably have
acquired patterns of inclination and habits of perception, action, and
affirmation oriented toward self-love-encrustations in reason, will,
and sensibility-that will remain in place after the revolution in cast of
mind that transforms the agent's fundamental commitment from evil
to good. It is this after-effect of what the good person once was that
Kant thinks the good person must combat, and it is because these aftereffects will inevitably be so pronounced that we will never be able to
completely overcome them. If we deny that the propensity to evil is
identical with possessing an evil disposition, then there will be good
people who have not built up the habits, desires, and patterns of attention of the evil person, and so they will not have to combat these. If
someone's disposition is good and she lacks the passionate nature and
habitual willfulness of the reformed malefactor, we could surely expect
her actions to be systematically good ones. How in the case of such a
person could we hang onto the claim that the will alwayshas evil as part
of its nature?
Perhaps like this. Kant clearly thinks that the will is capable within
time of choosing to act upon maxims that conflict with its fundamental
commitment. Presumably,it must be necessarily typically the case, or at
least necessarily increasingly typically the case, that the will chooses in
accordance with its disposition. Since the will is transcendentally free,
a systematic failure to act as it has resolved to act would cast serious
doubt on the genuineness of the resolution. But because it is free, it
can never bind itself, only continually maintain and strengthen its
resolve. Considering the demandingness of the Categorical Imperative, the indeterminacy of our wide duties, and the sheer number of
opportunities to fail to live up to the obligations each of us have
encountered, it is near enough unbelievable that there is anyone who
has never, on any occasion, subordinated a requirement of morality to
a consideration of self-love, if it is possible to do so while possessing a
moral disposition. If all of us have performed some deed contrary to
morality at some point in our lives, all of us have at some point implicitly asserted the priority of our freedom over that of others. Thus all of
us have at some point said 'Yes" to evil, mimicking in the temporal
moment the atemporal embrace of evil by the licentious will. Since in
doing so we have responded to an incentive of the will, we have all
experienced the dark pleasure that gratifying this incentive brings, and
this experience will be lodged deep in the memory.
So although such an agent will not be weighed down under the crippling legacy of former wickedness that Kant describes, the incentive to
self-will still remains and can never be extirpated, and the temptation
to gratify it is exacerbated by the will's memory of the pleasure it took
in so doing, on those previous occasions on which the incentive was
indulged. Given the temporal fluctuations of the will's resolve to abide
by the commitment it has atemporally made, it would be a rash individual who denied that he or she would ever do wrong at any time in
the future, or indeed that any good person is immune from moral failure. It seems to me that if this is the case, it is not only appropriate to
describe human nature as containing an element of evil as such, but
also that it would be prudent for us to be well aware of this uncomfortable fact, and remind ourselves of it often. As Kant's medieval predecessors knew well, one of the most insidious sources of moral danger is
precisely the conviction that we are sufficiently good to be beyond the
reach of temptation.22
Kant was trying to have his cake and eat it too, then, but to nothing like
the extent usually assumed. His critics have standardly thought that
when the internal tensions between the constituent parts of his position in the Religionare brought to light, his whole enterprise there must
collapse. As we have seen, this is not the case. Instead of reading him as
vainly attempting to articulate a necessarily incoherent combination of
Enlightenment humanism and Augustinian pessimism, we should read
him as having made a mistake in his attempt to outline the implications
of his general ethical thought, by taking one step too many down the
Augustinian road. This step was unmotivated by anything internal to
his system, and was probably actually motivated by the psychological
effect upon him of the deeply misanthropic Lutheranism in which he
was steeped from boyhood onwards. In comparison with Luther's insistence on the total depravity of humankind, an announcement of a universal propensity to evil as a mere inner yearning for unlimited license,
and one that to boot we are able to combat from our own resources,
might look like a pretty feeble indictment. It is not difficult to see how
Kant, who was regularly confronted for much of his life with views of
this kind, could have felt that a failure to assert a generalized commitment to evil would simply not do justice to the reality of human sinfulness. But it is precisely Kant's taking this step that involves him in the
difficulties. Since the step is unmotivated by anything internal to his
system, the best option for Kant was simply not to take it.
Having said that, within the bounds of the general Kantian project in
practical philosophy, the argument I have proposed on his behalf vindicates a very large number of the claims he makes in the Religion.It
shows that there is a universal human propensity to evil, which is inextirpable and yet possible to overcome. It shows how the propensity can
be both woven into human nature and something we have brought on
ourselves. It explains how it is possible for us to have both the propensity to evil and a predisposition to good at the same time. It vindicates
rigorism, and illustrates how it is possible that a commitment to evil can
be both the pursuit of the incentives of self-love at the expense of those
of morality and at the same time a deeply perverted attitude of the will.
We can even hang onto, in modified form, the claim that the human
being as such is actually evil. These amount to a substantial majority of
the claims I attributed to Kant in section 2, and consequently I take the
argument I have provided to amount to a vindication of the claims of
part 1 of the Religionin broad outline, within the context of an assumed
success of the Kantian practical project. Kant himself may have done a
rather shoddy job of arguing for these claims, but he said there was a
formal argument for a universal human propensity to evil available,
and contrary to general expectation, it turns out that there is.
Obviously this is of historical interest. But I think it has to have contemporary implications as well. My argument shows that far from being
an unmotivated, late addition, inexplicably imported into a quite alien
context, Kant's central claims about the propensity to evil are rightat the
veryheartof his moral philosophy. Pessimism is therefore integral to his
ethics, and this is something contemporary Kantians will need to
address, now that the formal argument has come to light. Either they
will have to show how something like Kant's own pessimism is to be
incorporated into neo-Kantian moral psychology, or they will have to
distance themselves from Kant's arguments for the authority of morality, and probably from significant elements of his account of practical
reason as well. I suspect that a consequence of doing the latter would
be to make evident how oddly un-Kantian much of contemporary Kantian ethics actually is. The price of coming to understand better how
the claims of the Religion relate to the practical philosophy as a whole
may well be that we are forced to modify our view of the nature of the
overall project in a way that makes it appear much less congenial to us,
since it is actually considerably more alien to contemporary postEnlightenment liberal optimism than has standardly been thought.
University of Leeds
Earlier versions of this paper were presented to the 2004 British Society
for Ethical Theory conference at the University of Kent, the Historical Perspectives on Wrongdoing and Evil workshop at Leeds University, and to the
Department of Philosophy at the University of Sussex. I'm grateful to the participants at each of these events for valuable help in developing the ideas in
this article, and also to Nafsika Athanassoulis, Matthew Kieran, Andy McGonigal, Peter Millican, Dan Morgan, Martin Shaw, Roger White, and an anonymous referee for this journal. I'd also like to thank the PhilosophicalReview's
very conscientious copyeditor, who has saved me from numerous errors of presentation. He bears no responsibility for those that remain, for which willfulness on my part is responsible.
1 I make reference to Kant's works in parenthesis in the text, citing the volume and page number of the Prussian Academy edition of Kant's gesammelte
Schriften(1900-) and using standard abbreviations. The texts are the Critiqueof
Pure Reason (KrV), Idea for a UniversalHistory with a CosmopolitanIntent (I),
Groundworkof the Metaphysicsof Morals (G), the Critiqueof Practical Reason
(KpV), Religion WithintheBoundariesof MereReason (R), TheMetaphysicsof Morals (MS), and Anthropology
from a PragmaticPoint of View(ApH). I quote from
the following translations: Religion within the Boundariesof MereReason,translated by George di Giovanni, in The CambridgeEdition of the Worksof Immanuel
Kant: Religion and Rational Theology,ed. Allen Wood and George di Giovanni
of theMetaphysics
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996); Groundwork
all translated
Edition of the Worksof ImmanuelKant:Practical
by Mary Gregor, in The Cambridge
Philosophy,ed. Mary Gregor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996);
from a PragmaticPoint of View,translated by Mary Gregor (The
Nijhoff, 1974).
2 See, for example, Daniel O'Connor, "Good and Evil Disposition," KantStudien 76 (1985): 288-302, Gordon E. Michalson Jr., Fallen Freedom(Cam107
bridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), and Richard Bernstein, RadicalEvil
(Cambridge: Polity Press, 2001), 11-45, who, in spite of varying degrees of
sympathy, all end up leveling this charge against Kant.
3 For instance, the following would clearly have to appear on any list of the
most influential books or collections of essays on Kantian ethics published in
English over the last twenty years: Onora O'Neill, Constructionsof Reason(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989); Thomas Hill, Dignity and Practical
Reason (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992); Barbara Herman, ThePractice
of MoralJudgment(Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993); Marcia
Baron, Kantian EthicsAlmostWithoutApology(Ithaca: Cornell University Press,
1995); and Nancy Sherman, Making a Necessityof Virtue (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997). And yet not one of these books contains a reference to 'evil' in the index, and most lack any reference to related terms such
as 'vice', 'passion', or 'self-love'. Even the small minority who have attempted
to provide a qualified defense of Kant's arguments in the Religionhave sometimes felt the need to apologize on his behalf for the book's baffling obscurity,
or to concede that much of its pessimism is unjustified. See, for example,
Henry Allison, Kant's Theoryof Freedom(Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1990), 146-47.
4 The term 'meta-maxim' is Philip Quinn's. See "InAdam's Fall, We Sinned
All," PhilosophicalTopics16 (1988): 89-118, at 110.
5 Radical Evil, 33.
6 Some commentators write as though Kant has already done the latter by
the end of Groundwork
2, encouraged for example by Kant's asserting that he
has shown "by developing the generally accepted concept of morality that
autonomy of the will is unavoidably bound up with it or rather is its very foundation" (G 4:445), which can be read as saying that all we need to do is establish freedom of the will in order to give morality its foundation. See, for
example, Paul Guyer, "Introduction," in Kant's Groundworkof theMetaphysicsof
Morals:CriticalEssays,ed. Paul Guyer (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield,
1998), xxxix, where he describes Groundwork3 as seeming to continue "the
'analytic' project of Section II, still trying to prove that the conception of free
and rational agency really does give rise to the categorical imperative, or that
a free and rational agent must act in accordance with that principle." I think
this is a mistake, and that Kant was never trying to show in Groundwork
2 that a
free agent is rationally committed to morality. Rather, he was trying to show
that moral action requires acting on the categorical imperative, and that the
categorical imperative presupposes autonomy of the will. It is true that the
3 contains an argument which is purely analytic, but
early pages of Groundwork
the concepts under analysis in the two sections are different; in Groundwork
2 it
is morality, in Groundwork
3 it is freedom. Admittedly, Kant thinks that the two
concepts reciprocally imply one another. But this biconditional is something
he needs to demonstrate, and it seems to me that nothing he says in Groundwork2 is intended to do so.
7 See especially Christine Korsgaard, TheSourcesof Normativity(Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1996), 97-98, 219-33.
81 have borrowed this way of making the point from Christine Korsgaard's
essay "Moralityas Freedom," in CreatingtheKingdomofEnds (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996); see especially 164-67. I am greatly indebted to
Korsgaard'swork throughout this article.
9Actually, as is well known, Kant never claims to be able to demonstrate
that rational beings such as ourselves are transcendentally free. But since he
takes himself to have arguments that no such demonstration is possible, he
does not think this can be held against him. What he attempts to do instead is
to show that freedom is possible, that it cannot be shown that we are not free
(G 4:456), and that whatever the truth of the matter, we have no choice but to
take ourselves to be transcendentally free from the practical standpoint (G
4:448). Furthermore, he demotivates determinism by showing how the arguments against freedom presuppose a mistaken understanding of the nature of
causality, holding it be a noumenal reality rather than a category by which the
mind structures the phenomenal world (G 4:459). If everything he attempts in
the Groundwork
succeeds, he will have shown that free beings are committed to
morality as expressed in the Categorical Imperative, that it can't be shown we
aren't free, that we know that freedom is possible, that all the arguments from
the history of philosophy that purport to show we aren't free rest on a confusion, and that in practice we have no choice but to take ourselves to be free.
This would clearly be a very substantial defense of morality.
10Most fundamentally, it rests on the presumption that the will has a choice
of only two principles, morality and self-love. If there is any other purely formal principle through which the will's volition could be unified while preserving its autonomy, and Kant merely assumes, and does not argue, that there is
not, then the will would have no more reason to choose the Categorical Imperative than that principle, and so the "leap of volition" would be reintroduced,
and the rational authority of morality would vanish.
11The idea that evil has its roots in the will's perverted yearning to ape the
power of God has an interesting history, much of which would have been
familiar to Kant. It is of course suggested in the Bible (Gen. 3:5), then is explicitly advanced by Augustine and transmitted by him to the Christian tradition
for which he was so influential. See, for example, The Cityof God 12.8 and, in
particular, The Trinity12.11 (16): "For as a snake creeps along not with open
steps, but by the most minute movements of its scales, so the slippery movement of falling away [from the good] takes possession of the careless little by
little; and while it begins with the perverse desire of becoming like God, it
arrives at the likeness of the beasts. Whence it is that they, who were stripped of
their first garment, deserved by their mortality garments of skin. For the true
honor of man is to be the image and likeness of God which is preserved only in
relation to Him by whom it is impressed. Hence, he clings to God so much the
more, the less he loves what is his own. But through the desire of proving his
own power, man by his own will falls down into himself, as into a sort of center.
Since he, therefore, wishes to be like God under no-one, then as a punishment
he is also driven from the center, which he himself is, into the depths, that is,
into those things wherein the beasts delight; and thus, since the likeness to
God is his honor, the likeness to the beasts is his disgrace" (trans. Stephen
McKenna (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 1963)). We also
see from this quotation that Kant and Augustine share basically the same view
about the fruits of evil as well. Although the specifics of their accounts reflect
their individual metaphysical commitments, they agree that in pursuing unfettered power the will ironically subverts its own purpose, achieving the opposite
of its aim.
After Kant, the idea gets a subtle and psychologically acute development
along broadly Augustinian lines in Kierkegaard; see in particular the section
"In Despair to Will to Be Oneself: Defiance," from TheSicknessUntoDeath (vol.
samledeVrker, ed. A. B. Drachmann,J. L. Heiberg, and
11 of SorenKierkegaard's
H. O. Lange (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1901-6)), 178-85; marginal references
to this edition are given in the English translation by Howard V. Hong and
Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980). Then, while continuing to appear in orthodox Augustinian form in more recent theologysee, for example, Emil Brunner, Man in Revolt (London: Lutterworth Press,
1939), 139-43-it also recognizably reappears in the work of thinkers such as
Nietzsche and Sartre, having undergone a radical twist. For this kind of
thinker, the attempt to secure a godlike, unfettered freedom is either the laudable aim of those who are to be admired, or an existential condition of being
human, or (arguably) an unstable combination of both. See, for example, Sartre, Being and Nothingness:"(T)he best way to conceive of the fundamental
project of human reality is to say that man is the being whose project is to be
God...To be man means to reach toward being God. Or if you prefer, man fundamentally is the desire to be God" (trans. Hazel Barnes (London: Routledge,
1969), 566). We even see in Sartre (ibid., 615) a version of the idea that the
project is self-defeating; this time however it is presented not as the wages of
wickedness, but as a tragic truth about the human condition: "Thus the passion of man is the reverse of that of Christ, for man loses himself as man in
order that God may be born. But the idea of God is contradictory and we lose
ourselves in vain. Man is a useless passion."
12Kant's Ethical Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999),
287 and the associated note on 402.
13Sharon Anderson-Gold, "Kant'sRejection of Devilishness: The Limits of
Human Volition," Idealistic Studies 14 (1984): 38. Allison first presents his
development of the argument in Kant's TheoryofFreedom,155-57 (and chap. 8
passim); see also his "On the Very Idea of a Propensity to Evil,"Journal of Value
Inquiry36 (2002): 337-48.
14Indeed, we are now perhaps in a position to turn the tables on Wood,
whose own "anthropological" account of radical evil has been both influential
and controversial (Kant'sEthicalThought,283-90). This account offers a reductionist reading of the concept that identifies it with "unsociable sociability,"
the tendency, which Kant says that human beings in society have, to develop
mutually antagonistic inclinations and ultimately downright malicious ones (I
8:20-21; R 6:27), in particular, the desire for power over others and the
appearance of superiority to them (ApH 7:271-74). Wood's view is motivated
in part by his conviction that Kant meant the account to be a substantial and
contentious thesis, combined with pessimism that anything approaching a satisfying transcendental proof has been or is likely to be outlined. But in addi-
tion, his case rests heavily on some remarks of Kant about evil springing into
being from a seemingly undemanding human constitution only upon the
occasion of a person's immersion in society: "Envy,addiction to power, avarice,
and the malignant inclinations associated with these, assail his nature, which
on its own is undemanding, as soon as he is amonghuman beings.Nor is it necessary to assume that these are sunk into evil and are an example to lead him
astray:it suffices that they are there, that they surround him, and that they are
human beings, and they will mutually corrupt one another's moral disposition
and make one another evil" (R 6:93-94).
I agree that Kant takes the thesis to be a substantial one. Nevertheless, in
my view the reductionist interpretation is a reading of last resort, since it
threatens to make the phenomena Wood focuses on the unfortunate consequence of a natural process; in order for evil to be evil it needs to have its roots
in the transcendental freedom of the will, and not in the physical propensity to
develop inclinations. Fortunately, we don't need to accept it, since the social
origin of the specific evils assailing human nature is exactly what we would
expect if radical evil is as I have characterized it. On my account, the propensity to evil is the will's primal lust for an entirely unrestricted outer freedom.
But it is precisely the wills of others that threaten restriction. On his own, man
can do as he likes. He is in no danger of having his will bent to the service of
another, nor does he encounter anything whose nature demands from him a
respect that infringes upon self-love (KpV 5:75-76). Consequently it is no surprise that evil begins to wreak its effects only once he encounters others like
himself. Since I have provided a formal argument that both gives substance to
Kant's claims about radical evil and explains Kant's remarks about it manifesting itself only in society, I take the anthropological reading to be redundant.
(This is not, of course, to say that Wood's eye-opening account of Kant's
anthropology as a whole is redundant; on the contrary, I have learnt an enormous amount from it.)
15In what follows, I draw heavily on Wood's illuminating article "Kant's
Compatibilism," in Selfand Naturein Kant'sPhilosophy,ed. Allen Wood (Ithaca:
Cornell University Press, 1984), 73-101, especially 79-83.
16The term is Allison's; "On the Very Idea of a Propensity to Evil,"343.
17A reading of the Religionthat would resolve the inconsistency is presented
in John Hare's book, TheMoral Gap (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).
Hare takes seriously both Kant's caveat (at R 6:37) that the propensity is inextirpable "through human forces," and his concession that divine assistance
may be necessary for an agent's transformation from evil to good (R 6:44), and
interprets him as holding that although we are unable to transform our evil
dispositions by our own efforts, God can transform them for us, and when he
does, we cease to possess an evil disposition. This reading is an interesting one,
and admittedly there are passages where Kant does seem to be taking the idea
seriously. Yet they are not without their difficulties since, as Hare sees, on these
occasions the invocation of divine grace clearly fails to do thejob it is supposed
to do. The ostensible problem is that since the ground of our maxims is corrupt (R 6:47), because of the will's embrace of the evil meta-maxim, it is impossible to see how we could ever come to make a morally worthy choice on our
own initiative. But even if there is a genuine problem here-and one might
well question whether there is, since one would expect that the will's freedom
should allow it unproblematically to choose to renounce former commitments
and adopt new ones-Kant's semi-Pelagian insistence that in order for God to
transform an agent's disposition the agent must first have done something to
make himself worthy of it (R 6:44) ensures that the appeal to divine agency just
recreates the problem one step down; it would be similarly mysterious how we
could ever will anything making us deserving of that assistance, if corruption
makes us unable to will the good. Hare thus reads Kant as ultimately producing an unstable position-torn as he is between the account of freedom and
responsibility developed in the earlier work and his growing realization that
radical evil cannot be overcome by human agency, he fails to take the required
final step to the fully Augustinian position that Hare himself favors.
I dispute this reading however, for the following reasons. First, Kant is
equivocal about the claims upon which Hare places great weight, stating
clearly elsewhere in the Religionthat the propensity is simply ineradicable (R
6:31), and refusing to commit himself to the claim that God's assistance is
essential for us to will the good. He is absolutely adamant about going no further than semi-Pelagianism, and at various other places he insists without qualification that we are able to live up to our moral obligations (for example R
6:41, 50). And he does not talk about grace at all in the later MetaphysicsofMorals, something one would certainly expect if he had come to see it as central to
any adequate account of how we develop virtue. Contra Hare, I think Kant is
paying lip-service here to a facet of the Christian religion that is in significant
tension with his views on agency and responsibility, but that has too central a
place in Christian orthodoxy for him to simply dismiss. What Kant does clearly
endorse is the claim that if the corruption of the ground of choice is such that
we are unable by our own efforts to become good, then we are entitled to hope
that the deficiency will be remedied by divine cooperation (R 6:52); essentially, we are to take it as a practical postulate (KrV 5:121) that the deserving
will get whatever help they might need to achieve genuine goodness, whatever
conundrums theoretical reason might present us with on the matter. But this
is of course quite different from the claim that such assistance actually is
required. Since the textual evidence against Hare's reading seems to me stronger than that in favor of it, and on his interpretation Kant is caught up in some
similarly tricky entanglements, and furthermore none of the claims foregrounded by Hare follow from the earlier work, I'll put it to one side.
18Although Kant does not do so, the argument can be run from the opposing perspective as well, since a similar defeat of its own purpose also awaits the
will inclined toward evil, if it attempts a compromise with morality. The evil
will takes its essence as free to be expressed by its own unfettered power of
choice, its willful celebration of the utter absence of restraints on its willing.
From the standpoint of the will as drawn toward evil, any compromise with
morality would be an entirely arbitraryrestriction on its project of self-affirmation. It would function as an admission by the will that aims to emulate God
that it is not in fact godlike at all, which would lay bare the bankruptcy of its
commitment and self-image. So from neither standpoint can the compromise
be accepted.
19"Conditioned Autonomy," Philosophy and PhenomenologicalResearch48
(1988): 435-53.
20Engstrom appears to make just this assumption, since he
attempts to provide a reductio of Kant's rigorism by arguing that when it is combined with
what he calls his "purism,"the plausible contention that no one succeeds in
fully living up to the demands of morality, it entails the unacceptable conclusion that we all possess an evil disposition and so are all morally on a par. "Conditioned Autonomy," 435-36.
21It is now possible for me to address the version of the formal proof
advanced by Henry Allison, which I mentioned but put to one side earlier
("On the Very Idea of a Propensity to Evil";all page references in this note are
to this article). Naturally I concur with his endorsement of Anderson-Gold's
argument that since the moral law provides a positive incentive for us to act
from duty, the possibility of acting contrary to duty requires an incentive that
is actively opposed to the moral one (338). But recall that Allison wants to
extend the argument in defense of Kant's claim that the propensity is to be
understood as equivalent to an evil disposition. He begins by more or less taking as given Kant's identification of a moral propensity with Gesinnung(340),
and goes on to argue that since rigorism is true of dispositions, any particular
individual must possess either a propensity to evil or a propensity to good.
Granted this, the obvious way to establish the universality of the propensity to
evil is to rule out the possibility of anyone having a propensity to good (342).
According to Allison, what a propensity to good would entail is a spontaneous
preference for the impersonal requirements of morality over those of inclination, and an individual spontaneously inclined to prefer moral incentives to
those of sensibility would not only perform only morally permissible actions,
but would not find the moral law constraining (ibid.). But this would amount
to possession of a holy will, which no human being can possess, since our sensuous natures present us with the claims of happiness as a necessary end.
When those claims conflict with those of morality, as they certainly will from
time to time, they will therefore inevitably generate an incentive in opposition
to it.
Allison's initial assumption would clearly be fully justified if he successfully established the universality of the evil disposition. But I don't think that
he does. For one thing, it isn't clear to me why one would have to think that
the embrace of the moral meta-maxim silencesthe claims of inclination when
they conflict with morality, even if one thought that a good disposition would
entail full conformity of the agent's actions with the moral law. After all, Kant
clearly thinks that those of an evil disposition are correspondingly committed
to giving precedence to the claims of self-love over those of morality, but this
prioritization of self-interest certainly does not silence the demands of the law.
On the contrary, he explicitly insists that conscience is an inescapable fact for
all human beings (G 4:454; MS 6:400), and in any case, a will for which they
were silenced would be a diabolical or brutal one. But even a weaker version of
the argument-that no one can possess a propensity to good, because this
would rule out the possibility of moral failure-would rest on the premise that
an agent's particular maxims must share without exception the moral quality
of her meta-maxim (340), which I hope I have shown to be highly dubious.
22This is a favorite theme in Augustine's work; see for example his account
of how Alypius's overconfidence in his own strength of will led him to succumb
to the lure of the circus. Confessions6.8 (13).