Kantian Evil or the misuse of human freedom

For Kant, there is no absolute evil, but a ‘radical’ evil which is literally at the root of human freedom as there is a natural, human inclination to act according to our desires and passions and to choose the easier path instead of the path of duty. To posit the omnipresence of Evil in the world would, for Kant, imply a malignant deity, thwarting any human effort to achieve any level of moral rectitude or virtue. Evil, therefore, is not a living presence in the world but a constant possibility, a potential human choice. Our natural ‘evil disposition’ can and must be confronted and curbed by adhering to rationally founded obligations and abiding by a universally binding moral law. Practical reason, guided by the ‘categorical imperative’, shows us the Good even though we may choose to ignore it. Analysing the psychological forces at work behind our moral choices and decisions, Kant distinguishes between:

  • ‘Affects’ which are natural, impulsive desires or reactive emotions such as anger and
  • ‘Passions’ which are our own personal management of those affects and are within our power to curb. Kant describes them as “the gangrene of practical reason” which has to be eradicated, literally pulled out of our system as bad weeds.

Kant analyses moral action in term of opposing forces, vying with each other. The Good is not easy to reach for the simple reason that we do not have any innate or acquired knowledge of it. Kant talks about “the crooked timber of humanity” but firmly believes that what can ruin man, can also save him as there is no morality without freedom. He is certain that freedom of the will is not illusory but real. Hence the immense emphasis that he places on human autonomy, that is, on the capacity for free commitment to rational chosen ends. Here, a distinction must be made between free will and autonomy:

‘Free will’ is my absolute freedom to choose one course of action or another, to the extent that I can even choose to act against my very own interest. (drugs, smoking etc …)
‘Autonomy’ is the management of my freedom, in the light of the universal moral law.

Evil, for Kant, is man’s free choice (free will) to blind himself to the moral Good and walk away from the voice of reason. The universal moral law is about duty and respect, not love, which is reserved for an almighty moral being. The existence of the latter is the logical complement to my obedient respect towards the universal moral law. Evil, once again, is not inevitable nor a divine fatality (like in Augustine’s doctrine of the Fall) although it lies dormant in human nature. We are not predetermined to choose and do evil. It is certainly a moral perversion but Kant does not rule out the possibility of a conversion or return to the Good. It seems that it is never too late to act morally according to the principle, “ought” implies “can”.

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