Kant on Evil

In Andrew Stephenson & Anil Gomes (eds.), Oxford Handbook of Kant. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press (forthcoming)
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The chapter examines Kant’s thesis about the ‘radical evil in human nature’ developed in his Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason. According to this thesis, the human moral condition is corrupt by default and yet by own deed; and this corruption is the origin (root, radix) of human badness in all its variety, banality, and ubiquity. While Kant clearly takes radical evil to be endemic in human nature, controversy reigns about how to understand this. Some assume this can only be a synthetic a priori claim about the necessity of radical evil (and thus one requiring a transcendental deduction). However, Kant indicates that while radical evil is inevitable it is not, for that, strictly necessary. The best way to understand this is through a teleological approach that explains how we inevitably bring this corruption upon ourselves in the course of our development. The chapter thereby joins other teleological accounts, but distinctively argues that Kant draws on Stoic natural teleology (specifically the doctrine of oikeiōsis), which he knows through Seneca and Cicero. This background allows us to make sense of the structure of Kant’s argument in ways that shed fresh light on the philosophical content of the thesis about radical evil. It also allows us to see that another hotly debated issue — namely, whether radical evil should be understood in ‘psychological’ or ‘social’ terms — is spurious: we see that these are flip sides of one coin, and are better placed to register the broader ethical significance of this result.

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Melissa M Merritt
University of New South Wales


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