chapter  25
20 Pages

Kant and the idea of radical evil MYRIAM REVAULT D’ALLONNES

For Kant, the ‘radicalness’ of evil has nothing to do with the kind of profundity which Arendt rejects in her response to Scholem, profundity which proves, in the end, to be somewhat superficial. It has nothing to do with psychology, whether individual or collective, nor with the deep roots of ideas or ideologies, nor with the presence of any particular motive. Kant would have described all such determinations as ‘empirical’. Evil is radical because, in the face of the reason for acting that is the moral law, it sets itself up, antagonistically, as a rival reason. Thus Kant positions himself, from the outset, beyond the dichotomy of traditionally-available responses to this question: either anthropological pessimism linked to the Fall or optimistic wishful thinking which would have it that man can, by persistent effort, overcome evil. Yet because evil must be thought of as a negative magnitude (and not simply in terms of absence or privation), Kant is not prepared to accept any middle term between a morally good will solely determined by respect for the moral law and a morally bad will that allows other motives to enter into its maxim. Thus propositions of the following kind cannot be accepted: man is good in some respects but bad in others, sometimes good and sometimes bad . . . It is from this viewpoint that what will come to be known as human nature must be redefined: this is neither an empirical (sensible) nature, nor a psychological nature, nor in more general terms, a nature that is given. This moral (or intelligible) nature of the human being is none other than ‘the subjective ground . . . of the exercise of the human being’s freedom in general . . . antecedent to every deed that falls within the scope of the senses. But this subjective ground must, in turn, itself always be a deed of freedom . . . Hence the ground of evil cannot lie in any object determining the power of choice throught inclination, not in any natural impulses, but only in a rule that the power of choice itself produces for the exercise of its freedom, i.e. in a maxim . . . Whenever we therefore say, “The human being is by nature good”, or, “He is by nature evil”, this only means that he holds within himself a first ground (to us inscrutable) for the adoption of good or evil (unlawful) maxims, and that he holds this ground qua human, universally – in such a way, therefore, that by his maxims he expresses at the same time the character of his species.’1 Such talk of a ‘subjective ground’ runs counter to any interpretation in empirical terms. Evil is radical not because it plumbs psychological depths but rather because it manages to get at the ground, to bring corruption to the principle of every maxim. This nature ‘before’ experience, ‘before’ observable actions, can only correspond to the intelligible fact of freedom and, as such, cannot be restricted to one individual or another but must

instead be allotted to every member of the species. If the propensity (Hang) for evil takes root in the human heart, this is not as a result of the presence of particular motives of whatever kind (this is Arendt’s point when she speaks of Eichmann’s lack of profundity as an individual). The propensity takes root by grafting itself onto the very same predispositions (Anlagen) that make up our humanity, that constitute its possibility, that is its concept. It is true that, of these predispositions, only the first two are susceptible to corruption: the predispositions towards animality and humanity. The third, the predisposition towards personality, an aptitude to life as a moral being swayed only by respect for the moral law, is a predisposition onto which no evil can be grafted. It cannot be perverted, or turned against its own end. The heterogeneity of propensities and predispositions is, then, crucial in Kant’s thinking: the predispositions, which may be termed original because they form part of the very possibility of human nature, are predispositions towards the good, which they further. The propensity, because it is contingent – born of freedom – is not objectively, but rather subjectively, necessary. As such, it can be understood in two ways: first, as a deed that has actually been carried out, in time, and which by virtue of its content (or ‘matter’) stands in opposition to the law. But it can also denote an intelligible act, one that may be known by reason alone and one that altogether lacks temporal form. And the reality of this act remains, even if it turns out that wrong-doing has in fact been avoided in experience and one considers oneself to be justified before the law. This, then, is the meaning of the radicalness of evil: the root of the problem, for Kant, lies at the level of the formation of maxims, in an intelligible act prior to any experience and not just in the actual exercise of freedom within the temporal series. Radical evil, which is the evil of the species – a notion that will have crucial consequences – refers back to the originating power of a freedom capable of aligning itself towards either good or evil. This power of choice is in some sense the root or matrix of every sensible action, ‘prior to’ any particular exercise of freedom in experience (although not in a temporal sense). It will already be apparent why radical evil could be said to be ‘banal’: it is radical because it is banal. It is the evil common to everyone, even if not everyone does it. Thus Kant questions the supposed ‘peace of mind’ with which those who have ‘just luckily slipped by the evil consequences’ content themselves. They ought instead to ask whether ‘they would not have practiced similar vices themselves, had they not been kept away from them by impotence, temperament, upbringing and tempting circumstances of time and place’.2 Arendt pursues Kant’s line of questioning to its ‘political’ conclusion when she asks, ‘how long it takes an average person to overcome his innate repugnance toward crime’?3