Kant’s philosophical metaphysics, his epistemology have been enormously influential. His moral theory has been profoundly influential as well. But surprisingly, Kant’s views on evil itself have not often been studied or appreciated as much. Hardly anyone looks at Religion within the Limits of Bare Reason. This is the book that he published in 1793 and is, in some ways, the last of the great works of Kant.
Kant’s Rational Religion
The book is an attempt to talk about “rational religion,” which is all we can know about religion from the perspective of human reason. He suggests that actual historical religions function as clothes for this “rational religion,” with each historical religion more or less adequately clothing the rational religion. We can look at a historical religion—Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, what have you—and assess how properly it captures, it clothes, that rational religion, the core of religious belief that Kant thought was universal, and that’s how we can assess the adequacy of these historical pictures.
The book, then, means to talk about and wants to talk about religion naked of the historical trappings that any particular religious faith has put upon it. It wants to lay out the criteria for assessing any actual religious faith by looking at the core rational principles on which any religion, Kant thinks, has to be founded.
Kant seemed to assume a unified core of basic religious beliefs common to all traditions, and yet that core doesn’t seem there when you consider those many things that humans count as religions around the world; that we would count as religions around the world, whoever “we” are.
This is a transcript from the video series Why Evil Exists. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Truth about Original Sin
Kant insisted that Christian dogmas of “original sin” get at the universal truth, meaningful even for those outside the Christian faith; that something he called “radical evil” can be seen to operate at the base of the human will.
Talk about radical evil can seem maybe a bit mythological; it can seem too melodramatic a picture. Many of Kant’s readers in his own time thought of that worry and raised it with Kant, and many reviews complained about it. But Kant is not trying to be mythological; he’s trying to be as precise as possible about the source of evil.
He locates radical evil, in a fundamental disposition of the will to privilege itself over the general good; that is, “radical evil” is a defect in the human at the root of human agency. That’s what “radical” means in Latin; radius means “at the root.”
Learn more about the rejection of God’s plan (the Fall).
The Core Moral Disposition
Radical evil is a corruption of our core moral maxim—that’s what Kant calls the core moral disposition out of which we act—and it corrupts it so that we do not act out of the maxim that we should treat everyone as we would want to be treated.
But instead, we act out of some form of what Kant calls a maxim of sensible self-interest, where we treat everyone else in some way or other as instruments in a drama that is all about our self-glorification; we treat everyone else as if they were bit players in a movie where we were the sole star.
Interestingly, by talking about radical evil as corruption here—and Kant is very clear about this—he aligns himself with a certain strand of thinking, what we can call broadly, the Augustinian strand on evil.
We cannot but in some sense admit, Kant thinks, that other people exist, and so we know that we are compelled on some level to admit that they matter beyond our self-interest. Thus, when we are selfish, Kant thinks, we are rationally contradicting ourselves; we are incoherent; we are not as fully rational as we should be.
Learn more about Saint Augustine’s views on the rationale for evil.
Kant’s View on Evil
That means that evil is always partial and always builds on a kind of irrationality that is at the heart of human malfeasance in the world for this tradition. Nonetheless, for Kant, this corruption of our moral maxim is so radical, is so deep in us, that it requires itself a radical transformation of our overall character.
For Kant, the change is a matter of a revolution inside the self, a waking up to the reality that other people in the world have as much moral import as you do, and that this transformation of the root disposition—the “maxim” by which we guide our actions—is profoundly altering of our whole being. Kant says this is what early Christians talked about, about conversion, about metanoia, a change of one’s whole being. How does this happen?
Kant doesn’t say, apart from saying that it is in some important way our decision; but because it’s a decision at so fundamental a level of our being as to be in some sense a decision about how we are to decide things—it’s about how we act in general, so how do we decide to change the principle of how we decide?
It’s mysterious—it seems to come for us, anyway, in our experience of it, also from in some sense outside of us as a kind of magic, or perhaps grace. Such changes as these—these radical transformations—are the sort of things, Kant thinks, which only religious language has ever really adequately described.
Common Questions about Immanuel Kant and His “Religion within the Limits of Bare Reason”
Immanuel Kant locates radical evil in a fundamental disposition of the will to privilege itself over the general good; that is, “radical evil” is a defect in the human at the root of human agency.
We act out of some form of what Immanuel Kant calls a maxim of sensible self-interest, where we treat everyone else in some way or other as instruments in a drama that is all about our self-glorification.
For Immanuel Kant, the corruption of our moral maxim is so radical, is so deep in us, that it requires itself a radical transformation of our overall character.