Kant's Theory of Evil: An Interpretation and Defense

Dissertation, University of Michigan (2008)
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Kant’s theory of evil, presented most fully in his Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, has been consistently misinterpreted since he first presented it. As a result, readers have taken it to be a mess of inconsistencies and eccentricities and so have tried to mine it for an insight or two, dismissed it altogether, or sought to explain how Kant could have gone so wrong. In this work, I provide an interpretation of Kant’s theory of evil that renders it consistent and plausible. The main problem Kant tries to solve with his theory of evil is the problem of willful immorality: how can someone who sees her moral obligations as overridingly authoritative willingly transgress them? Kant’s answer is that we do so by indulging various “moral fantasies” – ways of reconceiving the moral law or one’s status in relation to it. By entertaining, e.g., the fantasy that one is exempt from the moral law’s commands, or that one cannot live up to them, or that one need only to live up to society’s standards rather than moral demands – one persuades oneself that the duty the moral law demands one to perform is only optional. Moral fantasies appeal only because of the presence, in everyone, of the “propensity to evil,” which makes the moral law’s commands seem less authoritative, thereby strengthening one’s sensuous desires. As a result, moral fantasies thereby diminish the urgency of moral obligations, and so tempt us to entertain them. Scholars of Kant have missed this explanation of wickedness because they have restricted their attention to the Religion, a work whose gnomic statements on evil are difficult to interpret when isolated from the larger context of Kant’s thinking. Assaying Kant’s thinking on immorality from the mid-1780s to the late 1790s shows that Kant’s main concern with evil was not so much its nature, but its very possibility. Evaluating the Religion in this context reveals it to be a fruitful resource for explaining the moral psychology of immorality, a problem we still deal with today, and that is possibly.



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Robert Gressis
California State University, Northridge

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