Emotion and Evil in Kant

Review of Metaphysics 66 (4):749-773 (2013)
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Abstract

On one common reading of Kant, emotional states that he calls feelings, desires, and inclinations are thoroughly non-cognitive and play no positive role in the moral life, which is instead about subduing our sensible nature through a discipline of reason. Against this common reading, this paper argues that Kant actually holds a weak cognitivist view of at least some emotions, according to which emotions are responses to judgments – or to what Kant calls maxims – that are about what makes an action right or wrong. Moreover, this paper also argues that a full understanding of Kant’s view of emotions and their role in the moral life requires assessing their relation to his theory about the radical evil of human nature, because he holds that emotions can be responses to the fundamental maxim that reflects our propensity to prioritize self-love over the moral law. Even emotions that are not directly corrupted by evil in this way must be seen in the context of Kant’s view that the moral life is essentially a struggle against the propensity to evil in human nature. So rather than reading Kant as a non-cognitivist about emotion, this paper reads him as a weak cognitivist whose suspicion of emotion reflects the significance he assigns to the human propensity to evil

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Michael Rohlf
Catholic University of America

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