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A Reaction to Wood's Account of Kant's Radical Evil
Allen Wood and I disagree about how best to understand the relationship of Kant's notion of radical evil to the social realm: is evil something that comes about only in society, or would I be evil even without social interactions?
For Wood, our propensity to evil develops only within society. In quasi-Rousseauian style, he understands Kant to be saying that, left in isolation, we would be “moderate” and “disposed to contentment” (R 6: 93–4, quoted at Wood, Kant's Ethical Thought, pp. 288–9). But once we encounter other people, our anxieties increase and lead us to prefer the satisfaction of our own inclinations over the moral demand to treat other persons as ends-in-themselves. We fall into fears of inequality, and this leads us to a comparative–competitive over-assertion of ourselves. Radical evil is thus equivalent to what Kant elsewhere describes as “unsocial sociability”: we can't help but seek out human society (that is the “sociability” part). But when we do, our natural tendency is to prefer the concerns of the self over even the morally based needs of others (that is the “unsocial” part). Wood thus asserts that social interaction is a necessary condition for our development of a propensity toward evil and, further, that this propensity is equivalent and reducible to unsocial sociability. If we were entirely isolated beings, we would not have a propensity for preferring self-concerns to moral demands.
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