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This chapter discusses in more detail the conception of action based on maxims from the Groundwork and the Religion, to see where Gesinnung might fit in. Despite the crucial importance of maxims in his account of action and of duty and moral worth, Immanuel Kant introduces them briefly, explaining in a footnote that a maxim is a subjective principle of volition. Kant claims that each person's Gesinnung is chosen, as it must be if we are to be held morally responsible for maxims chosen on its basis, but that it is not chosen at any one particular time. According to Kant's theory, moral responsibility involves a hierarchy of attitudes. Kant's incompatibilism is both a large cost and a large benefit of his account of moral responsibility. A familiar way of understanding the relationship between character and action is that character is a disposition to perform certain kinds of action.
Kant infamously claimed that all human beings, without exception, are evil by nature. This collection of essays critically examines and elucidates what he must have meant by this indictment. It shows the role which evil plays in his overall philosophical project and analyses its relation to individual autonomy. Furthermore, it explores the relevance of Kant's views for understanding contemporary questions such as crimes against humanity and moral reconstruction. Leading scholars in the field engage a wide range of sources from which a distinctly Kantian theory of evil emerges, both subtle and robust, and capable of shedding light on the complex dynamics of human immorality.
I want to address a vexed question in this essay: does Kant really need a transcendental deduction to justify his claim “man is evil by nature”? Transcendental deductions, Kant is the first to admit it, are notoriously difficult. In the case of the Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, whose transcendental argument (if there is one) must be assembled through careful detective work, the difficulty is clearly compounded. I take up the gauntlet here because much of the current debate on this question is fueled, I suspect, by an insufficient grasp of the systematic character of Kant's doctrine of radical evil. Triggered by Kant's own lack of expository clarity at crucial passages, interpreters have tended to conflate the different notions of an “evil disposition” (böse Gesinnung) and a “propensity to evil” (Hang zum Bösen). A reader of the acuity of Henry E. Allison, for instance, says:
[T]he distinctive features of the Kantian conception of Gesinnung are that it is acquired, although not in time, and that it consists in the fundamental or controlling maxim, which determines the orientation of one's Willkür as a moral being. Given this, we can now see that this Gesinnung is precisely what Kant means by a moral propensity.
But surely this cannot be Kant's considered view. For he cannot possibly mean that the individual's choice of Gesinnung is equivalent to the species's choice of propensity. Otherwise, our personal wrongdoing would be explicated (and exculpated) by sheer membership in humanity.
Contemporary debates in moral philosophy have primarily been focused on meta-ethical questions about the justification of morality, disregarding the ease with which perfectly justified norms are displaced by non-moral considerations. Given the scope, magnitude, and inventiveness of human wrongdoing, this philosophical trend seems utterly misguided. The challenge does not lie so much in how to justify morality, but in understanding how perfectly justified judgments are so easily disregarded by self-serving calculations.
Kant's doctrine of radical evil has much to tell us about this. Against the widespread tendency to explain evil in terms of the pernicious power of natural inclinations, Kant believed that evil represented “an invisible enemy, one who hides behind reason and hence [is] all the more dangerous” (R 6: 57). The enemy is invisible, for “no matter how far back we direct our attention to our moral state, we find that this state is no longer res integra” (R 6: 58n.). And it is exceptionally dangerous, for the corruption in question is self-imposed: “genuine evil consists in our will not to resist the inclinations when they invite transgression” (ibid.). Since this type of volition rests on a maxim, and maxim formation in Kant always takes place under the constraints of the categorical imperative, evil hides at the heart of practical reason: it is the deliberate attempt to subordinate what we ought to do in favor of what pleases us.