This sample paper on Kant Radical Evil offers a framework of relevant facts based on the recent research in the field. Read the introductory part, body and conclusion of the paper below.
The concept of evil is one that for all of us is difficult to come to terms with. In our everyday life, in the news and in all forms of historical contemplation we encounter acts of what we call evil, and we intuitively attempt to calibrate them. We look to find a scale against which we wish to measure ourselves in order to justify our own actions and for the religious of us, to estimate the chances of an eternal life with God.
Philosophers and theologians alike, have looked for an explanation for the wrong doing around them and they theorise in an attempt to understand whether evil is inherent in human nature or not. Are we essentially evil? Can we work towards purifying ourselves or are we inherently good and is evil an ‘incomplete development of the capacity for good’1? Immanuel Kant introduced the notion of radical evil in his essay Of Radical Evil in Human Nature taken from his paper Religion within the bounds of mere reason. This was a theory that went against all of his previous convictions on the notions of good, evil and free-will.
Radical Evil Kant
Previously, in Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785) and Critique of Practical Reason (1788), evil had been for Kant varying degrees of the absence of the capacity for good. He now claimed that man could not be good and evil in varying degrees but that he was either absolutely good or absolutely evil. He is free to either choose to adhere to the moral law or to deviate from it. This view has influenced many thinkers from the time of inception to this very day, famously including Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) who abandoned this idea for her theory on The Banality of Evil.
It is the relationship between these ideas that I wish to discuss. I shall begin with a more comprehensive description of Kant’s doctrine of radical evil in order to provide a basis for this discussion and then, in contrast Arendt’s transition from radical evil to the banality of evil. This will, I hope, allow us to see some of the differences in their thinking and the reasoning behind them. Kant had discovered a problem with his previous convictions. On closer inspection of them, they seemed to say that man was not morally responsible for his actions.
He had asserted that man’s moral experience indicates a division between the sensual world of inclination and desire, the animality2of human nature; and the intelligible world which is always in conformity with the dictates of reason (this is proven empirically – we are all aware of concepts such as good and ought and right). Firstly, the animal part of man’s nature is not subject to free-will, so can be considered neither morally good nor morally bad in the same way as a cat could not be held morally responsible for bringing home a mouse. The cat does not have the facility within him to choose otherwise.
Secondly, for the perfectly reasonable part of man’s nature, it is only possible to conform to the moral law. He is not only aware of the moral law but he is also compelled to abide by it, so there is also without the freedom of choice. It would follow then, that for man to be morally obligated and to have a genuine free-will he must be given the freedom to choose and that choice must only be a choice between good and evil. Without this choice his life would be determined by his inclinations which are imposed upon him and a strictly formatted sense of reason from which, if he is healthy, he cannot escape either.
We can now see that Kant introduced his doctrine of radical evil so as ‘to make freedom, in this sense, intelligible… to give a full and adequate justification of moral freedom’3 It must therefore follow that evil is a necessary part of human nature. ‘The possibility of evil must somehow lie in human nature itself. ‘4 Seemingly negatively, Kant begins his essay by pointing out that evil is something that we cannot deny exists within all of us; ‘There is no man who liveth and sinneth not. ‘5It is impossible to deny that man can be cruel for cruelties sake. This is empirically evident.
If this were not the case, how could we hold anyone responsible for harm done to us? Anyone who genuinely believes in Kants original, unintended deterministic view is committed to accepting all that comes his way and laying no blame. There, however, seems to be no such person. Even those who believe themselves to be determinists seem to object and be outraged when they are treated brutally and think that the perpetrator ought not to have done it. It is important to note at this point, that Kant is famously known to believe that there can be a specific moral code.
That it is possible for our moral system to be universalized. He, however strongly supports the possibility of acting in a way that is in opposition to it, again in support of the freedom to choose. It is in this, for Kant, that the basic constituent of free will resides. A man can choose to uphold the moral law or he can choose to deviate from it. ‘Man is a rational being who lives by an over-all principle’6 He must be either radically good or radically evil. Even one deviation from the moral law implies that he is radically evil.
He has made a decision to deviate which is part of his overall maxim. ‘”The human being is evil,” cannot mean anything else than that he is conscious of the moral law and yet has incorporated into his maxim the (occasional) deviation from it. ‘ With free will as a foundation for beings who act according to their self-constructed overall maxims it is important for them to construct them carefully. Kant suggests the use of his categorical imperative: ‘Act as if the maxim of thy action were to become by thy will a universal law of nature’.
There is no excuse for neglecting the responsibility to think, to be mindful of your actions, to consider the categorical imperative when creating your maxims. In this way Kant and Arendt are similar. Hannah Arendt was, unlike Kant, a post-Holocaust thinker and she had sought to come to grips with the methodical destruction of the European Jewry. She had studied the cold minded murder of millions of human beings by ordinary upstanding citizens and also attended and documented the trial of a significant cog in this mechanism of destruction, Adolf Eichmann.
This had a momentous affect on her thinking: She had written in a letter to a significant historian at the time that she had backed down from her previous views on Kant’s doctrine on radical evil and now held a different view; “It is indeed my opinion now, that evil is never ‘radical,’ that it is only extreme, and that it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension. It can overgrow and lay waste the whole world precisely because it spreads like a fungus on the surface.
It is “thought-defying,” as I said, because thought tries to reach some depth, to go to the roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated because there is nothing. That is its “banality. ” Only the good has depth and can be radical. ‘7 Arendt found this banality extremely difficult to understand. She had set herself on a quest to understand what evil was and what it meant. She had also hoped that the presence of evil would be clear and comprehensible at Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem. She, however, was disappointed. Eichman doings were set in banality – there was no demon.
She was nevertheless sure that Eichman was the perpetrator. Many who met Eichmann including Arendt witnessed that ‘this man was not a monster’8 , he was a normal family man. This was concluded after a long series of psychological tests. How could somebody so normal be responsible for the deaths of so many people? Even ‘the judges had trouble accepting that Eichmann was normal and incapable of telling right from wrong. They preferred to conclude… that he was a liar. ‘9 Eichmann was not alone. He was part of a nation responsible as a whole for racial genocide.
He could not have completed his objectives alone, without the help of normal, everyday people. These ordinary people were merely ‘carrying out [orders] given by Hitler’10 It is not surprising then that they guilty not of ‘crimes but acts of state’11 Brutal acts of murder were objectified. Killing with lethal gases for us seems a heinous crime but for those who carried out such acts during Hitlers regime it was a ‘medical matter’12 Arendt deduced from these experiences that evil is the absence of thought – ‘the shallowness of the evildoer’.
For Arendt, thinking amounts to a quest to understand the meaning of our world, the ceaseless and restless activity of questioning that which we encounter internally and externally. The value of thinking is not that it yields conclusive results in the same way that empirical knowledge does, but that it constantly returns to question again and again. This, for Arendt, is the cause of our moral responsibility. It was precisely the failure of this capacity that characterized the ‘banality’ of Eichmann’s inclination to participate in political evil.
As Plato said ‘thinking is an activity without which life would not be much’. Our lives would become mechanical and determined. We are according to Arendt obliged to question things like justice and love etc… The people of Germany had the task of thinking alleviated by their Fuhrer. Hitler had created a culture which seemed legitimate to those living in it. With his clever use of propaganda and symbolism he managed to convince his people of the legitimacy of his ideals and intentions. He used stricking phrases such as: ‘the battle of destiny for the german people’13 which created a false image of the Nazi regime.
The battle of destiny implies that the war against the Jews was a battle that was destined to happen and was unavoidable. Architecture was another tool used by Hitler to create the symbol of world domination and the Nazi ideology. The Olympic stadium, for example, designed by Walter Marsh, symbolized the self confidence of the masters of the German people. These were a contribution to the mind set that all is under control and therefore officially legal and morally correct. Eichmann epitomised the natural gullibility of human beings in general.
He, as did many others ‘did not realize that [he was] being manipulated’14 They were not aware that Hitler had conspired to present himself with divine radiance. Albert Speer, Hitlers architect was quoted to have said that he ‘was thinking as a specialist and not as a human being. [He] forgot that humanity is the most important part of life. ’15 With the benefit of hindsight it is easy to say that it is better to be out of tune with everyone else than with yourself. Hannah Arendt said in her essay, Thinking and Moral Considerations a Lecture, that within our minds is an original split.
We have within us the reflector and the reflected. We in effect witness our own thoughts, thus creating an internal dialogue between me and a certain otherness. It is this dialogue that manifests consciousness and it is extremely important to be friends with this other. Socrates once said that he can be friends with the sufferer of evil but I cannot live with a murderer. This implies that we are internally punished for our external actions, but, only those who know that they are doing wrong will suffer as a result of this internal dialogue. The people who do not suffer are the ones who do not know that they are doing wrong.