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Interpretation of Kant’s Concept of Radical Evil Essay

Kant is perhaps the most famous and certainly the most cited German philosopher ever. His main points of interest concerned social existence of human, state power, problems of moral and religion. In his “Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason” (1793) Kant developed the concept of Radical Evil – an inherited feature of human beings, which is attributable even to the kindest people. In this paper I will try to analyze the “Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason” in order to clarify Kant’s view and argumentation of radical evil concept.Kant presents radical evil as a philosophical opposition to Christian idea of original sin. Under Kant, radical evil is created by social circumstances of human existence, and develops through history. “If this is not to be termed wickedness, it at least deserves the name of worthlessness, and is an element in the radical evil of human nature, which (inasmuch as it puts out of tune the moral capacity to judge what a man is to be taken for, and renders wholly uncertain both internal and external attribution of responsibility) constitutes the foul taint in our race” [1:35]. And it is man’s duty to overcome it. In the Book Two of “Religion” Kant has compared the overcoming of radical evil with redemption in Christianity. It seems, that Kant applied mostly the concepts of early Christianity, because he places personal responsibility for overcoming evil on each particular individual, which contrasts to Protestant idea of determinancy.Under Kant, the basic difference between radical evil and original sin is that original sin is inherited and does not depend on free will, and radical evil is s result of man’s choice, and is always self-incurred. Radical evil is a fatal misdirection of will, which results in  distortion of free choice between good and bad. As Kant explained, the radical evil is “inversion of maxims” – principal guides for actions. “We call a man evil, however, not because he performs actions that are evil (contrary to law) but because these actions are of such a nature that we may infer from them the presence in him of evil maxims. In and through experience we can observe actions contrary to law, and we can observe (at least in ourselves) that they are performed in the consciousness that they are unlawful; but a man’s maxims, sometimes even his own, are not thus observable; consequently the judgment that the agent is an evil man cannot be made with certainty if grounded on experience” [1:17].This means, that in spite of making a choice in favor of principal good, for example categorical imperative, which may be gainless, an individual chooses to satisfy his own needs and desires. He/she may even recognize the wrongfulness of such action, however, lack of will creates to motives for him to act properly. A person believes, that a wrongful action is nothing, but exception, and he/she, is going to act morally next time. As Kant noted, “They may even picture themselves as meritorious, feeling themselves guilty of no such offenses as they see others burdened with; nor do they ever inquire whether good luck should not have the credit, or whether by reason of the cast of mind which they could discover, if they only would, in their own inmost nature, they would not have practised similar vices, had not inability, temperament, training, and circumstances of time and place which serve to tempt one (matters which are not imputable), kept them out of the way of those vices” [1:37].Under Kant, to overcome radical evil, one needs a “change of heart” – understanding and change of our principle choice, recognizing the responsibility for every single action.  “For this to come to pass a change of heart is not necessary, but only a change of practices. A man accounts himself virtuous if he feels that he is confirmed in maxims of obedience to his duty, though these do not spring from the highest ground of all maxims, namely, from duty itself. The immoderate person, for instance, turns to temperance for the sake of health, the liar to honesty for the sake of reputation, the unjust man to civic righteousness for the sake of peace or profit, and so on – all in conformity with the precious principle of happiness.” [1:43] Such change prevents us from further misdoings, however, the responsibility for previous wrongs still exists. To demonstrate the way from “old” man to “new” one Kant reinterpreted the Christian doctrine of death of Jesus Christ.  He abandoned the concept of vicarious atonement through death of Christ who took way all the previous human sins. In contrast, he accepted, that Christ was rather an example of moral action, which is to awaken our own ethical insights. Christ has only demonstrated how categorical imperative is practically applied and how words can be combined with moral actions, but the choice is still ours. Jesus acts as a symbol and embodiment of moral rightness principles, and he already possesses categorical imperative as a principle for exercising our practical thinking. Kant called such approach “a religion of reason”.In creating his religious views Kant had to deal with another principal idea of Christianity, namely the divine grace. In this respect Kan’s understanding stands close to early Christian heresy of Pelegeanism, once combated by Augustine. For him, humans being have their own power to achieve salvation at their own and only at their own charge. “this debt can never be discharged by another person, so far as we can judge according to the justice of our human reason. For this is no transmissible liability which can be made over to another like a financial indebtedness (where it is all one to the creditor whether the debtor himself pays the debt or whether some one else pays it for him); rather is it the most personal of all debts, namely a debt of sins, which only the culprit can bear and which no innocent person can assume even though he be magnanimous enough to wish to take it upon himself for the sake of another” [2:61].Radical evil concept is often understood as leaving little or no room for divine interruption, however, it is not really so. Kant accepted the probability of outside influence on rejection of radical evil by an individual, In grace, same as in the incarnation, miracles and revelation and another processes, which appear to require God’s presence within reasonable work and casual activities, there exist a spatial and temporal events, which are part of nature. Kant separates the sensible and the intelligible, recognizing interruption of God only in case of man’s own moral will.Overcoming radical evil is a long and constant process. It can not happen in one second and due to one good action. Only long and systematic work over his nature by a man himself makes him free from radical evil: “Virtue in this sense is won little by little and, for some men, requires long practice (in observance of the law) during which the individual passes from a tendency to vice, through gradual reformation of his conduct and strengthening of his maxims, to an opposite tendency.” [1:37]Kant’s view of radical evil has been rather revolutionary for his time and place. It sharply contrasted the protestant approach of initial designation by God of those, who are due of salvation and those, who are due to Hell. Kant tends to allot much free will to an individual, making him personally responsible for his own good and bad conduct. It is not confession or martyrdom, which helps a person to improve his virtues, but only constant and preserving effort.

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