Kant’s argument for the universal propensity to evil


I’d like to talk about Kant’s argument for the universal propensity to evil.  Seeing the wide range of hostile responses from Enlightenmight thinkers (even today) I thought I’d take a step back and simply scrutinize it as a statement about the impossibility of altruism, as opposed to a repackaged version of Christian “original sin”.

In the first part of Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, Kant’s thesis on radical evil claimed that

“every human being, even the best has a moral propensity to evil. “

Not surprisingly, this pessimistic portrayal of humanity has often been called into question. After all, humans generally think quite highly of themselves.   Seasoned Kant scholar Henry E. Allison (in his paper On the Very Idea of a Propensity to Evil) described Kant’s claim as “shocking to his contemporaries because of its suggestion of the doctrine of original sin, the feature of Christian orthodoxy that was most inimical to the ideals of the Enlightenment”. I’d say Goethe and Schiller were prime examples of such contemporaries.

My thinking is that Kant’s claim can be defended if we can re-interpret it as a statement for the impossibility of altruism. For the purpose of this essay, altruism will be addressed in its pure form, defined as the sacrifice of one’s interests with no expectation of any compensation or benefits, directly or indirectly.

I believe that closer examination on Kant’s largely Pelagian emphasis on salvation should reveal that his idea of radical evil is fundamentally distinct from Augustinian evil. For the purpose of this post, our understanding of Augustinian Christian original sin refers to the sin Adam and Eve acquired when they first disobeyed God when they were told not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge (Genesis 2:17).


I shall begin with a brief explanation of Kant’s radical evil thesis. In the Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals Kant devised his central philosophical concept in moral philosophy, most famously known as the Categorical Imperative. According to the CI, human beings should

“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law”.

A maxim is a subjective principle that the will of an individual uses in making a decision. The CI is what grounds all other moral maxims and is a rule that should be understood a priori from pure practical reason. As such, it is valid and binding independent of human opinion. Richard Bernstein in his work on Radical Evil introduced Kant’s “fundamental conviction” as a claim about the idea that morality does not need religion at all. What this means is that the CI is not good on the basis of the consequences it produces, or (like the divine command theory) that God tells us it is good. It is good in itself.

Side note:  In Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason Kant extends his account of moral psychology by positing two unified but distinct parts to the human faculty of volition:

  1. the will (Wille) and

2. the power of choice (Willkur)

Wille refers to the source of ought and obligation that legislates norms through practical reasoning.

Willkur then presents itself as the executive will, which is the capacity to make decisions both affected by the wille and sensuous inclinations. Its task is therefore to choose between adopting maxims in light of imperatives stemming from the wille and the desires.

Kant speaks of maxims in terms of “subordination”. He writes: “The difference, whether the human is good or evil, must not lie in the difference between the incentives that he incorporates into his maxim (not in the material of the maxim) but in their subordination (in the form of the maxim)”

So essentially the Kantian radical evil thesis is his conclusion that all human beings (“even the best”) inherently have a propensity to evil because with our free will we subordinate the moral law to our own desires and impulses.

For Kant, what an evil person essentially does is demote the moral law in favour of his sensuous natural disposition to desire. In doing so he adopts the “subjective principle of self-love” into his maxim. By “Self-love” what Kant means is the faculty of seeking pleasure in attempt to satisfy one’s own desires. Although humans have all sorts of different desires, Kant contends that so long as one holds an underlying pleasure-seeking self-love in their action, even when the desire results in an altruistic outcome, the behavior is equally morally unworthy. This marks the height of Kant’s demanding moral system, which does not seem to reconcile with clauses such as “treat others as you would like to be treated” from Christian divine command.

The central theme of his radical evil thesis is this: based on experience we know that human beings typically ignore duty and choose to act on our everyday desires due to the weakness of our moral constitution, which is most evident in three distinct levels   1. That we are frail, as we often do not act in moral ways despite knowing what is moral

2. That we are impure, for we have adulterated moral incentives, since sometimes we act morally only when it simultaneously matches our desires (we ought to remember that acts are only good when performed solely out of duty) and

3. We are depraved, as we see human beings act in direct opposition to what they know is morally correct.

Kant posits that we should not let our desires guide our behavior because in order for us to be agents of free will, we need rational control or power in order to ratify or refute our impulsive desires. If it is the case that our desires take over us, as is the case when we are shown to have no veto-power, then we cannot truly be considered agents of free will. Precisely what a Kantian maxim does is to provide us with a clear choice to either accept or reject a particular desire, allowing us to behave freely.

It appears that Kant’s radical evil thesis holds a concept of morality that is highly demanding, even stoic to a certain extent. Why must maxims either be good or bad? Why should any action not performed entirely out of duty not be good? It seems that Kant disregards the possibility of an inherently good person who only possesses desires to engage in moral behavior. Indeed, in reflection of the human condition it seems reasonable to hold such a view. The more interesting question stemmed from this might be whether actions performed both out of reason and desire should be considered evil or if they simply lack full moral worth, and it is precisely from Kant’s response to this question that I derive the idea expounded at the beginning of this post: that his radical evil thesis is more appropriately interpreted as a statement about the impossibility of altruism.

Within the human condition, complete purity or absolute lack of evil (what we may term holiness) simply cannot be attained.

A Comparison of Kant’s Radical Evil and Christian Sin  

Perhaps comparing Kantian evil with Augustinian Christian “original sin” may shed a new light on Kantian evil.  Although both Kant’s thesis of radical evil and the Augustinian Christian doctrine of ‘original sin’ maintain that human beings engage in morally corrupt behavior, Augustinian Christianity assumes that we are all sinners since the moment of birth due to the original sin of Adam and Eve. This particular doctrine assumes that humans have inherited the sin Adam and Eve acquired in the biblical story of Genesis, when they disobeyed God by giving in to Satan’s temptation to eat the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. It is clear that Kant fully rejects such Christian doctrine of original sin. How can anyone be justly held morally responsible for what another has done? Kant criticizes that out of all explanations of moral evil in the world, “the most inappropriate is that which describes it as descending to us as an inheritance from our first parents”.

Kant believed in a good God who would allow humans to be both free and rational, as opposed to moral slaves to God’s will. Whilst Augustine holds that humans do not have the ability to lead a morally good life without the help of God’s grace, Kant’s CI is much more Pelagian in nature in the sense that it endorses a view of moral goodness that stresses heavily on the individual human agent’s responsibility to adopt CI as the supreme maxim for extrication from radical evil. This is in opposition to reliance on divine aid.

Yet Kant’s thesis on radical evil is still said to be reminiscent of the Christian original sin originally conceived by Augustine. This is because despite the aforementioned divergences, it did not follow that Kant refuted the idea of original sin in human beings. For Kant, although we are not naturally evil because a distant ancestor ate a forbidden fruit, we are born with sin because we all enter life in a situation where we are free to choose to act immorally, as that as a matter of observed fact, we do. As such, the grim association of human nature with sin has stirred much criticism from Enlightenment thinkers.

In what follows I lay out the anthropological and missing a priori proof readings of radical evil, both of which aim at providing possible interpretations of radical evil that may reserve Kant some explanatory space for his “shocking” account. I contend that the anthropological reading, represented here by Allen Wood, is inadequate because it essentially conflates radical evil with unsocial sociability. This runs the risk of reducing Kant’s categorical imperative, dictated by a higher reality (the noumenal world), to a naturalistic account that is only appropriately understood in the phenomenal world. Consequentially it does not align with Kant’s endeavour to locate the origin of evil at a fundamental level.

After dwelling with the problem of infinite regress in reaching the fundamental, the need for an a priori proof for Kant’s account of radical evil is made apparent. I argue that Kant essentially appeals to a standard of goodness so difficult to meet that it is logically impossible for a human being to evade possession of a propensity to evil. It is therefore true that we can infer a priori our natural evil not because we are always subject to inherit Augustinian original sin, but that we are evil insofar as our standard of good is set to bizarrely high Kantian standards requiring that pure or perfect goodness can only exist on purely altruistic grounds.

The Anthropological Interpretation of Radical Evil

Allen Wood’s anthropological interpretation of Kant’s universal thesis invites readers to view universal evil in the context of the broader Kantian anthropology – the central idea being that evil is merely an inevitable side effect of human social relations. Wood claims that one may understand universal and radical evil by way of what Kant terms “unsociable sociability” – a Rousseauian-inspired idea which described Kant’s moral outlook as “fundamentally determined by a subtle, shrew, historically self-conscious conception of human nature and human psychology…belonging to a radical tradition in the social criticism of modernity”. In short, “unsociable sociability” is defined as a form of social antagonism revealed by anthropological research. In Kant’s discussion of the predisposition to humanity, it is said that mankind’s social nature inevitably results in a tendency to judge oneself happy or unhappy in comparison with others.Wood appeals specifically to the passage

“Envy, addiction to power, avarice, and the malignant inclinations associated with these, assail [humankind’s] nature, which on its own is undemanding, as soon as he is among human beings

to show that what Kant means by the universal propensity to evil may just be an expression of the way our immoral inclinations are triggered by interactions with others , since both are universal and (as Kant believes) empirically verifiable.   However it is dubious to what extent we can rely on Wood’s anthropological interpretation. Firstly, it essentially requires that the noumenal status of the categorical imperative collapse into a naturalistic understanding of evil in the world. This is counter to Kant’s positioning of the human being’s fundamental moral choice outside of time, in what he established as the noumena in his earlier text.  It appears that Wood’s interpretation cannot explain the universal propensity to evil beyond the phenomenal, deterministic narrative. This means that it fails to be a satisfactory account of radical evil, since Kantian moral choices pertain to the noumenal realm.   Secondly, it appears inappropriate to equate Kantian radical evil to unsocial sociability. As Paul Formosa stated in Kant on the Radical Evil of Human Nature, the two theses essentially describe evil at different levels. Formosa suggests that the correct relationship between radical evil and unsocial sociability is one of complementariness, not equivalence. To identify radical evil with unsocial sociability would be neglecting Kant’s interest in why human beings choose to adopt evil maxims. This would be akin to answering the question “why are we evil?” with “because we crave superiority over each other”. It seems that Kant would frown upon Wood’s unsocial sociability thesis for the same reason that the Stoic response “because the human being struggles with his inclinations”was deemed unsatisfactory. What Formosa meant by “evil at different levels” becomes clear. Wood’s thesis illuminates the concept of evil only to the level of recognizing the symptoms of radical evil, but it does not ultimately explain the underlying nature of evil or why people are always susceptible to evil inclinations to begin with. This begins the next section on the problem of infinite regress.

The Problem of Infinite Regress in locating the origin of Evil

Given what has been said in the previous section it appears that any answer to the question of why we are evil will be subject to further why’s about the nature of radical evil. Formosa demonstrates clear awareness of this:

“If every maxim makes sense only within a broader background of higher-order maxims, then it would seem to follow that we would require an even higher-order maxim to ground our maxim that grounds our supreme maxim, and so on”

The problem of infinite regress here may be omitted only if we presume that a meta-maxim that grounds all other maxims can exist. The difference Philip Quinn made between ordinary maxims and the fundamental maxim addresses the infinite regress problem directly.[21] Kant’s endorsement of duty towards this fundamental maxim fails to explain why humans ought to reason towards this feeling of duty to begin with – won’t the very idea fall into the same pleasure-seeking category of “self-love” if one consciously believed that they should act only from duty because it is known to be good? It appears that the possibility of a fundamental meta-maxim, in face of the problem of infinite regress, remains a mere presumptive conception. This entails a pressing problem for the Kantian categorical imperative: if we cannot ground our first-order maxims on a fundamental maxim that compels us to follow the moral law, it follows that we can only decide to follow moral maxims spontaneously. For this reason, Allison describes the propensity to good as “a spontaneous preference for the impersonal requirements of morality over an agent’s need as a sensuous being.”.

Although Kant does not explicitly speak of a “propensity to good”, it makes sense to think that his ethical rigorism purports to such an opposition to the propensity to evil. A rational agent with such propensity would hold an inscrutably stoic attitude that repels all temptations that may interfere with the sense of duty bred from the sovereignty of the rational will. But the stoic requirement of good in Kantian rigorism suggests a portrait of morality that is far from uncontroversial in commonsensical views. The obvious problem is that, contrary to common intuition, a disinterested moral act is therefore of a higher ethical value than an act out of compassion or voluntary inclination.  With this taken into account Kant’s conception of moral goodness seems absurdly demanding. Allison believes that this is a dispositional state that Kant himself thought human beings are incapable of achieving, since “it would mean that the will is beyond the need for rational constraint and thus beyond the twin thoughts of duty and respect for the law”.

My argument for Kant’s thesis as a statement about the impossibility of altruism follows Kant’s awareness of the impossibility of this dispositional state. Since human nature necessitates that happiness is to be entertained alongside duty, it is not possible for rational agents, exposed to the possibility of contradictory inclinations, to spontaneously attain a love of duty directly entailed by a predisposition to good.   However Formosa is hesitant about not leaving room for the practical possibility of persons immune to any level of temptation, regardless of how rare such type of person may be. At this point it seems that in order for Kant’s radical evil thesis to maintain its universal status, an a priori proof of the universal propensity to evil would be urgently needed. But Kant notoriously avoids the task of devising such a proof in view of “the multitude of woeful examples that the experience of human deeds parades before us”. He also claims that the universal propensity to evil “can be established through experiential demonstrations of the actual resistance in time of the human power of choice against the law”. It is however, extremely unclear whether Kant’s claim here can be accepted as logically sound. As such, on Kant’s conception of the impossibility of an absolutely good dispositional state, Formosa wrote:   “Kant’s rhetoric here is no doubt of immense power but, as a proof, it fails. For how can one prove that there can be no such person?”   Seiriol Morgan also describes Kant’s claim as a “reckless generalization concluding from the undeniably extensive litany of [human] crimes that every single human being has a propensity to evil”. The general contention is that although Kant may be correct in seeing the woeful parade of human deeds, all he should be able to derive from this is that evil exists, and that it is widespread. No amount of anthropological evidence can provide grounds for proving that not a single human being has ever started out with a propensity to good. No one has direct access to dispositions. We can never be certain about whether a person had an evil disposition or not even if he had never physically performed a single evil act, since the determination of whether a disposition is evil or not requires an examination of an agent’s subordination of moral maxims, which is an internal, private process. Further, even if it were the case that we can peek into the realm of private dispositions, empirical observation about the ubiquity of evil will only tell us that every human has been evil up till now but not that it is a universal trait.

The a priori Impossibility of Avoiding Evil

In light of the above, I posit that the move Kant essentially takes to justify charging everyone of a propensity to evil is to set a standard of good so high that it is a priori impossible to avoid being evil. The fact of matter is embedded in the theme of this paper- that Kant takes on a standard of goodness demanding an impossible element of altruism, which is to be discussed in this section. Let us look back at the three distinct levels of evil propensities. Whilst most people are probably able to avoid reaching the level of depravity (simply by not deliberating upon perverse actions), it seems much more difficult to avoid being frail or impure. With regards to the frailty condition, Kant himself quotes a member of the English Parliament,

“Every man has his price, for which he sells himself”.

To this claim he wrote:

“…if whether the good or evil spirits wins us over only depends on which bids the most and affords the promptest pay-off, then, what the Apostle says might indeed hold true of human beings universally, “There is no distinction here. They are all under sin- there is none righteous (in the spirit of the law), no, not one.””

It should be taken into consideration that given the conditionality of the analysis above, Kant was well aware that there might exist persons who are not frail, as unlikely as that may be. The impurity condition, however, appears irrefutable. As discussed before, the impurity condition requires that moral maxims are always adopted for duty’s sake, but the initial decision to become the type of person who does adopt morally good maxims solely dutifully will always have to be willed by a motive exterior to the inclination of being dutiful per se. The only other option would be, also discussed before, that one adopts morally good maxims spontaneously. However, allowing spontaneous adoption of maxims does not seem to be a move that would cultivate a moral system appropriate for rational free agents, for spontaneity alludes to absolutely unmotivated “leaps of volition”which require no element of rational reasoning at all.

At first sight this would undermine Kant’s project of grounding morality in pure practical reason. This is a trade-off that I believe Kant (obviously) would not permit. It therefore appears that one can a priori deduce that ridding oneself from a propensity to evil is in fact impossible. Here again, Kant’s conception of the universal propensity to evil resonates a thesis about the impossibility of altruism and therefore is inappropriately associated with the Augustinian theology of original sin.  

Before I can finalize my argument, one might be tempted to think of further options for preserving human purity. To dishearten those who cling on to even a drop of hope, Kant writes   “Human morality in its highest stage can still be nothing more than virtue, even if it be entirely pure”  This is due to the fact that even humans who have good dispositions are always stuck in a condition where temptations are present. The existence of temptations cannot be eliminated because it is also in virtue of existing rebelling inclinations that one can exercise the possibility of adopting the correct (non-evil) maxim that corresponds to the moral law.  


In light of the above, it seems that the Enlightenment thinker who fears that Kant’s thesis on radical evil deviates from the basic Kantian project of rational morality is largely confused by a wrongful expectation, that his idea of the universal propensity to evil is anything more morally discouraging than a statement about the impossibility of pure altruism and perfect goodness. The problem it seems is not so much whether Kant’s propensity to evil is really universal, but whether it is really evil in the commonsensical view. What is left to be puzzled about is, as Allison wrote in the end of his paper, “must we really strive in apparently Sisyphean fashion after an unattainable ideal of holiness [perfect goodness] merely in order to become virtuous?”

The question is further perplexed when we find that Kant still believes in a way to break free from the propensity to evil, “by a single and unalterable decision to reverse the supreme grounds of his maxims by which [one] was an evil human being and thereby puts on a new man”. Kant seems to have been disappointingly unhelpful in explaining how this very decision may be possible if our disposition is already corrupted by a choice that has subordinated the good maxim. However, such shortcoming does not change the fact that we need not charge Kant for suggesting counter-reason beliefs about Christian original sin. It certainly seems reasonable to posit that even for the very best of us, frailty and impurity, and therefore evil, in the Kantian sense, is essentially unavoidable.

As such, Kant’s radical evil thesis remains considerably coherent and appears to adapt well with a modern theology that does not premise on a strong Augustinian doctrine of original sin. What Kant strives for is a Stoic quest to live a morally good life that may conform to the paradigm of moral goodness depicted by Jesus. As John Hare writes “Kant raises the problem of the moral gap vividly, because he places the moral demand on us very high and recognizes that we are born with a natural propensity not to follow it”. What Kant provides is a critical rationale for understanding the human condition characterized by the existence of a moral gap between humans and God. Without dismissing religion, Kant illuminates readers by driving them away from dogmatic ideas about original sin, into his transcendental recesses of reason.    

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