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Modern Philosophy

Radical Evil and the Possibility of the Conversion into Good

Edgard José Jorge Filho
PUC/Rio, Brasil

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ABSTRACT: According to Kant, radical evil is the deep inherent blemish of our species that does not spare even the best of people. Despite judging the extirpation of such evil as an impossibility, Kant holds out the possibility of converting evil into good by means of human forces. But how can this be given the radical evil of human nature? I articulate various problems that arise from Kant’s conception of conversion while exploring certain resources in his thinking in order to clarify and resolve this difficulty. The difficulty nears an aporia when Kant asks: how can a bad tree bear good fruit? Two arguments will be presented as answers. The first maintains that free will is not definitely committed to any maxim generally accepted. The second points out the possibility of compromise between free will and a good ground maxim as the way to build up a coherent system of maxims. This would be clearly impossible if a bad ground maxim were chosen. While undecisive, the second argument is relevant because it leads to the overcoming of a certain incoherence in Kant's thought. In this way, I argue that the thesis of an existing intrinsic deficiency of the radical evil enjoys the status of a "quasi foundation" of human behavior.

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According to Kant, radical evil is the deep inherent blemish of our species that will not spare even the best of men. In spite of judging it impossible the extirpation of such evil, the German master deems it possible the conversion into good by means of human forces themselves. The purpose of our present work is to raise the following question: How can this conversion be possible, given the radical evil of human nature?

To our mind, this problem brings a difficulty that nears an aporia when Kant questions: "How can a bad tree bear good fruit?" (1) In order to demonstrate that there is an answer for it we will provide two arguments. The first one is stronger and fundamental as it maintains that free-will is not definitely committed to any maxim generally accepted. The second argument is subsidiary, pointing out a possibility of compromise between free-will and a good ground maxim in the way of building up a coherent system of maxims, what would be clearly impossible if a bad ground maxim were to be chosen. On the basis of such arguments one can demonstrate how conversion may be possible, although not as definitive and complete.


First of all we will bring forth the central question in its most dramatic formulation, pointing out a difficulty it brings. Here lies the disturbing problem: "How can a bad tree bear good fruit? "

The reader of "Religion within the limits of reason alone" knows that the radical evil of human nature or its propensity towards evil-the subjective ground for the possibility of a morally bad inclination, contingent to mankind as a whole-is not an essential and objectively necessary characteristic of man. (2) Actually it is a contingent trait, though imputed to every man without exception. Evil is also innate, to the extent that doesn't possess temporal origin, for in terms of a moral point of view, it should be imputable and hence originated from a non-temporal free-will act. A free-will act is the rational origin (free, non sensitive and non temporal) of the moral evil and this original act involves adopting a ground for the adoption of derived maxims. (3) Such freely acquired non-necessary ground is itself a "supreme" or "fundamental" maxim. On the basis of this maxim free-will adopts the other ones. Kant assumes the supreme maxim to be basically bad and its original adoption to be incomprehensible. He says: "According to what was said before, the proposition "man is bad" may only mean this: man is aware of the moral law, nevertheless he has admitted in his maxim to divert occasionally from it." (4)

It is necessary not only to examine the status of the supreme maxim but also to interpret its character of foundation of free-will determination in order to overcome difficulties related to the problem of the possibility of conversion into good. As matter of fact, there is a slight ambiguity about Kant's formulation concerning this maxim: it either appears as the foundation of all maxims without exception or as the ground of few maxims only, namely the immoral ones. (5) In the first case, as ground of all maxims without exception, the supreme maxim seems to make it unfeasible the conversion into good, for if the adoption of all existing maxims obeys to a bad principle, the adoption of good maxims and conversion into good will consequently be impossible. (6)

What suggests the impossibility of conversion is the fact that the supreme subjective ground of all maxims is corrupt, making it impossible to adopt good maxims, by means of which solely the conversion would be accomplished. Nevertheless Kant devotes at least the second and third books of "The Religion within the limits of reason alone" to the problem of conversion. In favor of its possibility Kant uses the key-argument, remarkably economical, expressed as follows: "This conversion must be possible as it is a duty." (7)

It is necessary to interpret correctly the radical evil as the supreme subjective foundation of all the maxims, in case we want to avoid this difficulty, namely a subtly suggested contradiction in Kant's thought: how can we be converted into good, as we ought to, if the radical evil is the foundation of all the maxims and if our free-will only determines itself to act by means of maxims? (8)

In order to avert suspicion of contradiction, we will recur to the arguments we have already announced in the introduction of the present work. At first we will develop the strongest argument that presents free-will as definitely non-committed with any adopted maxim.


The strongest argument is based on the very nature of free-will in the "Metaphysic of Morals." There is a definition of free-will (freie Willkür) and its freedom. The faculty of desire (Begehrungsvermögen) is defined as "the faculty of being, through its representations, the cause of the objects of these representations." (9) On the other hand, "the faculty of desiring according to concepts, to the extent that its (of this faculty) ground of determination (Bestimmungsgrund) lies in itself rather than in the object is called the faculty of doing or omitting to do arbitrarily (nach Belieben zu tun oder zu lassen). To the extent that this faculty is joined to the consciousness of its capacity of action towards the production of its object, it is called will (Willkür)." (10)

Nevertheless human will (Willkür) or any finite rational being will is a sort of free-will (freie Willkür) defined as the one "that can be determined by pure reason." (11) This aspect distinguishes it from the animal will (arbitrium brutum) that can only be determined by sensitive stimuli. (12)

It is worth while emphasizing that in the definition of free-will, the distintive characteristic is not the necessity but the possibility of determining this faculty by the pure reason. This is what makes it different, as ambiguous as it may seem, from the will "in stricto sensu" (Wille) which is the faculty of desire with the pure reason as its necessary ground of determination. In other words the "stricto sensu" will (Wille) would be the legislating pure reason, which, although autonomous, wouldn't be as free as we understand the free-will to be.

The freedom of free-will is conceived negatively and positively. The negative concept is "the independence of the free-will determination from sensitive impulses (durch sinnliche Antriebe)." (13) The positive concept is "the pure reason capacity of being practical by itself." (14) One should observe that the definition of freedom considered to be property of man as an intelligible being can't be originated from experience as it happens when it is defined to be "the faculty of deciding to act for or against the moral law." (15) That definition ought to be rational in order to have universal and necessary value despite the temptation of defining empirically freedom as mere faculty of choice (Vermögen der Wahl).

There is another important point. The definition of free-will (Willkür) as the one capable of being determined by the pure reason means representing it as necessarily subject to an obliging law, the Categorical Imperative. (16) Concerning the positive concept of freedom of free-will, Kant asserts: "this is only possible by means of subordinating the maxim of all action to the condition of its (of the maxim) validity as universal law." (17) Thus free-will, which is the ultimate source of all maxims, is submitted to this condition expressed in the formula of the Categorical Imperative.

The character of the law to which free-will submits as well as its own definition implies not only the inextinguishable possibility of its determination by pure reason but also the non-necessity of such determination. For if on the one hand such possibility were to be excluded free-will would contradict itself; if on the other hand, that determination were to be necessary, free-will would no more be ruled by an obliging law and would mingle with the holy will, which is autonomous but not subject to obligation or self-coercion. (18)

It is inalienable the capacity of free-will itself to be determined by pure reason under an obliging law, hence it is excluded the need for this determination. (19) Insofar as maxims alone constitute principles of free-will determination, it is rejected the need to determine it by maxims according to pure reason, as well as excluded the impossibility of its determination by these same maxims. Therefore free-will is not necessarily committed to any maxim, moral or immoral. This also means that every adopted maxim, however firmly it has been adopted, can be abandoned.

There is one difficulty left: if free-will is determined only by maxims, the adopting act should then inevitably depend on other maxims, ultimately on the original, fundamental maxim. This maxim ("prime") was postulated by Kant in order to avoid a regression to infinite. (20) I understand that since there is a fundamental maxim, first in logical order, that conditions the acquisition of all other maxims, then it seems not to be possible to adopt maxims which are incompatible with the fundamental one and ipso facto it would be impossible to abandon this one and to subvert the way of thinking (Denkungsart)

Being strictly the "prime" one, the fundamental maxim cannot be conditioned by any other maxim. Hence when free-will acquires this fundamental maxim, (for every maxim is acquired) it would not be determined by any maxim, making it possible for it, in a way, to act without rule. One ought to admit the possibility of such an irregularity of free-will in order to be able to explain the possibility of acquisition of the fundamental maxim as well as its revolution.

Briefly we assert free-will inalienable capacity of self-determination through pure reason, pointing out its non-anomic character as it is subject to an obliging law, and we recognize a certain irregularity about it, concerning the adoption of maxims. These characteristics lead to admitting the possibility of substituting one maxim, even the fundamental or supreme one, by another incompatible with it. Therefore it is viable to grant the possibility of a revolution (Revolution) in the way of thinking (Denkungsart), that is either the conversion of bad into good or the reverse of it into bad.


The complementary argument maintains the possibility of a consistent compromise of free-will with a good fundamental maxim in order to form a coherent system of maxims and the impossibility of such a commitment to a bad supreme maxim.

The core of the argument lies on a interpretation of the canonical formula of the categorical imperative presented in "Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals." The formula says: "act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law." To my mind it provides the qualification criterion of the maxims as good or bad on moral basis. Once the categorical imperative commands to act always according to a good maxim, we infer to be good the maxim we could want it to become a universal law and bad the one we couldn't want it to. Consequently the fundamental or supreme maxim itself would be good if we could want it to become a universal law and bad if we could not want it to.

Since it is possible to want a good fundamental maxim to become a universal law it will also be possible to build up on its basis a coherent system of maxims, or at least a consistent commitment between free-will and this good fundamental maxim regarding the general adoption of maxims. On the other hand the bad fundamental maxim immorality excludes any will of making it a universal law, as well as building up on its basis a coherent system of maxims. Therefore there would not be any consistent commitment between free-will and a bad fundamental maxim.

In other words, the supreme good maxim is apt to be universally recognized not only as a principle of a coherent system of maxims but also as an authentic practical groundwork. Conversely the bad supreme maxim which couldn't be wanted as a principle of a coherent system of maxims should not be recognized as an authentic practical ground. Although Kant refer to it as the "subjective ground of all maxims" we understand that it cannot rise to the status of an authentic foundation. This does not prevent us from considering it, by analogy, a "quasi foundation" that could not be wanted as a universal law but according to which many maxims could be adopted. (21)

Kant is not quite explicit about the possibility of adopting good maxims on the basis of a "bad subjective foundation". Nevertheless he is peremptory when he asserts "if we ought to, we can". This is the decisive argument for the admission of that possibility, although some problems might be avoided if we recognized the character of "quasi foundation" of the radical evil. This recognition arises from Kant's premises and does not represent any exterior accruing to his doctrine but only an attempt to make it more explicit.

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(1) Kant.,I., "Die Religion innerhalb der Grenzen der blossen Vernunft", in Werkausgabe, herausgegeben von Wilhelm Weischedel, vierte Auflage, Frankfurt am Main, Suhrkamp Taschenbuch Verlag, 1982,Band VIII,p.695. From now on, for the sake of simplification, we will refer to this work as "Religion" and this edition of Kant's works as Werkausgabe, followed by the number of the volume (Band...) and page.

(2) Cf Kant, I., "Religion", Werkausgabe, Band. VIII pp.675-6, 680. In this work or at least in the second part of Book I, propensity and inclination are thus defined: "Propensity (Hang) is properly speaking just a predisposition (Prädisposition) to desire pleasure (Genuss); however it entails an inclination (Neigung) towards it when the subject experiences it" (Id., Ibid., pg. 676, author's note).

(3) Kant defines practical principles, laws and maxims as follows: "Practical principles are propositions that bear a general determination of the will, which itself embodies several practical rules. They are subjective, or maxims, when the condition is considered by the subject to be valid solely for his will; but they are objective, or practical laws, when this condition is recognized to be objective, that is, valid for the will of every rational being" (Kant, I., "Kritik der praktischen Vernunft", Werkausgabe, Band VII,p.125)

(4) Kant, I.,"Religion", Werkausgabe, Band VIII, p. 680, Cf. Id., Ibid., p.693

(5) These two different approaches of the supreme maxim would have been suggested in at least two passages as we will now quote. In the first one it is hinted that the supreme maxim is the foundation not exactly of all the maxims, but only of the immoral particular ones "(...) in order to call a man bad, it would be necessary to conclude a priori from several or even one only conscious bad action to a bad maxim as a foundation and from this maxim to a general ground, inherent in the subject, of all the morally bad particular maxims, which would ultimately be a maxim" (Kant, I "Religion",Werkausgabe, Band VIII, p.666) In the second passage the supreme maxim is presented as subjective ground of all maxims.(supposedly without exception): "...self-love taken as the principle of all maxims (als Prinzip aller unserer Maximen) is precisely the source of all evil" (Kant,I., "Religion" Werkausgabe, Band VIII, p.695.

(6) The idea of the supreme maxim as foundation of all maxims and the impossibility of the conversion into good would be expressed here:

"This evil is radical because it corrupts the foundation of all maxims (den Grund aller Maximen), besides, as natural propensity, it cannot be eradicated (nicht zu vertilgen) by human forces; for this couldn't happen except by means of good maxims, what cannot occur when one assumes the supreme subjective ground of all maxims to be corrupt (der oberste subjective Grund aller Maximen); nevertheless one should be able to prevail upon it (zu uberwiegen), because it lies in man, as he is a being who acts freely" (Kant,I., "Religion" Werkausgabe, Band VIII, p.686).

(7) Id., Ibid., pg. 720. The use of this argument demands not only explanations of certain questions but also the clear description of Kantian concepts as it follows. The complexity we have found in the Kantian conception makes us disagree with J.L.Bruch, who in his outstanding work "The Religious Philosophy of Kant" asserts : "The solution to this problem is very simple as it consists of verifying that moral law defined as such in "Critique of Practical Reason", which guarantees the moral freedom of the autonomous being, continues to be imposed on the sinner" (Bruch,J.L., "La philosophie religieuse de Kant", Aubier, Editions Montaigne, 1968, p.85)

(8) "Besides the maxims, one cannot indicate any foundation of the determination of free-will" Kant, I., "Religion", Werkausgabe, Band VIII, pg.667,note*.

(9) Kant,I., "Metaphysik der Sitten",Werkausgabe, Band VIII, p. 315.

(10) Id., Ibid., pg.317

(11) Id., Ibid., pg. 317-8

(12) Id., Ibid., pg. 318

(13) Kant,I., "Metaphysik der Sitten",Werkausgabe, Band VIII, pg. 318

(14) Id., Ibid., pg. 318

(15) Id., Ibid., pg. 332-3

(16) It is advisable to present the definitions of obligation, imperative, categorical imperative and its formula : "Obligation is the necessity of free action under the categorical imperative of reason"(Kant,I., "Metaphysik der Sitten",Werkausgabe, Band VIII, p.327); "The imperative is a practical rule through which an action contingent in itself becomes necessary"(Id., Ibid., p.328); it is categorical "an imperative that without being based as a condition on any other intention (zu erreichende Absicht) to be achieved by a certain behavior, orders immediately such behavior" (Id., "Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten"Werkausgabe, Band VII, p.45); "The categorical imperative is thus one only, namely the following: "Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law."" (Id., Ibid., p.51)

(17) Kant,I.,"Metaphysik der Sitten",Werkausgabe, Band VIII, p.318.

(18) Neither a saint will nor the divine will would submit to imperatives, in a different way from the human will: "A perfectly good will would thus equally submit to objective laws (of good) but could not represent itself as obliged (genöthigt) to actions according to the law, because owing to its subjective constitution it can only be determined by the representation of the good, This is why imperatives are not valid either to the divine will or, in general, to a holy will; duty is not here in its place, because the will necessarily coincides by itself with the law. Therefore imperatives are only formulae to express the relationships between objective laws of the will, (in general) and the will subjective imperfection of this or that rational being, of human will, for example".(Kant,I., "Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten", Werkausgabe, Band VII,pp.42-3)

(19) "Besides the maxims there is no ground of free-will determination to be pointed out". Kant,I., "Religion",Werkausgabe, Band VIII, p.667, note *.

(20) Kant,I.,"Religion",Werkausgabe, Band VIII, p.667, note *

(21) Even though Kant doesn't take the radical evil as a "quasi foundation", we judge this interpretation appropriate as it adjusts to the characteristics of the two inferior degrees of radical evil, namely fragility (Gebrechlichkeit) and impurity (Unlauterkeit). As a matter of fact in such degrees of propensity to evil there remain good maxims though respect to moral law may not be accepted in the maxims as a sufficient motive. Thus fragility constitutes an exception to maxims that might be good, as under extreme circumstances the sensitive motive prevails over the rational one. Regarding the impurity, I understand there is a systematic commitment between the maxims and a mixture of sensitive and rational motives. In this case the maxims may be still good but the prevailing motive is the sensitive one. When it comes to the highest point of propensity to evil, namely malignity (Bösartigkeit), the maxims are bad in themselves for their main trait is the acceptance of the sensitive motive on the basis of a peculiar inversion of the subordination due to the rational motive by the sensitive one. (cf. Kant,I., "Religion",Werkausgabe, Band VIII, p. 698). Briefly if Kant admits the adoption of good maxims on the level of fragility and impurity which are degrees of propensity to evil, so it seems that the bad "fundamental maxim" does not impose the exclusion of good maxims. Here is one of the clues that would show the radical evil not to be exactly the "subjective foundation of all the maxims".


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