Josh Dunigan |||

Philosophy briefs : moral evil

Most of our stories have evil at the center of them. Our religions tell us about the evils of this material world and how it affects the afterlife. History is largely told through evil happening and people trying to overcome it. The philosophers throughout time have been fascinated with understanding evil. Evil is something we weaponize as well to show fear. But what is it? Is evil a phenomenon? Are people evil? Is evil the opposite of the good? Why are we so fascinated with it? Why does there seem to be so much of it? Are humans innately evil like the Puritans told us? Can we overcome being evil?

This is something that Kant writes extensively on, it is also the center theme of the seminar ethics class I am taking this semester with Professor Varden. It is something that every human wonders about and something I in particular want to learn more and see what we can do about it. Especially evils like genocide and war crimes. To combat evil, first we need to understand it, sort of a know thy enemy” situation. If we are to go to the moon, we need need to understand the science behind it. If we are to overcome and prevent evil, we need to understand the philosophy behind it.

Objectivity of morality

Kant sets out in the Groundwork to understand what morality or virtue is. For him, virtue comes about from the power of our free choice as rational beings. What is good for Kant is the good will. Virtues such as power, wit, judgement, honor, etc. are only good when they presuppose this good will. All of the virtues could end up being bad without the presence of a good will, they could also just as well be consistent with the good will. However, the good will is the only thing that is unconditionally good. For Kant, this good will being present is the only condition that makes us as humans worthy of happiness.

Even if by some particular disfavor of fate, or by the scanty endowment of a stepmotherly nature, this will should entirely lack the capacity to carry through its purpose; if despite its greatest striving it should still accomplish nothing, and only the good will were to reamin (not, of course, as a mere wish, but as the summoning of all meansthat are within our control); then, like a jewel, it would still shine by itself, as something that has its full worth in itself.

I will not rehash the most rehashed philosophical argument about what the Groundwork goes for. What is important is that Kant establishes that there is some objective moral law that we as humans can know and act on. This moral law should be the sufficient incentive alone to act on it, it is our duty. To be virtuous is to act consistently with freedom. To make it your maxim to lie out of self-love is wrong on this account, to lie is wrong always on this account. Again, we can know the objective thing to do.

Evil as corruption of the objective

Like Kant, the Stoics praised virtue, freedom, and this objective morality. However, they differ on a lot after that. The Stoics claimed that freedom and virtue is how you should orient your moral thinking and happiness will come along. This differs from the Epicureans who reversed the order of the Stoics. However, Kant thinks that freedom and virtue is not the whole picture. Freedom and happiness are separate, first we must act freely and then try to unite freedom with happiness as human beings. This is what Kant calls the highest good.

However, the Stoics missed another important aspect of a full account of morality and human nature. Kant and the Stoics agreed on the moral laws and reason as sufficient for the sole legislator of our maxims.

And so was everything quite correctly apportioned - objectively, as regards the rule, and also subjectively, with respect to the incentive - provided that one attributes to the human being an uncorrupted will, unhesitatingly incorporating these laws into its maxims. The mistake of those philosophers, however, lay in just this last presupposition. … That is, the first really good thing that a human being can do is to extricate himself from an evil which is to be sought not in his inclinations but in his perverted maxims, and hence in freedom itself. Those inclinations only make more difficult the execution of the good maxims opposing them; whereas genuine evil consists in our will not to resist the inclinations when they invite transgression, and this disposition is the really true enemy.

Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason 6:59, footnote *

So I believe that when Kant talks of evil, it is that the subjective part of our will makes it harder to follow the objective maxims, and the most evil we can have in our will is when we no longer are able to resist the inclinations to violate the objective. This refers to the different degress of evil in the human will. Before that, I would like to step back and go to where Kant starts in his discussion of evil in the Religion.

Humanity is evil by nature

That the world lieth in evil” is a complaint as old as history, even as old as the older art of poetry

He starts out with a preliminary discussion of evil, historical and philosophical. But he moves quickly into his argument. He goes on to say

We call a human being evil, however, not because actions that he performs are evil (contrary to law), but because they are so constituted that they allow the inference of evil maxims in him.

This is not a claim that can be proved empirically. We cannot observe the internal maxims people make, only the actions themselves in space/time. Even moreso, it is hard for ourselves to observe if our own maxims are evil or not, we can deceive ourselves or downplay the reasons we do certain things. The determination of human nature as evil is, in Kant’s favorite word, something we can infer a priori. To clarify by what he means when he says nature, he says that we understand it as the subjective ground - wherever it may lie - of the exercise of the human being’s freedom in general (under objective moral laws) antecedent to every deed that falls within the scope of the senses.” For it to be moral evil, the evil must be possible under freedom. He says

Hence the ground of evil cannot lie in any object determining the power of choice through inclination, not in any natural impulses, but only in a rule that the power of choice itself produces for the exercise of its freedom, i.e., in a maxim.

This is consistent with his writings in the Groundwork as well that say that the natural impulses and inclinations are not evil in themselves. Otherwise, evil would not be moral evil if the author of the evil was not rational being, then the evil would be nature or something of that sort.

The moral law itself should be the necessary and sufficient reason for a maxim to be acted on and this is what constitutes a morally good deed. If the law is not sufficient a reason to act on, this means that in relation to someone’s free power of choice, some incentive that was opposed to the objective moral law was mixed with their maxim. He says

this can only happen because this human being incoporates the incentive (and consequently also the deviation from the moral law) into his maxim (in which case he is an evil human being).

Predisposition to good

Kant says that we have a predisposition to good. What this predisposition means exactly I do not know. He says that we have a predisposition to animality, humanity, and personality. Animality is what makes us living beings. Humanity is what makes us rational beings. Personality is what makes us responsible beings.

Predisposition to animality

This is what Kant calls physical or mechanical self-love. This type of self-love does not need reason. This is where we as humans get our drive for self-preservation, our drive for sex, and our drive for societal relations with other humans. These are not bad or good necessarily, but they can be. The vices from animality are called the vices of savagery says Kant, at their greatest deviation from the natural ends, are called the bestial vices of gluttony, lust and wild lawlessness (in relation to other human beings)”.

Predisposition to humanity

This is another type of self-love, but this is one that uses reason that involces comparison with others to judge our own happiness. From this, we will try to garner the social opinions of others. This can be acceptable when we just want to establish equal worth, but we can also use this poorly and try to gain superiority over other humans. These social emotions gone bad The vicesthat arise from this are jealousy, rivalry, envy, ingratitude, or schadenfreude.

For example, this is how we feel good when we get a higher grade than our peers on exam, but then feel bad about the same grade when learning that someone else got higher than you, even though your grade is the same. This is also where we can feel joy merely out of other people’s suffering. Kant calls these vices the diabolical vices”, rather appropriate I would say.

Predisoposition to personality

This is where the human is able to take the moral law as the sole incentive and reason in regards to our power of choice. This is the only predisposition where vice cannot occur in. The feeling that arises, like in the other predispositions, is our moral feeling.

Propensity to evil

Kant says that propensity differs from a predisposition in that it can indeed be innate yet may be represented as not being such”. What I take this to mean is that he says the predispositions are original to human nature and cannot be thought of without them. A being would not be human if it did not have exactly all three of these predispositions. While the propensity to evil may not be innate in human beings by nature, but it may be something that human beings bring upon themselves. However, I still am unsure exactly the difference of both of these.

Anyway, he says that there are three different grades of our propensity to evil. They are frailty, impurity, and depravity.


Kant says that this is our general weakness in the human heart with complying with the adopted maxims.” In this, an agent incorporates the good, the objective moral law into their maxim. However, the agent has a subjective inclination that is stronger in them. So in the will of the agent, there is a conflict between the moral law and the inclination, and the frail agent is one in which the objective law is weaker when compared to the inclination of self-love.

How I am interpreting this is that frailty is just a description of the subjective will of the agent. The frail person still follows through with the objective moral law. This law is still sufficient for the agent to act, but it is the weaker incentive in the agent. On this interpetation, someone could never commit an immoral deed while always being frail (assuming they never get better or worse morally speaking).

An example is that my mom could ask me if I have been sleeping at normal times and getting enough sleep. If I am frail, I will still tell her the truth, but subjectively I am going to struggle telling her for some reason out of self-love, maybe I do not want to embarass myself that I am not taking care of myself properly. However, I still did the moral thing by telling the truth.


Impurity is the propensity to adulterate moral incentives with immoral ones (even when it is done with good intention, and under maxims of the good)”. He says that

although the maxim is good with respect to its object (the intended compliance with the law) and perhaps even powerful enough in practice, it is not purely moral, i.e. it has not, as should be [the case], adopted the law alone as its sufficient incentive but, on the contrary, and often (and perhaps always) needs still other incentives besides it in order to determine the power of choice for what duty requires; in other words, actions conforming to duty are not done purely from duty.

Similar to frailty, it is possible that the impure person can still do what is required by duty all the time, it is just that the objective moral law is not sufficient to act. The maxim the agent has must, sometimes or always, incorporate something else, some inclination of self-love in it along with the objective moral law to make it sufficient to act. This differs from frailty in that the inclination of self-love was only the stronger pull on the will of the agent, but the frail person still only needed the objective moral law as a sufficient incentive.

An example could be doing community service. You know that we have an imperfect duty to care about others, so the moral law here should be sufficient incentive alone. However, for you to actually go out and do community service you need another reason to make it your maxim. It just so happens that your high school counselor said it would look good on your college application, so you go do it.

Impurity is one degree higher in that your inclinations of self-love are now necessary to do the right thing in some or all cases. The subjective will of the agent contains the objective moral law, but it alone is not sufficient anymore.


This is the propensity to actually adopt evil maxims. He says that this is

the propensity of the power of choice to maxims that subordinate the incentives of the moral law to others (not moral ones). It can also be called the perversity of the human heart, for it reverses the ethical order as regards the incentives of a free power of choice; and although with this reversal there can stilll be legally good actions, yet the mind’s attitude is thereby corrupted at its root.

The objective moral law is no longer necessary or sufficient as the incentive for doing some action. The inclinations from self-love are the sole incentives needed for acting. I think when Kant says that these can be legally good actions, he is saying that someone may do the right thing, legally and possible even morally. We can imagine the person who tells the truth only if it is out of self-love and just as easily will lie out of self-love, whether or not the truth is objectively the moral thing to do is of no concern to the depraved person.


On my reading of this text and in relation to what I have read so far of his other texts, it seems like Kant is describing the will. However, he does not really mention explicitly too much about actions, or how you determine if you are what type of evil will. Sussman and Varden both think that the frail person sort of violates the moral law only episodically, while the impure person may have a pattern. How I take this is that the lower bound on violating the moral law on both of these in theory could be zero times, while the upper bound is episodic/patterned.

Sussman mentions something about our fundamental commitments”. That is, the frail person is still committed to the moral law, it does not change with a violation here or there. Whereas the impure person sort of is committed to the moral law, but they need to tell themselves some sort of grander story about why they are doing what they are doing. This is sort of like the Kantian-like thinking is turning into a Humean-like thinking. To do the right or wrong thing, the person does not consult only the moral law, but is also consulting self-love.

Good versus evil wills

Kant starts out the Groundwork saying that

It is impossible to think of anything at all in the world, or indeed even beyond it, that could be taken to be good without limitation, except a good will.

To sum up before as well

  • The good will is where the objective moral law is the only incentive that is sufficient to act on a maxim.
  • The frail will is where the objective moral law is also the only incentive that is sufficient to act on a maxim, but in the will of the agent it is subjectively weaker to inclinations of self-love.
  • The impure will is where the objective law is not the only incentive that is sufficient to act on a maxim, the objective law is necessary but what makes the maxim sufficient as a whole is an inclination of self love.
  • The depraved will is where the objective law is neither necessary or sufficient to act on a maxim, what is necesary is an inclination of self-love.

… self-love, which when adopted as the principle of all our maxims, is precisely the source of all evil.

Self-love is the enemy of virtue, while this enemy we fight subjectively in our own will. Kant says about this relation to this enemy in our will

And the reason which teaches this, all the more so when it also puts it in actual practice, alone deserves the name of wisdom, in comparison to which vice may indeed also be called folly, but only when reason feels enough strength within itself to despite it (and every stimulation to it), not just to hate it as something to be feared, and arm itself against it.

Morally good human being and human being of good morals

This interpretation is consistent when Kant says that there is the morally good human being and the human being of good morals (Kant name things better please). The human being of good morals could do the objective moral deed in every situation of their whole life along with the morally good human being. However, the morally good human being is one with a good will. The morally good human being always has the moral law as the sole and supreme incentive”. The human being of good morals could have the frail will or the impure will.

The human being of good morals merely complies with the law to the letter, while the morally good human being observes the law according to its spirit. The spirit of the moral law is just the law being of itself a sufficient incentive”. He quotes, probably some Scriptures, Whatever is not of faith is sin (in attitude)”. So the person with the frail or impure will is still sinning” on this account.


Evil maxims are adopted by the depraved person. The impure person needs something else to do the objective thing. The frail person struggles subjectively to do the moral thing. The person of a good will only needs the objective moral law as sole and sufficient incentive for their maxims. On this interpretation, we are depraved when we lie, when we hurt others. We are impure when something like ambition or sympathy are needed to act freely. We are frail when we struggle to tell the truth. On this account, it seems we are mostly all of an evil will, even if we are human beings of good morals”. I think this is okay though, the bar for being good should be high.

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