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Title: The Enduring Relevance of Kant's Analysis of (Radical) Evil
Author(s): VANDEN AUWELE, Dennis
Volume: 73 Issue: 2 Date: 2012
Kant’s analysis of evil agency in his Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason has found almost no resonance in subsequent philosophical discussions on the topic. In this essay, I trace this discomfort back to a tense togetherness of two extreme outlooks on the nature of evil agency. (1) A rational analysis of evil which holds that evil is comprehensible, possible to overcome and never pursued for itself alone. Plato, e.g., held that evil is a deficiency in knowledge: a wise person would never knowingly prefer evil over the good. (2) A radical analysis of evil which holds that evil is incomprehensible (or, exceeding comprehension), impossible to overcome and positively pursued for itself alone. Luther, e.g., believed that the human agent is radically fallen from grace (‘completely Flesh’) with no hope to – by his/her own devices – overcome this depravity. Elements from both analyses can be found in Kant’s concept of the propensity to evil in human nature. Although I hold that Kant’s theory is philosophically sound, subsequent philosophers, casu quo Hegel and Levinas, hold that his analysis is respectively too radical or too rational. In this essay, I will argue that Kant’s analysis is superior to both Hegel’s and Levinas’ more onesided analyses and, therefore, has enduring relevance for reflection on evil and immoral agency.