In "transcendence and evil", Levinas gives an account of how good and evil are not merely opposites, and would be better fit for description in a venn diagram (as a synopsis for those that haven't read it). Would this compare to the kantian musing of evil (as reflected upon in both general and radical forms of evil) and good?

  • What does "Would this compare to" mean? Also which "Kanitan musing of evil" are you referring to? Do you mean the ones in Religion within the bounds of reason alone?
    – virmaior
    May 2, 2016 at 1:42
  • @virmaior Regardless of where "Radical Evil" is coined, all Kant's works are equally important to defining good and evil, for Kant, no? May 2, 2016 at 12:41
  • Kant's views change and evolve (or at least appear to) between works... Still, it's not at all clear what "would this compare to" means here.
    – virmaior
    May 2, 2016 at 13:21
  • @virmaior Would kant's idea of good/evil be best fit for a venn diagram as opposed to, the seeming common view of the time, opposites? May 2, 2016 at 13:43

1 Answer 1



Good and evil are in their very core moral concepts and dichotomous for Kant, although there are texts where there seem to be things that may be in some respects called good, but can become evil. Therefore, I do not think that he can be taken to fit the picture Levinas is thinking of.

On moral good and evil

While in the moral sphere there is good and evil, the good is absolute as well as the evil is radical, so that they are dichotomous and reason is forced into dialectics, because both (the moral law and the pursuit of eudaimonia/felicity) are part of the human nature. This idea of twofold human nature is fully developed in Religion Within the Bounds of Reason Alone.

BUT the overall picture is pretty consistent over time, see e.g. 4:405 for the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals (1785), 5:47 for the Critique of Practical Reason (1788) as well as explicitely 6:37 for the Religion Within the Bounds of Reason Alone (1793) (and in general: book 1, chapter 3). I will quote from the last text, because it is most explicit about it:

Now if a propensity to this does lie in human nature, there is in man a natural propensity to evil; and since this very propensity must in the end be sought in a will which is free, and can therefore be imputed, it is morally evil. This evil is radical, because it corrupts the ground of all maxims; it is, moreover, as a natural propensity, inextirpable by human powers, since extirpation could occur only through good maxims, and cannot take place when the ultimate subjective ground of all maxims is postulated as corrupt; yet at the same time it must be possible to overcome it, since it is found in man, a being whose actions are free.

That means that if the terms of good and evil are taken morally, they are mere opposites.

On 'good' that can be evil

Kant has some accounts of "good" that may be used for evil deeds e.g. in the first part of the Groundwork that may be taken as making a venn diagram possible, but this "good", has to be understood in the sense of "good as means", i.e. in an instrumental sense, therefore he has to say:

Moderation in affects and passions, self-control, and sober reflection not only are good for many aims, but seem even to constitute a part of the inner worth of a person; yet they lack much in order to be declared good without limitation (however unconditionally they were praised by the ancients). For without the principles of a good will they can become extremely evil, and the cold-bloodedness of a villain makes him not only far more dangerous but also immediately more abominable in our eyes than he would have been held without it. (4:394)

Therefore they do not have any 'inner good', but are seen as good only because they may correlate with a good will, and usually do. That means the 'good' is only derivative here.

  • Are you saying Kant's idea of intrumentation (which I thought had links to the moral imperative) is not morally linked? May 3, 2016 at 12:20
  • @NationWidePants: Instrumentation is linked to hypothetical imperatives, which are explicitely contrasted with the categorical imperative as principle of morality in various occasions ever since the first critique, e.g. §1 of the second critique under the term of 'practical rules'.
    – Philip Klöcking
    May 3, 2016 at 13:49
  • @NationWidePants: But you are correct in some sense, i.e. in his later years he linked virtue, education and the forming of character with knowledge and the broad idea of 'how to do it right', which can be subsumed under prudence [Klugheit] in a non-prejorative sense.
    – Philip Klöcking
    May 3, 2016 at 14:08

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