Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts in Philosophy



First Advisor

Donald J. Zeyl


The problem which this thesis proposes to treat is Immanuel Kant’s attempt to frame an ethical system ultimately based on the postulate of moral freedom (i.e. moral autonomy), and at the same time to espouse what he describes as the doctrine of “radical innate evil in human nature.” While the examination may well have significant implications for moral and religious theories beyond the boundaries of Kantian thought, generally these tempting vistas are not explored in the thesis. Indeed, the issue may also have broad repercussions for Kant’s philosophy in general but this too lies beyond the scope of the thesis. The investigation is limited as much as possible to the presentation and analysis of Kant’s specific argument for moral autonomy and radical evil as it is found in his two major ethical works Critique of Practical Reason and The Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Ethics, as well as his religious treatise, Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone. However, the major interpretations of Kant’s doctrines of moral autonomy and radical evil are examined in some detail since the definition of these terms is crucial for any examination of their compatibility.

The first section of the thesis, “Moral Autonomy” consists of a presentation and analysis of some of the more prominent and differing interpretations of Kant’s notion of moral autonomy. Primarily, the section deals with the views of Hans Veihinger, W. T. Jones, John R. Silber, and Lewis White Beck. Both the “frasdom as fiction” interpretation of Vaihinger and the “freedom as personality fulfillment” interpretation of Jones are rejected as not accurately representing Kant’s own view of moral autonomy. The “freedom as spontaneity” interpretation of Silber is endorsed, but it is also suggested that a full understanding of moral autonomy requires the additional insights of Beck with respect to the distinction between “freedom as spontaneity” and “freedom as autonomy.” The interpretation of moral autonomy upon which the balance of the thesis is constructed is, therefore, a combination of the views of Silber and Beck.

The second section of the thesis, “Radical Evil,” contains a systematic presentation of Kant’s doctrine of “radical innate evil in human nature.” There is much less controversy concerning the definition of this term than surrounds the definition of “moral autonomy.” This is probably due to the fact that the only place where Kant fully treats this doctrine is in the Religion and his discussion of it there is thorough and reasonably straightforward.

The final section is an analysis of the compatibility of these two Kantian doctrines. First, it is argued that Kant was very well aware of the danger of contradicting his fundamental ethical postulate of moral autonomy in affirming the doctrine of radical evil. Second, due to his cognizance of this danger, he carefully and successfully defined radical evil in such a way that it does not contradict moral autonomy. Third, the compatibility of these two doctrines in Kant’s philosophy may not ultimately be a satisfactory resolution of the general problem of affirming that man is both morally responsible and morally depraved because Kant’s understanding of radical evil is dubious.



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