restricted access Character and Evil in Kant's Moral Anthropology
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Journal of the History of Philosophy 44.4 (2006) 623-634

Character and Evil in Kant's Moral Anthropology

In the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant explains that moral anthropology studies the "subjective conditions in human nature that help or hinder [people] in fulfilling the laws of a metaphysics of morals" and insists that such anthropology "cannot be dispensed with" (6:217).1 But it is often difficult to find clear evidence of this sort of anthropology in Kant's own works. In this paper, I discuss Kant's account of character as an example of Kantian moral anthropology.

Kant's account of character is one of the most important parts of his Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View.2 Kant describes the character of the person, in particular, as the "distinguishing mark of the human being as a rational being endowed with freedom" and says that character "indicates what the human being is prepared to make of himself" (7:285). Recently, Kant commentators have gone even further. G. Felicitas Munzel, for example, claims that character is "the systematic link between the moral, aesthetic, and anthropological elements of Kant's works."3 This paper will not investigate the full richness of Kant's account of character. Instead, I focus on one particular problem that arises in Kant's discussion of character—an apparent conflict between the moral relevance of character and the possibility of evil character. By showing why there is an apparent conflict and why it is merely apparent, I show some of the ways in which a particular subjective condition in human nature can help, but not force, people to fulfill the laws of a metaphysics of morals. [End Page 623]

1. The Problem: Moral Character and the Case of Sulla

When Kant introduces character in the Anthropology, he distinguishes between the character of the person, of the sex, of the nation, of the race, and of the species. Even within the character of the person, he distinguishes between "natural aptitude," "temperament," and "character purely and simply," all of which are different kinds of individual character. But only the last—the "character purely and simply"4 of a person—"is moral" and "shows what man is prepared to make of himself" (7:285).5 This paper focuses only on that general, moral character.

At first, Kant seems to describe general character as morally good. Twice in his opening discussion of character, Kant describes "character" (Charakter) as "moral" (moralische) (7:285), and he insists that "character has an inner worth, and is beyond all price" (7:292). Though not decisive, these comments suggest that one with character has a good will. But Kant goes further, adding that the person with character "relies on principles that are valid for everyone" (7:293). This reference to universally valid principles is picked up later in a way that highlights its moral goodness.

For character requires maxims that proceed from reason and morally-practical principles. Therefore one cannot rightly say that the malice of this human being is a quality of his character; for then it would be diabolic. The human being, however, never sanctions the evil in himself, and so there is actually no malice from principles; but only from the forsaking of them.


It seems that Kant could not be more explicit. Character seems to involve acting on the basis of principles that conform to and even flow from "morally-practical principles," which he seems to distinguish from anything evil. This seems quite close to Kant's account of the good will as a will "whose principle is the categorical imperative" (4:444). (Although Kant's precise account of the good will is complicated, for our purposes here it is sufficient to define a good will as a will that consistently acts out of respect for the moral law.6) To have character, it would seem, is to have a good will.

But this apparent identification of character with good character does not fit the rest of...