- Kant on Evil, Self-Deception, and Moral Reform by Laura Papish
Iris Murdoch wrote that we should always ask about any philosopher: "what are they afraid of?" (The Sovereignty of Good, 71. London: Routledge, 1970). One of Kant's most acute anxieties is the human tendency to motivated illusion and self-deception. For Kant, not only is it the case that "the depths of the human heart are unfathomable" (6:447), but we human beings actively undermine our own efforts to know it, we "throw dust in our own eyes" (6:38). In her book, Laura Papish offers a rich, holistic account of the Kantian person—not just the "agent"—in order to provide a textually-based, philosophically-defensible analysis of the relationship between self-deception and evil in Kant's philosophy.
The main questions that animate Papish's investigation are: What is self-deception, according to Kant? In what way does self-deception operate as a condition for evil? And how does recourse to the phenomenon of self-deception provide Kant with further explanatory resources when it comes to making sense of evil? Throughout the book, Papish also raises interesting methodological questions. These are not pursued at length, since they are in some sense beyond the purview of her immediate focus; and yet, as Papish recognizes, when it comes to a Kantian analysis of evil and self-deception—that is, his non-ideal moral psychology—questions of method arise immediately, since it seems that neither a strictly a priori analysis nor an ordinary empirical investigation is appropriate. So, we need to ask: in his analyses of phenomena like self-deception, self-conceit, our unsocial sociability, and our radical evil, exactly what kinds of claims is Kant making, what kinds of claims can he make, and what kinds of claims can we accept as defensible?
After providing a fascinating analysis of what could be called Kant's hedonism for humans (chapter 1) and a new interpretation of evil as motivational overdetermination (chapter 2), Papish turns directly to self-deception. Her first task is to explain what self-deception is. She argues that because the self-deceiving person is partly cognizant of epistemic norms, self-deception should be understood as a form of rationalization, the routing of attention away from some undesirable cognition and towards another, preferable cognition that distracts from the first (75). (Papish's discussion of Kant's "doxastic flexibility" and the space in his system for permissible moral illusions is extremely illuminating.)
In chapter 4, Papish turns to the question of why self-deception should be necessary for evil. Can human beings not knowingly act without moral justification, or against their best judgment, without needing to deceive themselves? Papish argues that self-deception need not involve radical self-ignorance. Rather, "what is decisive regarding self-deception in a Kantian framework is not whether an agent has cognition of what is true but whether she [End Page 410] vigorously attends to the truth" (99). Notice, though, that self-deception as rationalization sets the bar very low. If we are self-deceived whenever we do not "vigorously attend" to the truth, then human beings will turn out to be self-deceived much of the time, and non-selfdeceived agency will be quite demanding (99). If Papish is fine with all this, it would be worthwhile to discuss the costs and benefits of this expansive conception.
In chapter 5, Papish addresses Kant's claim that evil "belongs to the human being universally (and hence to the character of the species)" (6:29). How, and on what basis, can Kant make such a universal claim? Papish's proposal for how to understand Kant's argument for radical evil is original, creative, and compelling. One of its productive novelties is its focus on Kant's claims about the human species (Gattung), and specifically the idea that a defect belongs to our species as such. Papish notes how "deeply weird" it is for Kant to suggest that there could be a species defect (121). It is deeply weird...