Can we choose evil? A discussion of the problem of radical evil as a modern and ancient problem of freedom

Mark Coeckelbergh

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The problem discussed in this paper emerges from work I’ve done on the modern ideal of autonomy.1 I found that autonomy is often seen as a morally neutral term. Put in terms of good and evil, this means that it is held consistent to say that a person is autonomous and chooses evil. Autonomy, by itself, so it is argued, is neutral with regard to good or evil. On this view, whether or not I choose evil, if I make this choice in the capacity of being my own master, of governing and ruling myself, then there is nothing in the way of autonomy that I lack. For example, Feinberg argues that autonomy is consistent with ruthlessness, cruelty, and other (moral) failings, and that it is therefore at best only a partial ideal “insufficient for full moral excellence.”2 Is this a tenable position? In this paper I discuss whether it makes sense to say that a person has a (real) choice between good and evil, regardless of his state in terms of autonomy. First, I clarify the problem by using aspects from the work of Plato and Augustine. Second, I show how Kant attempts to deal with this problem by discussing key aspects of his moral theory, in particular his concept of radical evil. For the sake of my argument, I assume in this paper that it is meaningful to speak of ‘good’ and ‘evil’.
Original languageUndefined
Title of host publicationConsidering evil and human wickedness
EditorsDaniel E. Keen, Pamela Rossi Keen
PublisherInter-Disciplinary Press
Number of pages397
ISBN (Print)9781904710028
Publication statusPublished - 2004

Publication series

NameAt the interface project
PublisherInter-Disciplinary Press


  • IR-76157

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