Nature, Corruption, and Freedom: Stoic Debate in Kant's Religion

When:30 Jul 2019, 12:30pm - 2pm
Venue:Morven Brown Building
Who:Melissa Merritt
Melissa Merritt


Kant’s account of “the radical evil in human nature” in the 1793 Religion within the Bounds of Reason Alone is typically interpreted as a reworking of the Augustinian doctrine of original sin. But Kant doesn’t talk about Augustine at all there, and only once refers (obliquely) to original sin. Instead, I argue, he gives us every reason to think that his account of radical evil is the product of a philosophically rigorous and historically sophisticated engagement with Stoic ethics. “Radical evil” refers to the idea that our moral condition is — by default and yet by our own deed — bad or corrupt; and that this corruption is the root (radix) of human badness in all its variety, ubiquity, and sheer ordinariness. This discussion is framed on either end by explicit discussion of Stoic ethics, and it takes as its premise the Stoic idea that nature gives us “uncorrupted starting points” (Diogenes Laertius 7.89). What sense can be made of the origin of human badness, given such a premise? This was debated among Stoics in antiquity; and since Kant accepts the Stoic premise, it is his puzzle, too. However, Kant suggests that the problem admits of no solution, insisting time and again that radical evil is incomprehensible. I explain how his particular transformation of his Stoic sources turns on this last point.

Bio: Melissa Merritt is Senior Lecturer and ARC Future Fellow in philosophy at the School of Humanities and Languages at the University of New South Wales. She is the author of two books, Kant on Reflection and Virtue and The Sublime, both published by Cambridge University Press in 2018. Her current research aims to assess the significance of Stoic ethics and moral psychology for Kantian ethics and contemporary work on autonomy, moral realism, and cosmopolitanism.

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