I will now argue that on the Kantian account we have a duty to adopt a maxim of forgiving repentant wrongdoers who have embarked on a project of self-reflection and self-reform. The duty derives from the formula of humanity and some considerations grounded on Kant’s theory of rational agency, the thesis of radical evil, and his theory of moral development. This reconstruction appeals to different strands of Kant’s philosophy and goes beyond the cryptic remarks found in the passage under consideration (Kant 1991, 460-1). However, I believe that the argument is compatible with a plausible reading of the passage and Kant’s views on freedom, agency, and responsibility.
In the Groundwork, Kant tells us that “[e]verything in nature works in accordance with laws. Only a rational being has the capacity to act in accordance with the representation of laws” (Kant 1997, 412/p. 24). The capacity to act under the representation of laws is then equated to the capacity to act “in accordance with principles” and having “a will” which is in turn equated to “practical reason” (Kant 1997, 412/p. 24). For Kant the will is practical reason, that is, a faculty of acting through the conception of a principle. Kant distinguishes two types of principles. Objective principles hold for all rational beings and instruct us how we ought to act, and for finite beings like ourselves take the form of imperatives (categorical and hypothetical) (Kant 1997, 413). Subjective principles are maxims, that is, self-given principles of action that hold only for the subject (Kant 1997, 422). For human agents, who have imperfect wills, acting under the ‘representation of laws’ involves acting on subjective principles, and insofar as they are acting rationally, under the command of imperatives. A person’s maxim typically expresses the reasons that motivate her to act as she does. A maxim should be understood as a principle that connects some generic description of circumstances (taken broadly to include the inclinations and purposes of the agent) with some generic description of an action type that the agent takes these circumstances to warrant. Crucially, then, maxims are subjective principles of justification. On Kant’s theory of rational agency, agents act on maxims, which are principles of action that generate, explain and justify external behaviour. The adoption of maxims does not does necessarily or always require an agent’s conscious decision.Footnote 15 As noted, Kant claims that we are sometimes uncertain of our own motivation (Kant 1997, 407; Kant 1998, 20), which means that we are not always explicitly or consciously aware of the maxims that we adopt. Maxims can be adopted tacitly, implicitly and, in many cases, retroactively. However, as maxims are a product of our freedom and principles, for which we are responsible, we can and should become aware of them through reflection (Korsgaard 1996b). The important point is that rational actions have an implicit claim to justification in the sense that the agent takes the circumstances to warrant the acts. Kant can allow for cases of weakness of the will (‘frailty’), in which maxims are adopted only as justifying reasons but fail to motivate (Kant 1998, 29), but these would count as cases of irrationality. Thus, Kantian ethics is an ethics of principles that recommends self-reflection and self-reform and commands that we strive to know ourselves “in terms of [our] moral perfection in relation to [our] duty” (Kant 1991, 441/p. 236) by becoming aware of our maxims and attempting to get rid of those that on reflection we do not fully endorse.
Kant also claims that agents are responsible for their actions and character (Kant 1998, 44), which means that maxims are freely adopted at least in the sense of involving freedom of choice (Willkür). Actions are performed freely on the basis of reasons and are not determined by antecedent psychological forces. According to the IT “the will cannot be determined to action through any incentive except so far as the human being has incorporated it into his maxim” (Kant 1998, 24/p. 49). This means that incentives never determine the will directly—by exerting a force on the will—but do so through a choice made by the agent that is expressed in the adoption of a maxim. Kant distinguishes two types of incentives: empirical incentives (taken broadly to include inclinations, feelings, and emotions) and the rational incentive of duty, which Kant terms ‘respect for the moral law’ (Kant 1997, 400; Kant 2002, 76). Although both types of incentives might have an affective aspect, they should not be taken as ‘causes’ or ‘pushes’ that directly determine the will, because that would be incompatible with practical freedom in Kant’s sense. Instead the agent must endorse the empirical or rational incentive by “incorporating it into his maxim” and taking it as a sufficient reason for his actions, i.e. as part of the circumstances that warrant the act.
In Kant’s later writings it also becomes clear that maxims can have different levels of generality, implying that agents act not only under maxims but also under a system of maxims that form a hierarchy, with the more particular maxims fitting under the more general ones. Matthew Caswell (2006) has provided a good example of how an agent’s action can be explained by appealing to a system of maxims that form a hierarchy: “Take, for example, my behaviour in laying shingles on a roof. My maxim might run, ‘When making a wood-construction roof, I will nail shingles onto it, in order to build a well-protected covering for my house.’ This maxim fits under the more general maxim, ‘I will build a well-made roof, when constructing my house.’ This in turn might fit under the more general maxim, ‘In order to secure shelter, I will, if possible, build my own house;’ and again, ‘In order to survive the up-coming winter, I will obtain shelter’” (pp. 193–4.) Caswell notes two things. First, higher-order maxims do not fully determine the lower-order maxims that fall under them. The only constraint that the more general maxims impose on the lower subordinate maxims is that they must be a means to the end that the agent has selected. Second, higher-order maxims rationally justify lower-order maxims, that is, it is the whole system of maxims that provides the justification for the agent’s actions. In order to avoid regress, there must be a point where the chain of maxims ends. Kant is explicit about the need for an ultimate principle: “One cannot, however, go on asking what, in a human being, might be the subjective ground of the adoption of this maxim rather than its opposite. For if this ground were ultimately no longer itself a maxim, but merely a natural impulse, the entire exercise of freedom could be traced back to a determination through natural causes- and this would contradict freedom” (Kant 1998, 21/p. 47). Thus, in order to solve the problem of an infinite regress in the chain of maxims, Kant proposes that there is an ultimate, most general maxim, which is itself a product of free practical reason. Thus an agent’s character, her Gesinnung or fundamental moral disposition, is itself a higher-order maxim that underlies an agent’s choice of more particular maxims. It is the maxim not of this or that project or course of action, but of a person’s entire life (see Allison 1990, pp. 136–145; Caswell 2006, pp. 191–6). Furthermore, Kant’s ethical ‘rigorism’ entails that every action and morally responsible agent must be characterised as either good or evil, excluding the possibility of a middle term, i.e. cases of actions or people characterised as not entirely good or evil (Kant 1998, 23–4/pp. 48–9).Footnote 16 Kant claims that empirical incentives and the rational incentive of respect for the moral law constitute part of the content of the will of any finite rational being. On the one hand, empirical incentives are all subsumed under what Kant terms the principles of self-love or happiness. The end, happiness, consists in pursuing overall satisfaction in life (Kant 1997, 399), a natural necessary end that we cannot ignore (Kant 1997, 415). On the other hand, consciousness of the moral law is for Kant the most basic ‘fact of reason’ (Kant 2002, 29–50) and thus we are also incapable of completly ignoring the commands of the moral law. The moral law is an incentive to moral conduct, which means that for human agents, recognition of the moral character of an action is always an attractive feature of that action, that is, something that makes the action prima facie worth pursuing.Footnote 17 Therefore, considered materially, an evil and a good will have the same content, so the difference between a good Gesinnung and an evil one must lie in the form of the will, or in the manner in which the contents are combined, that is, in how the two incentives are subordinated, namely which one is incorporated as the condition of the other (Kant 1998, 36). The person with a good character is the person whose fundamental maxim is to make the moral law the supreme condition of all acts, thus subordinating the demands of happiness to the demands of morality (Kant 1998, 36). In the case of a fundamentally good maxim, the moral law functions as the supreme principle of justification of all acts and the agent strives to act only on those maxims that can be fully justified to others (or that treat others’ humanity as an end in itself). In contrast, an evilFootnote 18 person is committed to the promotion of her own happiness unconditionally and complies with moral requirements only insofar as they do not demand a great sacrifice of her own happiness. Evil is understood as a form of irrationality that involves either acting on subjectively valid motives while recognising that they do not provide justification for one’s actions, i.e. they lack objective validity [a form of moral weakness, ‘fraility,’ the first degree of radical evil (Kant 1998, 29/p. 53)], or more seriously, taking one’s subjectively valid motives as having objective validity [the third degree of evil which Kant terms ‘depravity’ (Kant 1998, 30/p. 54)], i.e. as reasons for action to which others ought to defer.Footnote 19
In the Religion Kant states that “the human being is by nature evil” (Kant 1998, 32/p. 55). Given Kant’s rigorism, this is usually taken to mean that the default or natural position of the human will is in fact evil. This is the so-called thesis of ‘radical evil,’ considered by some as one of the most controversial and difficult aspects of Kant’s moral psychology.Footnote 20 To provide a full account of this thesis and the various problems of interpretation that arise in relation to it is beyond the scope of this article. I will emphasise those aspects that are relevant for my argument. Kant claims that we have a ‘propensity’ (Hang) to radical evil, and although the concept of Hang is not identical to the concept of Gesinnung, some commentators interpret them as both referring to different aspects of the fundamental maxim of an agent (Caswell 2006, p. 199; Allison 1990, p. 153). According to this line of interpretation, Gesinnung refers to an agent’s fundamental moral disposition or character, while Hang is the free tendency of the will (Willkür) to choose in a certain way, i.e. in the case of an evil propensity, the tendency of Willkür to give undue weight to non-moral incentives, which implies the adoption of a fundamental evil maxim. This choice is deemed radical and evil because the agent freely chooses to turn away from the moral law, which is always an incentive to morality (Kant 2002, 72), and by doing so he is actively resisting its commands. Although this choice is said to be free (Kant 1998, 44), to the extent that it is also supposed to be universal, Kant says that the propensity to evil is an aspect of human nature, that is, is the human species as a whole that chooses a fundamentally evil maxim (Kant 1998, 32). This universality of the propensity raises serious difficulties because Kant offers no formal proof to back up this claim, appealing instead to the obvious and widespread empirical evidence of wrongdoing in the world (Kant 1998, 33). But empirical evidence is not sufficient to ground a claim of universality, and commentators have felt that a formal proof is in fact necessary.Footnote 21 Despite these difficulties, it is clear that at least in the Religion Kant is committed to the universal ascription of a human evil disposition. Kant also says that it is ethically necessary, and therefore it must be possible, to overcome radical evil (Kant 1998, 66–67). To overturn evil is to take on the task of becoming virtuous in the sense of acquiring a good Gesinnung: to make one’s commitment to the moral law unconditional. In fact Kant is clear that the basic human struggle is the struggle of overturning evil and attempting to change one’s fundamental maxim. This requires a ‘revolution of the heart’ (Kant 1998, 47, 51), which involves changing the order of subordination of our incentives, making the pursuit of happiness conditional on the demands of the moral law. That is, it is ethically necessary for us to struggle against this evil disposition or propensity (Kant 1998, 66–7).
I will now suggest that the revolution of the heart that is required to overturn evil is a necessary aspect of the moral development of a person. In the second Critique, Kant characterised moral development as requiring a gradual process of moral change (Kant 2002, 159–160). However, in the Metaphysics of Morals, a later work, written after the Religion, in addition to the need for a gradual change (Kant 1991, 477), Kant also refers to the need for a singular moral decision to break away from vice (Kant 1991, 477). Some authors have suggested that this singular moral transformation should be identified with the revolution of the heart, proposed by Kant as a solution to the problem of overturning evil in the Religion (Drogalis 2013, p. 3–4; Kant 1991, Intro. p. 18). I would like to further suggest that the revolution of the heart plays a central role in Kant’s theory of moral improvement. It is a necessary condition for the possibility of acquiring virtue understood as the strength to overcome obstacles (vices) and make duty the sole incentive of right acts. Some commentators claim that possession of a fundamentally good maxim is a necessary condition for the possibility of acting from duty and thus for the action acquiring moral worth (Allison 1990, pp. 116 and 119; Timmermann 2009, fn 11, p. 49; Drogalis 2013, p. 18 and ff. and p. 54). Against this view, elsewhere I have argued that a person with an evil Gesinnung could on occasion act from duty and that in such cases we should ascribe moral worth to her actions. Goodness of Gesinnung, on my reading, is required for the ascription of virtue but not for the possibility of acting from duty and ascribing moral worth to actions (see Satne 2013b). Virtue is the “moral strength of a man’s will in fulfilling his duty” (Kant 1991, 405/p. 206), and as such it involves a firm resolution to act from duty, no matter how strong the temptation to act wrongly. A person with a good fundamental maxim is virtuous in the sense that she will perform morally good actions reliably. Virtue is the highest achievable level of moral perfection for a human being. The revolution of the heart is a necessary condition for the possibility of a person becoming virtuous and thus ultimately a necessary aspect in her moral development. The revolution does not make moral action possible: a bad person could on occasion act dutifully, because dutiful actions are performed for their own sake, and do not require justification by a meta-maxim (Caswell 2006, p. 205). However, there are two main reasons why the revolution is necessary aspect of the moral development of a person. First, as explained above, the revolution makes possible the acquisition of a virtuous character, that is, reliability of motivation can only be accomplished through the acquisition of a good fundamental maxim. Second, the revolution provides the rational framework that allows a person to abandon her immoral maxims. This is because lower-order maxims are rationally justified by higher-order maxims, so a fundamentally good person has no grounds of justification for more particular immoral maxims. Some commentators have maintained that the revolution of the heart requires divine assistance (Michalson 1989) but there is in fact some clear textual evidence to support the claim that the revolution is a real human possibility: “this change of heart must itself be possible because it is a duty” (Kant 1998, 67/p. 84; see also Kant 1998, 50). The reorientation of one’s will requires a single revolutionary act, but after (or during) the revolution there is still progress to be made (Kant 1998, 47–48; see also 66–67). The striving towards virtue requires constant (endless) progress and a continued effort to approximate an (unattainable) ideal of holiness (Kant 1991, 409; see also Kant 1991, 390), understood as the aim of acquiring a fully reliable and pure form of moral motivation. A good Gesinnung provides the framework that allows a person to embark on “the road of endless progress toward holiness” (Kant 1998, 47/p. 67) by making possible the task of abandoning immoral maxims—which ultimately is the main task of a project of moral self-improvement.
The concept of a revolution of the heart, however, also presents some difficulties.Footnote 22 On the one hand Kant’s language of change, transformation, and even ‘rebirth’ (Kant 1998, 47) suggests that the revolution has a temporal dimension, yet Kant says that the choice of evil Gesinnung is an ‘intelligible deed’ and does not occur in time (Kant 1998, 31), which some commentators interpret as implying that the choice of a good Gesinnung is equally timeless (Allison 1990, p. 154). Although it makes sense to think that the revolution does not occur at a precise point in time, it is difficult not to think of it as occurring in time, at least in the sense that it happens to a person, during the course of her life. Perhaps the point about temporality relates to the fact that moral revolutions occur through a free choice (Kant 1998, 51), and as such they require an act of noumenal volition that cannot be temporally located. The alleged timelessness of the revolution could create a problem for the argument that I am developing here.Footnote 23 It is difficult to see how a revolutionary volitional act occurring outside time could be part of the moral development of a person, particularly since the idea of development seems to imply a progression of different chronological stages. There have been different attempts to understand the relationship between the timeless revolution and the gradual process of moral-self-improvement involved in the ethical project of self-knowledge and self-reform. Some authors argue that the revolution of the heart is timeless in the sense that the process of overcoming radical evil occurs simultaneously with the process of improving the morality of one’s maxims, a process that takes place over the course of a person’s life (Sussman 2005b p. 173; Korsgaard 1996a, pp. 180–1). In contrast, Drogalis (2013) has suggested that although the choice of Gesinnung does not itself occur in time, “there is a clear relationship between this noumenal choice and that which occurs in time” (p. 145) arguing that “the choice to undergo a revolution can be impacted—though not determined—by empirical activities and should not be viewed as unable to be placed at a moment of a person’s life” (p. 166). I do not wish to enter into this debate here, since I think that my argument about conditional forgiveness is compatible with both readings. The argument only requires that we accept that Kant is committed to the claim that the revolution of the heart is a necessary condition (or aspect) of the moral development of a person. Moreover, some interpreters have suggested that Kant’s characterization of the choice of Gesinnung as timeless and intelligible is not particularly problematic. Caswell (2006), for example, notes that “the characterization of the … Gesinnung as timeless and intelligible is actually just the application of the theory of the maxim.” Since maxims are just reasons for action, they are intelligible grounds that figure implicitly in the justification of our actions and “we need not make ourselves explicitly aware of our reasons when acting” (p. 200). The concept of political revolution can help us to understand the type of rational transformation that is required. When a political revolution takes place, what was legitimate in the old political regime becomes illegitimate in the new post-revolutionary order. A revolution implies a change in the principles of political legitimacy in a particular society. Analogously, a change of meta-maxim implies a change in the ultimate principle of justification of a person’s will. The meta-maxim structures and shapes a person’s will, so an action that could have been taken as justified under the old fundamental maxim would not necessarily be justified under the new one. Typically, a person who has undergone a revolution of the heart would come to see some of her old maxims as now being unjustified. And as noted above, even after (or perhaps simultaneously with) the revolution, there is more progress to be made (Kant 1998, 47–8) because although the revolution rules out ‘vice,’ that is, the principle of deliberately violating a duty (Kant 1991, 380), it does not rule out ‘impurity’ or ‘fraility’ (Kant 1991, 408). After (or during) the revolution, the agent should still revise her maxims in order to make sure that moral actions are performed out of a pure sense of duty, and will need to continue cultivating a firm resolution of the will in order to live up to her new maxims. The revolution does not imply a transition to actual holiness but a firm resolution to struggle to commit unconditionally to the moral law. Moral development, thus, involves an on-going and self-imposed intellectual process of self-knowledge, reflection, and self-reform.
The next step in the argument is to note that abandoning our immoral maxims would necessarily involve repentanceFootnote 24 for our immoral acts. Although not all our immoral maxims are other-directed—Kant thinks that we also have duties towards ourselves—, it is clear that in many cases this process would require that we repent wrong acts committed against others. Repentance here is understood in fairly minimal terms as the commitment to abandon immoral maxims and become a better person. It might involve guilt, remorse, and other forms of painful regret, but not necessarily. Footnote 25 What is necessary is that the agent comes to see the maxims underlying her immoral acts as something that cannot be fully justified to others, and makes a commitment to change those maxims. From the point of view of a person who is involved in a process of moral self-reform, the judgement that her maxim is unjustified and the realization that she has wronged others would necessarily involve repentance and in many cases would also involve taking steps (e.g. apology, compensation, and penitence, among others) towards the reparation of the wrong that she has committed. Repentance is thus a necessary aspect of moral development of a person.
With these considerations in place, in the next section I will be able to complete the argument and derive the conditional duty to be forgiving from Kant’s Formula of Humanity (FH).