Representation as Misrepresentation: Ethics as the Source of Evil

NB: The definition of ‘evil’ that will be used henceforth is “immoral and malevolent.” For the sake of argumentation, I will not address the question of what “evil” is beyond this definition.

Immanuel Kant contributed much to philosophy. His ideas provide a foundation for many of our present day arguments. Among other works, he is famous for his Critique of Pure Reason as well as his Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. Adolf Eichmann is famous for standing trial as a Nazi who claimed that he followed Kant’s Categorical Imperative, and that according to the Categorical Imperative, it would have been unethical for him to have acted any other way. How could a man who claims to have followed a theory of virtue still take part in genocide? How does Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason provide support for Eichmann’s claim, and how is this still a relevant ethical puzzle today?

After writing Critique of Pure Reason, Kant wrote Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, in which he fleshed out his theory of virtue. Kant says that there exists such a thing as the Categorical Imperative. Figuratively, this means Kant says that there is a book of duties entitled “Obey Your Duties.” This book represents the Categorical Imperative. The Categorical Imperative tells us to obey our duties. However, the contents of this book are not accessible to us. We are simply supposed to obey our duties in spite of the fact that we don’t know what they are. Kant thinks that if we follow this rule—the Categorical Imperative—it is impossible to be immoral.

How can we be told to obey our duties when we don’t know what they are? The Categorical Imperative states that we are to do only things that could be authoritatively required; that is, everyone agrees that it should be mandated. If we obey that rule, we can be sure we are obeying our duties, no matter what they are. In order to find out whether something could be willed as a universal law, we must go through a process to determine whether it could apply to everyone, and everyone could see that it could apply to everyone. In order to do this, we must first make a proposal to do something. We must evaluate that proposal, and make sure it lives up to the standard set by our duties, which is the Categorical Imperative. Next we ask if the maxim could be universally required. If yes, we should act on that proposal or inclination. If no, we are obligated to not act on that inclination. Kant thinks that proposing something as a universal requirement is like self-governing. It makes us autonomous, and Kant says this is our ultimate aspiration. He thinks no one can autonomously decide to do wrong.

Eichmann claims to have followed Kantian ethics, and the only thing he regrets is making an exception for his family. In the book Eichmann in Jerusalem, which follows the trial of Adolf Eichmann at Nuremberg, Hannah Arendt says:

“…Eichmann did indeed follow Kant’s precepts: a law was a law, there could be no exceptions. In Jerusalem, he admitted only two such exceptions…he had helped a half-Jewish cousin and a Jewish couple in Vienna for whom his uncle had intervened. This inconsistency made him feel uncomfortable…[and] he had ‘confessed his sins’ to his superiors. This uncompromising attitude toward the performance of his murderous duties damned him in the eyes of the judges, but in his own eyes it was precisely what justified him…No exceptions – this was the proof that he had always acted against his ‘inclinations,’ whether they were sentimental or inspired by interest, that he had always done his ‘duty’,” (Arendt, 137).

When Adolf Eichmann claimed he followed Kant’s Categorical Imperative, it seemed he thought it was his duty to carry out ethnic cleansing. It is possible in this case that he did go through the process of determining whether his proposals could be made into universal law and whether to act on his proposals. However, his application of Kantian ethics unraveled when he accepted without question that it was his duty to cleanse the German race as though the Führer knew exactly what duties the Categorical Imperative says to obey. This is perhaps where Eichmann twists Kant’s theory and perceives it in such a way that would not only permit him to carry out ethnic cleansing, but also demand that he do so. Eichmann demonstrates an inability to reflect on abstract moral values by applying Kantian ethics in this altered fashion, and by blindly following the orders of Hitler.

The fact that he blindly followed orders makes him not autonomous. According to Kant, this means there is some external force guiding his actions and he cannot be held responsible for doing something not done out of free will. Eichmann was so determined to carry out his duties, and follow Kantian ethics so closely, that the only place he failed was in assuming Hitler had access to the contents of the hypothetical book that contains a list of all our duties. Because of this one mistake, his entire application of the theory was warped.

Does this mean that according to Kant, Adolf Eichmann was ethical? There is more to Kant’s theory of ethics than the Categorical Imperative. It seems, however, that at some point, Eichmann stopped reading Critique, and his incomplete understanding of Kantian ethics is the root of his evil.

If we were to focus solely on the Categorical Imperative, it can be argued that Kant’s theory of reality can explain how Eichmann went so wrong in applying ethics. Disregarding alternative Kantian ethics, in order to show that Eichmann’s evil was not founded on ethics, we must appeal to the Kantian notion of perception.

The question of perception and reality has arisen among many philosophers throughout history. It is possible that distinguishing between ultimate, atomic truth and a projection from the psyche can help us understand how a twisted reality is the source of Eichmann’s evil.

Philosopher David Hume argued that what was rational or provable had to somehow be related back to the senses. He outlined a theory of Representationalism, or sense data theory, in which he develops skepticism regarding anything not directly related to sense. To Hume, an idea, such as color or sound, is created in the perceiver. It is a copy of a sense impression. Without a perception of the idea “red,” the color would simply be a blur of light, and without “music,” the sound would be a series of buzzing. The sense of hearing begins with data that is not “sound,” after which it is processed and constructs an idea. Experience and perception follow this type of process. Anything rational is ultimately derived from sense impressions.

Immanuel Kant’s philosophy was greatly influenced by Hume. Kant was a deeply spiritual individual who wanted to draw a boundary between what was scientific and what was faith. In Critique of Pure Reason, Kant clearly shows the limits of science and creates a boundary between the realm of the phenomena (science), and noumena (ethics) realm. Ethics is not considered scientific because it is abstract—it is not rational and cannot be reduced to sensory data. Kant agrees with Hume’s idea of Representationalism, but he aims to draw conclusions that Hume missed.

For example, Kant would ask: Is there something in the external world that looks like a tree? There is the phenomena side (side A) which is what we see, and there is the noumena side (side B) which is what is actually there. Kant wants to know if what we see as a tree is really what it looks like. He asks whether we can ever really see what is on side B, but will never be able to answer that question because we can only see what’s on side A. The source of the “idea” of a tree is unknowable. So for Kant, the source of the phenomena is the noumena, and there is an unbridgeable gap between the two.

Kant further explains that in order for there to be phenomena, the experience must be spatially related. If there is no space, experience does not exist. For example, I am sitting in a room. I am experiencing the room. If there were no space, the room would implode, and my experience of the room would not exist. Spatial relationships are needed in order to have experience. Space is part of the constructed data that we project. Motion would not exist without space. Space is a universal constant, and time is a universal precondition of experience.

The phenomena is subject to these laws; it has to be a certain way in order to be experienced. Kant concludes his distinction between science and faith by stating that ethics can never be phenomenal. We can only be blamed for something done by choice. Freedom is essential to morality. On side A there is no freedom, because it is bound by scientific laws, and freedom is unconditional—no restrictions on actions. Scientific laws limit us to projecting a perception of reality on side B. Ethics exists on side B, which we can never see. Eichmann projected his warped idea of ethics onto Jews, but according to this view, we can never know reality, and it can therefore be the case that Eichmann’s ethics is the ethics of reality.



Hannah, Arendt. Eichmann in Jerusalem A Report on the Banality of Evil. New York: Penguin Classics, 2006.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. New York: Cambridge UP, 1998.

Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. New York: Cambridge UP, 1998.