The expression “cyber wickedness” (translation from French of “méchanceté virtuelle”) was recently used in a philosophical column broadcast on the French radio station France Culture (1). After recalling recent events in French social and political life, its author, Géraldine Mosna-Savoye, observed that “one cannot but be struck by the omnipresence of confrontation, by the hardness of the relationships one has with others, of competition and rivalry at work, suspicion and distrust in the street, to cyber wickedness, and so on.” Then she wondered whether the idea of peace, which “can only be described by what it is not: an absence of hindrance, opposition, violence,” might have been forgotten, and why this might be the case. For our part, we focus on the idea of wickedness, to which we devote two articles. In this one, after recalling the tragic case of Megan Meier, we look at the distinctions that were proposed, more than two centuries ago, by Immanuel Kant.  

Pure wickedness and absolute evil

Certainly, the idea of wickedness – or the more intensive term “malice,” understood as “pure wickedness” – cannot be considered an ideal. Abraham Lincoln’s prescriptive formula:

“With malice toward none, with charity for all,”

which is the first part of a sentence from his second inaugural address, delivered in 1865, gives a famous illustration of this (2). It excludes the possibility that wickedness can be, under any circumstances whatsoever, a legitimate motive for action. Wickedness is intentional. It denotes a “person who seeks to do harm” (3). The resulting evil can be absolute – it is then, according to Kant, “what cannot be condoned or desired either as end or means” – or relative – it is “what can indeed never co-exist with the wisdom of a will as end, yet can do so as means” (4). The perpetrators of an evil act can thus defend themselves from having committed an absolute evil by invoking the fact that they were working for good, for example that they wanted, by their action, to take revenge on a cruel person, or that they wanted to open the eyes of citizens to the conduct of a public figure, even if it was in this figure’s private sphere. However, certain actions spontaneously labelled as “evil” seem to embody, in the psychology of common sense and in ordinary language, an absolute evil. From this perspective, “absolute evil” and “pure wickedness” are conceptually related, the latter determining the former. Tragic and revolting facts seem to bear witness to this. Kant himself refers to “the multitude of woeful examples,” such as “the scenes of unprovoked cruelty in the ritual murders of Tofoa, New Zealand, and the Navigator Islands, and the never-ending cruelty […] in the wide wastes of northwestern America from which, indeed, no human being derives the least benefit” (5). Here is another striking example, contemporary this time. It exemplifies the wickedness on social networks.  

The Megan Meier Case

This is the case of Megan Meier, a 13-year-old American girl who committed suicide in October 2006 as a result of cyberbullying. The so-called 16-year-old boy, Josh Evans, who, after flirting with her on a social network, suddenly insulted her to the point of causing her to kill herself, did not exist (6). He was an online character, a fictional being created by a 47-year-old woman who lived close to her victim. The last exchange between Megan and this artifact, which took place just before the girl’s suicide, seems to illustrate the concept of pure wickedness and the magnitude of its evil effects:

Josh – Everybody in O’Fallon knows who you are. You are a bad person and everybody hates you. Have a bad rest of your life. The world would be a better place without you.

Megan – You’re the kind of boy a girl would kill herself over. (7)

Researcher Danah Boyd expressed the inherent evil in this case in the following way:

“Megan Meier’s suicide is a tragedy. The fact that it was precipitated by bullying is horrific. And the fact that an adult was involved is downright heinous.” (8)

According to the Quebec daily La Presse, reporting the words of the prosecutor during the trial that followed the case in the United States (for offences involving computer fraud), the 47-year-old woman “attacked Megan Meier when she knew she was vulnerable” (9). The following comments reinforce the impression that the conduct of this woman (who was not alone in interacting on behalf of the virtual young man) was pure wickedness:

“[The accused]’s purpose was to tease Megan Meier, to humiliate her and to hurt her. One of her plans was to print out the conversations and take it to Megan’s school and let people make fun of this depressed 13-year-old girl.” (10)


Wickedness and radical evil

Is the cyber wickedness to which Géraldine Mosna-Savoye referred exemplified by the tragic case of Megan Meier? Is it an example of the embodiment of absolute evil, which we have tentatively associated with the idea of pure wickedness (or malice), as common sense psychology would have us believe? This question refers to Kant’s theses on the nature and origin of evil, especially to his 1792 essay in which he deals not with absolute evil, but with radical evil:

“Concerning the indwelling of the evil principle alongside the good, or, of radical evil in human nature” (11).

Let us consider this passage, in which Kant rejects the idea of pure wickedness, or, in the following passage, malice:

“The depravity of human nature is […] not to be named malice, if we take this word in the strict sense, namely as a disposition (a subjective principle of maxims) to incorporate evil qua evil for incentive into one’s maxim (since this is diabolical), but should rather be named perversity of the heart, and this heart is then called evil because of what results.”

Kant assumes that man is evil by nature. He emphasises an immemorial complaint, which is “as old as history, even as old as the older art of poetic fiction; indeed, just as old as that oldest among all fictions, the religion of the priests: the fact that “the world lieth in evil” (12). For Kant, it is not a question of defending original sin and the heredity that it presupposes, for this would be opposed to the autonomy of the will and human responsibility. It is a question of affirming that man has a propensity to evil, which is in addition to his disposition to do good. It leads people to act contrary to the moral law, i.e. to base their actions on maxims that are opposed to it (14). In the above excerpt, Kant asserts that a person who is truly malicious (i.e., motivated by pure wickedness) accepts “to incorporate evil qua evil for incentive into one’s maxim.” Their intention, they say, would be “diabolical.” It is that, in this hypothesis, such a person would choose evil for evil, that their reason, in Kant’s words, “could extirpate within itself the dignity of the law itself.” For him, this is “absolutely impossible.” Here is what Jacob Rogozinski says on this point:

“If reason, which confers the Law, could be ‘liberated’ from its Law, it should be recognised as having the disturbing power to ‘rebel’ against the Law, without ceasing to be reason and free will. We would then be dealing with the impossible itself […]: the unbearable hypothesis of an ‘absolutely evil’ will, which would be able to decide intentionally for evil ‘as evil’, to mobilise in the service of evil all the power of reason, all the energy of the will. […] This extreme evil is not only inhuman but also logically impossible.” (15)

The evil that would be produced by a diabolical will is absolute evil. It is, according to Kant, impossible. The highest degree of evil, which he calls “radical evil,” is of another nature. As Rogozinski points out, the difference between radical evil and absolute evil is accompanied by a distinction between two kinds of evil intent: wickedness and malignity (synonym of malice or pure wickedness):

“Radical evil is therefore not an absolute evil, manifesting only the ‘depravity’ [Bösartigkeit: wickedness] of human nature,’ without attaining the ‘malice’ [Bosheit: pure wickedness] of diabolical intent.”

What then is radical evil? Commenting on Kant’s theses, Alexis Philonenko states that

“radical evil […] is the human powerlessness to establish maxims as universal laws, a powerlessness that we see in anthropological, pedagogical and historical experience” (16).

Leslie Stevenson sums it up in a language detached from the Kantian vocabulary:

“our inveterate tendency to prefer our own self-interest over the demands of morality”. (17)

In the excerpt we reproduced at the beginning of this section, Kant asserts that the wickedness (Bösartigkeit) of human nature should be named “perversity of the heart.” This perversity consists in an action against the moral law, not an action obeying the diabolical and inhuman mechanism that would be proper to absolute evil, but an action resulting from an inversion or reversal of the order of the motives for the action. In the words of Eleanor Dispersyn:

“By perversity […], Kant understands this evil (Bösartigkeit) which acts directly and consciously against the law, in the sense that we deliberately decide to reverse the order of the maxims to satisfy our selfish interests.” (18)

This does not mean that the person who yields to radical evil abandons their respect for the moral law, unlike the diabolical being (impossible according to Kant) who would rebel against it. Simply, the relationship of subordination is reversed: instead of the motive of respect for the moral law taking precedence over the motive of self-love (which impels us to satisfy our material desires), the former finds itself subordinate to the latter. In Rogozinski’s words:

“A person will be said to be bad when, while maintaining the rational motive, while continuing to recognise the authority of the Law, they ‘reverse the ethical order of motives’ and subordinate their respect for the Law to the sensitive motive, selfishness and desire for happiness. Such would be the highest degree of evil […].”

Rogozinski immediately adds that “the reduction of evil to that ordinary human wickedness […] is not a great evil.” It is no more serious than two other degrees of the propensity to evil that Kant distinguishes: “the general weakness of the human heart,” which expresses our inability to translate good will into action, and “the impurity of the human heart,” which covers the fact that non-moral motives, linked to our self-interest, must often be added to our moral motives in order for us to perform moral actions.  

Provisional conclusion

The last two Kantian versions of the manifestation of the propensity to evil do not seem relevant to give content to cyber wickedness. In the first case, one would readily speak of weakness of will. In the second, of the lack of practical effectiveness of morality. Perhaps the online harassment that Megan Meier was subjected to, could be linked to one or the other, but we do not have the evidence to judge this. Kant’s version of “radical evil” is a better candidate. Kant’s interpretation of cyber wickedness would claim that it manifests a reversal of motives, with respect for the moral law being subordinated to the satisfaction of personal interests. Kant states that “this evil is radical, since it corrupts the ground of all maxims.” Expressed in ordinary terms, it is a profound evil – “radical evil is rooted […] in every man,” Dispersyn says – that is difficult, if not impossible, to overcome because, in Kant’s words, “it is also not to be extirpated through human forces.” Moreover, radical evil is not confined to people with any kind of character deficiency. For, as Kant observes, “the propensity to evil is here established (as regards actions) in the human being, even the best.” This assertion gives singular weight to the idea of cyber wickedness, in that, following Kant’s argument, it would concern us all. Alain Anquetil (1) Aurait-on oublié ce qu’est la paix ? Le journal de la philo, France Culture, 20 February 2020. (2) A. Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address,” in The World’s Great Speeches, L. Copeland (ed.), New York, Dover Publications, 1958. (3) Source (in French): CNRTL. (4) I. Kant, On the miscarriage of all philosophical trials’ in theodicy, 1791, in Kant: “Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason” and Other Writings, A. Wood & G. di Giovanni (eds.), Cambridge University Press, 1998. (5) I. Kant, Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, 1793, in Kant: “Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason” and Other Writings, op. cit. (6) See the detailed article by Lauren Collins, “Friend Game,” The New Yorker, 21 January 2008. See also “A hoax turned fatal draws anger but no charges,” New York Times, 28 November 2007. (7) Sources: Jessie Klein, The bully society: School shootings and the crisis of bullying in America’s schools, New York University Press, 2012, and Roy F. Baumeister & Brad J. Bushman, Social psychology and human nature. Brief, Wadsworth Publishing, 2010. (8) D. Boyd, “Reflections on Lori Drew, bullying, and solutions to helping kids,” 30 November 2008. (9) “É-U: une femme jugée coupable pour le suicide d’une ado,” La Presse, 26 November 2008. (10) “MySpace bullying led to teenage suicide, court hears,” The Guardian, 20 November 2008. (11) First part of his book Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, op. cit. (12) The use of the adjective “immemorial” is due to Jacob Rogozinski, Le don de la loi. Kant et l’énigme de l’éthique, Paris, PUF, 1999. (13) “By propensity (propensio) I understand the subjective ground of the possibility of an inclination (habitual craving, concupiscentia) so far as mankind in general is liable to it.” (Kant, op. cit.) (14) According to André Lalande’s Vocabulaire technique et critique de la philosophie (PUF, 18th edition, 1996), “the moral law is the statement of the universal and obligatory principle of action, to which the reasonable being must conform one’s acts in order to realise one’s autonomy.” It differs from subjective practical principles, i.e. the maxims (or “subjective volitional principle,” R. Johnson & A. Cureton, “Kant’s Moral Philosophy,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Spring 2019 Edition, Edward N. Zalta (ed.) (15) Op. cit. (16) A. Philonenko, L’oeuvre de Kant: la philosophie critique. II. Morale et politique, Paris, Vrin, 1972. (17) L. Stevenson, “Kant on grace,” in G. E. Michalson (ed.), Kant’s religion within the boundaries of mere reason. A critical guide, Cambridge University Press, 2014. (18) E. Dispersyn, “Du mal radical au salut dans la Religion dans les limites de la simple raison : une instabilité créatrice. Discussion de la lecture de Gordon Michalson,” Revue Philosophique de Louvain, 109(3), 2011, pp. 461-488. (19) We do not address here the question of “moral regeneration” or, more broadly, the difficulties intrinsic to Kant’s argument. [cite]

Share this post:
Share with FacebookShare with LinkedInShare with TwitterSend to a friendCopy to clipboard