In his 1987 book Logics of Disintegration, Peter Dews sought to defend critical universalism against post-structuralist relativism, combining broadly Habermasian norms of socialized rationality with Marxisant cultural critique. The result was an important intervention against the undertow of nihilism in the work of significant figures such as Derrida and Lyotard. Dews’s latest book suggests that he has come to regard what may have felt like a few loose ends in the earlier work as nothing less than gaping holesfootnote1. Always wishing to qualify standard Habermas with Adorno’s emphasis on the impossibility of grasping ‘the totality’ purely in thought, Dews had noted that ‘the resolution of normative questions in the narrow sense, questions of justice, still leaves open the evaluative question of the “good life”’. From the sidelines, this concern now moves to centre stage, as Dews seeks to explicate how it is that ‘human beings, as rational, self-reflective agents, are necessarily oriented towards moral norms, that moral ideals are intrinsic to their identity, and yet that they consistently fail to realize those ideals, or even deliberately work against them’. In another passing comment in Logics, the nouveaux philosophes, otherwise dismissed, were credited at least for their interest in the non-rationalist part of Kant; for their call ‘for a revival of metaphysical thinking’; and for their ‘explicit espousal of the religious’—all matters which, Dews conceded, exposed definite taboos within late twentieth-century social thought. Now, too, these pre-existing hints of what we might call a post-secular outlook on morality and politics are greatly expanded, and largely affirmed, as part of the philosophical task of ‘articulating our moral orientation to the world’.

The Idea of Evil can be regarded as post-secular not because social and naturalistic benchmarks for ethics and politics are being wholly cast aside (that would just be dogmatic anti-secularism), but, first, because religious understandings are not to be taken as necessarily opposed to secular understandings, and because ‘an obstinately secularist approach . . . must miss the essential nature of evil’. The philosophical task, therefore, involves reworking ‘issues once addressed by theodicy’ alongside ‘our modern commitment to freedom and rational insight’. Given this ambitious agenda, the ‘central contention’ is then rendered rather tamely as putting on record that deep conflicts and tensions ‘continue to arise’ between the contrary pulls of ‘freedom and autonomy’ on the one hand, and ‘due recognition of the intractability of moral evil’ on the other. Still, merely drawing attention in this way to the necessity of discourses of reconciliation is now regarded by post-secularists—including the revised Habermas—as the most urgent of matters, and Dews’s illuminating re-reading of canonical thinkers takes forward that project.

Dews’s approach to his dark and difficult pivotal notion draws initially on Jean Nabert’s formulations of the 1950s, insisting that evil is not to be confused with wrongdoing, even of an extreme and chilling sort. Instead, evil is the consciously chosen enactment of something that is absolutely unjustifiable, something that ‘absolutely should not be’. No excuses are possible or offered; no explanations are remotely adequate. The paradigm thus encapsulated, the search is on for the best, truest philosophical analysis of this almost ungraspably disturbing phenomenon, beginning with—and never fully surpassing—that of Kant. Dews counters prevailing interpretations that stress the rational, humanistic basis of the moral law by highlighting Kant’s core conception of ‘radical evil’—radical, as in: rooted in the nature of the fundamental freedom that defines our human subjectivity. Of course Kant envisages, and stands by, the kind of rational self that unhesitatingly wills the kingdom of ends for all. Universal human freedom, peace and happiness, for Kant, are not only conceivable solely on that basis, they are also achievable on that basis. This is why he is an inspiring as well as a brilliant Enlightenment figure. But the propensity for evil, being radical, is also ineliminable, because rational agents can always choose not to follow the moral law. This is not a matter of succumbing to natural desires and social interests, but knowingly pursuing those desires to the detriment of the good. Humanistic interpretations of Kant in which evil is essentially a matter of ‘unsociable sociability’ are therefore mistaken, Dews says. Rather, Kant’s evil is an ab-original propensity within a founding duality, such that freedom is constitutively divided against itself.

But how, then, is Kant to secure the prospect of goodness and progress to which he is genuinely committed, in which happiness and moral freedom advance hand in hand? Here Dews promotes the late Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason from its aberrant status within secular Kantianism. That work, he says, best explores the kind of (indispensable) moral phenomenology through which Kant’s famous ‘postulates’ of practical reason—above all the supposition that God is the ‘moral author of the world’—make most sense. Only faith in the dispensation of such a God, though we can know nothing of him, generates motivation sufficient for the triumph of the good. Rational conviction alone cannot do this, though recognition of the necessary role for religious faith in the undergirding of moral life is itself a kind of rational deduction.

Dews fills out the well-known instabilities in these Kantian reference points, but they necessarily centre the whole ensuing, at times engrossing, discussion of key developments in post-Kantian intellectual history. Kant’s successors seek to overcome his sense of the diremption of moral being through some combination of three styles of thinking that Kant himself deliberately keeps in check: dialectics, naturalism and social-ism. The first of these also captures something of the other two, notably in Fichte’s and Hegel’s developmental notion of the self’s moral upgrading. In Fichte, there is no recognition of a fundamental difference between acting from natural desire or sense of social esteem and acting wickedly: our basic drive towards true self-assertion or self-activity must go through these stages as part of the struggle to realize the essential unity of conscience and reason. Evil, in that scenario, is more a matter of getting stuck in a lower state of consciousness—torpor, habit, cowardice—than of residual diabolical will or moral bifurcation. We only see that it is evil once we occupy the higher state of reflection that, necessarily, is no longer capable of willing evil. Dews notes the continued attraction of Fichtean ‘progressivist’ views in which the will is reformable through gains in knowledge, reflection and determination. Yet this ‘trivializes’ the problem of evil, he thinks, by evading the implications of accepting and allocating full responsibility.