For without the principles of a good will, they may become extremely bad, and the coolness of a villain not only makes him far more dangerous, but also directly makes him more abominable in our eyes than he would have been without it. – Immanuel Kant, "Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals"

What is the reason for using the highlighted part here instead of "would be"? I can see you could justify it as your very first impression of such a person, something that has already happened, but it seems iffy.

Thanks in advance.

2 Answers 2


There's no good reason for the time shift into the past. This may be a translator's mistake from the original German, or it may be a transliteration from how Kant himself wrote in German. Either way, it's unnecessary in English.

In the first clause, the villain is in the present time and realis mood. To compare with something counterfactual in the second part of the sentence, we only need to backshift the tense once. This version:

...more abominable in our eyes than he would be without it.

is still in the present time, but now in the irrealis mood. Nothing is accomplished by backshifting twice, which moves the second part of the sentence into the past time.

  • 1
    Thank you. This is exactly what I thought was strange in that sentence, and your explanation fortunately matches with how I understand conditionals and the subjunctive, so I'm happy:)
    – dawmd
    Commented Dec 19, 2022 at 16:36

It is a counterfactual.

We are considering a cold-hearted villain. This person is assumed to exist for the sake of this discussion. Kant then compares him to a villain without this "coolness". In the context of this argument this is counterfactual. The villain is cold-hearted, let us consider how abominable he would have been if he had not been so cold-hearted.

  • If you are studying philosophy, then reading Kant is important but hard. If you are studying English, then this kind of text is not a good source of examples. It is a translation, rather old-fashioned and very very complex. Is there a good Polish translation of Metaphysics of Morals? Kant is hard enough in one's native language - and almost impossible otherwise.
    – James K
    Commented Dec 19, 2022 at 9:29
  • I haven't been able to find a Polish translation of it, though I can't say I've put significant effort into trying to find one. The English translation I'm reading is difficult indeed, but it hasn't been overly hard so far either. I'll keep reading it for the time being, but I'll keep your advice in mind and when it gets too hard, I'll try to switch. As for your answer to my question, I think I get it. So using "[...] he would be without it" would imply that person actually exists and we're considering a hypothetical scenario in which he's of some other characteristics, correct?
    – dawmd
    Commented Dec 19, 2022 at 9:37
  • Try filipbialy.pl/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/…
    – James K
    Commented Dec 19, 2022 at 9:44
  • Albowiem bez zasad dobrej woli mogą się one stać w najwyzszym stopniu zle a zimma krew zloczyécy robo go nie tylko daleko niebezpieczniejszym ale takze bezpośrednio w naszych oczach jeszcze wstrçtniejszym, aniżeli wydawalby się nam bez niej.
    – James K
    Commented Dec 19, 2022 at 9:54

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .