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  • Kant on Free Will and Arbitrariness:A View From Dostoevsky’s Underground
  • Evgenia V. Cherkasova

Lev shestov, nineteenth-century Russian existentialist philosopher and literary critic, once characterized Dostoevsky's Notes From Underground as "the most effective critique of pure reason." This remark does not suggest that the Notes should be substituted for Kant's masterpiece on our bookshelves, but instead reflects a certain juxtaposition between Dostoevsky's thought and Kant's critical philosophy. One aspect of this juxtaposition is particularly intriguing: Dostoevsky's insight into the phenomenon of arbitrariness and its connection to the discoveries and limitations of Kant's theory of free will.

Two distinct views on free will can be extracted from Kant's moral philosophy.1 The first and most familiar, associated with the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, identifies free will with practical reason and thus holds that human will is free only in so far as it is determined by the moral law.2 The second—more radical—view associated with Kant's late writings, such as Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone and the Metaphysics of Morals, acknowledges will's freedom for good or evil. My article demonstrates that Kant's later approach, while adding depth to his moral project, at the same time injects in it the irreducible existential conflict between arbitrary will and rational agency, which calls into question the very basis of his practical philosophy. Since Kant never adequately addresses the destructive role of arbitrariness, I look [End Page 367] at it from the perspective of Dostoevsky's underground, where this problem receives an impressive artistic and phenomenological treatment.

Kant's Groundwork offers us a memorable formula for the relationship between reason and will: "Since reason is required for the derivations of actions from laws, the will is nothing other than practical reason."3 This strong statement is methodologically supported by the Critique of Pure Reason where Kant defines "the practical" as "everything that is possible through freedom," and claims that moral autonomy is the essence of the activity of practical reason and the core of one's personality (Persönlichkeit).4 Further, both in the Groundwork and the second Critique, Kant seeks to prove that an active expression of autonomy—that is, the functioning of the human will—is precisely what makes one a "person."

Yet this position, according to which moral personality, free will, and rationality always—by definition—go hand in hand, raises a number of questions. The most disturbing of them is the problem of choosing against the moral law: if one chooses not to listen to the wise heavenly voice of practical reason, does this mean that one's choice is necessarily either irrational or not free? When in the Groundwork Kant approaches this question by labeling such a choice "heteronomous," it creates a further issue. Namely, if "heteronomous" means "not free," then it also means "not responsible." Thus, in repudiating the moral law one not only ceases to be a "person" (since one rejects one's "humanity," i.e. one's own inner expression of autonomy); one also cannot be held responsible for one's immorality. While Kant could have avoided this problem by distinguishing more clearly between will and practical reason, he chose, however, an alternative route.

In the Critique of Practical Reason, Kant tries to solve this problem by stressing the alleged spontaneity of heteronomous conduct.5 This solution implies that one's choice to remain deaf to practical reason's advice and command appears to be no less free than the choice to follow the moral law. Moreover, immorality does not deprive one of one's personality, provided the choice to ignore the moral law is made consciously. Yet in the second Critique, Kant is not quite ready for the serious encounter with spontaneity of the will and, in most instances, continues to interpret free will as the one determined by the moral law.6

In Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, however, we witness a rather sharp turn in Kant's perspective. Here Kant recognizes the urgency of speaking about the will endowed with freedom for good or [End Page 368] evil, and occasionally even associates freedom itself...


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pp. 367-378
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