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Julia Annas ACTION AND CHARACTER IN DOSTOYEVSKY'S NOTES FROM UNDERGROUND Notes from Underground was written with a specific purpose in mind: to answer Chernyshevsky's novel What Is to Be Done?1 And many features of Dostoyevsky's work can only be understood when we bear in mind its specifically Russian setting. The narrator is a romantic idealist of the forties transformed into something rather different by 1864, and no doubt we lose much if we do not bear in mind that Dostoyevsky is looking back across the gulf of imprisonment and suffering at his own idealistic youth.2 But the intense and radically peculiar nature of Dostoyevsky's writing takes us to a level of the work which is accessible to those without knowledge of the local conditions of the work's production. As Mochulsky says, "the author steadily emerges beyond the confines of the Russian intellectual . . . the underground man's paradoxes are not the whims of some half-mad eccentric, but a new revelation of man about man." The book is "the philosophical preface to the cycle of the great novels" (p. 245). Even though Dostoyevsky's passionate and extreme temperament made him quite incapable of constructing a piece of precise philosophical argument, there is much of genuine philosophical interest in part I. It is not just a particular moral and political theory, like Chernyshevsky's, which is to be discredited, but something deeper, the presuppositions of a whole type of moral theory. In this article I shall examine the implications of what Dostoyevsky says for the philosophy of action and thence for ethics. I shall argue that he challenges a very basic model of human action, which is both intuitively plausible and basic to many moral theories. I shall also argue that as the work stands, there is a lack of continuity between parts I and II on the philosophical as well as on the literary level. In concentrating on the consequences for moral theory, I shall be ignoring the social and political aspects of the work. It may well be urged that such a division of the moral from the political is unrealistic in treating 257 258Philosophy and Literature a Russian writer. In defense I can only say that this narrowing of focus brings out in a sharper and more tractable way the philosophical issue which is my main concern. I Tell me, who was it who first declared, proclaiming it to the whole world, that a man does evil only because he does not know his real interests, and if he is enlightened and has his eyes opened to his own best and normal interests, man will cease to do evil and at once become virtuous and noble, because when he is enlightened and understands what will really benefit him he will see his own best interest in virtue, and since it is well known that no man can knowingly act against his best interests, consequently he will inevitably, so to speak, begin to do good. Oh, what a baby! Oh, what a pure innocent child! (part I section 7; all quotations are from the translation by Jessie Coulson [London: Penguin, 1972]). What exactly is the target here of the Underground Man?3 Every moral theory presupposes some theory of human action, although this may not be explicit; since moral philosophy is concerned with human actions, it must presuppose some account of what it is for a human action to be performed. One very influential tradition thinks of the paradigm of action as essentially aimed at some good: "Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good" is the opening sentence of Aristotle's Ethics.4 What is it for every action to aim at some good? We have the assumption here that every action is purposive and rational; purposive in that there is some goal which the agent sees as a good and rational in that performing the action is believed by the agent to be an appropriate means or way of bringing about the desired goal. This model of action is developed very fully in Aristotle, but it is not conceptually linked to...


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pp. 257-275
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