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Kant on the Diabolical Will: a Neglected Alternative?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 March 2011

Matthew Caswell
St John's College, Annapolis


To his harshest critics, Kant's philosophy can seem an unending series of neglected alternatives. Time and again, Kant argues for his position by elimination, ruling out each possible alternative, until his own is the only one left standing. Of course, this strategy amounts to a demonstration of the Kantian position if and only if the field of possible alternatives really is – as Kant always assumes – exhaustive. But readers often suspect that Kant has stacked the deck, that his dogmatic adherence to a particular set of presuppositions, or perhaps simply his lack of philosophical imagination, has unjustifiably restricted the possibilities under consideration, thereby rendering the alleged argument by elimination nothing but an elaborate exercise in question begging.

Copyright © Kantian Review 2007

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1 John Silber is the best-known spokesman for this objection, at least among Kantian commentators. See ‘The Ethical Significance of Kant's Religion’, introduction to Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, trans. Greene, T. M. and Hudson, H. H. (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1960), pp. cxxixcxxx.Google Scholar

2 ‘Reflections on the Banality of (Radical) Evil’, in Idealism and Freedom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996)Google Scholar, especially pp. 176–7.

3 ‘Kant's Rejection of Devilishness: the Limits of Human Volition’, Idealistic Studies, 14 (1984), 3548CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 It is helpful here to recall Kant's discussion in the Groundwork of the naturally sympathetic ‘friend of man’ (Gr, 4: 398), for there Kant makes it clear that ‘selfless’ action done ‘from self-love’ is not in the least paradoxical on his account.

5 The phrase is Allison's, Kant's Theory of Freedom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), pp. 390–40.

6 Kant's own argument against the possibility of a diabolical will has been clearly articulated by Wood, Allen, Kant's Ethical Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), pp. 400–1CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and Henry Allison (Idealism and Freedom, p. 176) in response to Silber's embrace of the possibility of diabolism. However, since neither Kant nor his contemporary defenders address the contrarian alternative posed by Bernstein and discussed below, I believe the Kantian response must be supplemented with further argumentation.

7 Radical Evil: a Philosophical Interrogation (Cambridge, MA: Polity Press, 2002), pp. 3642Google Scholar.

8 Bernstein critiques Kant for not taking into account an unspecified ‘full range of incentives … involved in the adoption of evil maxims’ (42).

9 In addition to advocating the possibility of a diabolical or devilish will, Bernstein makes the surprising claim that ‘there is no free choice unless there is the free choice to be … devilish’ (42). I fail to see what could possibly count as evidence for this strong claim.

10 See Bernstein's claim that ‘there are no intrinsic constraints on what the Willkür can choose to do’ (42). But in so far as the Willkür is a faculty of practical reason, it is indeed subject to the intrinsic - as Kant would say, analytic - constraints of rationality. Nothing ethically meaningful is lost by conceding that the will is not free to violate these sorts of analytical constraints.

11 Aside from the entirely unrelated context of mathematics.