Self-Legislation?

In chapter 3 of Hegel’s Practical Philosophy, Robert Pippin develops a contrast between Kantian and Hegelian approaches to “self-legislation”. “What spirit legislates for itself are laws, not cultural preferences and so the binding and non-arbitrary nature of such self-legislating must find a place in any account” (p. 65). Another important consideration related to this was mentioned in the introduction. “[I]t can fail, go dead, lose its grip, and a very great deal of what interests Hegel is simply what such shared practical meaningfulness must be that it could fail, and how we should integrate our account of action into a fuller theory of the realization of such a condition and its failure” (p. 6).

In Kant’s original version, self-legislation is practiced separately by each individual, but under strict conditions of universality that ideally should make it valid for all. In Hegel’s version, “spirit” is said to do the legislating. Spirit is metaphorically said to be the product of successive historical self-modifications, but it is still people who are the concrete agents in the vast ensemble of relations of mutual recognition that gives form to spirit.

It should be noted that the way Kant talks about universality is very different from the way that Aristotle talks about “universals”. The key feature of Kantian universality is that it is supposed to be unconditional. Also, it mainly applies to people, with the aim of rooting out privilege, discrimination, and special pleadings or excuses. Aristotle and Hegel, on the other hand, are mainly concerned with universals in the sense of intermediate abstractions on the model of ordinary words or concepts, which are “said of many things” but not of all. Insofar as we take ourselves seriously and are committed to our abstractions, these are also binding, precisely because we have bound ourselves to them. At the same time, such intermediate abstractions ground a kind of freedom by the incompleteness of their determination.

Kant’s approach has the merit of putting “democratic” considerations first, while emphasizing something like the rule of law in a way that staves off Plato’s objections to a “democracy” that might better be called unprincipled populism. As many — starting with Aristotle — have noted, though, in the real world it is very hard to move back and forth directly between single individuals and unconditional generalizations, if we take ourselves seriously. Intermediate abstractions smooth the path.

Aristotle’s emphasis on constitutional government — in which all both participate in some way in the process of government, and are governed — is incipiently democratic while emphasizing the rule of law, but has historically sometimes been distorted and abused by ruling minorities. With intermediate abstractions, there is always a similar risk that some prejudice will be incorporated. Aristotle preferred to dwell on more optimistic scenarios, so he only deals with prejudice in a very general way. Hegel’s explicit concern with the possibility of failure in spirit’s self-legislation effectively combines Aristotelian and Kantian insights.

As Pippin points out, Hegel is commonly said to have a social role theory of right human conduct, but this immediately raises problems. Putative entitlements associated with social roles must be able to survive a full “reflective endorsement” that does not presuppose the roles in question. Merely “being in a social role could never of itself count as a reason to do anything” (p. 67; emphasis in original). This kind of consideration leads back to a Kantian position on obligation. Pippin says that for Hegel, though, any complete abstraction from our ongoing ways of life, attachments, and dependencies results in an artificial construct amounting to a philosophical fantasy world. Also, to understand one another as merely passively shaped by social roles is to fail to accord appropriate respect to one another. For Hegel too, Pippin says there must be a reflective endorsement, but such endorsements are not simply made by individuals. Rather, they stem from broader concrete practices of giving and asking for reasons.

“Kant’s solution to the problem of obligation descended from the dead ends created by the divine command and natural law traditions” (p. 69) had been to ground an unconditional obligation in one’s own first-person reflective endorsement, under requirements of strong self-consistency and deep honesty with oneself. For Hegel, this is still too Cartesian. None of our reasoning takes place in true isolation, but he very much wants to hold on to Kant’s emphasis on actual reasoning and the autonomy of reason in the determination of what is right.

Pippin quotes the eminent Kant scholar Christine Korsgaard saying that for Kant, reflective endorsement is not a way of justifying morality; rather, reflective endorsement is morality itself. (I think Plato and Aristotle would agree.) But Pippin goes on to note that Kant’s talk about self-legislation is clearly metaphorical. If we literally legislated everything for ourselves as individuals, it would be paradoxically up to a kind of lawless selves to inaugurate the process. As Pippin points out, this sounds more like Kierkegaard or Sartre than Kant. According to Pippin, Hegel here aims in a way to be more Kantian than Kant, by avoiding this kind of dilemma. Holding on to the essential point about reflective endorsement, Hegel deepens Kant’s move away from the atomistic and overly simplistic Cartesian model of subjectivity.

Pippin notes that Kant says uncritically accepting the authority of a command negates our very status as agents. He quotes Korsgaard’s maxim that soldiers should obey orders, but humans should not massacre people. Pippin says that for Kant, the mere act of obedience involves taking responsibility. Responsibility and respect for others morally take precedence over obedience, even to duly constituted authority. Laws state principles, but commands are particular. Even principles can conflict with one another, though this can to some extent be resolved with higher-order rules, such as that one’s responsibilities as a human in at least in some circumstances take precedence over one’s responsibilities as a soldier.

“[W]hile this picture of self-legislation has the appearance of something radical and potentially paradoxical, it is not crazy. It does not suggest: ‘I am only bound because I bound myself, so I hereby unbind myself’…. [If] someone playing chess… moved his rook diagonally…. The point is not that he is violating what everyone sees is this ideal object, ‘Chess’, but that he is contradicting himself, his own agreement to play chess and all that that commits him to” (p. 74; emphasis in original).

On Hegel’s account, once practices are instituted, people often “see” what to do without deliberation, and certainly without having to invent everything for themselves. However, norms also change, and they change because we change them. Pippin says that Hegel saw a coming major breakdown in the modern attempt to found morality on a purely individualist basis.

Pippin goes on to criticize part of the detail of Korsgaard’s argument about what happens when we fail to do what is right. For Korsgaard, this will be fundamentally a failure of our reason, but Pippin suggests that her description of a case involving fear sounds more like an instance of disease or outside interference than a failure of our reason that would make us cease to be rational agents in that moment. He is unsatisfied with Korsgaard’s Kantian appeal to weakness. Instead, he suggests, “Someone simply finds out that she wasn’t who she thought she was; all these years firmly convinced that she was seeking A; it turns out she wasn’t…. It seems more appropriate… to concentrate on what her actions reveal about the ends she really does care about. That is just what we shall see Hegel doing in his reflections on the ‘self-legislated’ view of normative authority” (p. 85). I would add that it is also in accordance with what Aristotle says about assessing a life.

“This makes it unlikely that there could be any deductive account of someone’s core moral or practical identity… whatever legitimating account there might be will probably be developmental, not deductive, and whatever self-legislation is going on it will be collective and specific to some stage or other of this development, and never from the ground up” (p. 90). Hegel “focuses our attention on the experience of normative insufficiency, on a breakdown in a form of life… and thereby, through such a via negativa [negative path], tries to provide a general theory of re-constituted positive normative authority out of such breakdowns” (p. 91; emphasis in original). (See also Naturalness, Mindedness.)