A Moral Self?

The next stop on our Hegelian journey takes us back into Kantian/Fichtean territory. From merely legal rights and pure Utility we advance to a higher concept of moral action.

“In the national fraternity of True Spirit the agency of the singular self receives recognition only after death. The emergence of the singular self as a recognized bearer of legal rights is the death-knell of this beautiful harmony…. The Roman armies replaced this rather chancy and disorderly harmony of life with one universal human law, and one continuum of humanly recognized ‘rights’. But the universal continuum was soon shown up as a mere cloak for the age-old ‘law of the stronger’; ‘natural law’ and ‘natural rights’ have to pass through the long and painful dialectic of the Self-Estranged Spirit in order to become fully rational; and now finally the rational self who is the conscious bearer of moral rights has come to birth” (Harris, Hegel’s Ladder II, pp. 413-414).

Already the Real Individual saw herself as exercising something like Kantian autonomy, but only now do we meet with Kantian duty. Absorbed in its new-found sense of duty, “The moral self cares only for its own moral integrity, its membership in the ‘moral world-order’…. This self has no private purpose distinct from the ‘general will'” (p. 414). This is consistent with Kant’s Stoic-like emphasis on a radical separation of morality from any natural personal inclination.

“Moral Insight is ‘absolutely mediated’; it is culturally self-made, through the complete sublation of the natural self. But it will soon show itself to be the knowledge of membership in a spiritual community; and this knowledge does not have the ‘estranged’ character of a promise or a hope. Nor does it have the ‘split’ aspect of an insight that is obliged to be self-contemptuous. In the moral knowledge of duty, the rational community of the moral world-order is a living presence…. The moral agent acts consciously for the whole community of moral agents. Reason no longer takes itself to be Utility” (p. 415).

“But the dominance of Utility continues in a sublated way. I must use the order of Nature for the rational purpose of actualizing the Moral World-Order. This ‘estrangement’ of the two ‘orders’ remains to be overcome” (p. 417).

“There is a lot about the empirically external world that I do not know when I act; but that is morally irrelevant. It is what I actually do know that constitutes the situation in which my duty determines itself. What I know ‘absolutely’ when I act morally is that my intention is good. In the moral perspective this is all that counts” (p. 415).

“I can know and do my duty independently. But Nature does not care. I may be dutiful but unhappy, or undutiful yet happy anyway. So I am bound to complain that it is just not right” (ibid).

“In this parlous situation, the founding of moral knowledge upon the attitude of Faith represents the only hope” (p. 419).

“Actual morality is the perpetual making of an accord, which is not, and can never be, finally made. We must forever be ‘making progress in morality'” (p. 421).

“So moral consciousness does not develop its own concept. Instead, it postulates a world…. The moral self does not know that in its postulation it is developing its own concept of its self…. Unlike simple Faith, the moral consciousness does know that it is thinking. But it does not know how to express the fact that what it thinks is ‘necessarily true’, except in terms of the ordinary standard by which we determine the truth of our thoughts” (p. 427). “We shall soon see that this necessary opacity of what is supposed to be purely ‘intelligible’ puts the sincerity of the moral consciousness — the very thing that has emerged as the truth of its self-certainty — in question” (p. 428).

“When we begin with moral self-certainty in this Fichtean perspective, we have to take the ‘primacy of the practical’ with mortal earnestness…. We are no longer caught up in the dualism of Cartesian thought…. [Hegel’s] whole ‘speculative’ standpoint rests on this Fichtean unification of the natural and the moral world-order. From this moment onwards we are truly in the ‘kingdom of the Spirit'” (p. 429).

But Hegel will not rest content with the Fichte’s practical postulation of a moral God. On the one hand, “The harmony is experienced in fact; to speak of it as postulated is a pretense” (p. 435). On the other, “No matter how much good we actually do, the world remains essentially nothing but an infinite complex of moral problems. The perfect ‘harmony’… is never completed” (ibid).

Harris also points out that Hegel was far from accepting Fichte’s claim of an intellectual intuition of the self that Kant rejected. “It is Fichte’s categorical claim that the whole critical philosophy must be placed in the context of the intuitive self-certainty of the dutiful self that comes to grief here. When we drag it through the ‘experience’ of its own postulational thinking, the moral self-intuition is shown not to be an ‘intuition’ at all” (p. 434).

“I can always give up on the phenomenal world, and insist on my own unity with God; and when I shift back to this position after a practical defeat in the outer world, it is not the same position as it was initially. It is less optimistic, but it is inwardly deepened by the experience.”

“The deepening comes from the awareness that the actual transformation of the natural order is essential to the moral order” (p. 436). “So the retreat into the inner sense of a dutiful union with God must again be displaced in favor of Kant’s first formulation of the categorical imperative. Here the ‘harmony of morality with nature’ is stated as a duty: ‘Act as if the maxim of your action were supposed to become through your will a universal law of nature‘” (ibid).

“We have now reached the point where the dogmatic hypothesis that ‘moral consciousness is actual’ must be replaced by the hypothesis that it is only a project to be realized, it is ‘what ought to be’. Having got back to the Garden of Eden we have understood that the Fall is the necessary presupposition of the salvation that we seek” (ibid).

“The ‘as if‘ in Kant’s formula (‘Act as if the maxim of your action were supposed to become…’) is crucial. It is not the perfect organization of the natural world that is the real goal of moral action…. Rather it is the perfect development of every moral self that is the goal; and for the fulfilment of that purpose, the natural world needs to remain a problem” (p. 437).

“But even the perfection of the moral self as an integrated will to put the world in order involves the same paradoxical unacceptability as a goal. Its achievement would eliminate the necessity for any moral striving” (p. 438). “So the goal of moral action has not been adequately formulated as moral self-affirmation in the sensible world; again the goal must be displaced” (p. 439).

“What we are now saying is that the condition of being between the successful ‘activity of the pure purpose’ (where we experience the harmony of will and inclination) and the struggling awareness of a natural antithesis needing to be transcended and conquered, is the true moral goal. For this ‘in-betweenness’, this cycling from perfection to imperfection and back again, is the only way in which morality can be both ‘what is’ and ‘what ought to be’ (p. 440).

“[A] postulated ‘harmony between is and ought’ cannot count as ‘absolute knowledge’. The postulated object of knowledge is not knowable at all; it is simply an evasion” (ibid).

“‘Experience’ shows that the moral self does not need any postulated intelligible world” (p. 446).

”When we postulate the noumenal world, we find ourselves forced to say contradictory things both about our phenomenal world and about the noumenal one. Phenomenal nature is morally null; but also it is this world that must be reshaped to display the noumenal reality; and the Good Will is the absolute essence, whose noumenal reality is all that counts; but it is not a will at all if it does not act in this phenomenal world, where its existence can be recognized” (p. 449).

Between Transcendentalism and Pragmatism

Josiah Royce (1855-1916) was known as the leading American exponent of absolute idealism. He was recognized for contributions to philosophy of religion, psychology, and logic, as well as metaphysics. I thought of him because apparently, at least in his earlier works, he really did identify the Absolute with an all-embracing, divine consciousness that was supposed to include and underwrite all of reality, quite opposite to the way I read Hegel’s Phenomenology as an extended critique of the point of view of consciousness.

Also quite unlike the “deflationary” approach taken here, he straightforwardly identified his Absolute with God and with Being. Royce’s was a definitely personal God, also existing in time rather than eternally. Early in his career, he developed a novel argument for the existence of God based on the existence of error. According to Royce, the very existence of error presupposes the existence not only of truth against which the error can be recognized, but of a Knower who knows the truth.

Royce had strongly communitarian ethical views, sharply criticizing both the “heroic individualism” of the American Transcendentalists, with whom he shared an interest in German Idealist philosophy, and the individualist views of his close friend, the pragmatist William James. Among other things, Royce thought James in his famous Varieties of Religious Experience focused too much on intensely private experiences of extraordinary individuals, to the detriment of attention to the community aspect of religion. In his theology, Royce strongly associated God with an ideal of a Universal Community.

In his late work, he was increasingly influenced by the great founder of pragmatism, Charles Pierce. He became fascinated with Pierce’s notions of signs, semiotics, and interpretation. While this was not quite the full-fledged anti-foundationalist notion of interpretation developed here, I think it at least points in a similar direction. At this point, Royce developed a new notion of God as “the Interpreter Spirit” providing a metaphysical ground in time for all acts of interpretation, without the interpreters necessarily being aware of this. He extended his notion of the Universal Community, now explicitly calling it a “Community of Interpretation”. I think the latter is a fascinating partial anticipation of Brandom’s much more detailed work on mutual recognition, which also draws on the pragmatist Kantianism of Wilfrid Sellars.

(From Brandom’s point of view, Royce’s communitarianism would still be a one-sided overreaction to individualist trends. It seems to me that Brandom and Ricoeur converge on a very attractive alternative to this old seesaw, putting concrete relations with others and intersubjectivity before either individuality or community.)

Martin Luther King, Jr., acknowledged Royce as the source of King’s own more elaborated notion of the ideal of the Beloved Community, a vision of tolerance and mutual acceptance. I have not evaluated claims of a recent book that in spite of this, Royce also in effect promoted a cultural version of the racist “white man’s burden”.

Royce attempted to derive all of ethics from a single principle of loyalty, understood as loyalty to a cause. He claimed that loyalty to vicious or predatory causes fails to meet a criterion of “loyalty to loyalty” intrinsic to his principle of loyalty. Thus the argument seems to be that loyalty has the kind of universality that Kant claimed for the categorical imperative. However, I don’t think the argument succeeds nearly as well as Kant’s. Kantian respect for people gives a crucial human face to Kant’s formalism in ethics. Even if loyalty to loyalty is concerned to avoid undermining the loyalty of others to the cause, as Royce argued, that seems to me to be a much narrower kind of concern for others. Also, loyalty is by nature particular, whereas Kant’s various formulations of the categorical imperative are actual tests for universality.

Due Process

I previously likened Kant’s categorical imperative to a kind of procedural justice. Due process and kindred notions are one place where it seems to be — at least in part — implicitly recognized by practitioners of law that rational ethics is a higher authority than any law, agency, or official. I have in mind not the particular historical form embodied in the U.S. Constitution, but the general idea. On the other hand, as I glance at the history, it does seem that what I think of as the general idea — construed as limiting the authority of laws, governments, and their agents — was in fact especially developed in the American legal tradition. This is a precious thing that should be protected, along with civil rights and civil liberties.

Kantian Maxims

Kantian maxims are a kind of subjective rules providing rationale or justification for concrete ethical choices. A proper Kantian maxim should be a function from a list of conditions and a motive or aim to a uniquely determined conclusion that a particular concrete choice is or is not permissible for a moral being. It does not tell us exactly what to do, but it is expected to definitively tell us whether something is okay or not okay. It is a kind of inference rule.

Many maxims will fail to be universalizable. Kant says we should only trust the ones that can pass testing by the categorical imperative.

Where Aristotle had stressed an open-ended rational inquiry and the irreducibility of ethics to an exact science, Kant recommended focusing deliberation more narrowly on a search for deterministic functions satisfying the categorical imperative that will tell us if possible actions are okay or not.

Another important difference is that Kantian deliberation stops at what is permissible, whereas Aristotelian deliberation extends all the way to what to do, so the Aristotelian kind has a strictly broader scope.

The question is whether by thus narrowing the scope of ethical inquiry in conjunction with his other moves, Kant really succeeded in making the narrowed scope fully deterministic.

Kant talked much more about testing maxims than about searching for them or formulating them. If we were searching, presumably we would try to match on the conditions and aim that would be the inputs to the function. There might be questions about the granularity with which the conditions and aim are specified. To adequately address the complexities of real life, we would need a huge array of possible functions.

It is hard to even imagine a procedure for initially formulating the function-body of a maxim that would tell us specifically how to get from the inputs to a deterministic output. All we have is tests whether an already formulated candidate maxim is universalizable or not. Actual formulation of maxims thus seems to be left to trial and error. Kant might say the important thing is the ability to test, but it seems to me that if we cannot deterministically say how maxims are to be formulated, we cannot really claim to have a deterministic solution to the whole problem of ethical decision-making.

It seems as though Kant was successful in establishing that valid ethical conclusions do have necessary conditions that no one before him recognized, but unsuccessful in defining conditions that would be both necessary and sufficient to derive those conclusions, even at the level of just considering what is permissible. Thus, we still need Aristotelian open-ended deliberation and practical judgment, or an ethical analogue of Kant’s own notion of free play in aesthetics. I also still like the Leibnizian principle of wise charity — within reason, doing more and demanding less than what is nominally required of us.

Kantian Obligation

Kantian ethics is explicitly governed by a spirit of universality. Universality is the one principle that drives everything else. Arguably, a concern for universality has been implicit in rational ethics since Plato and Aristotle, but Kant made it explicit and absolutely central; formulated it in a more rigorous way; and suggested several informal tests for it (the different formulations of the categorical imperative) that could be used in deliberation. Because it is possible to test maxims for compliance with the categorical imperative, Kant’s one principle can actually serve as a criterion, unlike Plato’s undefinable Good.

Universality implies no exceptions, so it can underwrite a kind of unconditional moral necessity that had no precedent in rational ethics before Kant. It seems that Kant wanted to contest Aristotle’s conclusion that ethics can never be an exact science. Kant borrowed talk about duty from what Brandom has called the traditional one-sided authority-obedience model of morality, but gave it new, rational, universal content. For Kant, every ethical decision should be approached as an instance and application of universal law. This means that in deliberation, we are not just deciding for ourselves what is right here and now, but what would be right for any rational being in similar circumstances. Kant wants us to act as universal legislators, and to respect the principle of humanity in every person.

There is something compelling about this, even for a convinced Aristotelian such as myself. Kant really did come up with something new. But also, Aristotelian sensitivity to particulars has been to an extent historically abused and hijacked by people with “particularist” agendas that Aristotle did not countenance, so a nudge in the direction of universality and respect for all humans is a welcome corrective.

This is not the end of the story. As I’ve noted numerous times, the absolute necessity of the categorical imperative applies only at an extremely abstract level, quite some distance from real-world application. I think this is at the core of Hegel’s impatience with Kantian “formalism”. Hegel is not quite fair to Kant, but Kant often seemed to want to claim he had reduced the whole of ethics to necessity, while directing our attention away from the parts he actually left open.

Next, I need to take a closer look at Kantian maxims, which are supposed to provide the bridge to real life. (See also Categorical Imperative; Kant’s Groundwork; Necessity in Normativity; Deontic; Binding.)

Categorical Imperative

Kant took up what was historically Plato’s quest for a single root principle of ethics, and seems to have succeeded in getting further with it than Plato did. “Categorical imperative” is a less-than-beautiful name for a truly beautiful concept, elegant in its simplicity. Its essential feature is a sort of lifting of concrete choices into universality, in the very strong sense of something said unconditionally of all possible cases. It encourages us to think of a good choice as one that would be good if applied by everyone all the time. This does not positively answer the question what is good or what we should do, but it does help us toward an answer, by ruling out many possibilities.

As with the Platonic idea of the Good, the categorical imperative is conceived as a unique, highly abstract value that should apply to all cases whatsoever. Unlike Aristotle, Plato wanted to hold out for a rigorously single idea of the Good, even though that made it undefinable. Kant also wanted a single ethical principle, but his version is an abstract procedural criterion related to notions of procedural justice, rather than an abstract aim or end like Plato’s. In this case at least, the fact that Kant’s unique principle is procedural makes it possible to say more about it.

Aristotle called Plato’s suggestion of a single principle beautifully said, but went on to note its weaknesses. Plato in effect suggested that contrary to appearances, it is descriptively true that all things aim at the Good. The strong point of this is its inclusiveness. It is most meaningful as a sort of edifying poetic cosmological statement, like when Leibniz said we live in the best of all possible worlds. Cosmically edifying poetry may help us feel at home in the world and thus have a positive effect on our emotions that may aid ethical development, but it does not give us actual ethics. If with Plato we want to consistently say that all things already aim at a unique Good, then that same notion of Good by its very inclusiveness cannot be the kind of thing that could be used as a selective or normative criterion that would actually rule out some possible courses of action, and enable us to tell better from worse. In addition to the issue with its inclusiveness, the explanatory role of Plato’s idea of the Good would be in conflict with its use as a distinguishing criterion of normative selection. (Instead, the strong points of Plato’s ethics lie in epistemic modesty and the ideal of rational dialogue.)

Kant’s attempt to articulate a single root principle of ethics fares better than Plato’s in this regard. As a meta-level strategy, instead of saying a description is true, the categorical imperative says that a procedural criterion should be applied. Kant’s different formulations of the categorical imperative basically represent different informal tests for strong universality. While they are still not sufficient to tell us positively what to do in particular cases, such tests can help us deliberate, because they are sufficient to rule out many alternatives.

Kant developed a unique kind of strong higher-order moral necessity, as a sort of function whose value as a function can be rigorously evaluated, while leaving the evaluation of its arguments (the particulars to which it is applied) as a separate task.

I take it to be a strength of Kant’s approach that the categorical imperative does not actually dictate, but only guides what to do in any particular case. At an extremely abstract level, the categorical imperative has a kind of ironclad moral necessity, as Kant liked to remind us. But this still leaves open the question of its application to particulars, implicitly requiring something like Aristotelian practical judgment to fill the gap.

It does seem strange that Kant so downplayed the work and ambiguities involved in the application of very abstract principles to complex particulars. On the other hand, the categorical imperative was probably the most important new development in ethics since Aristotle. In any case, Kant chose to emphasize a pure procedural principle that can be both determined with necessity, and used to test potential maxims and rule out those that lack plausibility as strong universals, independent of all questions of our interpretation of the particulars to which the principle is to be applied.

Hegel’s formulation of mutual recognition ultimately aims at the same kind of ethical universality as the categorical imperative, while recasting the Kantian transcendental and the metaphysics of morals into something that begins from — but does not remain limited to — concrete social relationships, considered as instances of the universal community of rational beings. While the mature Hegel often criticized Kant’s formalism, the young Hegel had been greatly impressed by Kantian ethics. Hegel’s tendency to superficially polemicize against Kant needs to be balanced against deeper resonances, and the fact that — along with Aristotle — Kant got more pages in Hegel’s History of Philosophy than anyone else.

Kant’s Groundwork

Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals (1784) was Kant’s first major ethical treatise, predating the Critique of Practical Reason (1788). Perhaps the most famous and commented upon of all Kant’s ethical works, Groundwork introduced the categorical imperative. Kant says that the true vocation of reason is not to give us the means to some end, but to produce a moral will that is good in itself. He goes on to sharply distinguish actions done from duty from actions done from inclination as the only ones deserving of praise. He says that actions from duty get their moral worth from the worth of the maxim (i.e., rationale) that guides choice, rather than from the worth of the aim of the actions. Duty, he says, is the moral necessity of an action from respect for the law. The relevant kind of law must be universal, and the only thing fitting this requirement is the categorical imperative, which is defined in terms of a pure universality.

Kant goes on to argue that while we are constantly tempted to excuse ourselves from acting in accordance with universal moral duty, no utilitarian, prudential, or other excuses have any place in ethics. Everywhere, he says, “one runs into the dear self, which is always thrusting itself forward”. Any resolution of these issues requires common human reason to move into the field of practical philosophy. To be genuine, morality should hold with absolute necessity, binding for all rational beings. Of course, for Kant this does not mean that our subjective conclusions hold with such necessity. To believe that would be to fall for a trick of the “dear self”, and to claim it would be dogmatism.

For Kant, any genuine supreme principle of morality must depend on pure reason, independent of all experience. We should seek a “fully isolated” metaphysics of morals, “mixed with no anthropology, with no theology, with no physics or hyperphysics”, although its application to human beings also requires anthropology. All moral concepts originate in pure reason. The will, Kant says, is just pure practical reason. (See also The Autonomy of Reason.)

Redding on Morals and Modality

A recent web draft by Australian philosopher Paul Redding — author of a nice introductory book on analytic readings of Hegel — makes quite a few interesting points about Leibniz, Kant, Hegel, J.N. Findley, and modal logic. Findley was an important 20th century philosopher with analytic training who developed a very this-worldly but still metaphysical reading of Hegel, with strong influence from Wittgenstein. Findley’s student Arthur Prior apparently developed an “actualist” alternative to the more common possible worlds approach to modal logic, which latter is usually said to have an antecdent in Leibniz. Redding argues that there is a similarity between Prior’s criticism of modal possible worlds and Hegel’s criticism of Kantian formalism in ethics.

I take the assertions of Leibniz in a more tentative way than Redding seems to, and sharply distinguish between Leibniz and his Wolffian semi-followers. Leibniz’s thought on possible worlds, though, is one of the parts of his work I agree is less attractive, even though I am sympathetic to its motivation as an alternative to theological voluntarism. It seems to me like a beautiful but very extravagant speculation, related to his thoughts on infinity. Leibniz’s youthful co-discovery of the calculus was but one aspect of a lifelong fascination with the new idea of a mathematical infinity. Explicit reliance on the assumption of this kind of “actual infinity” is removed from later presentations of mathematical analysis, which instead carefully talk about differentials and integrals in terms of limits. For what it’s worth, Aristotle argued against any actual infinity, and Hegel called it “bad infinity”.

Redding attributes to Findley criticism of an ethics of rules in favor of an ethics of values. I like this very much in general, but I make a big distinction between rules that would supposedly just tell us what to do (which I find hideous) and higher-order rules like Kant’s categorical imperative, which merely requires that we aim at universality, without presuming to tell us exactly what we should do. While taking Hegel’s criticism of Kantian formalism a bit more literally than I would, Redding nonetheless concludes that Hegel’s position is an extension of Kant’s.

Redding notes Hegel’s complaint against Kant’s advocacy at one point of “duty for duty’s sake”. I find this formula as unappealing as the categorical imperative is salutary. But it turns out that Kantian “duty” is really a stand-in for the kind of absence of material inconsistency that characterizes a unity of apperception. Redding cites Hegel in the Philosophy of Right as criticizing Kantian duty as mere “absence of contradiction”. He correctly points out that what is at issue is hardly the law of non-contradiction in the usual sense, so Kant’s argument is not really like the Wolffians’ attempt to derive a whole metaphysics from that logical law. But Redding then attributes to Hegel an emphasis on “actualized Sittlichkeit” as opposed to empty formalism. Hegel may have said the words, but I think this is way too simple. It sounds like some actually existing set of norms just taken at face value. I’d take empty formalism over that any day. (See discussion on Pippin’s concern about positivity in Mutual Recognition.) Unfortunately, Redding also moves from unity of apperception to a Fichtean self-identity of a Subject (“I = I”), from which I want to sharply separate Kant and Hegel.

The idea of building logical modality into the actual world rather talking about quantification over possible worlds seems appealing to me, but I would not want to go so far as to deny potentiality, as Kant seemed to in his more Newtonian moments, to which Redding alludes. I think Hegel went a long way toward recovering something like potentiality.