Hegel's Critique of the Subjective Idealism of Kant's Ethics
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Hegel's Critique of the Subjective Idealism of Kant's Ethics SALLY S. SEDGWICK 1. In paragraph 135 of the Philosophy of Right Hegel formulates his well-known objection to the "empty formalism" of Kant's theory of morality: "[I]f the definition of duty is taken to be the absence of contradiction," he tells us, "... then no transition is possible to the specification of particular duties nor, if some such particular content for acting comes under consideration, is there any criterion in that principle for deciding whether it is or is not a duty."' One could try to defend Kant against this objection by proposing that Hegel's reading is merely in need of supplementation. ~ Had Hegel read beyond the first formulation of the categorical imperative in the Groundwork and inter- preted it in light of the other two, for example, he might then have under- stood Kant's definition of duty to indicate more than just an arbitrary "formal correspondence" of the will with itself, or "absence of contradiction." And had he included in his acquaintance with Kant's project of providing for the foun- dation of morality a consideration of the latter's effort to outline the specifica- tion of the moral law in the form of a doctrine of rights and duties (in the Metaphysics of Morals), he might not have been so ready to dismiss the categori- cal imperative as an effective guide to action. 1 G. W. F. Hegel, Hegel's "Philosophy of Right," trans. T. M. Knox (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952); Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts, vol. 7 of Werke, 2o vols., ed. by Eva Moldenhauer and Karl Markus Michel (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 197o). All references to this work cited hi~reafter in parentheses, PR. 2 See, e.g., T. M. Knox, "Hegel's Attitude to Kant's Ethics," Kant-Studien 49 (1957): 7 ~ I wish to thank Karl Ameriks, Bob Fogelin, Terry Godlove, Manley Thompson, and anonymous readers for the Journal of the History of Philosophy for their comments on an earlier draft of this paper.  9 ~ JOURNAL OF THE HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY 26:1 JANUARY 1988 One might respond to Hegel's critique in this way, and argue that it is precisely in virtue of the content that the categorical imperative does have that it can neither be appealed to to universalize any maxim we please, as Hegel thought, nor be taken to require of us a form of universal philanthropy (almsgiving, for example3) which, in failing to discriminate among the diversity of human needs and capacities, leads to its own annulment. One could further show, I think, that an extension of what Kant gave us as a very general outline of the application of the categorical imperative (containing duties "of man to men"4) can indeed be carried out in the for of an "applied ethics," without violating the principles of his "pure moral philosophy.'5 As worthwhile as these projects are in clarifying and developing Kant's position, I don't believe that they succeed in silencing the Hegelian objection. They would succeed were it the case that Hegel's portrayal of the standpoint of "Moralit~it" in the Philosophy of Right depended simply on his neglect to note any distinction between the idea that I remain logically consistent in my adherence to any maxim I choose to adopt, and all that Kant intended in the command that I not contradict the law of practical reason. 6 Far more seriously, however, Hegel believed that the latter in Kant reduced the former. And on this interpre- tation it then followed that Kant was at fault~not for failing to carefully formulate the content of the categorical imperative and then complete its specification in the form of a doctrine of duties -- but for presuming that any such specification could be carried out objectively. As is clear in the Philosophy of Right and elsewhere in his discussions of Kant's ethics, Hegel was convinced that the very nature of Kant's "abstract" derivation of the moral law from pure reason was responsible for its "emptiness" both as a determinate guide to action and as an objective gauge of moral...