Hegel’s Doctrine of Moral Freedom: Part I

In a series of two posts I present Hegel’s doctrine of moral freedom by elucidating his evolutionary history of the ideal of moral conscience. This post discusses the doctrine of moral conscience as it developed through the work of Socrates, Luther, the Enlightenment thinkers and Kant. It closes with an explanation of how the master-slave dialectic was Hegel’s profoundly insightful attempt at grappling with the infamous “Kantian paradox.”

The notion that individuals have some capacity for and fundamental interest in being morally free is a historically emergent idea. In order to grasp Hegel’s own formulation of that idea it is important to recount his evolutionary history of the ideal of moral conscience. Hegel’s narrative begins with Socrates, whom he identifies as a world historic figure for having discovered moral conscience, which is the central feature of Hegel’s conception of moral subjectivity.

The Ancient Greeks stood in a stance of immediate identification with their institutions and it was Socrates who broke out of this socio-political milieu and established the moral standpoint. As discovered by Socrates, the two hallmarks of the moral standpoint are the absence of immediacy and the aspiration to think through social norms for oneself before accepting them as valid and binding. In Socrates’ view, all normative principles had to make their way through a process of inner reflection so that the agent could decide whether they were legitimate or impermissible. The Greeks, because of their immediate identification with their normative principles and institutions, were, as Hegel notes, incapable of conceiving of moral conscience, which thus explains why Socrates’ discovery shook the foundations of the ancient Greek polis.

The next chapter in Hegel’s narrative depicts Christianity as embodying the doctrine of moral conscience and featuring two significant advances over Socrates.

One of these advances consists in the fact that Christianity grounds the moral authority of individuals in their intimate connection to the divine, through which they can transcend their limited perspective and ‘access a point of view that can furnish standards of the good that are unconditionally valid.’ (Neuhouser, p.233) The Christian doctrine of moral conscience, in providing an absolute grounding for ethical principles, represents a real advance over Socrates, because his inquisitive approach to moral reflection suggests that all ethical standards are eventually bound to dissolve when subjected to sustained rational scrutiny. Whereas, Socrates’ doctrine of moral conscience merely posits that human beings should aspire to achieve truth in ethical matters, the Christian doctrine ensures that such truth can actually be achieved. 


The other way in which Christianity’s doctrine of moral conscience constitutes an advance over Socrates’ is contained in Luther’s position that each human being is linked to the divine and can thus discern and will the universal good, without the aid of other human beings. In this account, as contrasted with that of Socrates, moral subjectivity is a configuration of the will that any individual can possess, regardless of his earthly circumstances.

Luther’s account of moral authority can be described as universalistic in two senses of the term. Each and every human being can discern and will the universal good; and the ethical standards that bind human action are good and valid from an unconditional standpoint.

Hegel’s tale proceeds from Luther’s approach to that which was developed and upheld by the Enlightenment thinkers. Hegel interprets the Enlightenment conception of moral conscience as a progressive synthesis of Luther and Socrates. The Enlightenment synthesis discarded Luther’s notion of emotional spirituality as the basis for the human connection to the divine and reaffirmed Socrates’ idea that the exercise of moral subjectivity depends on rational reflection. The synthesis maintained Luther’s innovative discovery that the truth is universally accessible to those who adopt a universal perspective, but it departed from Luther’s vision by identifying the source of universal ethical standards not in an external deity but within human reason itself. In this regard, rational reflection counts as both the means by which one can recognize right and duty and the source of right and duty.

Kant seized on this latter idea and formulated it into a formalistic account of moral subjectivity that founded the source of duty in the will’s self-legislative capacity. Kant considered universalizability to be the criterion by which we can determine our duties, for as Kant sees it, universalizability is merely ‘an expression of the most fundamental condition of the exercise of reason.’

Kant defines moral freedom as giving oneself the laws that determine one’s actions. Kant’s doctrine of moral freedom holds that to be free individuals must do their duty for its own sake and will in a law governed manner, independently of any claims made on them by their sensuous nature. Hegel provides two lines of arguments as to why Kant’s account of moral subjectivity is unsatisfactory and it is through his critical examination of Kant that we are led to Hegel’s superior doctrine.

One path by which Hegel overcomes Kant is founded in his attempt to grapple with the “Kantian paradox.” The other path begins with Hegel’s consideration of Kantian moral autonomy as a version of the moral worldview that had emerged during the German Enlightenment.

In today’s post we will focus on Hegel’s attempt to grapple with the Kantian paradox.

The paradox arises from Kant’s demand that if I am to give the law to myself, then I must have a reason to do so, otherwise I would possess a lawless will, which would be an unfree will; but if I give myself the law on the basis of an antecedent reason, then my will would ultimately be determined by something outside of itself, and thus it would not satisfy the requirements of a self-determined will. Kant had recognized the paradox in his own work and his way of getting beyond it was to invoke “the fact of reason”, which Pinkard argues amounted more to stating the paradox than actually dealing with it. (Pinkard, p.226) In contrast, Hegel conceived of the paradox as “the basic problem that all post-Kantian philosophies had to solve”. Hegel believed that a solution to the paradox must recognize the serious challenge it poses to our conception of free agency, while integrating the paradox into some overall conception of agency; a move that entailed negating, preserving and transcending the paradox. (p.227)

Hegel’s sublation of the paradox proceeds through his infamous master-slave dialectic and thus, as will be demonstrated, he overcomes the paradox by conceiving it in social terms.

Since, as the paradox reveals, an agent does not possess within the resources of his own will the means to secure the bindingness of the laws he imposes on himself, he requires another agent to recognize his law as authoritative for both of them. In the absence of such recognition from another agent, one’s will remains groundless. In the master-slave narrative, there are two agents each of whom demands that the other recognize his normative authority. However, from the perspective of each the other’s demands are warrantless and thus the stage is set for the life and death struggle for recognition where each seeks to impose its law on the other.

The struggle can result in one of three outcomes. In one scenario, both agents perish and thus neither establishes its normative authority. In another, one agent perishes and the other survives but the surviving agent fails to have his will recognized as authoritative. Finally, the struggle can achieve an unstable resolution when one of the agents risks its life, while the other capitulates in an attempt to preserve its life. Here, the former agent achieves the status of master over the latter agent, who he makes into his slave. The master now believes his will to be authoritative because of the recognition he secures through his slave’s obedience to his demands.

However, the “Kantian paradox” resurfaces because the master’s authority is grounded in the slave’s recognition of it, but the slave’s authority to so recognize the master’s authority is itself granted by the master. Thus, the master’s will remains lawless in that it is grounded in nothing more than his contingent desires as manifested in the demands he makes on the slave. In fact, the master is himself childishly dependent on the slave for his maintenance and for the apparent experience of himself as the author of the law.

On the other hand, through his participation in the relationship, the slave learns what it means to possess a law governed will. By submitting to the decrees of his master the slave internalizes the ability to will from an objective standpoint. The slave eventually comes to see the master’s dictates as proceeding from a lawless will and to recognize that the master’s dictates are only binding on him, the slave, insofar as he accepts them as binding. In this way, the slave learns that freedom consists in simultaneously being the author and subject of the law.

Hegel begins by thinking of the “Kantian paradox” in terms of the agent’s need for recognition by another agent. The unstable resolution of the struggle for recognition works itself out into the revelation that normative authority rests in the will of both agents, such that each must simultaneously subject the other to the law he himself authors, submit to the law authored by the other, and submit to his own law.

2 Responses to Hegel’s Doctrine of Moral Freedom: Part I

  1. Pingback: The Education of Moral Agents | The Social Rationalist

  2. every study of hegel should not loose sight of his dialetical undertone which was the hallmark of his philosophy

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