Humean and Kantian Influences on Husserl's Later Ethics

By Arroyo, Christopher | Philosophy Today, January 1, 2006 | Go to article overview
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Humean and Kantian Influences on Husserl's Later Ethics


Arroyo, Christopher, Philosophy Today


Edmund Husserl's writings on moral philosophy have received relatively little attention in the scholarly literature. Nevertheless, those scholars who have written on Husserl's moral philosophy have distinguished between his early or "pre-war" ethics and his later or "postwar" ethics. Husserl's early ethics are influenced heavily by his teacher, Franz Brentano, while his later ethics are influenced by the practical writings of J. G. Fichte. As one might suspect given these two very different influences, there are issues concerning the consistency between Husserl's positions in his earlier and later ethics. Moreover, identifying Husserl's considered ethical position is complicated by the fact that, as Janet Donohoe points out, "it is important to recognize at the outset that Husserl's [ethical] theory is by no means complete. He was never satisfied enough with his account to publish it, nor is there even necessarily a unified theory that deserves the name of Husserl's ethics."1 Despite the difficulty Donohoe identifies, one may still speak of "Husserl's ethics," for he devoted many pages of lecture notes and research manuscripts to the articulation of his views on ethics.

My focus in this essay is Husserl's later ethics. By drawing on Husserl's recently published lecture course from the early 1920s titled "Introduction to Ethics,"2 I shall expound and evaluate the influence Hume and Kant had on Husserl's moral philosophy. First, I shall argue that Husserl both uncritically endorses Hume's claim that all acts of valuing are based on feeling or sentiment, and I shall argue, as well, that Hume influenced Husserl's concern for preserving human individuality in an account of moral obligation. second, I shall argue that despite Husserl's criticism that Kant's moral philosophy cannot serve as a guide to action because it is too formal,3 Kant's conception of the moral law as universally and necessarily applying to all human beings, as well as Kant's notion of autonomy, deeply impressed Husserl. Third, I shall examine Husserl's account of what he calls the "absolute ought." Specifically, I shall examine and evaluate Husserl's attempts to explain and to justify how this absolute ought (i.e., moral obligation) is normative for all human beings by grounding it in each individual's personal values of love, values that originate from the inwardness of each individual. This attempt at justification was inspired by Fichte's practical philosophy and was motivated by Husserl's desire to reconcile universal moral obligation with human individuality. I think Husserl's Fichtean grounding of obligation fails, and I shall argue that by returning to Husserl's original Kantian inspiration, Husserlians can develop a cogent account of and normative justification for moral obligation.

Humean and Kantian Influences in Husserl's "Introduction to Ethics"

Husserl's lecture course, "Introduction to Ethics," gives us an interesting source of material for seeing the influences on Husserl's own thinking on ethics, for, unlike his early lecture notes,4 Husserl spends most of the course engaging the moral philosophies of other thinkers. Though Husserl spends time in the beginning of the lectures discussing the ethical theories of some ancient philosophers (most notably Aristippus' version of hedonism), most of his attention is directed to an examination of modern ethical theories from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. And, as in the early lecture notes, the central theme running throughout Husserl's lecture courses from the early twenties is the struggle in moral philosophy between an ethics of feeling and an ethics of reason. Husserl thinks that this struggle can be seen throughout the history of Western ethics, but he believes that it comes to a head in the debates between moral sense theories and rationalist theories of ethics from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries.5 More ximportantly, Husserl sees the struggle as it is articulated from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries as continuing into Husserl's time.

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