Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Fichte and the Universality of the Moral Law

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Fichte and the Universality of the Moral Law

Article excerpt

"We ought all to act in the same manner."1 This bold assertion is to be found in the fifth Part of §18 of the System of Ethics. With this sentence, Fichte raises the question of the realization of the moral law by a plurality of rational beings. He is entitled to raise this question at that particular point of his discussion because, earlier in the same paragraph, he had deduced what has come to be known as "interpersonality." As we know, in order for an individual to recognize herself as a free being, she must necessarily posit the existence of another free rational being. From that point on, the realization of morality becomes a collective task. All rational beings pursue the same end; that is, me absolute independence and self-sufficiency of reason, and in order to attain mis common goal, they should all act in the same way. Fichte stresses this aspect of the collective realization of morality by saying that we should strive toward "uniformity of acting" (Gleichförmigkeit des Handelns).2 The question is then: How are we to understand Fichte's requirement of uniformity of moral conduct? Since the result of the deduction of intersubjectivity is that the I has to be particularized, that it has to discover itself as an empirical I, the question then arises as to how such an individual I is to relate to the pure rational law and to its universal character.

In what follows, I intend to examine this question in Ught of the criticisms that Fichte addresses to the Kantian conception of morality, and, in particular, in Ught of the conception of universality underlying Kant's moral law. In the section where Fichte writes that we should all act in the same manner, he formulates two remarks concerning the way Kant exposes his categorical imperative, two remarks that will retain our attention. As Fichte expressly makes these remarks from his own "point of view,"3 they will help us to circumscribe his position on me universaUty of die moral law. But even though he does not agree witii Kant on the exact role of universaUty, Fichte, in 1798, nevertheless accepts the Kantian idea of a unanimous agreement among rational beings, a position that he will later have to qualify.

The second part of this essay will focus on Fichte's lectures of 1806, The Way Towards the Blessed Life, in which he introduces me famous distinction between "lower" and "higher" morality, a distinction that will allow us to determine Fichte's final stand on the "uniformity of acting," the theme he developed in 1798. Once again, Kant will serve here as a guiding thread insofar as he becomes considered, from then on, to be a proponent of the lower level of morality, a morality that aims at nothing other than a uniforming of human conduct. In my final remarks, I shall come back to the System of Ethics of 1798 in order to see in what sense the accusations brought against Kant's ethics in 1806 might also be directed against Fichte's own System of Ethics, as he himself admits. But I shall also try to show that some aspects of the higher morality, namely, the uniqueness of the role each person has to play as well as the creative character of the law, were already somewhat anticipated in 1798, and that despite the evolution that the principles of the Wissenschafislehre went through, the concrete content of Fichte's ethics did not undergo a radical change.

Let us start by reading the passage of the System of Ethics in which the sentence stating the necessary uniformity of the actions of all moral subjects is introduced. As has already been said, Fichte comes here to the point where moraUty can be envisaged as a coUective task, as the task of all rational beings: "As we have seen, the moral final end of every rational being is the self-sufficiency of reason as such, and hence the moraUty of all rational beings. We ought all to act in the same manner."4 MoraUty is a task that concerns everyone; hence all rational beings must agree on this common end, on what has to be done. …

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