Academic journal article Philosophy Today

The Concept of Conscience in Fichte's System of Ethics

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

The Concept of Conscience in Fichte's System of Ethics

Article excerpt

To explain my subject "conscience" I need to make some preliminary comments: In Part I, I shall address drive and reason, and in Part ?, Fichte's idea of morality. In Part G?, I will deal with Fichte's concept of "conscience" in some detail. In Part IV, I shall present a short summary.

I. Drive and Reason

Transcendental moral philosophy has as its aim to find "the grounds of the moral nature of human beings or of the ethical principle within them" (20/14).1 The notion of the "moral nature of human beings" seems to signal a kind of anthropology. Fichte declares abilities and properties to be fundamental elements of human beings; for example: the tendency of the I toward absolute self-activity (43/39), the formative drive (Bildungstrieb) (116/121), or the drive for self-preservation (117/122).

For Fichte, these drives are the basic elements of all human activity. Acting, in general, and the definition of aims and purposes of action, cannot be understood without the idea of fundamental drives, which drive us to action. Drive can be understood as inner agility and mobility. From this results also all conscious activity of the I.

We are beings who are driven to act and can't exist without acting. As rational beings we have to determine ourselves to what ends and in what ways we direct our acting. The natural drive continues to be active and to express itself. Reason reflects upon the natural drive and we "choose among several possible satisfactions of this drive" (153/162). The natural drive opens our attention to possible objects. Reason chooses with complete freedom, but it chooses among the material conditions, given by drive. Reason has the power to defer the satisfaction of drive, but never to eliminate drive.

Drive is not my product, it is rather "a product of nature" (120/125). As Fichte indicates: "It is given, and it does not depend on me in any way. Nevertheless, I become conscious of this drive, and what it brings about within consciousness is something mat stands within my power" (120/125), we have power over the satisfaction of our drives, for they are conscious.

To summarize: We must act in the sensible world to satisfy our drives. Reason is our ability to determinate our action freely. Freedom implies self-determination of sensible acting as arising from my concept of an end (14/9). This concept is "designed by myself and is supposed to guide my acting (15/9). Formally my acting is grounded in my self-activity, it acts causally on the object. Materially it is determined by something objective.

The question now is: How should we act? What concept of acting do we need? Fichte provides an answer to this question in two steps: first in the Naturrecht, second in the Sittenlehre. The Naturrecht asks for the relation between individuals and defines "Right" as mutual recognition of persons and of the spheres of their free acting. The Sittenlehre focuses on the principle of morality within humans and the duties resulting from this principle.

II. Morality and Moral Law

Fichte claims a "moral or ethical nature of human beings as such" (19/13). Morality is based on a "compulsion" (Zunötigung) which manifests itself "necessarily" in human beings (ibid.). This compulsion is completely intrinsic. It is independent of any external influences. Without this independence, morality can't be thought. Morality means free self-determination. For Fichte, and also Kant, the ground of morality is the "practical dignity" of reason which lies in "its very absoluteness" (59/57). Reason is absolute because of "its indeterminability through anything outside of itself (59/58). It is-as practical reason-absolutely autonomous in the self-determination of its own activity. The "principle of morality" results from this idea of practical reason.

The principle of morality is the necessary thought of the intellect that it ought to determine its freedom in accordance with the concept of self-sufficiency, absolutely and without exception. …

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