The Routledge Companion to Nineteenth Century Philosophy

By Dean Moyar | Go to book overview

4
THE MORAL THEORY OF
GERMAN IDEALISM

Allen W. Wood

Below I will trace the development of German idealist thinking about moral theory from Immanuel Kant through Gottlieb Fichte to G. W. F. Hegel. The exposition will focus on the theoretical structure of German idealist theories about morality in the narrower sense, mostly leaving aside what these thinkers would call “right” (Recht) (and Hegel would call ‘abstract right’), especially the aspects of right that deal with legal and political theory.

In comparing these thinkers it has been customary to emphasize points of disagreement – as if, for instance, we were faced with an inevitable choice between Kant and Hegel, whose basic views present us with something like mutually exclusive (if not jointly exhaustive) alternatives. But I think the development is much better understood if we focus on the continuity within the tradition, and view the disagreements as presenting us with interesting variations on a common position. Most of the important developments within this tradition took place between Kant and Fichte; Hegel’s contributions, though original and highly significant, consisted mainly in new ways of appropriating Fichte’s insights. Fichte, however, did not see his theory as fundamentally at odds with Kant’s, and I think he was right – from which it follows that Hegel’s theory is not fundamentally at odds with it either.


Kant

Freedom

The ethics of German idealism is most fundamentally an ethics of freedom. This is true both in the sense that it depends on regarding the human will as free in a fairly strong sense of the term, and on locating basic moral value in certain ways of exercising freedom of the will. All three philosophers realized, however, that ‘freedom’ is a term with multiple (if interconnected) meanings. They were of course not entirely of one mind about how ‘freedom’ is to be conceived, and the structure of different capacities, activities and values falling under the concept are to be theoretically organized. But the starting point for any understanding of the moral theory of any of them must begin with the theory of freedom.

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