The First-Person Standpoint of Fichte's Ethics

By Breazeale, Daniel | Philosophy Today, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

The First-Person Standpoint of Fichte's Ethics


Breazeale, Daniel, Philosophy Today


We live in exciting times - a generalization that can be extended to contemporary philosophy, and particularly to contemporary work in ethics. Not only is the shop-worn debate between deontologists and utilitarians no longer the only game in town, with the rise of such vigorous competitors as "virtue ethics" and an "ethics of care," but the traditional giants in this field are being creatively reinterpreted as well, as is indicated by the spate of recent efforts at systematic rapprochement between, say, Kantian and Aristotelian ethics.

One noteworthy contribution to this renaissance of creative ethical thinking is represented by Stephen Darwall's efforts to construct a new account of moral obligation from what he calls in his 2006 book of the same name "the second-person standpoint."1 Darwall's account is based upon a careful and ingenious analysis of the peculiar normative force of so-called "second-person reasons," which are the kind of reasons that can be addressed only by one person to another, and which count as reasons only because both parties recognize the practical authority of the other to make certain demands simply by virtue of his or her dignity as a person. That is to say, to recognize such a second-person reason at all is to presuppose the authority of the other to address one in this way. As Darwall puts it: "to enter intelligibly into the second-person stance and make claims on and demands of one another at all, you and I must presuppose that we share a common second-personal authority, competence, and responsibility simply as free and rational agents."2 Darwall's claim is that moral obligation is ultimately based upon such an appeal to such second-person reasons, and thus he offers a new and in many ways compelling theory of ethics from a "secondperson standpoint," a theory which he is able to apply creatively to an impressive number of traditional puzzles in moral philosophy.

It is not my intention on this occasion to explore, to explicate, or to criticize Darwall's second-person ethics. Instead, I will be focusing upon a relatively minor feature of his exposition of his position: namely, his repeated claim that his new ethical theory is, in fact, anticipated by and to some degree based upon that of J. G. Fichte. This claim is stated in chapter 10 of Darwall's book, "Dignity and the Second Person: Variations on Fichtean Themes," and is defended in more detail in his contribution to the 2005 issue of the International Yearbookfor German Idealism, in an essay titled "Fichte and the Second-Person Standpoint."3

In responding to Darwall's claims, I find myself in a somewhat ticklish situation: On the one hand, I sincerely admire his efforts to construct an ethics from a second-person standpoint, and I also salute him for trying to reanimate one of Fichte's most original ideas (that is, his theory of intersubjective recognition by way of a summons, which Darwall calls "Fichte's Point") and to connect it so directly to the concerns of contemporary philosophy. And I readily concede that ethical theory can profit from a new examination of the "secondperson standpoint" and an investigation of the presuppositions of the same. On the other hand, as a self-designated Fichte scholar, I feel that it is my somewhat unhappy duty to point out that the kind of ethical theory Darwall envisions bears little relation indeed to Fichte's own "ethics," but instead imports arguments from Fichte's philosophy of right or system of natural law into the - for Fichte at least - very different realm of ethics, while resolutely ignoring Fichte's own ethical theory. I will therefore begin my remarks by contrasting the genuinely second-person standpoint of the philosophy of law or civil justice (Recht) propounded by Fichte in his 1796/97 Grundlage des Naturrechts with what he himself insists is the very different standpoint of the moral philosophy expounded in his 1798 System der Sittenlehre. And then, in the second part of this essay, I will provide a brief exegesis of one of the main lines of argument from Part I of the Sittenlehre, an exegesis intended to demonstrate that resolutely "first-person" standpoint of the latter. …

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