The Transcendental Deduction of the Categorial Imperative in Fichte's System of Ethics

By de Rosales, Jacinto Rivera | Philosophy Today, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

The Transcendental Deduction of the Categorial Imperative in Fichte's System of Ethics


de Rosales, Jacinto Rivera, Philosophy Today


In Fichte's System of Ethics we find a double deduction of categorial imperative. The first one, in §1-3, is for the philosopher, based on the essence of I. The second one appears in §9-13 and 16, where Fichte shows how the I-self rises genetically to the moral conscience. In this essay I will concentrate on explicating the first of these deductions.

Kant

In the first three paragraphs of System of Ethics (1798), Fichte proceeds to lay out the bases of his ethics by philosophically deducing tile law or the principle of morality. With this deduction, he promises us "the most perfect insight into the morality of our being," because it "makes comprehensible the so-called categorical imperative. The latter no longer appears to be some sort of hidden property (qualitas occulta). . . . Thanks to this derivation, that dark region of sundry, irrational enthusiasm [Schwärmerei], which has opened itself in connection with the categorical imperative (e.g., the notion that the moral law is inspired by the deity), is securely annihilated."1 With this deduction it appears that the moral law comes from the transcendental I. Was this something that remained unclear in the Kantian text?

It is well known that Kant placed freedom first in the cosmological area, in the third of the antinomies of the Critique of Pure Reason (1781), understanding it as a real force or an unconditional cause of some phenomena, as "the power of beginning a state spontaneously."2 But as such transcendental freedom stems from experience, and therefore it cannot be asserted objectively. The practical concept of freedom is nevertheless based on me transcendental idea of it, and the denial of transcendental freedom involves the elimination of all practical freedom. But this transcendental freedom cannot be refuted either, since theoretical knowledge does not reach the totality or the unconditional, and is even less capable of explaining the experience of duty and of the imputability of acts. The possibility of such freedom remains open therefore, and that is enough for Kant in this first critical approach to the topic, since in "The Canon of Pure Reason"3 he affirms that practical freedom consists only of independence in regard to sensuous present impulses, and this "can be proved through experience,"4 because "we have the power to overcome the impressions on our faculty of sensuous desire, by calling up representations of what, in a more indirect manner, is useful or injurious."5

This closeness between the profitable and the moral thing, which still existed in the Canon of the Critique of Pure Reason, is dismantled in the first two chapters of Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals (1785) and distinguished as two different imperatives: hypothetical and categorical. Only the latter is the moral law, and the free action, according to this new formulation of the moral law, has to be not only as duty requires, but also carried out because duty requires it. Consequently, moral freedom entails pure motivations that stop being accessible to experience, provided only that this tells us that we have not found "some secret impulse of self-love," but not that it does not exist.6 In this case, how can we demonstrate the reality of practical freedom in every rational being and base the validity of the moral law on it? This is not possible theoretically (KrV), nor by appealing to experience nor by resorting to an intellectual intuition, so the question remains in truth unanswered in the third chapter of Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals.

Then, in the Critique of Practical Reason (1788), Kant inverts the terms: It is the moral law, as a fact of practical reason well-established in itself, which assures us the reality of moral freedom7 (already identified with the transcendental freedom of the third antinomy),8 since only for a free being is consciousness of his duty possible and only the actions of such a free being can be imputed to him. …

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