Issue #53 June 2022

Hegel’s 1803 Ethics: Rationalism and the Moral Law

Adriaen Pietersz. van de Venne - "Fishing for Souls" - (1614)

In the first part of this series on Hegel’s 1803 essay on natural law (ethics) we investigated empiricism and its consequential ethical form. The conclusion of that inquiry led to the revelation that a consistent empiricism must lead to a ‘war of all against all’ both in its theoretical and practical results. Inherent to the constant dissolution of particular empirical principles, however, was its form as the one enduring and consistent aspect of its truth. While empiricism’s various principles strive for completeness which cannot be achieved, rationalism’s principle strives for consistency. Unlike empiricism, which presents positions that range from Hume to Locke in its epistemology, and presents Hobbes’s state of nature despite Hobbes being far more of a rationalist himself, rationalism is here presented as having a unified face, an indisputable champion with a name: Immanuel Kant. This is most fitting—one wonders if Hegel aesthetically intended this—for empiricism is a changing plurality, while rationalism is an overbearing and unchanging unity.


The Critique of Kant

It is often stated and repeated that Hegel showed Kant to be wrong about morality as the categorical imperative, and the main point brought up is that Hegel showed how it is bereft of content such that it is not a guide to action. The second section of the essay On the Scientific Ways of Treating Natural Law concerns one of Hegel’s middle critiques of Kant prior to the explicit formation of his system. Despite being an early work, it nonetheless is succinct and gets to various points of critique which bolster the attack in an elucidating manner. The general style and points brought against Kant are not very different to what Hegel would put forth in various works over his later career.


The Formalism Charge

Hegel’s main critique of Kant concerns three points: 1) the moral law is the principle of the Understanding itself, i.e. the principle of identity; 2) the particular is raised to the universal and the finite is made infinite or absolute; and 3) this principle cannot provide a criterion of morality on account that it can neither specify a concrete particular content from itself nor can it distinguish particular contents as normatively valid since it will validate any content whatsoever when it comes to the question of consistently positing maxims and their categorical assumptions. Pure moral formalism which is divorced from concerning itself with any empirical concept is, Hegel concludes, an entirely immoral morality.


The Abstraction of Identity

The moral law of formalism as such is identity. By the very fact of its absolute formality and expulsion of content it is forced to become a single law of reason, and as such it makes no sense to speak of a system of morality here, for there is nothing but the one formal law which is the criterion of any specific content. So long as the content judged by the form does not contradict itself, that it conforms to the identity of a given category and the action under that category, it is the case that the maxim is validated as an absolute moral law.1placeholder

Since the content of a maxim remains singular, and practical reason’s validation operation confers onto it the status of moral law, it only does so by giving the maxim the form of analytic unity, that form being A=A. The content, however, can never be verified as itself having absolute or moral status—the form alone is moral. A consequence of this formality is that in the form of the maxim a finite contingent particular is raised to infinite necessary universality—a contradiction. Morality is supposed to be the realm of absolute universality, of self-consistency which can have no opposition precisely due to its absoluteness. However, since Kant’s ‘good will’ is indeterminate and requires given contents to make judgments, and can only judge insofar as it raises these particulars into universality of form, in such a procedure it cannot achieve with the particular a genuinely universal content. Every maxim retains its particularity, it is a finite content and not all-encompassing, so it faces the opposition of other contents. Since morality is the universal without condition, and any maxim is in truth only a particular usurping the universal, Kant’s moral law is in fact immoral—it is evil in the sense of that which is singular which attempts to usurp the universal.

The propositional form of a maxim confuses us, says Hegel, in a ruse where we impute the absoluteness of the form to the particular content.2placeholder The moral law tells us that the form of the maxim is absolute, but this cannot be said of the content. Given the confusion which leads to thinking it does confer absoluteness to the content, Hegel tells us it is only due to incompetence that anyone would not be able to provide absolute rational ground—not merely a probable ground—to any action whatsoever as a presupposed right or duty in any given content.


The Truth or the Thing As Such

For Kant the question of the truth of the criterion (the form of the law) is a nonsensical question, for then the law would be run through itself as a content, yet the truth procedure is an entirely clear and empty form—it is like fluid when put through its own sieve, i.e. nothing will be comprehended since there is nothing there to comprehend just as a sieve will catch nothing when pure liquid is run through it. The question of the truth of the content fairs no better, for the criterion of truth is purely formal in order that it apply to any and all objects. Such a formality abstracts from the specific contents of knowledge, so it is nonsense to ask for a general test of truth for specific contents because such a test itself does not concern any specific content, but only its form, i.e. itself. To ask practical reason for the truth of the concepts of duty and right—what they are as such—says Kant, has the same kind of problem. Practical reason itself is nothing but the pure will, and the pure will does not have a particular content of will. To ask of the pure will or practical reason the content of morality is a hopeless endeavor since it is itself abstracted from all content and is merely the pure form of identity.3placeholder

The only way which the categorical imperative, the moral law, can gain content is by the will taking a given content which it then runs through the criterion of validity to confirm or deny. All things can be put into the form of identity, anything can thus be turned into a moral law.

Jan Porcellis - "A damlooper and rowboat in a choppy sea by a jetty" - (ca.1630)

Through Identity All Things May Be Stated As (in)Valid or (im)Moral

Hegel comments on one of Kant’s examples:

“I ask whether my maxim to increase my fortune by any and all safe means can hold good as a universal practical law in the case where [appropriating] a deposit entrusted to me has appeared to be such a means; the content of this law would be that “anyone may deny having received a deposit for which there is no proof.” This question is then decided by itself, “because such a principle as a law would destroy itself since the result would be that no deposits would exist.”4placeholder [italics added]

Hegel then asks: What’s contradictory about there being no deposits? The lack of deposits will contradict other things related to and requiring deposits, but that’s not what the procedure takes into account. It is merely a test of identity which will judge whether I can or cannot carry out an action. What is the problem with no deposits existing? If people do not trust banks, why is that bad? For most of history people have made and had no deposits in banks and lived just fine.  The argument of self-undermining, or contradiction by consequence of undoing the very foundation of the act, is in fact ridiculous once we consider its consequences in far more serious contents. Consider the following:

“But a maxim which is in principle immoral, because self-contradictory, is absolutely rational and so absolutely moral because it expresses the supersession of a specific thing; for the rational in its negative aspect is the indifference of specifications, the supersession of the conditioned. Thus the specific injunction, “Help the poor,” expresses the supersession of the specific thing, poverty. The maxim, “Help the poor,” tested by being elevated into a principle of universal legislation, will prove to be false because it annihilates itself. If the thought is that the poor generally should be helped, then either there are no poor left or there are nothing but poor; in the latter event no one is left to help them. In both cases the help disappears. Thus the maxim, universalized, cancels itself. On the other hand, if the specific thing which is to be superseded (i.e., poverty) were to remain, the possibility of help remains—but only as a possibility, not as the actuality envisaged by the maxim. If poverty is to remain in order that the duty of helping the poor can be fulfilled, this maintenance of poverty forthwith means that the duty is not fulfilled. So the maxim of honorably defending one’s country against its enemies, like an infinite number of other maxims, is self-canceling as soon as it is thought as a principle of universal legislation; for when so universalized, for example, the specification of country, enemies, and defense is canceled.”5placeholder [italics added]

We see here that the self-undermining of a maxim is precisely what we want in some cases. The whole point of carrying out some moral actions is to undo the very conditions that require such moral action at all.

The maxim, “I should not steal,” says Hegel, is valid insofar as it is consistent with the presupposed concept of property. The categorical imperative, being the principle of identity itself, does not specify what it can or cannot be applied to, but since it cannot specify content on its own, its regulative content must be given concepts to which maxims shall be compared in their consequence. The question of whether I should steal or not is formally the same as the question of whether I should have property or not except that the question of property would require a determination of content as such, not a comparison of identity to the presupposed concept. What could the morality of property as such be in this case? When we use the categorical imperative with the explicit knowledge that it has presupposed concepts which make the question of theft intelligible in the first place, we find that we can consistently state the exact opposite of the maxim first put forth. Insofar as there should be property, I should not steal. I can state the opposite just as validly: Insofar as there should not be property, I should take possession of any object I need or desire (stealing from the standpoint of property). With the former it would be invalid and immoral to steal, for if everyone stole the very concept of property would be operatively meaningless and unreal, and as such the maxim undermines its own intelligibility since property would cease to exist. With the latter it would be invalid and immoral to not steal, for in respecting that which is the claimed property of another I contradict the maxim that property should not exist.


The Immoral as Moral

When it is recognized that the form subsumes particular content while allowing the content to persist as finite in opposition to the infinite, we find a contradiction of form and content. If the particular could rise to the universal and be one with it, if the content and the form could be one, the particular would annihilate itself and supersede itself. This consequence is what we see in Hegel’s example of property, deposits, and poverty. Logically speaking, the entire purpose of the moral or ethical enterprise is to negate or supersede the very condition of good action. When the Good exists we need no maxim, and we need maxims only insofar as what exists is not good. To help the poor, when universalized, will eliminate poverty and undermine the very action of helping the poor, and this is exactly the aim. Another example close to us all: I should not spend more than I have saved. If everyone followed this maxim the entire banking loan and credit system would fall apart, and a great chunk of the economy would plummet with it. But this maxim holds valid insofar as we assume that debt as such is bad, and it is invalid insofar as debt in some form is considered good (there are premodern nonwestern societies in which this is the strong case,  and some today would argue this elaborately and with great number of metrics).

The moral law, based on a particular content which when universalized cancels itself, in so canceling the content cancels itself as a maxim, and thereby fails to be a moral law at all. We can apply the moral law to maxims themselves, and as such this self-contradiction of the maxim shows the maxim to itself be immoral.6placeholder This is, of course, absurd! The conclusion is that in the example of helping the poor the maxim to help the poor is itself immoral in being a bad maxim in producing such a contradiction. A further absurdity accrues in the final consequences of the moral law: either the particular content is superseded and contradicts itself, or the particular content remains and morality contradicts itself in being unable to overcome the particular, i.e. in being unable to bring about what ought to be, so our duty is left unfulfilled.

This contradiction, this self-cancellation and supersession which Kant condemns as the most immoral, Hegel tells us is in fact the form of the moral. The finite, the particular, the contingent, should pass away into the universal, necessary, and infinite.


Perception vs Formalism

The unity of practical reason is infected with difference either by fixing the difference in the choice of maxim itself, or in the distinction of form and content in the maxim itself. The maxim is analytic as a sentence, but as simply analytic the maxim fails to be a judgment at all since it specifies that its content is simply its content; the subject and predicate are collapsed in the indistinction of the identity of the statement as a whole. The Understanding, the form of reasoning which distinguishes parts, when grasped as universal concept vs empirical content reveals the universal to simply be the reference to an endless multiplicity precisely because it posits itself as a particular universal, not an absolute universality.7placeholder

Neither empiricism nor rationalist formalism have shown themselves as consistent absolutes—they contradict themselves and produce results opposite their claimed intent. The unity of the moral law is neither the unity which cancels particulars since it falls into particularity itself, nor is it the true unity of particulars which are to be found in perception and its positive ‘indifference’, i.e. its sublating of the particularity of empiricism and rationalism. Perception is the third to these two, the epistemic form corresponding to ethical life. The indifference of perception is its sublative or negative unity of both. It is indifferent because as their whole it is not different to them, not opposed to them or to their opposition. 

The unity of perception is the ground of the unity and difference of epistemic and ethical forms here. It is the unity of empiricism and rationalism, of content and form, of the one and the many. If the unity of morality was the true negating of all particularity it would be the infinity of negative reason, or the Concept which does not oppose itself to its parts as if it itself is merely another part among them. The moral law, however, is precisely particularity claiming to not be particular because it parts itself against particularity. Morality, or rather the Understanding, has shown itself to be the opposite of what it takes itself to initially be. It has shown itself to be absolute powerlessness of pure form, incapable of making the world what it ought to be—incapable of even judging what it ought to be. For these reasons Hegel cannot accept Kant’s categorical imperative as the true natural law of ethics, but formalism does not thereby disappear from truth, rather, it shares in ethical life along with empiricism once the higher standpoint of perception is achieved. This standpoint, however, still is not attained in its clarity or purity at first, and so comes burdened with an imposed limitation. The third and final part of this series shall deal with a perception burdened with the formalist distinction of the universal against the particular in the form of the determination of the political state and the source of its validation of power in the general will.

Antonio Wolf is a former philosophy student, and continuing autodidact. Currently he’s focusing on Hegel. He authors a blog, the Empyrean Trail, which tries to expound Hegel’s philosophy to make it accessible without watering it down.

Works Cited

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Scientific Ways of Treating Natural Law, Its Place in Moral Philosophy, and Its Relation to the Positive Sciences of Law, trans. T M Knox (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1975).


Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Scientific Ways of Treating Natural Law, Its Place in Moral Philosophy, and Its Relation to the Positive Sciences of Law, trans. T M Knox (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1975), p.75.


Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Scientific Ways of Treating Natural Law, Its Place in Moral Philosophy, and Its Relation to the Positive Sciences of Law, trans. T M Knox (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1975), p.78.


Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Scientific Ways of Treating Natural Law, Its Place in Moral Philosophy, and Its Relation to the Positive Sciences of Law, trans. T M Knox (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1975), p.76.


Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Scientific Ways of Treating Natural Law, Its Place in Moral Philosophy, and Its Relation to the Positive Sciences of Law, trans. T M Knox (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1975), p.77.


Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Scientific Ways of Treating Natural Law, Its Place in Moral Philosophy, and Its Relation to the Positive Sciences of Law, trans. T M Knox (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1975), p.80.


Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Scientific Ways of Treating Natural Law, Its Place in Moral Philosophy, and Its Relation to the Positive Sciences of Law, trans. T M Knox (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1975), p.78.


Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Scientific Ways of Treating Natural Law, Its Place in Moral Philosophy, and Its Relation to the Positive Sciences of Law, trans. T M Knox (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1975), p.81.


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