« Prev Section II. Philosophical Ethics. Next »


As a philosophical science, ethics forms a part of the philosophy of the spirit,—has as presuppositions speculative theology and psychology, and stands in the closest relation to the science of history as the objective, realization of the moral life. As standing within the science of spirit, it presents, as in contrast to knowledge, the active phase of the rational spirit-life, whereby man, as having come to rational self-consciousness, makes into reality that which exists in hirm primarily only as an idea,—makes his spiritually-rational nature as existing objectively to him into a nature freely-willed and posited by himself.

17All philosophy has to do essentially with three objects: the thoughts of God, of nature, and of the human spirit. Ethics, as belonging to the third sphere, has, co-ordinate to itself within this sphere, the science of psychology as treating of the nature of the individual mind and of its development, and the science of history as portraying the development of the collective spirit; it is in some sense the unity of the two; it is psychology, in that it presents, in fact, the highest form of the soul-life, the rationally-free life; and it is history, in that it embraces man not as isolated, but as an organic member of the whole, and considers his activity as directed toward the rational shaping of collective humanity. Ethics gives to history its rational goal; and all morality has the perfect shaping of universal history as its ultimate end. A real understanding of history is not possible without ethics; universal history is the realization of the moral—the good and also the evil—within humanity; hence history, the actual contents of which lie of course outside of the sphere of purely philosophical knowledge, is an important teacher of morality—teaching by example in sacred history, and by caution and warning in profane.

The position here assigned to philosophical ethics takes the definition of that science in its widest sense, and embraces also right and art. While the view which merges morality essentially into either right or art is very one-sided and a mistaking of the nature of the moral in general, it would not be less erroneous entirely to shut out the moral from these two spheres, and to place it simply along-side of them; the moral is rather, as the superior element, above them, and right and art have truth only in so far as they are special realization-forms of the moral; there is, in truth, no immoral right and no immoral beauty, although by sinful man the wrong is often regarded as right, and the un-beautiful as beautiful.

Schleiermacher, in his Philosophical Ethics, gives a definition of philosophical ethics, based on the views of Fichte and Schelling, which entirely differs from the usual one. In assuming two chief sciences, that of nature and that of reason, whereof each may be treated either empirically or speculatively, according as the reality or the essence of the object is more directly taken into view, he obtains four sciences in all. The empirical science of nature is natural history; the speculative science of nature is 18physics; the empirical science of reason is history; the speculative science of reason is ethics. Hence ethics “is the knowledge of the essence of reason,” and stands in the same relation to history as speculation to experience, and is hence essentially the philosophy of history. Under such conditions it would be more correct to call ethics the philosophy of the spirit; but Schleiermacher evades this, no less manifest than necessary, consequence; logic and psychology belong, according to him, not to ethics, for psychology corresponds to natural history, and hence is “the empirical knowledge of the activity of the spiritual;” and logic belongs, empirically-treated, to psychology, and, speculatively-treated, to physics.1010   System der Ethik, edited by Schweizer, 1835, §§ 55, sqq., 60, 61, 87. Though, by means of this strange conception of logic and psychology, the immeasurable sphere of ethics as fixed by the first definition is somewhat reduced, still there yet remains for it a very unusually wide field, and it embraces, with the exception of physics, the whole of philosophical theology and of the philosophy of history; and as natural history and physics have like extent of field, differing only in point of view taken, so the fields of empirical history and of ethics are also co-extensive, and ethics is nothing other than the speculative consideration of history. “History is the example-book of ethics, and ethics is the form-book of history;” but history is, when so viewed, every thing which is not mere nature; and as, in the highest instance, nature and reason are essentially identical, nature being reason, and reason nature, hence’ in the highest view of the matter ethics is physics and physics ethics,” whereas in a lower view of the matter ethics is conditioned, as to contents and form, by physics, and physics by ethics. It is evident at once that according to these definitions ethics is something entirely other than what is usually understood thereby in the scientific world; and it involves not a little courage to undertake to justify the applying of the term ethics to this extensive field. This scientifically-unjustifiable extension of the field of ethics has occasioned much confusion; and Rothe’s “Theological Ethics” suffers also from this lack of limitation, whereas Schleiermacher himself carefully avoided applying to theological ethics this philosophical conception, which in fact sprang more from an ingenious thought-play than from an inner consequential development of the ground-principle. Indeed, 19even in his philosophical ethics, Schleiermacher very soon introduces a much narrower notion, without any logical justification thereto ill his system. Thus ethics is, presently, made to appear as “the scientific presentation of human action,” which manifestly cannot be regarded as identical with the notion of the “speculative knowledge of the essence of reason.” But also this new declaration is much too indefinite; it is not action in general, but moral action, that belongs to ethics. Should we thus find this narrower definition too comprehensive still, then we are relieved by the declaration that ethics is the “speculative knowledge of the collective activity of reason upon nature,” and are at once thrown into a field so narrow as to be obliged to exclude from ethics a very essential, nay, the most essential, part of this science. For all morality is not embraced in an activity of reason upon nature; in however wide a sense “nature” be taken, still it always stands over against reason as of a different character,—is that which, in empirical respects, constitutes the field of natural science, natural history, etc. The moral cultivation of the heart—humility, truthfulness, the moral disposition in general, the whole sphere of the purely spiritual life—belongs not at all to this activity upon nature. On the other hand, this definition is also much too comprehensive, inasmuch as there may be also an extra-moral and an immoral interpenetration of reason and nature, and an immoral activity of reason upon nature; but should it be said that this, now, would not be the true moral reason, then this would virtually imply that the moral is to be sought elsewhere than in this activity of reason upon nature,—would place it in reason as such. As, in the view of Schleiermacher, ethics is only the speculative reverse-side of history, hence he requires, consequentially enough, that it be presented essentially historically. “The style of ethics is the historical; for only where manifestation and law are given as the same is the view taken a scientific one. Hence the style can be neither imperative nor consultative. The form of ethics is the development of a theoretical view. The formula of the ‘should’ is entirely inadmissible, as this formula rests upon an antagonism to the law, whereas it is the part of science to present this antagonism as a mere appearance.” This position, (harmonizing with the view expressed in his “Discourses on Religion,”) which, from the stand-point of Pantheistic 20determinism, is quite consequential, we simply mention in passing, in order to explain, in some manner, this position of ethics in Schleiermacher. Even as the other speculative science, namely, physics, does not present what should be, but what really is and must be, so also Pantheistic ethics has to do only with the “is” and the “must be,” but not with the “should;” all reality is here rational; all disagreement with the law is mere appearance; there exists nothing else than what must be; hence ethics has simply to present for the reason-life the laws, even as physics, for the nature-life, and is just as certain of the agreement of reality with these laws as astronomy is certain of the occurrence of a calculated eclipse of the moon. On the contrary, so soon as by the admission of moral will-freedom, even the possibility of an antagonism of moral reality to the moral law is conceded, ethics presents itself at once with the should; for the moral law has unconditional validity, whether man really fulfills it or not. Ethics is only in so far purely historical as perfect morality is also personal reality; hence Christian ethics bears, indeed, essentially also a historical character, because Christ is, for it, the moral ideal;—for others, however, it bears the form of the “should.” Pantheistic ethics makes collective humanity the real expression of the moral idea,—makes humanity its Christ. And that Schleiermacher’s philosophical ethics is by no means free of a Pantheistic character, is undeniable.

Hegel conceives of ethics as one of the phases of the Philosophy of the Spirit, and more specifically as the sphere of the objective spirit in contradistinction to that of the subjective, which embraces anthropology, the phenomenology of the spirit, and psychology. The spirit, as having come to itself and become free, realizes itself, in that, as free rational will, it posits itself outwardly,—forms for itself a world corresponding to itself, which is the expression of the spirit. This objective reality of the free spirit, which becomes for the individual subject an objective power whereby the subject is determined in his freedom, and which consequently is to be recognized by the individual, is, as of a universal character, for the individual, law. Hence this will of objective rationality is right, which becomes for the individual, duty. But in that right does not remain a merely objective power, but makes itself immanent in the individual subject, so that the individual will becomes an expression 21of the general will, and right finds in the subject free recognition—becomes subjective disposition—so the notion of right transforms itself into that of morality, which in its turn—by not remaining merely subjective, but by forming for itself in the spheres of the family, of civil society, and of the state, a complete rational reality, wherein the free spirit finds its self-created and perfectly self-answering home—exalts itself to customariness.1111   Philosophie des Geistes, § 481, sq.; Rechtsphilosophie, p. 22, sqq. Hegel styles this development of the objective spirit, not ethics—to which he surely had a higher right than Schleiermacher for his much more comprehensive notion, (inasmuch as the ethical is the highest phase of this development,) —but the philosophy of right. The entire contents of this philosophy of right fall indeed into the sphere of ethics in the wider sense of the term, though the entire contents of Christian ethics do not fall into the sphere of this philosophy of right. Ethics has, according to the Christian view, not merely to create an objective world of rationality, but also to make the moral personality itself a perfect expression of rationality; hence many things which Hegel treats of in the philosophy of the subjective spirit belong to ethics; and this is doubtless the principal reason why Hegel (much more cautious and less arbitrary in his notions and their definitions than Schleiermacher) designates the science of the objective spirit, not ethics, but the doctrine of right.

« Prev Section II. Philosophical Ethics. Next »


| Define | Popups: Login | Register | Prev Next | Help |