Vous êtes sur la page 1sur 233

Hegel’s Conscience

This page intentionally left blank

Hegel’s Conscience

Dean Moyar

Oxford University Press, Inc., publishes works that further
Oxford University’s objective of excellence
in research, scholarship, and education.
Oxford New York
Auckland Cape Town Dar es Salaam Hong Kong Karachi
Kuala Lumpur Madrid Melbourne Mexico City Nairobi
New Delhi Shanghai Taipei Toronto
With offices in
Argentina Austria Brazil Chile Czech Republic France Greece
Guatemala Hungary Italy Japan Poland Portugal Singapore
South Korea Switzerland Thailand Turkey Ukraine Vietnam

Copyright © 2011 by Oxford University Press, Inc.

Published by Oxford University Press, Inc.

198 Madison Avenue, New York, New York 10016
Oxford is a registered trademark of Oxford University Press
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced,
stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means,
electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise,
without the prior permission of Oxford University Press.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Moyar, Dean.
Hegel’s conscience / by Dean Moyar.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references (p. ).
ISBN 978-0-19-539199-2 (alk. paper)
1. Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, 1770–1831. 2. Conscience. 3. Ethics. I. Title.
B2949.E8M68 2010
170.92—dc22 2010012911

1 3 5 7 9 8 6 4 2

Printed in the United States of America

on acid-free paper
table of contents

Acknowledgments vii
Note on Citations and Abbreviations ix

Introduction 3
1. Hegelian Ethics? 3
2. Interpretive Parameters 8
3. Hegel’s Problem 11

1. Self-Consciousness and Agency 15

1.1. First-Person Authority and Responsible Action 16
1.2. Conscience in History 23
1.3. Immanent Negativity 28
1.4. Negativity and Ethical Content 33
1.5. A Performative View of Practical Reason 38

2. Motivating and Justifying Reasons 43

2.1. The Reasons Identity Condition 44
2.2. Internal Reasons and the Knight of Virtue 47
2.3. The Implicit Universality and Objectivity
of Internal Reasons 53
2.4. Freedom and the Appeal to Reason 56
2.5. Conscience and Motivating Reasons 61
2.6. The Ambiguity of Conscience 68
2.7. The Complex Reasons Identity Condition 74

3. Holism and Detachment 81

3.1. Subjectivism and Detachment 82
3.2. Self-Expression and Interpretive Authority 87
3.3. The Holism of Conscience 93
3.4. Abuses of Holism 100
3.5. Autonomy as Non-Detachment 106

4. Deliberation and Justification 111

4.1. Moral Conflict 112
4.2. Law and Value 119
4.3. Moral Reflection and Skepticism 124
vi Table of Contents

4.4. Conscience as Judgment 129

4.5. Fallibilism and the Externality of Judgment 135
4.6. The Disjunctive Inference 138

5. Mutual Recognition 143

5.1. Recognition and the Moments of Action 145
5.2. Valuing the Purposes of Conscience 150
5.3. The Language of Conscience 155
5.4. Ethical Purposes and the Value of Humanity 159
5.5. Humanity and the Mutual Recognition of Forgiveness 163
5.6. Objective Spirit and the Transition to Ethical Life 166

6. Practical Reason in Ethical Life 173

6.1. The Family 175
6.2. Civil Society and the Need for Conscience 180
6.3. The Legal System 185
6.4. The State and the Individual 191
6.5. Sovereignty and Deliberative Processes 197
6.6. Our Actuality 207

Bibliography 209
Index 215

I have incurred many debts in the course of the long development of this project. From
a dissertation that dealt extensively with Hegel’s development and very little with con-
temporary ethical theory, the text grew into a ponderous treatment of the conscience
problem that included Kant and Fichte as well as lengthy discussions of Hegel’s
systematic aims and methodology. I owe the current more determinate and tighter
form largely to suggestions and comments from OUP’s anonymous referees, whom I
thank for saving my unwieldy work from the dustbin of history. I would also like to
thank OUP’s Peter Ohlin for staying with the project to its conclusion.
My single greatest intellectual debt goes to my thesis adviser, Robert Pippin. From
my first quarter as a graduate student at the University of Chicago, in his course on the
development of German Idealism, Robert provided the frame and questions that con-
tinue to orient my work today. He had just a heavy enough hand as an adviser to keep
me from pursuing fruitless research paths but a light enough touch to let me go my
own way. For being an exemplary mentor and friend at every stage in this long journey,
I am deeply grateful.
Of the other teachers and advisers who were directly involved with this project, my
first thanks goes to Terry Pinkard. With his gift for clarifying the thorniest texts and
issues, he has been a model of how to negotiate the perils of communicating Hegel’s
ideas to a wider audience. A turning point in my graduate studies, and in the
development of this project, came with my visit to the Westfälische Wilhelms Universität
in Münster, Germany. My thanks go to Ludwig Siep for his guidance during that time,
and to Michael Quante for his friendship and intellectual stimulation then and ever
since. Jonathan Lear and Charles Larmore also provided crucial commentary during
this project’s genesis. Of my many undergraduate teachers who started me along this
path, I want to single out the late great medieval and renaissance scholar Ed Mahoney,
whose approach to the history of philosophy made the thought come alive in ways that
continue to inspire me.
Many thanks are owed to the Johns Hopkins University Department of Philosophy,
which has been my institutional home since leaving Chicago. I am especially grateful
to Eckart Förster and Michael Williams. To Eckart I am thankful for the many conver-
sations about the idealists, for the constant encouragement in my projects, and simply
for being a very good friend. As my chair for most of my years at Hopkins, Michael has
been a tremendous advocate (especially for research leave), and a wonderful example
of how to work at the intersection of historical and systematic concerns. I have also

viii Acknowledgments

been blessed at Hopkins with graduate students who have been willing to dive with me
into the thickets of Hegel’s texts, often on mere hints at eventual intelligibility.
Many friends have helped spur my thought on these matters and in some cases read
parts of the manuscript. I would like especially to thank Sybol Cook Anderson, Susanne
Brauer, Thom Brooks, Will Dudley, Christoph Halbig, Mark Jenkins, James Kreines, Lydia
Moland, Andrew Reisner, Joseph Schear, Maura Tumulty, Allen Wood, and Rachel Zuckert.
This book would hardly have been possible without the patience and support of
my family. To my parents I am most grateful for the trust they had in me that I knew
what I was doing embarking on this life. Whether I showed it or not, I needed the love
and support all along the way.
My final and deepest thanks goes to my wife, Sharlyn Moon Rhee. My constant
companion this last decade, she has kept me going with surprise and diversion. By being
exactly who she is, and giving me a home in her otherness, she has made meaningful
the life that has been given to us.
note on citations and abbreviations

I have found it necessary to alter many of the translations of the primary texts that I
am examining in this study. I do not, however, note these alterations except in those
cases in which I think the original translation is especially misleading.
Citations of Hegel’s works are given parenthetically according to the abbreviations
below. For the Phenomenology of Spirit I simply give the page number from GW 9 and
the paragraph number from the Miller translation. Any parenthetical citation with a
“¶” in it refers to the Phenomenology. With the Philosophy of Right I give Hegel’s section
number. All parenthetical citations with a “§” and no letters refer to the section number
of the Philosophy of Right. When a section number is followed by a “Z” it refers to the
Zusatz, or Addition, to the original section. When “HW” appears after a section number
it refers to Hegel’s handwritten notes to the section.

Kant.Ak. – Akademie Ausgabe of Kant’s works.
PP – Practical Philosophy. Translated and Edited by Mary J. Gregor. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1996.

SW – Sämmtliche Werke. Edited by Immanuel Hermann Fichte. Berlin: de Gruyter,
SE – The System of Ethics. Translated and edited by Daniel Breazeale and Günter
Zöller. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

GW – Gesammelte Werke. Ed. Hartmut Buchner and Otto Pöggeler. Hamburg: Felix
Meiner Verlag, 1968–.
W – Werke in 20 Bänden. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1986.
JSE I – Jena Systementwürfe I: Das System der spekulativen Philosophie. Edited by
Klaus Düsing and Heinz Kimmerle. Hamburg: Felix Meiner, 1986.
JSE III – Jena Systementwürfe III. Edited by Rolf-Peter Horstmann. Hamburg: Felix
Meiner, 1987.

x Note on Citations and Abbreviations

HHS – The Philosophy of Spirit (1805–6) in Hegel and the Human Spirit. Translated
by Leo Rauch. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1983.
PhS – Phenomenology of Spirit. Translated by A.V. Miller. Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1977.
LNR – Lectures on Natural Right and Political Science. Translated by J. Michael
Stewart and Peter C. Hodgson. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of
California Press, 1995.
EPS – Hegel’s Philosophy of Mind. Part Three of the Encyclopedia of the Philosophical
Sciences. Translated by William Wallace and A.V. Miller. Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1971.
PH – The Philosophy of History. Translated by J. Sibree. New York: Dover, 1956.
PR – Elements of the Philosophy of Right. Translated by H.B. Nisbet, Edited by
Allen Wood. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
VPN19/20 – Philosophie des Rechts: Die Vorlesung von 1819/20 in einer Nachschrift. Edited
by Dieter Henrich. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1983.
L II – Wissenschaft der Logik: Die Lehre vom Begriff (1816). Edited by Hans-Jürgen
Gawoll. Hamburg: Meiner Verlag, 1994.
SL – Science of Logic. Translated by A.V. Miller. Atlantic Highlands, NJ:
Humanities Press, 1969.
xi Note on Citations and Abbreviations

“Do not mistake me, however. I am not saying that she did not err in her advice. It was,
perhaps, one of those cases in which advice is good or bad only as the event decides;
and for myself, I certainly never should, in any circumstance of tolerable similarity,
give such advice. But I mean, that I was right in submitting to her, and that if I had
done otherwise, I should have suffered more in continuing the engagement than I did
even in giving it up, because I should have suffered in my conscience.”
Anne Elliot to Captain Wentworth in Jane Austen’s Persuasion

The minister, on the other hand, had never gone through an experience calculated
to lead him beyond the scope of generally received laws; although, in a single in-
stance, he had so fearfully transgressed one of the most sacred of them. But this had
been a sin of passion, not of principle, nor even of purpose. Since that wretched
epoch, he had watched, with morbid zeal and minuteness, not his acts,—for those it
was easy to arrange,—but each breath of emotion, and his every thought. At the head
of the social system, as the clergymen of that day stood, he was only the more tram-
meled by its regulations, its principles, and even its prejudices. As a priest, the frame-
work of his order inevitably hemmed him in. As a man who had once sinned, but
who kept his conscience all alive and painfully sensitive by the fretting of an unhealed
wound, he might have been supposed safer within the line of virtue, than if he had
never sinned at all.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter

“I was speaking of the oil in the hold, sir.”

“And I was not speaking or thinking of that at all. Begone! Let it leak! I’m all aleak
myself. Aye! Leaks in leaks! Not only full of leaky casks, but those leaky casks are in a
leaky ship; and that’s a far worse plight than the Pequod’s, man. Yet I don’t stop to plug
my leak; for who can find it in the deep-loaded hull? or how hope to plug it, even if
found, in this life’s howling gale? Starbuck! I’ll not have the Burtons hoisted.”
“What will the owners say, sir?”
“Let the owners stand on Nantucket beach and outyell the Typhoons. What cares
Ahab? Owners, owners? Thou art always prating me, Starbuck, about those miserly
owners, as if the owners were my conscience. But look ye, the only real owner of
anything is its commander; and hark ye, my conscience is in this ship’s keel.—
On deck!”
Herman Melville, Moby Dick
This page intentionally left blank
Hegel’s Conscience
This page intentionally left blank

There is no subfield of contemporary ethical theory known as “Hegelian ethics.” By
contrast to the other acknowledged titans of practical philosophy, Aristotle, Hume,
Kant, and Mill, no distinctively Hegelian program has taken root. This fact is all the
more surprising given the revival of interest in Hegel over the last thirty years and the
expansive body of secondary literature that this revival has produced. There has indeed
been a great deal of progress in understanding Hegel’s writings and situating them in
relation to his predecessors. Some of the best recent work has actually focused on
Hegel’s conception of freedom and the alternative understanding of practical philos-
ophy that his conception makes possible.1 Yet his influence on contemporary ethical
theory remains largely negative. His thought is most often invoked to critique Kantian
moral philosophy in order to move autonomy-based ethics in a more historical and
social direction. One could also cite Hegel’s influence on the movement toward “anti-
theory” by philosophers such as Bernard Williams, since Hegel is a leading critic of the
abstract “ethical point of view” as the exclusive mode of moral assessment. Given the
scope and ambitions of Hegel’s own project, however, this mainly critical character of
his influence is surprising.

Works focusing explicitly on freedom include Dudley (2002), Franco (1999), Lewis (2005),
Neuhouser (2000), and Patten (1999). Several articles by Robert Pippin, following upon his ground-
breaking Hegel’s Idealism (Pippin [1989]), have also been very influential in shaping the discussions
about Hegel’s theory of freedom. Hegel’s Practical Philosophy: Rational Agency as Ethical Life (2008)
brings together Pippin’s work on Hegel’s practical philosophy, and is sure to be central to ongoing
debates. Any list of books in the English-language literature required for coming to terms with Hegel’s
practical philosophy would also have to include Brooks (2007), Hardimon (1994), Peperzak (2001), Pinkard
(1994), Quante (2004), Speight (2001), Williams (1997), and Wood (1990). The works of Avineri (1972)
and Taylor (1975), which were pivotal in drawing increased attention to Hegel’s practical philosophy, are
still good starting points, but their insights have been incorporated and eclipsed by more recent work.

4 hegel’s conscience

In this preliminary section I evaluate the possible reasons behind the absence of a
clear Hegelian program in ethics. There are two main categories of such reasons: those
arising within Hegel’s thought and those having to do with issues in the reception of
his thought by philosophers working in ethics. I will first sketch and evaluate the three
main reasons arising from within Hegel’s thought. These reasons, given in order of
increasing strength, are: (1) Hegel was more interested in methodological and meta-
physical issues than in detailing an ethical theory with philosophical appeal outside of
his system. (2) Hegel has no ethical theory as normally conceived, but rather only a
social and political theory. (3) Hegel’s most sustained treatments of issues in ethical
theory occur in dialectically unstable locations that make clearer the positions to which
he is opposed than the positions he actually supports.

1. It is certainly true that Hegel argued vehemently that systematic form is what
grounds philosophy’s claim to be a privileged kind of knowledge. The works published
in his lifetime insistently foreground the methodological issues central to his systematic
aspirations. One often gets the sense that his primary concern, even in the practical
writings, is to render familiar issues into the unfamiliar terms of his speculative logic.
Hegel’s philosophical terminology and method seem quite foreign to the standard
perspective of ethical theory, which assumes that the terms explaining moral delibera-
tion and motivation must be accessible to moral agents themselves. Even if most ethical
philosophers do employ technical terms, they usually draw on a host of examples to
make their terms intuitive for the ordinary agent.
Two basic points should give us reason to resist thinking that Hegel’s very concep-
tion of philosophy precludes an accessible account of ethical theory. First, Hegel places
the “Idea of the Good” and moral action at the penultimate stage of his Science of Logic.
Far from undervaluing the perspective of ethics, moral agency, and value, Hegel actu-
ally invokes ethical terms at the highest level of his speculative logic. One of Hegel’s
central goals in his conception of a system is to unify theoretical and practical reason
by vindicating the possibility of truth in ethics. His discussion of the logical basis of
such truth shows that he holds there to be a convergence of perspectives, such that the
theoretical and practical, the religious and philosophical, all share the same conceptual
basis. Of course identifying that goal does not allay the worry here, since few have
reached the end of the Science of Logic and emerged to draw intuitively clear ethical
conclusions. Even if ethics is explained via the concepts developed in the Logic,2 these
cannot be said to represent the self-understanding of an everyday ethical perspective.
Another well-known dimension of Hegel’s view does address the need to explain
ethics to the ethical agent herself. The stated aim of the Phenomenology of Spirit is to
provide a “ladder to Science.” This ladder shows the way to the standpoint of philos-
ophy (of “Absolute Knowing”) from the standpoint of ordinary consciousness. The
Phenomenology also sets out the side of the “appearance” of Science itself, including the
way that the world shows up, normatively speaking, for the ordinary knowing and

References to Hegel’s Logic are references to the doctrine as presented in the Encyclopedia and in
the Science of Logic. When I am referring to a specific text I name that text explicitly.
5 Introduction

acting subject.3 A major section of this ladder is an account of autonomous action, and
hence the Phenomenology is a key resource for understanding Hegelian ethical theory.
Although serious interpretive work is needed to translate the relevant passages of the
Phenomenology into ordinary language, Hegel does offer there an account of a wide
variety of ethical issues from the perspective of the agent.

2. It has often been claimed that Hegel has no ethical theory, and that he argues that
ethical theory is impossible. The standard narrative of practical philosophy in this
period is that Kant and Fichte made individual autonomy the focus of their ethics, and
that Hegel, rejecting these conceptions as overly subjective and individualistic, invents
a social conception of practical philosophy that displaces, if not eliminates, the possi-
bility of a theory of an individual’s duties. His social conception seems to locate the
responsibility for achieving ethical value (the Good, freedom) solely at the level of the
social whole, such that individuals need only occupy a well-defined place within that
whole in order to be ethical. This picture of Hegel as merely subsuming individual
rationality within the social organism has frequently been called into question by
Hegel scholars over the past decades. Yet outside of the circle of Hegel specialists this
image of Hegel persists, in large part because in contrast to theories that give clear
procedures for moral deliberation (such as Kant’s Categorical Imperative test), just
what the Hegelian individual must do to count as ethical (besides simply participating
in social institutions) is very hard to discern from his texts. There are many passages in
which Hegel valorizes individual subjective freedom, yet he seems to provide little in
the way of guidance for the ethical deliberation of individuals, and providing such
guidance seems to be a minimal requirement of an ethical theory.
While Hegel does not offer a catalogue of duties or virtues, or a single metric for
judging the consequences of actions, he does hold positive views that fall within stan-
dard conceptions of ethical theory. These include claims about moral motivation,
about the nature of intentional action, and a definition of the Good, to name just a few.
Allen Wood’s remarkable Hegel’s Ethical Thought has demonstrated that one can cull
from Hegel’s texts views on an extremely wide range of problems in ethics.4 One cer-
tainly cannot say that Hegel is rejecting the very idea of ethical theory in favor of a
quietistic appeal to existing practice. His arguments are of course bound up with his
social and political philosophy, but that hardly disqualifies them from counting as
ethical theory.

The ultimate status of the Phenomenology within Hegel’s system remains a matter of some dis-
pute. For the claim I am making here, I take my bearings from the statement at the end of the
Phenomenology, where Hegel writes, “Just as Spirit in its definite existence [daseiende Geist] is not
richer than Science, so too it is not poorer either in content. To know the pure concepts of science in
this form of shapes of consciousness constitutes the side of their reality” (432, ¶805).
Wood’s “Introduction” remains a good starting point for thinking of the prospect of Hegelian
ethical theory. Though I disagree with him on the status of the Logic and on the basic characterization
of Hegel’s theory as “self-actualization,” there is also much that I agree with in Wood’s work. Building
on his engagement with contemporary ethics, my aim has been to focus on practical reason rather than
to give an exhaustive view of Hegel’s practical philosophy.
6 hegel’s conscience

3. Hegel’s dialectical style of philosophy makes it much easier to say what positions he
criticizes than to say what positions he endorses. The whole idea of a dialectical transition
from one concept to another depends on the ability to illustrate the determinate
breakdown or failure of a concept, and such an illustration will often seem to be a deci-
sive refutation of that very position. In reading the texts that form the core of Hegel’s
ethical theory as defended in this study, the task of ascribing the positions presented in
the texts to Hegel himself is especially challenging. My two main textual sources are the
section of the Phenomenology of Spirit entitled “Conscience. The Beautiful Soul. Evil and
its Forgiveness” and the section of the Philosophy of Right entitled “The Good and
Conscience.” In both cases, Hegel gives a rousing critique of moral subjectivism that has
seemed for many readers to render problematic all the positive claims in the relevant sec-
tions. Especially in the Phenomenology of Spirit, it is quite contentious to claim (as I do)
that much of what Hegel discusses under the title of conscience represents his own view.
There is no way, outside of examining the specific texts, to argue that Hegel does or
does not endorse a view that appears within the dialectical development. It is true that
his method and his holism mean that every part of the overall view is partial, and must
be assessed in light of the other parts. Repeated reminders about the multiple mean-
ings of the Hegelian Aufhebung (cancel, preserve, elevate) will not eliminate all con-
cerns about the status of practical reason or conscience within Hegel’s overall view. Yet
we can do more than just guess whether or not a position remains standing—has a
definite standing—after its dialectical overcoming. For the concept of conscience we
have two main texts that we can compare, several auxiliary texts (Encyclopedia,
Philosophy of History, Logic), and several sets of lecture notes. By taking all this evi-
dence together we can understand which views he positively holds and what roles the
critiques of various views play in his overall account. In much of this study I draw on
the relevant passages in a way that downplays the dialectical complexities of the sur-
rounding material. Attending to the full methodological import of the passages would
be too distracting from the systematic argument, and would in fact have led to a much
longer, unwieldy book. The best answer to this challenge is to do close reading of the
relevant texts, and to identify in particular the claims that can be ascribed to Hegel. We
can then at least have clear arguments about what counts as Hegel’s own view, rather
than arguing in the abstract about how to characterize his theory.
I turn now to the reasons involving the reception of Hegel’s philosophy that might
account for the absence of a distinctive kind of Hegelian ethics. I present them once
more in the order of increasing strength: (4) Hegel’s ideas are too bound up with his
discredited dialectical logic for them to be made workable based on contemporary
philosophical assumptions. (5) Hegel’s theory is just an amalgam of the standard
models of ethical theory, and thus it adds nothing fundamentally new to the historical
resources available to contemporary ethical theorizing. (6) No one has given a compre-
hensive account of Hegel’s conception of practical reason that is accessible to a broader
philosophical audience.

4. There is no doubt that Hegel’s technical terminology, and the general obscurity of
his Logic, is a major obstacle to understanding his practical philosophy. The task of
7 Introduction

conveying Hegel’s thought to others in the way that Hegel himself understood it can
appear hopeless, as it did to Wood when he wrote of the danger that “you will humbug
yourself into thinking that there is some esoteric truth in Hegelian dialectical logic
which provides a hidden key to his social thought.”5 The seeming metaphysical extrav-
agance of Hegel’s system has no doubt been a leading cause of his relative neglect
among ethicists, even among those who are otherwise historically minded.
There would indeed be a severe problem if one could only access Hegel’s ethical
theory once one had mastered all of his Science of Logic. But these worries about the
Logic are overblown. First of all, a reading of one part of Hegel’s philosophy can largely
rely on the proximate grounds for Hegel’s positions, for instance in the requirements
of the rational will or the concept of Objective Spirit. As Wood himself has shown, one
can go very far with an interpretation of Hegel without taking the reader through the
entire system.6 More to the point, the aspects of Hegel’s Logic required to understand
his ethics are more intelligible than one might think. The most obscure parts of the
Logic are not essential for understanding Hegel’s practical philosophy, and the parts
that are necessary (mainly located in the “Subjective Logic”) concern issues of judg-
ment, inference, and philosophy of action that are close enough to the phenomena to
be comprehensible even if one thinks Hegel’s overall approach to logic is misguided.
Our point of contrast for the Logic should not, in any case, be contemporary logic, as
if that we could only take Hegel’s claims seriously if they meet the standards of modern
formal logic. It is more appropriate to think of Hegel‘s Logic as showing us what the
key concepts mean and how they are limited in their meaning and application. When
viewed in this light, we can appreciate the moves of Hegel’s Logic and its uses for ethics
without thinking it needs to meet the standards of contemporary logic.

5. There are distinctive dimensions of Aristotelian, Humean, and Kantian ethical thought
in Hegel’s practical philosophy, and it often seems that Hegel invokes the attractive aspects
of their theories without showing why he is entitled to combine them in a single view.
One often gets the impression that Hegel wants to have his cake and eat it too. For example,
Hegel clearly has both Kantian and Humean elements in his theory of moral motivation.
He states that the universality of duty in Kant’s ethics is one of its most admirable features,
referring to the idea that duty should be done for its own sake. But Hegel claims against
Kant, and apparently in support of a Humean conception of moral motivation, that there
is always a particular satisfaction one finds in an action, a particular interest or passion.
But which of these views is Hegel’s? Either action is valuable based on the purity of the
moral motive, or other kinds of motives are admitted and the value of the action must be
redeemed in some other way. It is difficult to see what licenses Hegel to incorporate so
many dimensions of otherwise contradictory positions into one overall view.

Wood (1990), xiii. Wood does not dismiss the need to understand aspects of Hegel’s logic to
understand what Hegel says about politics, but Wood thinks that for communicating the lasting worth
of Hegel’s claims the Logic is unhelpful, and even counterproductive.
Neuhouser (2000) is also an exemplary case of how much one can make out of Hegel’s practical
philosophy on the basis of his practical concepts, and without going into the details of the Logic.
8 hegel’s conscience

The promise of Hegel’s philosophy is indeed to take the best of various competing
positions in the history of philosophy and give them a place within a unified system.
Hegel rather notoriously holds the view that all previous philosophies are necessary
stages along the path to his own view. This is not the claim that all previous philoso-
phies can be included, as a mere heap of positions, in a catch-all absolute basket. Rather,
they are drawn together in a unified account in so far as their distinctive elements are
facets of Hegel’s system of freedom, a system that finally overcomes the insuperable
difficulties of the earlier views. The unity of these elements is provided through the
conceptual tool of the structure of self-consciousness, the basic form of thinking that
Hegel variously refers to as infinity, self-referring negativity, and the Concept. Unpacking
this device and showing its relevance to concrete problems in ethics is one of the great
unmet challenges that has blocked the growth of a distinctively Hegelian ethics.
Without such an account, there is no good answer to the complaint that his theory is
just an amalgam of other theories.

6. The final, and in my view decisive reason for the absence of Hegelian ethics is the
lack of an accessible account of Hegel’s conception of practical reason. Aristotelians
can invoke the virtuous person who possesses practical wisdom and who is able to
appropriately “perceive” particular situations; Humeans have a clear and commonsen-
sical belief-desire model; Kantians have a decision procedure in the Categorical
Imperative and an attendant moral psychology of respect for the law; and utilitarians
have the intuitive goal of maximizing the good consequences of one’s action. Hegel
does not give us anything so clear-cut at the level of individual reasoning, and without
an intuitive account of what the Hegelian agent does, it is hard to see how Hegel’s ethics
can secure a place to compete against the other theories.
Hegel does not make it easy to understand his conception of practical reason, yet he
does have all the elements of a robust conception of how the individual agent reasons
about norms and negotiates the ethical landscape. While it is true that Hegel rejects the
idea of a formal decision procedure that could guarantee approval or disapproval for a
given input, such a procedure is not the only way to theorize practical reason. Hegel
does make important arguments about deliberation, as well as about moral motivation
and about the nature of the values that support practical reasoning. Attending to Hegel’s
various claims about conscience is crucial to unearthing the full conception of practical
reason. It is the ambiguous status of some of those claims that has provided one of the
major obstacles to seeing Hegel’s ethics clearly. Once conscience and mutual recogni-
tion are placed on par as the twin tools for understanding the activity of the ethical
subject, Hegel’s claims about Ethical Life and social substance can be seen as an out-
growth of his theory of practical reason, a theory with the free individual at its core.

Before laying out the basic problem addressed by Hegel’s conception of practical
reason, I begin by explaining the parameters of my approach in this study. The first
point has to do with the way that this study deals with Hegel’s various texts and aims.
9 Introduction

It has sometimes been thought that we have to choose between taking Hegel seriously
as an ethical and political philosopher, on the one hand, and admitting that we need
the rest of his system in order to make the practical philosophy intelligible, on the
other. I do not think that this is a choice that we have to make, for the fact that his prac-
tical philosophy must be read in light of his overall system does not disqualify him
from being a major resource for contemporary thought.7 We should take seriously his
claims that his Philosophy of Right is based on his Science of Logic, and we should do our
best to understand what the Logic means and how it applies to the practical philos-
ophy. At the same time, though, we should not think that we are doing some kind of
violence to Hegel if we read him in light of our systematic issues, if we bring clear con-
temporary formulations of problems to bear on his thought.
There is a sense in which this study is limited in the scope of the texts that it
addresses. Hegel divided his “Philosophy of Spirit” into three main parts, consisting of
Subjective Spirit, Objective Spirit, and Absolute Spirit. My inquiry here concentrates
almost exclusively on Objective Spirit. This means that I am not dealing in detail with
the anthropology and psychology, or with the “phenomenology” section of Hegel’s
Encyclopedia. I will have some things to say about the relation of Hegel’s psychology to
his ethics proper, but I will not go into the details of his account of how human ratio-
nality emerged from nature. On the “absolute” end, I am also not going to deal with
Hegel’s accounts of art, religion, and philosophy. Hegel does have a theory of religious
conscience, but incorporating it into the current account would lead us away from the
core doctrines of what I take to be a basically secular ethics.
In another sense, however, this account is inclusive, as I do incorporate elements
from a variety of Hegel’s texts. A full picture of conscience only emerges when reading
the Philosophy of Right together with the Phenomenology of Spirit, and though there are
major difficulties in assessing and comparing the relevant passages in the two works,
the reward is well worth the effort. In what follows I try to avoid getting sidetracked
by the thorny issues surrounding the Phenomenology, such as its role in the mature
system, the shift in Hegel’s logic from the Phenomenology to the Philosophy of Right,
and the coherence of the Phenomenology itself. I proceed on the assumption that there
is an overarching unity in Hegel’s works from the Phenomenology onward, and that
with the proper transposition of the relevant concepts a unified Hegelian theory of
practical reason emerges. My account also draws on the Lectures on the Philosophy of
History, the Encyclopedia, and the Science of Logic. These works confirm the centrality
of practical reason to Hegel’s view of ethics, and are crucial for a full understanding of
Hegel’s position.
In this study I deal extensively with debates in contemporary metaethics. Much
of the challenge of interpreting Hegel lies in translating his unique philosophical
idiom into terms intelligible to nonspecialists. My strategy has the advantage of

See the discussion in Brooks (2007) for a defense of reading Hegel’s Philosophy of Right in relation
to the overall system. I am in general agreement with Brooks’s conclusions there, though I am rather
more willing to depart from a strictly internal reading for the purposes of making the claims intelligible
to the contemporary reader.
10 hegel’s conscience

rooting the process of translation in aspects of ethical theory that both refer to
familiar dimensions of ethical practice and have received extensive and more or less
nontechnical treatment in the ethics literature. In the first half of the book I draw on
Bernard Williams’s argument for internal reasons and on Jonathan Dancy’s argument
for holism and the non-detachment of belief and action. In the second half of the
book I use the work of two Kantian ethicists to frame Hegel’s concerns, drawing on
Barbara Herman’s arguments about judgment and deliberation and on Christine
Korsgaard’s arguments about humanity and the intersubjective nature of value.
By presenting some of the most influential claims made by these authors and by
bringing them into contact with Hegel’s texts, I hope to demonstrate Hegel’s abiding
importance to ethical theory, and to render intelligible to a wider audience the
significance of Hegel’s manner of approaching ethical problems.
There will no doubt be readers of this book who object to my free juxtaposition of
Hegel with contemporary thinkers. I am certain to hear the familiar snarky lines of
criticism: isn’t it an amazing coincidence that Hegel happens to have the same views as
philosophically fashionable thinkers two centuries later? Isn’t it obvious that we cannot
really learn from a historical thinker if we find in him only what we already under-
stand?8 I am acquainted with the view that the best way to work on historical figures is
to focus exclusively on their predecessors and on the intellectual context in which they
were writing. I applaud those who do such work, and I even engage in that mode of
inquiry myself in other venues, but I do not think that it rules out other approaches. If
we bear in mind the risks of reading historical thinkers with contemporary problems
in mind, I see no real objection to the kind of dialogue I am enacting in this study. A
variety of approaches is surely the best way to keep the thought of previous thinkers
alive, and especially with a historically-minded thinker like Hegel, it is also the best way
to be faithful to the spirit of the author’s thought. Traditions of merely historical inter-
pretation can get in the way of accurate assessment of a thinker’s views as much as
interpretations that bring to bear problems from outside the historical context. The
best attitude toward the diversity of interpretive methods is ecumenical.
Of course there are some general standards for interpretation, such as to treat the
original texts responsibly, and to do our best to understand all the angles of the con-
temporary problems. But we should not make sweeping endorsements or indictments
of an interpreter’s method because it is too historical or too focused on contemporary
problems. There are only specific points of comparison between interpretations and
specific criticisms that one can level against a particular interpretation. My best defense
of my method in this book is my insistent reliance on the primary texts and my close
interpretive attention to those texts. The ambiguities in some of Hegel’s key concepts
make it possible to attach an amazing variety of claims to his philosophy considered in
the abstract. Without detailed interpretations of specific passages any reconstruction,
no matter how eloquent, will be of limited use in actually reading Hegel’s very difficult

This sort of attack on scholarship oriented by present debates has been taken to a new level by
Beiser (2007). Beiser advocates a return to the historical style of reading exemplified by Rudolf Haym,
and has criticized recent reconstructions of Kant and Hegel as shallow caricatures of the real item.
11 Introduction

prose. I aim to show that Hegel’s problems were closely related to our own, and that his
solutions still have much to teach us. It is in fact no great coincidence that contempo-
rary philosophers partly replicate Hegel’s insights, for contemporary philosophy is still
digesting the Kantian philosophy that Hegel himself sought to bring to completion.
While I acknowledge that there is a real choice here in how one orients one’s work, and
that there are some costs in not reading Hegel mainly through his philosophical prede-
cessors, in my view contemporary reframing is the more urgent task for understanding
Hegel’s ethics.
The final point to mention here concerns how I treat the most fundamental inter-
pretive issue in Hegel’s philosophy, namely the basic character of his philosophical
project. Some of the scholars who have most influenced my work on the practical phi-
losophy, especially Robert Pippin and Terry Pinkard, are the most prominent defenders
of the so-called non-metaphysical view of Hegel. According to this view, Hegel is
faithful to Kant’s critique of rationalist metaphysics, and his project should not be read
along neo-Platonic or Spinozistic lines as offering a traditional metaphysics (that
involves claims to a priori knowledge of substance). The debate about this position is
ongoing, and cannot even be neatly summarized here. Though I attempt to address
this issue in work in progress, I have tried to keep it under wraps in the current study.
Some claims I make have implications for this debate, but most of my claims in this
study are independent of whether or not one holds that Hegel’s ultimate position is
metaphysical in a traditional sense. I should also note that my claim that I attempt to
steer clear of the metaphysical issue should not be confused with the claim that Hegel’s
practical philosophy is independent of his Logic, for I do make use of the Logic at
certain important points. It is possible, as mentioned above, to make use of the relevant
parts of the Logic without committing oneself to an overall reading of that text and all
its interpretive issues.

Hegel’s basic problem in ethics is how to theorize ethical content on the basis of free-
dom without running afoul of the emptiness and arbitrariness objections that he levels
against Kant, Fichte, and others.9 The idea of the autonomous will, the idea that I am
the author of the norms that are binding on my will, has great appeal as a conception
of individual self-determination. I concur with several recent interpreters of Hegel that
he preserves the central claim of self-determination from Kant’s moral philosophy.
Hegel’s commitment to freedom as the central value in his ethical thought is over-
whelmingly clear from his texts, but freedom has so many levels and manifestations in
Hegel’s philosophical system that the connection to Kant’s original idea is very hard to
pin down. It is especially hard to see how the content of ethics that Hegel gives in the
Philosophy of Right in his account of Sittlichkeit, or “Ethical Life,” is supposed to be a

Because of the hazards of presenting the theories of Kant and Fichte, I have refrained from
engaging with their texts in this project. I have unpacked Kant’s conception of conscience and its issues
in Moyar (2008b).
12 hegel’s conscience

function of the freedom of acting only on a law that one gives to oneself. It seems that
Hegel must depart from Kant in making the will heteronomous because he seems to
bring in normative considerations from outside the will’s law-giving capacity in order
to arrive at ethical content.10 Yet all of Hegel’s methodological claims, and in particular
his conception of a system developed through internal, dialectical transitions, indicate
that he rejected the idea of smuggling in content from outside the concept of the will.
The key to understanding Hegel’s solution to the problem of ethical content lies in
his conception of conscience. Though several recent commentators have emphasized
the importance of conscience, its full systematic import in Hegel’s ethics has not yet
been full appreciated.11 We can formulate the main problem of modern freedom as the
problem of how to understand the relation of conscience’s authority to the authority
of good reasons or objective ethical content. Does conscience in its full authoritative
sense reflect (objective) rational content, or does it (subjectively) determine the content?
If it just reflects content that is valid independent of conscience’s activity, then
conscience seems to be a formal requirement merely tacked on to an already given nor-
mative landscape. But if an individual determines content through appeals to
conscience, the very idea of stable rational content available to all agents begins to
break down.
The problem of securing ethical content is evident in the basic formulation of con-
science’s authority:

Action according to conscience: Action on a purpose that I believe is my duty because I

believe it is the purpose that is best supported by reasons.

When I appeal to the authority of conscience in a proposed action, I am appealing to

the concept of acting “on a purpose that I believe…” The concept of a purpose high-
lights the specificity or determinacy of acting on conscience, an aspect of conscience
that Hegel consistently emphasizes and that will be central to my account. The main
ambiguity in the authority of conscience stems from the double first-person statement
of belief. The subjective or form-oriented reading of “I believe is my duty because
I believe” is that the belief makes this purpose my duty. The objective or content-
oriented reading is that the reasons—which are presupposed to have justificatory
weight independent of my judgment—make the purpose my duty. On this objective
reading, the second “I believe” can be eliminated without loss of meaning because my
duty is determined by the supporting reasons. But these two readings are both prob-
lematic, and lead to the following dilemma: either one takes the individual’s belief to
be a source of duties and one is left without a firm intersubjective basis for moral ratio-
nality, or one conceives of duties as falling neatly under commonly accepted norms
and one is left with a view of individual freedom as conformity to socially sanctioned
norms. Conscience either has far too much or far too little authority.

See Korsgaard (1996), 65.
The positive contribution of conscience in Hegel’s ethics has been discussed in detail in Bernstein
(1994), Dahlstrom (1993), Flay (1984), Hirsch (1973), Köhler (1998), Neuhouser (2000), Redding (2007),
Robinson (1977), Speight (2001) and (2006), and Wood (1990).
13 Introduction

The path out of this conundrum begins with noting that conscience is the pivotal
figure in the transition from “Morality” to “Ethical Life” in the Philosophy of Right. This is
a transition from a roughly Kantian perspective to the perspective of individuals within
institutional contexts of action. Operating at this transition point, conscience has one
foot in each realm, so to speak, and does its distinctive work as a bridging principle bet-
ween the individual and the social. Many of the central issues in Hegel’s ethics turn on
the question of how the authority of conscience is preserved in Ethical Life and how
conscience helps structure the content of Ethical Life. By attending closely to Hegel’s
claims about conscience, we can see how important he held first-person freedom to be,
and why he thought that demands internal to the first-person perspective require the
move to Ethical Life and the patterns of mutual recognition contained therein.
The ascendant reading of freedom in Hegel in recent years is based on the idea of
mutual recognition.12 My reading does not seek to downplay the importance of recog-
nition, but to show that it finds an equally necessary correlate in conscience. The main
idea of recognition is that the agent can only be concretely free if she is recognized as a
free being by other free agents. The basic lesson is that only in the social realm of
Ethical Life can action be cashed out as rational because only there is my claim to ratio-
nality and freedom affirmed through recognition by others. But the argument goes
further than this relatively modest and intuitive point, for it typically involves the claim
that recognition secures content. This claim draws strength from Hegel’s insistence
that, by contrast to Kant’s claim that the good will “shines like a jewel” even if one’s
intentions are frustrated, actual actions within social contexts are the principal bearers
of moral value.
One concern with foregrounding recognition is that doing so can cut off inquiry
into the details of Hegel’s ethical theory, and especially into the details of his account
of practical reason. The role of recognition in practical reason is normally conceived as
operating at the level of the overall judgment or action, when one receives the response
of other agents.13 But that is already too late for many central issues in ethical motivation
and deliberation. We need to know what makes an action recognizable as the action of
a free individual. This will involve social preconditions, but it will also mean understanding
just what the individual does in judging and acting. The pivotal scene of ethical theory
is deliberation under ethical uncertainty, and conscience rather than recognition is the
main figure necessary to theorize this scene.
Calling conscience a “figure,” and attributing various properties and activities to
“conscience,” is a possible source of confusion that I should like to head off here at the
outset. Hegel’s various uses of conscience (“formal,” “actual,” “true,” “religious”),
combined with the overall vagueness of the word in ordinary usage, make it very hard
to understand what conscience is and how we should talk about it. “Conscience” in this

This reading has been spurred by Siep (1979) and Wildt (1982), and by the writings of Jürgen
Habermas and Axel Honneth. In the Anglo-American literature the most thorough treatment of rec-
ognition has been given by Williams (1992) and (1997).
For a similar worry, see Dancy’s criticism of Robert Brandom’s focus on entitlement and com-
mitment as the central normative concepts. Dancy (2004), 60–63.
14 hegel’s conscience

study does not refer to a mysterious oracular source of moral truth (as on some tradi-
tional theistic views), nor to a discrete faculty that can intuit moral truths. I use
“conscience” to stand for a certain conception of practical reason. It stands for a com-
plex set of capacities that include judgment, inference, deliberation, belief, etc. I use
“agent of conscience” to indicate the individual who acts on a belief in the rightness of
an action that she can support with reasons. The distinctive mark of conscience is that
it is reasoning from the first person perspective. As such, it shares the essential tension of
the first-person standpoint, and of the indexical “I,” a tension between a universal use
(this “I” could be anyone’s) and a particular use (I am talking about me). I wish to pre-
serve with my use of conscience the ordinary sense in which an individual refers to her
conscience as having a special authority over her actions, but my use of conscience here
also covers practical reasoning generally. Conscience as practical reasoning does not
have a fixed structure that has always and everywhere existed as a human capacity.
There is a sense, central to Hegel’s account, in which conscience is itself a social practice
that has developed with the advent of religious and political changes in modernity. In
understanding modernity and the nature of ethical content within modern societies,
we inevitably aim to give an account of the true nature of practical reasoning, but that
should not blind us to the fact that conscience in all its forms is a fragile achievement.
By understanding how conscience developed and how it functions we can better sustain
our freedom to be individuals within robust institutional contexts.
self-consciousness and agency

Recent approaches to Hegel’s ethics have often stressed the distinction between
the subjective and objective components of Hegelian freedom in order to bring out the
complexities and novelties of the theory. The subjective side is centered on how the
agent must relate to her actions in order to be free. On the objective side, actions must
have a definite place within a totality of institutional norms. In some prominent pas-
sages in the Philosophy of Right, Hegel indicates that the objective side, objective free-
dom, is the more important dimension by far. The objective conditions of freedom are
historical and social, and are external in the sense that observers could say that certain
individuals are free simply because they live under the right objective conditions. He
approvingly quotes a Pythagorean who, when asked by a father how to educate his son
ethically, replied, “Make him the citizen of a state with good laws” (§153). This statement
is an elaboration of the claim that subjective freedom is only fulfilled in “ethical actu-
ality,” which seems to reduce the subjective conditions to objective conditions. His
reference to “true conscience” (§137) seems to define anyone’s conscience as no more
than the disposition to respond correctly to the objectively fixed ethical requirements.
This appears to make freedom solely a matter of being disposed to behave according to
the right norms, and not at all a matter of being self-conscious that one is following the
right norms.
But Hegel’s occasional overstatements about the sufficiency of the objective condi-
tions of freedom should be read cautiously, for he makes a variety of strong claims to
the effect that subjective freedom is essential to being an ethical agent. Hegel sometimes
goes too far in the objective direction because he is more worried about people taking
the subjective conditions of freedom to be sufficient conditions than he is about
people blindly adhering to objectively valid norms. He holds that the authority of
self-consciousness is a condition of individual agency that gives individuals a certain
circumscribed claim over what counts as ethical content. The apparent problem with
this view is that self-consciousness, the basic subjective stance underlying the claims to

16 hegel’s conscience

integrity and identity of an individual, seems not to be answerable to external stan-

dards. Much of my initial interpretation and defense of Hegel’s view of moral subjec-
tivity is to show that he takes such answerability to be an essential moment of
self-consciousness itself.
I would also like to point out that the distinction between the subjective and
objective senses of freedom, though central to Hegel’s theory, is not the most impor-
tant of Hegel’s basic distinctions, and can in fact distract us from the distinction that
figures much more prominently in his actual texts. The most important distinction is
between what Hegel calls the universal and the particular. I mention this up front
because in what follows I pay much more attention to the dynamics of these moments
than I do to the subjective/objective contrast. I believe that if we get the universal-
particular dynamics right, the subjective-objective distinction can be handled much
more productively.1 Hegel does not always make this easy, for he sometimes writes of
particularity and individuality [Einzelnheit] as if they were interchangeable, while
other times he stresses that individuality is the union of the universal and particular
moments. What Hegel calls the Concept is this three-part structure that constantly
reproduces itself in the course of Hegel’s dialectical development of his ethics. Only by
hewing closely to Hegel’s use of the Concept can we maintain the methodological
unity and integrity that Hegel so cherished and that largely accounts for why his
philosophical approach, even his logic, retains such an appeal.


In this section I unpack one of the most important passages on conscience in the
Phenomenology. This analysis will serve as a model for how I aim to read Hegel’s texts
in this study, and it will allow me to clear up the most basic misconception of Hegel’s
views on self-consciousness and conscience. This misconception is that the “I” of
self-consciousness is private or merely subjective, and that the conception of conscience
based on self-consciousness is the idea of a private incommunicable feeling that gives
various brute signals to the individual to act or not act. The first main point about
self-consciousness is that Hegel’s claims about self-certainty and conscience are claims
about a form of rational authority. My defense of conscience as rational authority
depends on the link between conscience and the accountability to others that Hegel
discusses under the rubric of mutual recognition. Understanding how conscience
functions as first-person practical rationality will provide a basis in intentional action
for the account of Hegel’s conscience that follows. At the close of this section we will
have taken the first step in answering the objection that the criterion of self-certainty
is automatically a recipe for subjectivism or relativism. But it will just be a first step, as
we will still need to know how conscience can escape the charge of formality or

Neuhouser (2000), 40–43, provides a helpful sketch of the interrelation of universality and
17 Self-Consciousness and Agency

My touchstone in contemporary philosophy in this section is the account of

self-consciousness set out by Richard Moran in his Authority and Estrangement: An
Essay on Self-Consciousness. Though taking off from debates in analytic philosophy of
mind, Moran’s work is heavily indebted to Kantian conceptions of freedom and agency,
and is thus a natural point of reference for thinking about Hegel’s idealism.2 Moran’s
fundamental claim is that first-person authority is not about a privileged introspective
access to our own mental states, but rather about a certain responsibility we take for
our beliefs and actions in our willingness to avow them as our own.3 This is not an
authority that others merely concede to us, but rather it is an authority that we are
expected to live up to if we are to count as moral agents in the fullest sense.4 Moran thus
emphasizes the activity of the agent’s avowal while also foregrounding the intersubjec-
tive dimension of self-consciousness itself.
Hegel’s account of conscience in the Phenomenology is situated at the end of the
long “Spirit” chapter. The account is one of historical shapes of consciousness that are
also shapes of ethical worlds. He is describing conscience as the key concept for the
ethical practice of modern societies that have most fully come to embody modern
freedom (in particular societies informed by Protestant Christianity, as I explain in
1.2). In the initial presentation of the concept of conscience in the Phenomenology,5
Hegel claims that the moment of recognition by other agents is essential to the concept
of conscience. Conscience may be a radically first-personal concept of agency, but it
cannot live up to its own aspirations without this reference to others. In one of the
most compressed and pregnant passages, he writes:

The action is recognized and thereby made actual because the definitely existent6
[daseiende] actuality is immediately linked with the belief or with the knowledge;

Though I will not pursue the point here, I would argue that Moran’s claims most closely resemble
Fichte’s conception of subjectivity.
The idea that the individual has a kind of privileged access to her mental states underwent a
relentless assault in the second half of the twentieth century. Associated with various sins of
Cartesianism and introspectionist psychology, the idea of first-person authority appeared to be in
serious trouble. Yet in his recent defense of a distinctive first-person authority, Richard Moran could
draw on a significant thread of concern in Anglo-American philosophy. The issue of first-person belief
was given life by Wittgenstein, particularly through his discussions of Moore’s Paradox. The work
of Sydney Shoemaker, John Perry and Hector-Neri Castañeda kept up interest in the issue of self-
consciousness and provided lines of defense against Rylean behaviorism and various reductionist or
eliminativist programs in the philosophy of mind.
The aim is to “say something about how the presumption of first-person authority expresses an
ordinary rational demand quite as much as it reflects any deference to the person’s best opinion about
his own state of mind.” Moran (2001), 26.
The “initial concept phase” of conscience ends with ¶641. In the following paragraphs he intro-
duces objections and criticisms of that initial concept that clearly signal that he is moving to the “expe-
rience” phase of conscience. On the general question of the “concept” and “experience” phase of Hegel’s
presentation of shapes of consciousness in the Phenomenology, see Stewart (2000). Unlike other shapes,
conscience has at least one more concept phase, namely when Hegel introduces the language of
conscience as a solution to the problems that arise in the “experience” of the first phase.
Throughout this study I translate Dasein with “definite existence.”
18 hegel’s conscience

or, in other words, the knowing of one’s purpose is immediately the element of
definite existence, universal recognition. Because the essence of the action, the
duty, consists in the belief of conscience that it is such; this belief is just the in-itself
itself; it is the in-itself universal self-consciousness, or the being recognized, and hence
actuality. (345, ¶640)

The two dimensions of conscience that Hegel emphasizes in this passage are the agent’s
belief and the universal self-consciousness of recognition. These reflect the two main
elements in the statement of conscience—action on a purpose that I believe to be my
duty, on the one hand, and the action I believe I have sufficient reason to pursue, on the
other. “Universal recognition” just is the element in which the sufficiency of one’s rea-
sons is adjudicated. As I indicated in the introduction, the belief in the reasons can be
read subjectively or objectively because there is a tension between the agent’s belief as
the source of duty and valid reasons as the source of duty. The main goal of the follow-
ing discussion is to show that the claim of conscience does represent the agent’s
authority in defining the rightness of the action in terms of his belief, but also that it
represents the answerability of that belief to reasons. I draw out Hegel’s presentation of
conscience through five points that are also stressed in Moran’s conception of first-
person authority.

1. Hegel is widely known as a “great foe of immediacy,”7 but he does not hesitate in
passages such as this one to invoke immediacy as a mark of successful agency. A major
obstacle to taking conscience as the key to Hegel’s ethics has been the association of
conscience with immediacy, for commentators have been too quick to identify this
immediacy with the clearly pernicious sorts of immediacy that Hegel criticizes else-
where. The adverbial “immediately” is used to describe the relation between belief/
knowing and actuality, or between the mind and world. Hegel’s use of immediacy is
meant to describe the nature of my commitment to something in the world, not some
privileged introspective access to my own belief. In reaching a practical conclusion and
the belief characteristic of conscience, I do not aim to produce a certain psychological
effect in myself, but rather to arrive at a belief about the action that is best supported
by reasons. This immediacy is compatible with the process of deliberation being highly
complex, or mediated.
One of Moran’s central points is the need in analyzing the first-person point of
view to separate a theoretical (or empirical, evidential) view of one’s attitudes, on the
one hand, from the practical stance of deliberating on what to believe or what to do, on
the other. The immediacy that Moran defends as proper to self-consciousness is defined
negatively as independent of all inferences from evidence. He defines this as “practical
immediacy,” as opposed to “epistemic immediacy,” precisely because in the epistemic
case we are concerned with evidence. But when I say “I believe X” I identify with that
belief in a practically immediate way because I do not infer from some internal intro-
spection the fact that I believe X.

The phrase comes from Wilfrid Sellars (1997), 14.
19 Self-Consciousness and Agency

This kind of practical immediacy is especially liable to misunderstanding in those

beliefs characteristic of conscience. When I appeal to my belief in my duty by using
“conscience,” I do not say that I have to act this way because I predict that I will feel bad
if I do not, but rather because I am committed to certain reasons as authoritative for
my conduct. We can read Moran as describing the resolution of conscience when he
writes, “At some point I must cease attempting to infer from some occurrence to my
belief; and instead stake myself, and relate to my mental life not as of symptomatic
value, but as my current commitment to how things are out there.”8 Conscience is
misconceived if I view practical deliberation as an internal hunt for the feeling of cer-
tainty that would allow me to infer that a certain course of action is right (what Moran
refers to as “of symptomatic value”).

2. A major worry one might have about the authority of conscience is that the subject
who says “my conscience tells me to X” is merely reporting on his inner certainty rather
than committing himself to the truth of the belief. If he were just reporting, it is easy to
see that conscience would become an ineffable source of inner authority that could be
(ab)used to block requests for justification. When Hegel writes that “this belief is just
the in-itself itself,” he is making a point about the truth-directedness of first-person
belief.9 This point is not hard to see once one is free from the grip of the idea that
self-consciousness has to be a kind of inner mental inspection. The misguided theoret-
ical stance here would be that involved in the following claim: Well I seem to believe
that P, because I detect that I am filled with a warm fuzzy sensation when I entertain it
as a belief. There is an ordinary use of conscience that does suggest such a psychological
mode. When someone says, “I need to consult my conscience,” one possible (though
misconceived) way to think of this “consultation” is that I try to detect a feeling, as
from an inner oracle, that will “tell me” what it is that I should believe.
But the self ’s authority is unitary. Consulting conscience in this way is just asking
oneself to try harder to ascertain the action best supported by reasons. In the normal
case in which the expectation of self-consciousness holds, the questions “Do you
believe that X is the right action?” and “Is X the right action?” are not separated. There
is nothing peculiar about the belief in rightness that should change the considerations
that the agent would adduce in answering the question of rightness plain and simple.
Moran describes the normative role for self-consciousness as a transparency bet-
ween questions referring to one’s beliefs and questions referring to the world:10 “The
claim of transparency is that from within the first-person perspective, I treat the
question of my belief about P as equivalent to the question of the truth of P.” This
“requires the deferral of the theoretical question ‘What do I believe?’ to the deliberative

Moran (2001), 150.
The “in-itself ” moment in Hegel’s dialectic of consciousness in the Phenomenology is the moment
of “truth” or objectivity. The claim in this passage is that the subjective moment, the “for-itself,” is
(finally) identical with the in-itself. In later chapters I address the question of whether conscience can
redeem this claim in practice.
Moran takes this term from Roy Edgley. Moran (2001), 61.
20 hegel’s conscience

question, ‘What am I to believe?’ ”11 The language of conscience is not so much a

marker of the felt certainty of the belief in an action’s rightness (though there is no
need to deny that individuals do have such feelings), but more an indication of the
avowal characteristic of a belief of conscience. When I avow a belief it is not on the
basis of “psychological evidence” about myself, for it involves “an awareness of my
commitment to its truth.”12 Claiming that the answers to questions about my belief
and about the world should be the same is not to say that the two types of questions
(subject-directed and world-directed) are identical, nor to say that they cannot be sep-
arated by the individual (as Moran takes pains to point out). There are cases, especially
in those actions in which one is likely to invoke one’s conscience, where one’s beliefs
about oneself need to play a role in one’s judgment of this case. In practical reasoning
what I take to be true in the world often depends on what I take to be true of myself,
especially where my taking a stand in a case of conflicting moral claims is a require-
ment of preserving my own integrity. But it is essential to the responsibility that I take
upon myself in claiming to be acting on conscience (under the authority of self-con-
sciousness) that I reach my belief in the normative spirit, aimed at getting the content
of the belief right, rather than in a descriptive mode aimed at locating a special
psychological state within myself. If my integrity is at stake, it should be for some truth
of the matter about an ethical case in the world, not because I just happen to be con-
stituted in such a way that I am impelled to make a certain judgment.

3. Hegel’s claim that belief is “the in-itself universal self-consciousness or the being recog-
nized” means that an agent’s belief is transparent to truth conceived as reason-giving to
other agents.13 As we shall see in more detail, Hegel takes pains to emphasize that conscience
as practical reason is distinct from Kantian practical reason in large part because conscience
includes this element of mutual recognition. Without going into Hegel’s criticisms of
Kantian morality (or the accuracy thereof), the key point here is that on Kant’s conception
of the good will no one, not even the agent himself, can know for certain whether his will
was actually moral and therefore whether his action really has moral worth. In Hegel’s
conception of conscience as practical reason, by contrast, there is no gap between the
willed judgment and some further disposition in the agent’s soul (or hidden motive). The
agent’s will is expressed in the practical judgment, in the reasons for that judgment, and
can be recognized as ethical from the specific character of the action.
It might seem mysterious that it should be the belief or knowledge that is recognized
and actual, rather than the completed action as a state of affairs. Moran’s analysis again casts
light on this point: “[I]t is because the deliberator declares the authority of reason over his
thought and action that at the conclusion of his thinking there is no further thing he does
to make that conclusion his actual belief or his intention.”14 The goal of reasoning is to

Moran (2001), 62–63.
Moran (2001), 84. As Moran says a bit later, “The point of referring to such things as ‘commit-
ment’ and ‘endorsement’ here has been to show the limitations for self-knowledge of such a form of
[epistemic] ‘certainty.’ ” Moran (2001), 94.
Pinkard (1994) most consistently follows this line of thought through Hegel, though in that work
he is very doubtful about Hegel’s endorsement of the authority of conscience.
Moran (2001), 131.
21 Self-Consciousness and Agency

arrive at the truth of the matter in the world, so what I know at the end of the process just
is my best assessment of how things stand in the world. Because I have deliberated under
“the authority of reason,” or with the assumption that I am accountable to others for my
action, my deliberative conclusion is already in the medium of recognition. Moran brings
this point together with the claims about practical immediacy in writing, “The use of the
first-person pronoun in its “subject use” reflects the fact that attention is directed wholly
outward, at the justifying reasons relevant to the truth of some proposition for belief.”15
The relationship of knowledge to the justifying reasons that one gives to others
is immediate, so there is no need to go further in order to know what Hegel calls
“the essence of the action.” When someone asks a person why he is performing a
certain action, the question is typically not asked in the theoretical vein. The person
is not asked for the evidence from which he infers that he is so acting, “but instead
is asking for the reasons he takes to justify his action, what he is aiming at.”16
Whatever reasons I decide best support a purpose, they will have to be justifying
reasons if I am to live up to the burden of the authority of self-consciousness, the
authority of conscience.

4. Hegel writes in the Phenomenology passage that “the knowing of one’s purpose is
immediately the element of existence, universal recognition.”17 Hegel is saying that the
reasons that entitle our actions to recognition are a function of the purposes toward
which we take actions to be aiming. Moran helpfully thematizes the purpose of the action
in reflecting on Anscombe’s account of intentional action. An action will count as inten-
tional, properly speaking, when I can answer questions about why I am doing it in terms
of reasons that show that the action contributes to a purpose that I am pursuing.18 This
knowledge of my purpose, and of the description under which the action is intentional,
will in the normal case possess the immediacy characteristic of the authority of self-con-
sciousness. Moran writes, “The description under which an action is intentional gives the
agent’s primary reason in so acting, and the agent knows this description in knowing his
primary reason. . . . It is the description under which the action is seen as choiceworthy by
him, as aiming at some good to be achieved.”19 When Hegel says in ¶640 that the “purpose
is immediately the element of universal existence, universal recognition,” he is saying that
the purpose is the source of reasons for the action that can be universally recognized.
This complicates matters compared to the case of (theoretical) belief about the world
because my purpose is something that I take to be valuable relative to my commitments
and may not be something in the world that would justify my action to anyone. This
complication is in fact one source of the instability of conscience that Hegel explores in
the “experience” phase of conscience’s dialectic.

Moran (2001), 133.
Moran (2001), 127.
I revisit this passage in my full account of recognition in chapter 5, where I argue that value con-
siderations are essential to understanding recognition.
Moran (2001), 125–27. This point will be central to my account of motivating reasons in the next
Moran (2001), 126.
22 hegel’s conscience

5. A fifth and final point from Moran’s analysis will help us understand in this initial
statement of my argument why Hegel treats conscience as a concept of action rather
than as a form of moral reflection. There is after all a difference between believing an
action to be right and actually performing that action. In presenting conscience Hegel
does not thematize the possible conflict between a judgment of rightness and one’s
actual willing, the issue so central to Kant’s moral psychology. Though I postpone a
consideration of moral motivation to chapter 2, aspects of Moran’s account of self-con-
sciousness and desire can help explain the unusual character of Hegel’s claims for
conscience as action. Moran aims to explain how the desires operative in action are
connected to justification to others. His general claim, following Stuart Hampshire, is
that “Beliefs and other attitudes . . . are stances of the person to which the demand for
justification is internal.”20 In particular, many of our desires would no longer be our
desires (or could only be with extra artificial effort) if we did not think that there were
good reasons for taking their objects to be desirable. This point can help with the
question of how the deliberative stance of practical reasoning relates to the agent actu-
ally willing to carry out her conclusion. Moran puts the point as follows:

As in the case of ordinary theoretical reasoning, which issues in a belief, there is no

further thing the person does in order to acquire the relevant belief once his
reasoning has led him to it. At the beginning of his practical reasoning he was not
aiming to produce a particular desire in himself (as he might with respect to
another person), but rather holding open his desire to how the balance of reasons
falls out.21

Moran interprets this claim in an intersubjective vein that lends itself to analysis in
terms of Hegel’s use of recognition in the passage above. When we reason with each
other about what action to perform, we assume that we are agents who have rational
authority over our desires: “Without the understanding that the person you’re
speaking to is in a position to exercise some effective agency here, there would be no
point in criticizing his reasoning on some point since otherwise what would he, the
person you’re talking to, have to do with either the process or the outcome?”22 When
we think of the answerability of conscience to reasons, it is an answerability of the
will as the locus of “effective agency.” We should not think of this as a question of a
causal story of our desires moving our limbs.23 We simply need to think of our
motives as incorporated into our reasons, and to be aware when we act that we are
responsible for our actually desiring to act on what we have judged to be the correct
course of action.24

Moran (2001), 114.
Moran (2001), 119.
Moran (2001), 119.
Though Hegel does address this causal dimension, I do not examine it within the present study.
As Moran writes of deliberation, “The aim and conclusion is the binding of oneself to a certain
course of action (or proposition), not the production of a state of mind that I might then treat as
(further) empirical evidence about how I should proceed” Moran (2001), 95.
23 Self-Consciousness and Agency

Though we have seen that Hegel’s description of conscience is intelligible as an

account of rational authority, the account thus far admittedly leaves one with a lin-
gering empty feeling. We have cleared up the widespread misunderstanding that
conscience is about the agent’s episodic mental state rather than about the world-
related reasons for action, but in normative ethics we want to know what those reasons
actually are, and how we know them as such. We know now that the justifying reasons
refer to the purposes of the action, but noting this only postpones the central question.
We still need to know how the purposes themselves are evaluated as rational. How is
the desirability of the purposes themselves secured?
Two general answers to this question present themselves in Hegel’s texts. One
answer is that dialectical logic supplies the content by allowing the philosopher to
construct a system of right as the system of the true determinations of the free will.
This looks like the project that Hegel carried out in the Encyclopedia, and more
specifically in the Philosophy of Right. The other main answer is that the content is
taken from local forms of community evolving through history. On this view, there
is no justification for ethical content other than showing how freedom has been
progressively more adequately realized in different forms of human community. In
this study I develop a view according to which the logical and historical approaches
are treated as complementary rather than mutually exclusive. In the rest of this
chapter I sketch the role of conscience in the logical and historical approaches, and
I indicate how focusing the issues through conscience helps us to comprehend the
interconnections of the two approaches.


In this section I present several arguments from Hegel’s philosophy of history to
show that the free conscience is the pivotal concept in his view of modern ethics and
politics. Although dealing primarily with the development of free religious conscience
in the Protestant Reformation, these arguments also offer a strong prima facie case
for the centrality of ethical conscience to Hegel’s practical philosophy. Making this
case up front is important because Hegel’s presentations in the Phenomenology and
the Philosophy of Right, and in particular his rousing critiques of subjectivism, have
led many readers of Hegel to assume that he is hostile to the claims of conscience.
Building upon the picture outlined in the previous section, we can see that Hegel
views the authority of self-consciousness as historically and culturally mediated. In
particular, he links conscience to religion, and holds that the authority of individual
self-consciousness could only come into its own with the displacement of tradi-
tional religious authority. Though he does not specify a new account of ethical
content that arises with the advent of Protestantism, he does indicate how the
authority of self-consciousness should be viewed in relation to changes in cultural
and religious circumstances.
In the Lectures on the Philosophy of History, Hegel claims that the Reformation was
the decisive moment in European history for setting into motion the development of
modern freedom. The Reformation introduced into the world what Hegel calls “free
24 hegel’s conscience

spirit,”25 the idea of an inner disposition to will the ethical without an internalized fear
of religious authority. Most of Hegel’s comments on the role of conscience in this
transformation are framed by polemical attacks on the Catholic Church. In the follow-
ing passage Hegel indicates how the Reformation opened up the possibility of modern
freedom as self-obedience:

The third point of sanctity in the Catholic Church—blind obedience, was likewise
overcome. Obedience to the laws of the State, as the rational element in volition
and action, was made the principle of human conduct. In this obedience man is
free, for the particular obeys the universal. Man himself has a conscience; conse-
quently the obedience is a free obedience. Thereby is posited the possibility of a
development and introduction of reason and freedom; and reason is now coexten-
sive with the divine commands. The rational no longer meets with contradiction
on the part of the religious conscience; it is permitted to develop itself in its own
sphere without disturbance . . . In the Catholic Church, on the contrary, conscience
can very well be opposed to the laws of the State. (W 12, 503–4; PH 423–24)

Religious conscience is no longer an obstacle to an individual’s “free obedience” to the

State. Hegel claims that freedom of conscience is the freedom to act according to the
laws of the State, which at first glance does not imply that those laws need to have a
certain content. Using his standard logical language of universality and particularity,
he writes that conscience involves a free obedience of the particular individual to the
universal laws. The obedience no longer comes from an irrational fear of religious
authorities, and the religious authorities no longer represent a separate source of
authority that could be opposed to the universal laws of the State.
The emphasis in this passage is on the process that commences with the shift in
authority. The immediate consequence of the shift in thinking about conscience and
the laws of the State is to enable “the possibility of a development and introduction of
reason and freedom.” One henceforth obeys the laws as rational, but this also means
that one reasons about the laws rather than seeing them as a merely external constraint.
Instead of looking to have one’s spiritual needs satisfied in Church ceremonies pre-
sided over by a special class of priests, one now looks to the State as a source and guar-
antor of freedom. The process of transforming that institutional content marches
inevitably forward on Hegel’s view once conscience and law are formally united.
The role of conscience is thus not to serve as an original, oracular font of ethical
truth, but rather to act as a transformative force for already existing ethical institutions.
Hegel makes this clear in his strongest, least dialectically ambiguous endorsement of
conscience, which occurs in the final version of the Encyclopedia account of “World
History.” Hegel dramatically expanded this account for the third edition of the
Encyclopedia, published in 1830. In what is thus his “last word” on the development of
freedom in history, he not only analyzes the importance of conscience in reaching his

W 12, 496; PH, 416.
25 Self-Consciousness and Agency

own moment in history, but also asserts that conscience is the moving and justifying
principle for the continuing development of freedom.
In this text he argues once again that the Reformation and its idea of conscience
have made possible a unification of the worldly and the divine. Hegel’s chief complaint
against the Catholic Church is that it requires an agent to have “two consciences,” one
sacred and answerable to one’s priest, and the other concerned with worldly affairs and
answerable to the laws of the land.26 For Hegel the religious is the higher-order, idealized
expression of the same truths contained in ethical knowledge, so there only needs to be
one conscience. One could worry that Hegel’s claims about the unity of Ethical Life
and religion have damaging consequences for liberal ideas of the State, for one could
read the claims as saying that the State should expect religious conformity and that the
State should base its authority in religious authority. But Hegel’s actual position is almost
the opposite of this. Hegel’s attacks on Catholicism show that he expects religions to
become reformed rather than States to become fundamentally religious. Emphasizing
that Catholicism elevates the authority of the merely “external,” he cites the ceremony of
communion, the direction of conscience by a priestly class, and the doctrine of “external
works”27 as examples of devaluing the role of individual belief. He writes:

[A]ll of this binds the spirit under an externality [Außersichsein], through which its
concept is perverted and misconceived at its source [im Innersten], and right and
justice, ethical life and conscience, responsibility and duty are corrupted at their
root. (W 10, 357, E §552)

The “root” that can be corrupted through this externality is the authority of self-
consciousness. The external authority interferes with the immediacy and transparency
to truth of the avowal of beliefs (discussed in 1.1). When I act on my (free) conscience,
I take responsibility for my action, I am willing to defend its correctness and value with
reasons that I understand as justifying the action. The contrast with such avowal is an
action that I believe to be my duty because my priest says so, or because it conforms to
ritual practice.28 The “root” here is just my basic sense that my actions are up to me,
that I must avow them immediately rather than rely on something external as an
authority validating my action.

He writes, “Ethical life is the divine Spirit as indwelling in self-consciousness, as it is actually
present in a nation and its individual members. This self-consciousness going into itself from out of its
empirical actuality and bringing its truth to consciousness, has in its faith and in its conscience only
what it has in the certainty of itself, in its spiritual actuality. The two are inseparable: there cannot be
two kinds of conscience, one religious and another ethical, differing from the former in matter and
content.” W 10, 355–56, §552.
This might seem an odd criticism for Hegel to make since he consistently emphasizes that one is
what one does. This point of religious criticism should remind us not to misinterpret Hegel as a kind
of behaviorist. For such a behaviorist reading, see Forster (1998), 94 ff. For a corrective to such a reading
based on the Phenomenology’s “Observing Reason” section, see Quante (2008).
One can still consult one’s priest or religious custom, on this view, but then one treats those as
sources of reasons, not as substitutes for reasoning.
26 hegel’s conscience

The importance of conscience for Hegel’s understanding of modern Ethical Life

comes out in his presentation of the reformed Protestant alternatives to the corrupt
Catholic institutions. In his Protestant alternative Hegel does not introduce anything
otherworldly, but only cites a shift in the form of the religion, a shift that confers a
different meaning on the institutions and leads to their transformation. The effect
of Catholicism’s externality was to make the truly good into a kind of “holiness”
whose characteristic activities are contrary to “actuality.” When the opposition bet-
ween the divine and the worldly is overcome, the normality of familial, economic,
and political life replaces the “vows” of the holy order. Summing up this transfor-
mation, Hegel writes:

The divine Spirit must immanently interpenetrate the worldly; whereby wisdom is
concrete within the world, and its justification is determined within itself [seine
Berechtigung [ist] an ihm selbst bestimmt]. But that concrete indwelling is only the
aforesaid shapes of ethicality [Gestaltungen der Sittlichkeit]. It is the ethicality of
marriage as against the sanctity of a celibate order;—the ethicality of economic
and acquisitive activity against the sanctity of poverty and its indolence;—the
ethicality of an obedience dedicated to the law of the State against the sanctity of
an obedience without duty or law [recht], the sanctity of the slavery of conscience.
(W 10, 359, E §552)29

Hegel thus contrasts “the slavery of conscience,” the blind obedience to a priestly class,
with the self-obedience of ethical practices in which the individual’s worldly activity
has real value. The key phrase is “its justification is determined within itself,” which
means that the rationality of the institutions is transparent and comprehensible in
rational terms. Hegel thinks of the worldly as thus divine because he identifies divinity
with rationality and human self-understanding.30 We need no longer look outside of
ourselves, outside of our own worldly practices, for an authority to sanctify our life.
This new freedom involves free obedience to the laws of the State, but it also brings
about the new valuation of the particular, such as in romantic love and pursuit of
economic interests, that characterizes modern ethics.31 The idea is that the unification

Especially interesting here is the ethicality of Civil Society, which he also writes of as “self-
sufficient acquisition [Selbsterwerb] through understanding and industry, and the rectitude in this
trade and use of property.” This is an indirect reference to the Protestant conscience that Weber invokes
in his famous work on Protestantism and capitalism.
In this Hegel follows Kant’s lead in making rational religion a matter of our moral vocation.
Hegel thus writes in the Philosophy of Right: “The right of the subject’s particularity to find satis-
faction, or—to put it differently—the right of subjective freedom, is the pivotal and focal point in the
difference between antiquity and the modern age. This right, in its infinity, is expressed in Christianity,
and it has become the universal and actual principle of a new form of the world. Its more specific
shapes include love, the romantic, the eternal salvation of the individual as an end, etc.; then there are
morality and conscience, followed by the other forms, some of which will come into prominence below
as the principle of civil society and as moments of the political constitution, while others appear within
history at large, particularly in the history of art, the sciences, and philosophy” (§124).
27 Self-Consciousness and Agency

of conscience sets in motion a process whereby individual interests come to have

ethical standing within the State, allowing individuals to be free within their worldly
pursuits. The process of the “divine Spirit” interpenetrating “the worldly” describes the
transformation of laws and institutions so that individuals can realize their univer-
sality within social practices.
One might grant that Hegel takes conscience to be an enabling step in the rise of
modern institutions, while still resisting the stronger claim that conscience is an actual
principle for the ongoing transformation of modern institutions. Yet Hegel defends a
very strong thesis of conscience as the modern principle in the closing paragraphs of
Encyclopedia §552. He formulates the principle of conscience as a principle of free spirit
that represents the point of convergence of religion, philosophy, and what he calls
“State power.” He writes:

Only in the principle of the Spirit knowing its essence, in itself absolutely free and
having its actuality in the activity of its liberation, does the absolute possibility and
necessity exist that State power, religion and the principle of philosophy fall
together into one, completing the reconciliation of actuality in general with Spirit,
of the State with the religious conscience as well as with philosophical knowing.
(W 10, 364–65, §552)

In describing the principle of conscience, Hegel’s emphasis falls sharply on the activity
of liberation. The principle Hegel refers to here is the principle of self-knowledge, and
the activity of liberation is the process of self-conscious action through which individ-
uals and communities come to further knowledge of their freedom. There is a contin-
uous process of transforming existing norms. The reconciliation that Hegel refers to
here does not imply a quiescent harmony and a passive obedience to existing norms,
but rather the realization that free human activity is the source of all normative legiti-
macy. The principle itself has the structure of the Concept, which we will investigate
further in the next section.
One could doubt from the passage above that the principle of “State power” corre-
sponds to conscience, but Hegel removes this doubt in his subsequent references to the
harm done by Christianity in its one-sided Catholic guise and to the ability of self-
consciousness to overcome repressive religion. He writes:

But the principle contains the infinite elasticity of the absolute form, to overcome
the corruption of its form-determinations and of the content through itself and to
effect the reconciliation of Spirit in itself. Thus the principle of the religious and
the ethical conscience become one and the same in the Protestant conscience—the
free Spirit knowing itself in its rationality and truth. (W 10 364–65, E §552)

This passage confirms that Hegel does indeed refer to the principle of “ethical conscience”
as the principle of State power. The principle “contains the infinite elasticity of the abso-
lute form,” which I take to be a reference to the activity of self-consciousness operative
in conscience. Hegel identifies the power of conscience with the negative ability to make
28 hegel’s conscience

fixed ethical determinations malleable by subordinating them to the authority of

self-consciousness (I elaborate on this ability in chapters 3 and 4).
There is clearly a progressive dimension to this power of the “absolute form” that is
supposed to accomplish the “reconciliation of Spirit in itself.” Just what the positive
side of this progressive dimension is supposed to be is very difficult to discern. Hegel
cites “rationality and truth” here, but it is far from clear what rationality and truth are
for Hegel. He often uses these terms as a bulwark against overly subjective interpreta-
tions of self-consciousnesss, but his exact meaning for them is clearly bound up with
his novel conception of philosophy, and for that reason they remain elusive. We begin
to get a sense of what they mean, and thus of how to give concrete sense to these strong
claims about conscience, by examining what Hegel means by the Concept. Both
conscience and the “rational will” (that serves as the official basis for Hegel’s Philosophy
of Right) exhibit the structure of the Concept, and both do so by exhibiting what Hegel
calls the Concept’s “immanent negativity” (PR §6).


The most distinctive aspect of Hegel’s view of practical reason stems from his key
methodological tool of immanent negativity. In this section I offer a brief introduction
to negativity in general, and show through examining his discussion of the rational
will in the Philosophy of Right how negativity informs Hegel’s ethics. Though discus-
sions of negation, especially determinate negation, are common in the literature about
Hegel’s dialectical method, rarely is negativity thematized in discussions of his ethics.32
If we can trace negativity to the Concept and self-consciousness, through to his solu-
tions to specific metaethical issues, we will have a single workable conception of prac-
tical reason that is distinctly Hegelian.
Most discussions of negativity rightly begin with its connection to the dictum from
Spinoza, “all determination is negation [omnis determinatio est negatio].” The link of
negation and determination is indeed central to Hegel’s philosophy as a whole.33 The
basic idea is that for something to be identifiable as a determinate something (concept,
individual, etc.), there must be other such entities that it is not. This idea is clearest
with pairs of opposites, such as light and dark, loose and tight, where the one term is
determined through the opposition to the other. In terms of ethical relationships,
ownership of a piece of property excludes others from using it, or negates their pos-
sible claims over it.34 Though this use of negation in the service of individuation can be
easily and intuitively grasped, it is also the source of some of the most far-reaching and
controversial claims in Hegel’s philosophy. When Hegel cites Spinoza on this point, he

Dieter Henrich (2003) stressed “negativity” as the “secret” of Hegel’s philosophy in his lectures at
Harvard in the 1970s. This point has not been taken to heart by commentators on Hegel’s ethics.
See Pippin (1989): “Indeed, as we shall see again and again, particularly in his Logic, this problem
of determinacy, often called the problem of negation (of an object’s “not being” some other), is at the
center of virtually all of Hegel’s theoretical work from Jena on” (118).
This is the heart of Robert Brandom’s appropriation of Hegel’s semantics as centered on the
notion of “material incompatibility.” See esp. Brandom (2002a), 180ff.
29 Self-Consciousness and Agency

holds that an immediate inference from this claim is that there is only one all-
encompassing substance, a totality within which everything can be determined by
negation. This point too can easily be made intuitive, though its full metaphysical
implications are obviously much harder to grasp. Negation only individuates something
if we have an exhaustive grasp of the entities in question. Determining (classifying)
something by negating all the things that contrast with it only succeeds if a complete
negation is possible, which is the case only if we know what all the entities that stand
in relation to the entity in question are. If the whole of the entities is not a closed
system or totality, such individuation through negation will be impossible.
Though taking off from the link of negation and determination in Spinoza, Hegel
also criticized Spinoza for not adequately understanding negation as it relates to
self-consciousness. Hegel claims that the “absolute form,” which is just the principle we
saw in the passage above, namely self-consciousness, is lacking in Spinoza’s monism.
Hegel thinks that because of this Spinoza does not ascribe reality to individuals, and
that his position is therefore best described as “acosmism.”35 This is where Hegel’s rela-
tion to Kant and Fichte on self-consciousness comes in. I can offer here only a very
abbreviated version of this connection. Kant held that the transcendental unity of
self-consciousness is the ground of all judgments uniting the sensory manifold into
objects. The categories that are necessary for such experience include three categories
of relation, as well as (to mention only the most important for Hegel’s project) the
categories of negation and limitation (under quality), and totality (under quantity).
A key move toward post-Kantian German Idealism was the challenge (inaugurated by
Reinhold) to derive the categories from a single first principle. Fichte’s genius was to
identify that first principle with the activity of self-consciousness itself, and to conceive
of self-consciousness as containing the category of relation, from which all the rest
could be derived. Fichte called relation “the category of categories,” and linked it closely
with negation.36 For in Fichte’s system, the initial claim of I = I requires as its condition
a not-I that stands opposed to the initial activity and explains how the activity of the
I can be determinate. Fichte’s invention of a dialectical mode of philosophy relied on
bringing negation to bear over and over to deduce the determinate categories, subjective
capacities, and ethical determinations. Hegel does not think that such a derivation
from a first principle is possible, but he does learn from Fichte how much work nega-
tion can do. For Hegel, Fichte’s model of relation and negation was “external” rather
than “immanent,” since the negation came from the outside in a form of a “check” or a
brute givenness that the subject had to strive to overcome. Hegel claimed to have dis-
covered a way out of this external negativity, such that determinacy could be secured in
a more satisfying manner.
It is in large part because Hegel’s immanent negativity is not a first principle that it
has proven so difficult for readers new to Hegel to come to terms with his method. In
his two most detailed written presentations of his philosophy, the Phenomenology of
Spirit and the Science of Logic, Hegel begins with immediate claims to positive content

For a discussion and assessment of Hegel’s criticism, see Melamed (2010).
Fichte (1992), 421. Cited in Redding (2007), 98.
30 hegel’s conscience

and shows how negativity is contained within them. The concepts of “sense-certainty”
in the Phenomenology and “being” in the Logic are shown to be empty in so far as their
meanings are bound up with their opposites. So the claim of identifying a “here” or a
“now” leads to “not-here” or “not-now” as so many particular instances of the general
claim. Being turns quickly into nothing and into Dasein (definite being/existence) as the
stable unity of the two. Hegel’s strategy of immanent negation always functions within
a claim to content rather than itself creating content ex nihilo.
We can relate immanent negativity to the passages from the last section about con-
science’s transformative power, since it is the same absolute form that underlies ethical
conscience. Conscience cannot be an original source of norms, but it can be a source
for transforming, through processes of negation, the existing norms. It is an activity of
liberation rather than the basis for a construction from the ground up of a society’s
ethical norms.
One of the most important places where Hegel does seem to provide a first prin-
ciple to serve as the basis of the development is in his account of the rational will in the
Philosophy of Right. In the introduction to the Philosophy of Right Hegel presents the
three moments of the “rational will” as “self-referring negativity.” Hegel claims that all
three moments—universality, particularity, and individuality—are forms of nega-
tivity. In addition to giving us a clearer conception of how Hegel thinks of negativity,
these passages also provide a concrete depiction of “the Concept,” Hegel’s term for the
basic three-moment structure of thought. “Self-referring negativity” is the power of
the self to identify itself as universal within particular actions. We can understand its
negative character in terms of the first-person point of view. Because I know both that
the commitment is up to me, or not determined by an external influence, and because
in committing myself to a determinate purpose I negate all the actions that are incom-
patible with that purpose (e.g., in getting married I negate having intimate relations
with other women). This practical version of “self-referring negativity” is a concrete
instantiation of the Concept, and it is the Concept that holds Hegel’s practical philos-
ophy, and indeed his philosophy as a whole, together.37
The first moment of the rational will is universality: the “the ‘I’’s pure reflection
into itself, in which every limitation, every content, whether present immediately
through nature, through needs, desires, and drives, or given and determined in some
other way, is dissolved [aufgelöst]” (§5). The negativity of this universality is straight-
forward. As a model of freedom, this negative universality gained its clearest expres-
sion in Fichte’s conception of the I that tears itself away from all determinations to
reach a point of sheer indeterminacy. This “absolute possibility to abstract from any
determination” (§5) is the “empty universal willing” that Hegel in the Phenomenology
analyzed as the “Absolute Freedom” of the French Revolution. When embodied in
political power this moment results in the “fury of destruction,” since it takes anything

A handwritten note to PR §7, the section in which Hegel writes of the will as self-referring neg-
ativity, reads: “[D]ivine rhythm of the world and method of absolute knowing.”
31 Self-Consciousness and Agency

determinate, any limitation, to be an obstacle to freedom. This description of the

universal may sound strange given Hegel’s claims above of the particular individual’s
obedience to the universal. His claim here for the necessary one-sidedness of the will
in its sheer universality is a good indication that the universality of the laws to be
obeyed is concrete rather than abstract.
The second moment of the rational will, particularity, is also characterized by neg-
ativity. Hegel writes of this “transition from undifferentiated indeterminacy to
differentiation, determination,” that it

is just as much negativity and sublation [Aufheben] as the first, for it is the subla-
tion of the first abstract negativity.—Just as the particular is in general contained
within the universal, so in consequence is this second moment already contained
within the first and is merely a positing of what the first already is in itself. (§6)

Freedom is misunderstood when one assumes that it excludes all determinacy. Hegel
draws out this point through a contrast with Fichte’s self-positing “I,” for he thinks that
Fichte mistakenly identified the “I” as a pure “positive” source of freedom. Hegel
emphasizes that his speculative philosophy takes its fundamentally new step in the idea
of the “immanent negativity in the universal or identical, as in the I” (§6). In Hegel’s
idea of a “concrete universal,” the particulars falling under that universal are implicit
within the identity of the universal itself.
The negativity that is associated with thought, or the universal, is simply the first or
abstract negation. This negation already contains its opposite, particularity, within it,
for the identity of the universal is mediated by the abstraction from the particulars. The
structure of self-consciousness is such as to unite these two negative moments in an
affirmation of a particularized universal, or a particular that is a “species” of a universal
The immanent negativity of willing finds its complete concept in the third moment
of the will, individuality, which Hegel identifies with the two previous moments and
with the overall structure of the will itself. He can barely contain his enthusiasm in §7 of
the Philosophy of Right where he celebrates the will as individuality and connects this
individuality to the key terms of his philosophy as a whole.38 He identifies this moment
with “the self-determination of the ‘I,’” with “the freedom of the will,” with the “concrete
and true,” with “the Concept itself,” and finally, with the “innermost insight of specula-
tion—that is, infinity as self-referring negativity, this ultimate source of all activity, life,
and consciousness” (§7). He had several sections earlier (§1) claimed the Concept to be
the source of ethical content, and in his notes he also identifies this moment with
“self-consciousness.” By theorizing self-consciousness and the will as self-referring neg-
ativity, Hegel is able to make the all-important move of showing how the individual can
be free within determinate commitments and determinate actions. In exercising the
“universal” responsibility that comes with being a self-conscious person (an “I”), one

The German term is Einzelheit, which is sometimes translated as “singularity.” Hegel writes next
to it in the margin “better: subjectivity.” In this study I always translate Einzelheit with individuality.
32 hegel’s conscience

limits oneself to a particular purpose and thereby negates the indeterminacy of one’s
own authority. This self-reference is binding in the sense that I identify with a certain
action I have performed or with commitments I have undertaken, and hold myself to
them because I know that I cannot simply disavow the actions or commitments without
losing my integrity. We need to keep the idea of self-referring negativity constantly in
mind as we progress in this study through Hegel’s theory of practical reason.
Stepping back from Hegel’s language, we can describe this negativity in a more
intuitive way as the guiding force in self-conscious agency. An individual’s character
consists of a standing set of interrelated commitments. Individuality as self-referring
negativity is the capacity to refer to oneself as a unified subject within those commit-
ments, to identify with them and, if necessary, renegotiate them. When one deliberates
about a specific action one subordinates various reasons to each other, and one excludes
many possible alternatives, all in a way that is guided by the complex set of commit-
ments that defines who one is. New ethical situations engage those commitments and
can be occasions for revising them, undertaking new ones, and so on. The agent has the
capacity to abstract from all of her current commitments, but agents typically do not
do so, even in crisis situations.
It is important to see that negativity pervades even, or especially, our most
affirmative undertakings. My affirmation of a commitment is only meaningful, only
has manifest force, in that I take it to negate other possible actions. Hegel made this
concrete in his lectures with the examples of love and friendship. Being someone’s
friend is an affirmation of my freedom rather than an obstacle to it.39 I am only a friend
in the full normative sense if I am prepared to sacrifice prudential interests to maintain
my commitment, my claim, to being someone’s friend. In this case, such actions will be
what preserving my integrity means, for that limitation (the negated actions) just
defines who I am.
To further illustrate Hegel’s point here about negativity, we can consider the kinds
of actions that we typically associate with conscience. We think of conscientious objec-
tors to military service as refusing to fight. When I say, “It goes against my conscience
to X,” I am negating X from among the practical possibilities on which I am willing to
act. Perhaps the most famous of all appeals to conscience, that of Martin Luther at
Worms, invoked conscience as an integrity-preserving refusal to obey the Pope. “[I]t is
neither safe nor wise to do anything against conscience. Here I stand. I can do no
other.” Self-referring negativity is captured no more concisely than in the (slightly
modified version of Luther’s) claim “I can do nothing other than this.” I identify with
this action, and cannot identify with anything else, because otherwise I would forfeit
my authority as an integral person, as an I.
The self-conscious nature of human agency has been employed recently by Kantians
such as Korsgaard to ground the unconditional obligations of duty in the activity of
the self. This is the upshot of her claim that “obligations always take the form of a reac-
tion against a threat of a loss of identity.”40 While this formulation gets at something

Honneth (2001) discusses this example at length.
Korsgaard et al. (1996), 101–2.
33 Self-Consciousness and Agency

essential to many obligations, it also conceals the main danger in an identity-based

theory of practical reason. The trouble with this idea is that I can claim that any action
would threaten me with a loss of identity/integrity, for there is no clear ostensive
meaning for the integrity of a given individual. The indeterminacy of the conditions of
practical identity is essential to modern freedom, yet that indeterminacy must be
limited for the idea of rational ethical content to be intelligible at all. There must be a
way to understand the burden that the authority of conscience places on individuals to
live up to the responsibility of acting on certain rationally authorized content.
Hegel’s example of friendship points us towards a fundamental aspect of Hegel’s
ethics that is also a function of negativity, namely mutual recognition. I deal with
mutual recognition extensively in chapter 5, but it is worth sketching here how it
becomes such an important theme for Hegel and how it relates to his conception of
negativity. Fichte deduced the concept of Recht as the mutual self-limitation of two
subjects, and Hegel’s famous argument in the Phenomenology of the struggle to the
death and the Master-Servant relationship is a close relative of Fichte’s view. The basic
idealist question raised in Fichte’s deduction is how to arrive at a determinate identity
of the self and world. The basic negative activity of consuming or assimilating the
world does not preserve the determinacy of an object separate from the subject. But
if the sphere of my activity is recognized by another as mine, meaning as not-another’s,
then I have a determinate standing in relation to the world. For this to work I also
have to limit myself, negate my own activity, by leaving room open for the free activity
of the other. In Fichte’s presentation this relationship is epistemically unstable, for it
depends on the good will of the two parties, and thus Fichte derives coercive laws as a
condition for the possibility of a condition of right. In Hegel’s early presentation in
the Phenomenology, the recognition relationship turns into a struggle for dominance
and an asymmetric relationship between a master who is recognized and a servant
who recognizes. But the telos of Hegel’s account, as he works toward richer and
richer normative shapes, is for a fully mutual recognition in which each distinct
singular individual, with her own self-referring negativity, is able to negate her own
self-sufficiency without giving up her selfhood, and is recognized by another who
does the same. The confession and forgiveness that occur at the end of the Spirit
chapter of the Phenomenology is the final step in the achievement of a mutual nega-
tivity that establishes the ethical bond.


Conscience is the form of subjectivity that exemplifies the self-referring negativity of
the rational will at the level of practical reason. It is difficult to appreciate this solely on
the basis of the “Morality” chapter of the Philosophy of Right, the text that contains his
most systematic treatment of action.41 The detailed arguments about action in the
Phenomenology pose interpretive challenges of their own, but they are indispensable

See Quante (2004) for a thorough treatment of the introduction and first two sections of
34 hegel’s conscience

for an understanding of Hegel’s position. The two works have very different argumen-
tative structures, and though I take their conclusions to be complementary, it is impor-
tant to be sensitive to their different aims and methods. In this section I delve deeper
into the Phenomenology treatment of conscience as practical reason, and show how
that account fits into the overall historical account of the “Spirit” chapter. The account
is not merely historical, but also logical. Hegel sees conscience as a culmination of
Spirit because it embodies the logical structure of the Concept. To understand
conscience is thus also to understand how the Concept generates ethical content.
One of Hegel’s main goals in the Phenomenology’s treatment of conscience is to
show that it secures the conditions of action on determinate ethical content. He intro-
duces conscience as the shape of agency that gets beyond the concern for moral purity,
for doing duty solely for the sake of duty, that he attributes to the Kantian “moral
worldview.” Hegel emphasizes the ability of an agent of conscience, whose activity he
aligns with self-referring negativity, to affirm the bindingness of particular purposes
and to actually act on them. Hegel’s contrast is with a view of freedom that is based on
the deontic force of moral principles. He writes with implicit reference to a Kantian
theory of law-like universality:

[C]onscience does not split up the circumstances of the case into a variety of duties.
It does not behave as a positive universal medium, wherein the many duties would
acquire, each for itself, a fixed substantiality. If it did, then either no action could
take place at all, because each concrete case involves an antithesis in general, and,
in a case of morality, a clash of duties—and therefore in the determination of the
action one side, one duty would be violated; or else, if action did take place, there
would an actual violation of one of the conflicting duties. Conscience is rather the
negative one, or absolute self, which demolishes [vertilgt] these various moral sub-
stances; it is simple action in accordance with duty, which fulfills not this or that
duty, but knows and does what is concretely right. It is, therefore, first of all moral
action as action, into which the previous moral consciousness that did not act, has
passed. (342–43; ¶635)

His main concern in this passage in criticizing a “positive universal medium” is to crit-
icize the view of autonomy that identifies the bindingness of duty with the generic
form of universal lawfulness. In such a medium, anything that can be considered a
universal principle (help others in need, do not lie) becomes an obligation with “fixed
substantiality.” The problem is that this positive universality makes a claim of actual
duty at a level—universal principles—that cannot capture the particularity of the
determinate case of action. This is the “antithesis in general,” namely the antithesis bet-
ween the universality of Kantian duty, on the one hand, and the particularity of the
agent and the case, on the other.42 For Hegel the conceptually central case of free action

Hegel’s reading of Kant clearly does not do justice to the full complexity of Kant’s position. But
Hegel’s point concerns what Kant is entitled to get out of his conception of the pure will, not what Kant
can show to be merely compatible with his view of lawfulness.
35 Self-Consciousness and Agency

is a “concrete case” that involves multiple moral considerations, multiple morally rele-
vant considerations. If each of these considerations is a strict duty, there is no way to
act and maintain one’s integrity. Either one would not act because one would be
unwilling to violate the unconditional character of one of the duties, or one would act
but it would be an actual violation of a duty.
On Hegel’s model of conscience as negativity, on the other hand, all the elements of
the case are taken into account to produce an all-things-considered judgment, an
intention to act on a specific purpose. The demand to act according to principles is just
one moment in the deliberative process, and there is no motivational demand to act
purely for the sake of duty. The performance therefore takes place (we first have “moral
action as action”) and the individual can identify with the accomplished action as the
expression of her intention. The activity of conscience is in fact “negative” in two
senses. First of all, the activity is negative in the sense that the agent negates the authority
of the “different moral substances.” This point (which I discuss in chapters 3 and 4)
is crucial to understanding Hegel’s holism in moral evaluation. As advocates of what is
known as “moral particularism” have frequently asserted in recent years, the force of a
certain reason can change from one context to another, even to the point of having the
opposite effect in one context as it did in another. This view is opposed to the view of
moral principles that takes them to demarcate reasons that always have the same
positive force. On the “positive medium” view their form as principles gives them the
unconditional force of duty.43 The particularist point is available to the deliberating
agent of conscience in that the positive force of a reason (e.g., such Kantian duties as
help others in need, obey the law, do not lie) is negated so that it can be integrated into
the overall judgment. This negation is not a source of ethical relativism (though it can
be abused that way), but rather a fact about how we negotiate the multiple demands of
a complex ethical landscape.
The second way in which the agent of conscience is “negative” is by negating in her
determinate action all the other possibilities of action presented by the situation. That
is, the agent does not just suspend the fixed moral principles, but she also arrives at an
actual judgment that rules out the other possibilities. In fact, such a judgment (as we
shall see in chapter 4) negates the first negation by reinstating the normative principles
in a new synthesis. The agent “knows and does the concrete right” because she arrives
at a judgment, formulates an intention to act, as a specific purpose that does not
require further deliberation before the actual performance of the action.
Even with the interpretation of such passages from the Phenomenology, it may still
seem quite obscure just what kind of argument Hegel is giving here. Some have seen
Hegel’s arguments in the Phenomenology as transcendental arguments. A transcendental
argument typically takes some item (scientific law, experience, ethical action) as given
and then argues for the conditions that make that item possible.44 Hegel’s argument for
conscience could thus be read as an argument that determinate ethical action is only

See Dancy (2004).
Stewart (2000), Taylor (1972). See Stern (2002) on some of the problems with reading the
Phenomenology as operating with transcendental arguments.
36 hegel’s conscience

possible with agency conceived in terms of conscience. This sounds plausible in light
of the claim above that conscience is “first of all moral action as action.” The problem
with the straightforward transcendental model as a model for the “Spirit” chapter of
the Phenomenology is that there simply is no fixed notion of successful action to hang
the conditions upon. Hegel begins his account with Greek Ethical Life and ends with
conscience. The presentations share in common a concern for action within social
space, as they are both shapes of Spirit, but Hegel takes pains to highlight the distinc-
tiveness of the context of action in these stages and in the other stages along the way. It
almost goes without saying that conscience is not the necessary condition of Greek
Ethical Life. Indeed, the story Hegel tells in the “Spirit” chapter is much more a story of
the loss of “true” Ethical Life than an argument for how to secure it.
Yet there is an important sense in which Hegel does argue that conscience is the
ground of Ethical Life (or the “principle of State power,” as he puts it in the Encyclopedia
§552 passage I cited in 1.2), and a sense in which this argument is an argument for
conscience as the necessary condition of Ethical Life. It is certainly true that in the his-
torical progression leading from ancient Greece to modern conscience, the nature of
Ethical Life is fundamentally transformed. But conscience does best express freedom
as we have come to understand it based on the successes and failures of previous forms
of Ethical Life. The basic institutional structures of modern Ethical Life, such as the
family and a legal system based on rights of persons, existed in a recognizable form
before the advent of modern conscience. Yet, as I will show throughout the course of
this study (and especially in chapters 5 and 6), conscience does serve as the subjective
linchpin for the moving parts of modern Ethical Life. The Phenomenology has the task
of constituting the modernity of Ethical Life through exhibiting the loss of premodern
Ethical Life and thus the need for conscience.
Hegel develops the content of modern Ethical Life from the Concept in the
Philosophy of Right, but the essentially historical account of the Phenomenology’s
“Spirit” chapter does also unfold and validate the Concept as the basic logical structure
of modern ethics. Hegel argues that conscience, in which the structure of the Concept
first comes to fruition in ethical action, captures the essential moments of the norma-
tivity that is developed in the PR’s systematic account. A passage from the opening of
the Phenomenology account of conscience illustrates how Hegel uses the concept of
conscience as a view of practical reason to stake out the conditions of ethical content.
In the Phenomenology Hegel presents conscience as satisfying for the first time the
subjective conditions of ethical content.45 This is why Hegel claims that conscience
provides content where earlier forms of practical rationality had not. He claims that
conscience provides content for all three of the earlier “empty” concepts (he calls them
“selves”) that arose within his historical account of “Spirit.” At the end of a paragraph
that recapitulates the earlier concepts, he writes:

Hegel’s presentation of conscience in the Phenomenology for the most part assumes the full
structure of “actual” or “true” conscience, and thus goes beyond the presentation of merely formal
conscience in the Philosophy of Right.
37 Self-Consciousness and Agency

First as conscience does it [the self] have in its self-certainty the content for the pre-
viously empty duty, as also for the empty right and the empty universal will; and
because this self-certainty is at the same time the immediate, it is the definite
existence itself. (342, ¶633)

This content-providing claim is not a mere pretension to be dismissed in the movement

of the dialectic. The earlier concepts of empty duty, empty right, and the empty
universal will are all formal shapes of freedom that break down in practice because
they are incompatible with any determinate ethical content. They correspond to
Kantian morality (whose emptiness becomes apparent in what Hegel calls “displace-
ment”), the Roman world of legal rights (whose emptiness is revealed in the brutalities
of the emperor), and the “absolute freedom” of the French Revolution (whose empti-
ness resulted in the “fury of destruction” of the reign of terror).
The empty shapes are those universal requirements that are typically classified as
deontological because they are not oriented toward accomplishing purposes. Their
great deficiency, according to Hegel, is that individuals who are subject to their
demands must be conceived as empty of particularizing features, which means
empty of the particular conditions of action. The deontic force of the universal con-
ditions in these empty selves thus comes only at the expense of determinate content.
The positive claim that Hegel is making in this passage is that with conscience the
authority of the universal principles of the earlier selves and the authority of the
particular self are integrated. So individual agents now count as having legal rights
that take account of the individual’s particular perspective. Fulfilling the “second
self,” individuals now contribute to the universal will as particular parts of a differ-
entiated whole. Finally, individuals now determine for themselves, on the basis of
their empirical selves, what their duty is. The integration of these selves with deter-
minate content is secured by conscience because one can in conscience hold oneself
to the principle of universality from the particular concerns that distinguish one
from other individuals. The distinctive structure of self-referring negativity is the
source of this claim of content because through that capacity the individual exhibits
both universality and particularity at once.
The proper universal-particular relationship can be made more intuitive in trans-
posing Hegel’s claim for conscience to the structure of the practical syllogism, which
Hegel frequently uses as the model of ethical content. The major premise is an abstract
purpose or principle, and the minor premise is the particular means which one judges
to fulfill that purpose or principle. The conclusion is the accomplished action itself.
The major premises in the practical syllogisms of the empty selves aim at purely
universal, purely free action (respect a person simply as a person, only act according to
the will of all, do duty solely for the sake of duty). To achieve the purpose of freedom it
is necessary to actually do something determinate, which means setting a limit, acting
in a particular fashion. Hegel calls this the “means,” and he takes it to be the particular-
izing moment in self-referring negativity. Hegel in effect treats empty duty, empty
right and the empty universal will as major premises of practical syllogisms that cannot
locate their minor premises. In the case of the French Revolution this inability took the
38 hegel’s conscience

form of suspicion and terror, for no one could live up to the purity of the universal
(except the “incorruptible” Robespierre), and the only deed of the universal was
destroying particular individuals. In Kantian morality, according to Hegel, the abstract
purpose is to act only on duty itself, on the pure form of lawfulness. There is no minor
premise that satisfies this condition, for all acting involves a determinate purpose and
therefore is not pure. The challenge is to conceive of the abstract principle/purpose in
a way that does not rule out the determinate conditions of action (as falling outside the
scope of legal right, or as betraying the revolution’s general will, as violating the
condition of duty for duty’s sake).
The simple form of the standard practical syllogism should not make us think that
practical reasoning is a mechanical affair of matching up fixed universal principles to
ready-made particulars. Hegel insists that abstract ethical principles rarely determine
action in a straightforward way. They find application only within a determinate con-
text, and are usually only one kind of reason in a complex whole of considerations.
Hegel has a dynamic view of normativity rather than a static model of fixed rules and
mechanical application. The agent has to deliberate, to judge which particular action
is best supported by reasons. Which reasons are relevant, which have precedence, and
how they are weighted will be largely determined by the priorities the individual agent
brings to the context. Others will bring existing norms to bear on an action, which
may be judged unsuccessful and thus spark development in the subject’s character or
in the norms themselves. Hegel claims that through the dynamics of such delibera-
tion, action, and uptake by others, ethical content develops toward increased trans-
parency and increased respect for the particularity of individuals. This is what Hegel
describes as “the activity of liberation” in the description of the free Spirit that I dis-
cussed in 1.2.


In this section I give a first formulation of the performative view of practical reason that
I take to be the core of Hegel’s ethics. The view is performative because it is guided by
the conception of the determinate action actually carried out by an individual. For
ethical content to be valid (in Hegel’s terms, to be actual), it must be such that individ-
uals can act on it according to the dynamics of practical reason described above of
setting a purpose (the major premise), implementing the purpose through the specific
deed (the particular means), and identifying oneself with the accomplished action as
instantiating the intended purpose. The proper way to think about the purpose and
the implementation are as two sets of conditions of practical reason: universal condi-
tions of imputation and particular conditions of implementation. These conditions
determine the success of a piece of practical reasoning and they simultaneously deter-
mine what counts as ethical content. Ethical content is binding on my will if both sets
of conditions can be satisfied, such that I can identify with implemented actions in the
right way. Thinking the two sets of conditions together as jointly sufficient for practical
reason and ethical content is the program that generates Hegel’s distinctive approach
to ethics. Hegel gives many arguments that a claim to content based on only one set or
39 Self-Consciousness and Agency

subset of conditions is insufficient to secure the actuality of the content. Ethical content
merely believed without being acted upon (such as universal moral principles) is defi-
cient. Conversely, ethical action merely demanded as particular action-events (such as
a ruler’s extemporaneous decrees), without the universality of self-conscious agency, is
also deficient.
The universal conditions of imputation in practical reason include both a subjective
and an objective set. I give a few of these conditions here. On the subjective side, the
individual must be willing to take responsibility for his actions simply as a self-
consciousness subject in the way that I have aligned with the element of avowal in a
first-person belief. So too the subject must be able to will the purpose as a universal
type, as satisfying some more or less general purpose. On the objective side, the content
of practical reason must have a transparent or public standing as universal, typically in
the form of written laws or institutional norms of action, so that a subject can know
what is being imputed to him by public authority.
The particular conditions of implementation likewise include subjective and
objective sets. On the subjective side, the most prominent condition is that particular
subjects actually are motivated to act on their purposes. On the objective side, one
subset of conditions is just the preservation of a sphere of freedom from hindrances
that would prevent the agent from implementing his purposes. There must also, more
positively, be channels open (possibilities for action) for the individual to implement
the universal purposes in specific ways.
This sketch of an account allows us to understand the three-part structure of the
Philosophy of Right. We can see now why the claims established in “Abstract Right” and
“Morality,” while part of the content of right, are not claims about full-fledged ethical
content. What Hegel is doing in the first two sections is laying out the various universal
and particular conditions of practical reason. Only in “Ethical Life” are the full set of
conditions jointly satisfied, and so only “Ethical Life” provides full-fledged ethical
content and the contexts for fully functional practical reasoning.
One important route to elucidate the performative view is to show how it captures
the relationships between types of action and their tokens. When I intend to act, before
I have actually acted, I always will an intentional action as a type.46 Intended actions are
types because they are purposes that can be realized in a more or less vast number of
specific ways (spatiotemporally specific events). The actual performance of an action
is a particular, a token of that type (if the action is successful). The accomplished action
is a new state of affairs in the world viewed as a token (particular) of that type
(universal). On Hegel’s view, the agent at the end of this three-part conception of
intentional action must identify herself with the token as the instantiation of the type.
This identification or self-imputation is so important because if the agent treated her
deeds as mere events, without the connection to the purposes under which she intended

Hegel makes this point in his discussion of the intention in the Philosophy of Right, where he
identifies the intention with the “universal quality” of the action (I discuss this section at greater length
in chapter 4). See Quante (2004). I would like to thank Michael Quante for urging me to emphasize and
clarify the points in this paragraph.
40 hegel’s conscience

them, she could not locate her subjectivity in her deeds. This failure to locate oneself
in one’s deeds is the hallmark of alienation.
I will now look at an argument from the introduction to the “Morality” chapter of
the Philosophy of Right in order to illustrate further Hegel’s claims about the universal-
particular (type-token) relationship in action and in order to give a preliminary sketch
of the PR’s method. In the following passage Hegel describes the negativity and the
identity of the agent’s will in action:

In the self-determining will, determinacy is (α) initially posited in the will by the
will itself—as its particularization within itself, a content which it gives to itself.
This is the first negation, and the formal limitation [Grenze] of this negation is that
it is merely something posited and subjective. As infinite reflection into itself this
limitation is present for the will itself, and the will is (β) the aspiration [Wollen] to
overcome [aufzuheben] this restriction [Schranke]—i.e. the activity of translating
this content from subjectivity into objectivity in general, into an immediate
existence. (γ) The simple identity of the will with itself in this opposition is the
content or purpose which remains constant in the two oppositions and indifferent
towards these differences of form. (§109)47

What Hegel here calls “the first negation” is the intention formed by the individual. It
negates the abstract universality of the will and thus corresponds to the negativity
described in PR §6. Yet in another sense it remains universal, for it is a type of action
that is “merely something posited and subjective” because it has not been carried out.
When Hegel writes that “[a]s infinite reflection into itself this limitation is present for
the will itself,” he is writing of self-consciousness as aware of two things: its relation to
objectivity and the limitation of the universal type of action as merely subjective. The
second negation negates the universality of the purpose, of the type, in that by actually
acting and thus tokening the type the agent gives the action definite existence in the
objective world. What Hegel then calls the “simple identity of the will with itself ” is the
power of self-reference (self-imputation) across this type-token relation. Hegel equates
this identity with the content and purpose because through the purpose the individual
identifies the token as a product of his subjectivity even when his action, “the activity
of translating,” is completed. The purpose or intention is first a belief, and then it is
contained in an objective state of affairs, and it is up to the subject to maintain his sub-
jectivity in the objective world through that purpose.
Hegel makes the move from the form of intentional action to claims about ethical
content by drawing out the implicit universality in the authority that self-consciousness
has over the implemented action. This universality is contained in the implemented
action because the implementation opens the action to assessment by others. Hegel

In this study I consistently translated Zweck with “purpose.” For a point-by-point analysis of this
entire paragraph, see Quante (2004), 46–59.
41 Self-Consciousness and Agency

(c) While I preserve my subjectivity in implementing my ends (see §110), in the course
of thus objectifying them I at the same time supersede this subjectivity in its imme-
diacy, and hence in its character as my individual subjectivity. But the external sub-
jectivity which is thus identical with me is the will of others (see §73).—The basis of
the will’s existence is now subjectivity (see §106), and the will of others is the existence
which I give to my purpose, and which is for me at the same time an other.—The
implementation of my purpose therefore has this identity of my will and the will of
others within it—it has a positive reference to the will of others. (§112)

The purpose as implemented preserves my subjectivity because I remain committed to

it as the expression of my subjective purpose, as the particular token instantiating the
universal type. But as an event in the social space of other agents, the objectified
purpose is no longer simply an expression of my subjectivity. The action exists as
“external subjectivity” in so far as it is taken up by other agents in the space of reasons.
Hegel’s conclusion that the implementation of the purpose “has a positive reference to
the will of others” initially only means that to accomplish my purposes I have to take
into account the social context in which the purposes are to be implemented. He then
develops this point to arrive at the claim that I have a duty to be concerned for the wel-
fare of others, even for the welfare of all.
By contrast to the argumentative strategy of the Phenomenology, which was ori-
ented toward deducing the formal ground of ethical action, the argument in the
Philosophy of Right is oriented toward developing the content and context of ethical
action. Hegel’s argument in the PR is more properly dubbed teleological than
transcendental, for it aims to draw out the content and contexts through which the
rational will can be realized. The telos is a complete context (or set of conditions) for
action, which in Hegel’s view is the State. It is not that he defines freedom and then
deduces the means of securing that freedom, but rather he develops the determinate
modes of existence of the free will, the different ways in which it is objectified in norms
and practices.
The “Morality” section in the Philosophy of Right is so important because within it
Hegel makes the transition from an agent whose action has no moral content to an account
of the Good and of conscience as individual action on the Good. The dynamics of those
transitions, which will concern us at many points in this study, turn on how the universal
and particular dimensions of action are properly integrated and stabilized. In the pas-
sages we just looked at, the argument is that in implementing my purpose, I not only
will the specific purpose that is tokened in the performance of the action, but I also
acknowledge that as an intentional action my purpose can be situated within broader
contexts of action. It is just these broader contexts of action that Hegel develops in
setting out the contexts of action that are Ethical Life.
The claim that the two sets of conditions are jointly sufficient in Ethical Life needs
some elaboration. Taken independently, as a list of the conditions on action, the
universal and particular requirements do not secure the sense in which individual
actions express the unity of the particular and universal conditions. The individual
must hold together the universal and particular conditions in the implemented action
42 hegel’s conscience

(identify with the particular as an instantiation of a universal), and the action must be
recognized as an integrated whole by the other agents for whom the action exists. The
former activity is the work of individual conscience in Ethical Life, and the latter
activity of recognition is the work of the ethical communities of the family, Civil
Society and the State (to name the three main institutions of Ethical Life). This explains
why conscience and recognition are the two main conceptual devices in Hegel’s
account, devices that are sometimes in tension but that in the end are complementary.
Conscience holds together the two sets of conditions from the side of the individual
agent’s own interpretive authority. Recognition holds together the two sets of condi-
tions from the external side of the social context for action. Recognition is the condition
on the accomplished action that other agents have a certain interpretive authority over
the individual’s action. The interpretation by others takes into account the agent’s
status as a free individual by assessing the action as it was intended (i.e., interpreted)
by the agent himself. Both conscience and recognition are essential to Hegel’s view, but
for Hegel’s conception of practical reason conscience has a certain priority since it
foregrounds the perspective of the reasoning agent.
The performative view of practical reason relies on ethical content having a certain
stability, but the view also explains why content is always in the process of development.
It makes sense of the infamous claim (known as the “Doppelsatz”) from the Philosophy
of Right preface that “What is rational is actual; and what is actual is rational” (W 7, 24;
PR, 20), for it implies that rational content is only that on which agents can act success-
fully, or bring to actuality. The philosopher giving an account of rational ethical content
needs to take into account the social and historical context of performance, the actual
conditions. The performative view is even better able to explain the version of the
Doppelsatz from Hegel’s lectures: “What is actual becomes rational, and the rational
becomes actual” (VPR19/20, 51). The version from the lectures makes sense on the
assumption that there is a dialectical tension between the two sets of conditions such
that rational norms are further specified in new circumstances. Rationality comes to
characterize the norms themselves as a result of the ongoing process of individuals
attempting to identify with their implemented actions. To the extent that this
identification fails, the ethical content will have to change. Hegel’s negative point in the
Doppelsatz is that the conditions of practical reason cannot license abstract rational
content that has little or no grounding in existing actuality. Such a utopian theory of
ideal ethical content is pointless because individuals could not act upon it. They could
only believe the general purposes or impute them abstractly to themselves, for they
would lack the proper conditions for implementing the purposes.
I close this chapter by recalling Hegel’s reference in the PR preface to the fable of the
man who claimed he had performed amazing jumping feats while abroad. Hegel quotes
a sardonic listener to these tales, “Here is Rhodes. Jump here” (W 7, 26; PR, 21), which
captures nicely the performative character of Hegel’s view. The braggart’s claim is like
the utopian principles one dreams about implementing. Hegel’s claim (corresponding
to the observer’s comment) is that ethical content is only secured under the conditions
of the here and now, under the conditions in which others can witness and assess one’s
motivating and justifying reasons

To get a handle on the kind of content that meets the performative view’s joint require-
ments of universality and particularity, in this chapter I relate Hegel’s claims to the
contemporary distinction between justifying reasons and motivating reasons. Justifying
reasons are the reasons that give the true account of why an action is right (or, as it may
turn out, wrong), while the motivating reasons are the reasons that an agent in fact acts
upon. Specifying the nature of the identity between these two kinds of reasons is a
fruitful way of understanding Hegel’s overall approach to ethics. I begin the chapter
with a claim of simple identity between these reasons, and conclude with Hegel’s con-
ception of a complex or concrete identity.
While the notion of justifying reasons is relatively straightforward, the notion of
motivating reasons is more ambiguous. The justifying reasons identify features of the
action that make the action right (or wrong) according to accepted standards of action.
When I report a student to the dean for plagiarism, the reasons justifying my action are
the university’s policies about academic honesty, the need for such honesty to main-
tain an academic community, etc. These reasons are typically thought of as objective
because they have justifying force that others can appreciate and use to praise or criti-
cize my action.
The motivating reasons, by contrast, are the reasons that I, as this particular agent
acting at a certain time and place, do in fact act upon. While these reasons are usually
conceived as real objective reasons, they are also subjective in so far as they have
psychological efficacy for an individual agent.1 Motivating reasons are sometimes
referred to as explanatory reasons to emphasize the fact that they function within
explanations of action-events. But the idea of reasons explaining an action brings to

Francis Hutcheson is usually credited with originating this distinction, which he formulated
as one between “exciting” and “justifying” reasons. See Dancy (2000), 20–25, for a discussion of
Hutcheson’s view and an argument that Hutcheson does not properly identify the distinction.

44 hegel’s conscience

the fore an ambiguity in the notion of motivating reasons. Explanation naturally brings
to mind the question of what caused my action to occur, and typically causes are
thought of in terms of desires or episodic mental states rather than in terms of reasons.
We can of course study actions in terms of biological or psychological mechanisms,
but we would then be looking at motivation in order to explain an event in the world,
whereas motivating reasons should capture the reasons behind the action as it is willed
by a subject.
The best third-person explanation of why I acted might refer to my affect or pas-
sion, yet when I explain, in the first person, why I acted a certain way, I refer to features
of the world contained in my belief that my action was right. I reported the student
because (I believe that) he plagiarized and because the university has these regulations.
Taking causal preconditions as motivating renders unclear the sense in which those
preconditions are really my reasons. I might be angry that a student has plagiarized, but
my action would be defective if I took my anger as the reason for action. Motivating
reasons should rather be conceived as the reasons that inform my practical judgment—
from the first-person perspective—that the action is worth pursuing. This brings the
motivating reasons into close proximity to the justifying reasons, and leads to the
temptation to think that one sort of reason can be reduced to the other.


Most cognitivist ethical theories make some kind of identity between motivating and
justifying reasons a requirement of ethical action. This is the requirement that the
agent should perform the action for the reasons that make the action right. This
requirement highlights the sense in which an action is counted as ethical not just
because of its outward effects, but also owing to the nature of the agent’s motivation.
There would be something ethically deficient about my action if, for example, I only
treated my elderly parents well because I wanted to make sure I got my inheritance.
The reasons deriving from the goal of securing an inheritance are recognizable as rea-
sons, namely instrumental reasons that are naturally associated with the category of
motivating reasons. But such instrumental reasons are not the reasons that make treat-
ing one’s parents well an action with moral value.
We can call this basic identity condition the Reasons Identity Condition (RIC).

RIC: In ethical action an agent’s motivating reasons are identical to the justifying reasons.2

My formulation of these issues has been influenced by Phillip Stratton-Lake’s work. Stratton-
Lake (2000) tries to reconstruct a Kantian solution in the contemporary idiom of motivating and jus-
tifying reasons. He is concerned to effect a reconciliation of Kantian “universalist” ethics and Aristotelian
“particularist” ethics, to show how Kant’s focus on the moral law does not preclude responsiveness to
the particulars of a concrete situation. Stratton-Lake takes as his starting point what he calls the
Symmetry Thesis, which is very close to what I refer to throughout this book as the Reasons Identity
Condition. He claims in the Symmetry Thesis that the justifying reasons and the motivating reasons are
identical given the right conditions. For Stratton-Lake, justifying reasons are typically specific, deter-
minate facts in the world, such as the fact that someone is in need, or that I have promised to do
something. The challenge, then, is how to understand Kantian motivation such that the motivating
45 Motivating and Justifying Reasons

There are forms of utilitarianism that do not endorse this condition because they
hold that utility is maximized when agents do not act in order to maximize utility (this
is the sense in which utilitarianism is “self-effacing”).3 But for a wide range of ethical
theorists some form of this condition holds.
The questions this identity condition raises are (1) how the kinds of reasons are at
all different in ethically good actions and (2) why we need two kinds of reasons at all.
Specifically, there is pressure to equate motivating reasons with justifying reasons, since
to count as reasons for ethical action, my reasons for action must be capable of justi-
fying the action, which would seem to collapse the distinction. We saw this pressure
already in Moran’s account in 1.1, for he identified reasons for action stemming from
the agent’s own purpose—so what look like the reasons that motivate the agent—as
the justifying reasons that the agent would give to others. Moran was also arguing
against a version of psychologism or explanation, as in my comments on explanatory
reasons above, so one might think that once the motivating reasons are conceived
nonpsychologically, then the contrast with justifying reasons simply disappears. But
this conclusion would be too hasty.
The short answer to the question of how to maintain the difference between the
types of reasons is to introduce a distinction of form and content. While justifying and
motivating reasons may be identical in content, they are different in form. Justifying
reasons have an objective form—as states of affairs, ethical principles, institutional
norms. Motivating reasons have the subjective form of belief. Though first-person
belief is characterized by transparency to truth, and is thus not merely a psychological
state, it does have different functional roles than the objective entities that are the pri-
mary bearers of justifying reasons. The point of RIC, then, is to require that the moti-
vating and justifying reasons, though differing in form, have the same content. Although
I will show that this picture of identity and difference is more complex in Hegel’s case,
this picture is a good starting point for understanding the requirement of an identity
on two conditions that can and often do come apart.
The most famous and explicit identity requirement in the history of moral philos-
ophy is Kant’s claim that an action has moral value only if it is performed for the sake
of duty. On textbook readings of Kant, the moral law is both the justifying reason and
the motivating reason of any action with moral worth. This version of RIC brings out
the basis of one of the main objections that Hegel levels against Kant’s moral
philosophy. Even if we accept that the moral law is the ultimate justification of ethical

reasons can also be these same facts. It is natural, and even standard, to read Kant’s many statements on
acting from the law as saying that the moral law simply is the justifying and motivating reason in every
action that has moral worth. Stratton-Lake’s central intuition is that it is bizarre to say that the reason
why an act is right, that justifies it as right, is simply that it is right (where the latter is the motivating
reason on the standard view of acting from duty alone). He therefore argues against both sides of this
standard picture and attempts to show both that acting from the motive of duty can be understood as
something other than taking “that it is right” as my motivating reason, and that the moral law is not the
justifying reason in moral action.
See Parfit (1984), Chs. 1 and 4.
46 hegel’s conscience

action (a big if), it is hard to swallow that the moral law itself is our motivating reason
in every case of moral action.4 Many of our ethical actions are performed from a
specific attachment, for instance to our family and friends. If those particular attach-
ments are excluded as motivating reasons because of RIC and because only the law can
be a justifying reason for ethical action, this does render Kantian morality very unat-
tractive. It would among other things make our moral psychology look very strange.
I would have to treat my daughter well for impersonal reasons that seem quite removed
from my actual experience of love for her.
It is on the basis of such issues in Kant’s RIC that Hegel arrived at his conception of
conscience as a performative view of practical reason that realizes the properly concrete
identity of motivating and justifying reasons. We can give a preliminary elaboration on
the performative view now that we have the concepts of justifying and motivating rea-
sons on the table. My original formulation of the performative view stated that ethical
norms are valid if they satisfy certain universal and particular conditions, conditions
that are held together by the individual in conscience and by other agents within a
social context. At first glance it might seem that the universal conditions can be equated
with justifying reasons, and particular conditions can be equated with motivating rea-
sons. But it would be wrong to equate these two distinctions, for both sets of reasons,
the motivating and justifying, typically refer to a union of the universal and particular
conditions. Because the justifying reasons have objective form, it is natural to think of
them as universal, and because motivating reasons are necessarily determinate and
present for the agent himself, it is natural to think of them as particular. But the two
distinctions in fact overlap and intersect in ways that will become apparent in the
course of this chapter. At the level of motivating reasons, there will be universal aspects,
such as the formal freedom of first-person belief, and particular aspects, most notably
particular objects of attachment or interest, that will not be equally valued by others.
So too for justifying reasons; in addition to universals there will be determinate norms
that specify broader universal norms.
RIC is an identity condition that in Hegel’s ethics has an abstract and a concrete
version. There are categories of right, specifically those presented in “Abstract Right”
and “Morality,” that do not meet the full, concrete version of RIC (presented at the end
of this chapter), because they do not meet the full requirements for ethical action. This
content satisfies the definition of right, as a “definite existence of the free will” (§29),
because it satisfies certain particular and universal requirements, but it does not pre-
sent full contexts of ethical action and thus remains formal. At the risk of obscurity, we
can call Abstract Right and Morality shapes of formal content, whereas full ethical
content only comes in Ethical Life. It is the complex relations within Ethical Life that
are Hegel’s paradigm of an ethical context, and that will be the focus of the concrete
version of RIC. This condition holds that there must be reasons and values that can serve
simultaneously as sources of motivating reasons (in the form of first-person identification)
and as a sources of justifying reasons (in the form of second- and third-person

For an argument that Kant does not think the moral law is our motivating reason in every case
see Wood (1999).
47 Motivating and Justifying Reasons

attribution). We will see in this chapter the different ways of privileging the motivating
or justifying sides. In showing how each of these goes wrong, we will show how Hegel’s
distinctive conception of the identity is generated.


A good starting point for thinking about motivating and justifying reasons is Bernard
Williams’s argument for internal reasons. The motivating/justifying distinction does
not completely map onto the internal/external distinction, but the argument for
internal reasons does bring out what is distinctive in motivating reasons. The defi-
ciencies in Williams’s account will also help to highlight problems that motivate Hegel’s
unusual claim for the identity of motivating and justifying reasons. In this section
I follow my presentation of Williams’s account with a presentation of an important
argument in the Phenomenology against an external reasons view.
Williams claims that statements like “A has a reason to ϕ” can be interpreted in
either an internal or external manner. On the internal reading that Williams defends,
the agent has a reason because the reason relates in some way to “the agent’s aims.”5 On
the externalist view, by contrast, the reason statement can still be true even if the agent
has no aim that will be served by ϕ-ing. Williams writes that “any model for the internal
interpretation must display a relativity of the reason statement to the agent’s subjective
motivational set, which I shall call the agent’s S.”6 Williams is quite relaxed about what
constitutes S, claiming that it is neither fixed and static, nor constituted just by desires.
Rather, “S can contain such things as dispositions of evaluation, patterns of emotional
reaction, personal loyalties, and various projects, as they may be abstractly called,
embodying commitments of the agent.”7 To endorse an external interpretation of rea-
sons would mean to claim that reasons are reasons for an agent quite apart from any
connection to these elements of his S. The internal interpretation says that nothing can
be imputed to an agent as a reason unless the agent can actually be motivated to act by
the consideration cited as a reason.
Though Williams’s claim about the “relativity of the reason statement” creates the
impression that he has no conception of justifying reasons, no conception of reasons
that genuinely count as good reasons, his theory in fact endorses justifying reasons and
a version of RIC. He is in effect claiming that a justifying reason can only be a reason if
it is also a motivating reason.8 Williams does not hold that I can only have a reason to
act if some current desire motivates me to act on the reason. This would be the claim
that “ϕ-ing has to be related to some element in S as causal means to end,”9 but Williams
emphasizes that such a relation is only one case among many. The deliberative process

Williams (1981a), 101.
Williams (1981a), 102. For a full account of Williams’s position and its nuances, see Jenkins
Williams (1981a), 105.
See Scanlon (1998), 364–65, and Dancy (2000), 15–17, for perspicuous formulations of what
Williams is and is not doing.
Williams (1981a), 104.
48 hegel’s conscience

can add and subtract elements from S, and can bring the agent to see reasons for
actions that are not just a means to satisfying some single element in S. Williams’s
central claim rather is that if I were to deliberate rationally and if I were to know all the
facts about the case, and I still were not motivated, then the consideration could not be
a reason. This is a version of RIC because it holds that a justifying reason for a person
can only be such if it is also a motivating reason. We can see from Williams’s argument
that the identity claim in RIC can require that one set of reasons conform to the other.
In this case the demand is on the reasons—to be such that they hook into an agent’s
motivations—rather than a demand on the agent to be motivated by the justifying
Williams has often been taken to task for making moral criticism impossible. We
think of justifying reasons as a basis for criticizing the behavior of someone whom we
think is acting badly, but we seem barred on Williams’s view from telling such a person
that he ought to behave differently for reasons that are not in fact motivating for him.
Williams seems to relativize the imputation of reasons too much to the agent’s motiva-
tions. Yet Williams does think we have a lot to say to such person: “[H]e is inconsid-
erate, or cruel, or selfish, or imprudent.”10 What we cannot say on Williams’s view is
that such a person is irrational. Williams claims that this charge “is bluff,”11 in the sense
of browbeating, for with the charge of irrationality an evaluative force is being invoked
that amounts to nothing more than a generic reminder of the value of universality and
impersonality. The external reasons theorist wants to charge an agent with irrationality
“because he wants any rational agent, as such, to acknowledge the requirement to do
the thing in question.”12 If the agent does not acknowledge the requirement, the charge
of irrationality is just a peculiar way of telling him to be someone other than he is (to
have a different motivational set than he in fact has).
A key move in Williams’s argument is to place a requirement on reasons for action
that they serve as a “possible explanation” of a particular action.13 As he puts it, “nothing
can explain an agent’s (intentional) actions except something that motivates him so to
act.”14 For an external reason to have such an explanatory role, there would have to be
a “psychological link” between the reason and the action. Williams identifies this link
as the belief “in an external reason statement about himself.”15 If this belief is a motiva-
tion to act, however, then it seems we can make an internal reason statement about the
individual after all, since by definition a reason that motivates is an internal reason.
This line of thought leads Williams to claim that the externality of the external reasons

Williams (1981a), 110.
Williams (1981a), 111.
Williams (1981a), 110.
He does not think that internal reasons are merely explanatory, such that from the third-person
point of view we could attribute reasons to an agent based on his desires even if the reasons were fully
irrational. We can see this in Williams’s example where the person who desires a gin and tonic mistak-
enly takes petrol for gin. He holds that we should not say that the person has a reason to drink petrol if
the person takes it to serve his S based on a false belief. Williams (1981a), 105.
Williams (1981a), 107.
Williams (1981a), 107.
49 Motivating and Justifying Reasons

can only mean that one could come to have the belief simply by a pure process of rational
deliberation, such that one will be motivated at the end of deliberation regardless of
the motivations with which one started. But since it is assumed that “there is no moti-
vation for the agent to deliberate from”16 to reach this new motivation, it is very diffi-
cult to see how a new motivation could arise without a miraculous “conversion” or an
illicit connection to the original motivational set.
Before relating Williams’s thesis to Hegel’s claims, I would like to emphasize a fea-
ture of the argument that often goes unnoticed but that is crucial to appreciating the
force of the thesis. In relativizing reasons to motivational sets, Williams has in effect
asserted the priority of value considerations in determining reasons. This point is
obscured somewhat by Williams’s overly broad definition of S (more on this below),
but the basic argument is that an agent’s “aims” or purposes constitute what the agent
takes to be valuable. Without a connection to what the agent takes to be valuable, a
reason will be motivationally inert and therefore not a reason for that person. In other
words, if there is no value that underwrites or generates that reason, then it is not a
reason. This is also how we should understand Williams’s claims about legitimate criti-
cism of another’s behavior. The charge of irrationality is out of place, since what we
really mean to criticize are the person’s values.
Hegel’s account too gives a certain privilege to value (or purposes) over reasons,
though he is much less willing to index reasons to an agent’s contingent set of pur-
poses. He argues against an externalist view of reasons in the section of the
Phenomenology entitled “Virtue and the Way of the World.” He presents a stark oppo-
sition between the external reasons position of the “knight of virtue” and the internal
reasons position that relativizes reasons to individuality [Einzelheit].17 The victory of
the latter view, “the Way of the World,” is an argument for an internal reasons position
(though of course this is not Hegel’s complete view of normativity).
In Hegel’s presentation, the virtuous person has the goal of doing the ethically
good. The means to that end are (1) negating his own individuality through self-
sacrifice and (2) negating the individuality of the characteristic person of the way of
the world (hereafter referred to as the worldly person). This makes virtue a rather
extreme version of an external reasons view. According to the virtuous person, reasons
are not relative to individual purposes, but rather the true reasons derive from the
general aim of eliminating any normative role for individual purposes.
Hegel’s initial description of the worldly person makes him an equally one-sided
representative of an internal reasons view. The worldly person tries to make individu-
ality “into the essence, and to subordinate the in-itself good and true to itself ” (208,
¶381). In other words, to the extent that there are reasons that purport to be valid apart

Williams (1981a), 109.
Much of the difficulty with individuality in the Phenomenology arises because Hegel does not, as
he does in his later texts, distinguish clearly between particularity [Besonderheit] and individuality. In
the Philosophy of Right Hegel is very explicit about distinguishing the particular as one moment of the
will, which, when integrated with universality, forms the concept of individuality. In the Phenomenology
this distinction usually remains implicit, so that it is up to the reader to figure out when individuality
has universality as a moment, and when he is talking about mere particularity.
50 hegel’s conscience

from the conditions of an individual’s subjective motivations, the worldly person tries
to show that the reasons are related to particular interests and purposes. Hegel’s pre-
sentation ends in a clear victory for the worldly person, a victory I interpret as an
argument for the untenability of the external reasons view and a defense of an internal
reasons view.
The winner of the contest between these two shapes is decided by which shape suc-
ceeds in accomplishing its defining purpose. The overall purpose (the “in-itself good”
for virtue, individuality for the worldly person) defines the essence of their under-
standing of reasons for action. Hegel’s characteristic performative move is to examine
the particular means taken in accomplishing the essential purpose. Have the specific
actions succeeded in expressing the purpose? Or are the universal abstract purpose and
the particular means to that purpose at odds with each other? Hegel writes that both
sides in this conflict can be seen as containing the universal:

For the virtuous consciousness, the universal is true in the belief [Glauben], or it is
in-itself true; not yet an actual universality, but rather an abstract universality;
within this consciousness itself the universal exists as purpose, within the way of the
world as something inner. (209, ¶384)

The virtuous person believes himself to be in possession of the standard of goodness,

the source of good reasons for action. Hegel describes this claim as “an abstract univer-
sality” that “exists as purpose” because the virtuous person does not have particular
reasons for particular actions. It has only the general and abstract purpose that virtue
should triumph in the world. The abstraction of virtue contrasts with the actuality of
a universal that is effective in realizing itself through specific means. The worldly
person is closer to achieving this concrete or actual universal because his universal,
though “something inner,” is defined by the possibility of realizing specific aims in the
world. The worldly person’s capacities for accomplishing his individual purposes in the
world are capacities that are universal in the sense that they are universally effective in
achieving particular goals (they are all-purpose means).18
The problem with the virtuous person, a problem that Hegel uses over and over
again in developing his full conception of practical normativity, is that in taking
particular means to accomplish the universal purpose (“the Good”), the virtuous
person contradicts that very purpose. The thrust of Hegel’s argument against virtue
and its external reasons is that while it is easy enough to define good reasons in the
abstract, to define reasons for action it is necessary to include the particular conditions
of action. The deficiency of the reasons offered by the virtuous person as reasons for
action is a function of the abstractness of the universality that it claims as its purpose.
The means to accomplish the abstract purpose can only be the “capacities” and

The way of the world’s victory is relatively easy because of the dialectical context: “The Good or
universal, as it appears here, is that which is called gifts, capabilities, powers” (210, ¶385). It is a short road
from this claim to the idea that virtue, or the pursuit of the Good through the negation of individuality
(which consists of capabilities), is self-defeating.
51 Motivating and Justifying Reasons

“powers” of the individual himself who acts. But this motivated individuality is just
what characterizes the virtuous person himself in so far as he acts. The virtuous person
is thus really fighting with himself, and therefore cannot be serious about the fight.
Hegel describes the fight of the virtuous person as a sham fight—in German a
Spiegelfechterei, which captures the sense in which virtue is in fact fighting its mirror
[Spiegel] image. Hegel sums up the self-defeating character of the contest:

The virtuous consciousness, however, enters into conflict with the way of the world
as if this were something opposed to the Good; what the conflict offers to the vir-
tuous consciousness is the universal, not merely as an abstract universal, but as a
universal animated by individuality and existing for an other, in other words the
actual good. Therefore, wherever virtue comes to grips with the way of the world, it
always hits upon places which are the actual existence of the Good itself which, as
the in-itself of the way of the world, is inextricably interwoven in every manifesta-
tion of the way of the world, and [the way of the world] also has its definite existence
in that actuality of the in-itself; therefore, for virtue the way of the world is
invulnerable. (211, ¶386)

The assumption here is that the Good is only accomplished in definite actions, and
that reasons are only reasons for action as particular considerations that actually moti-
vate individuals. For any actual good to be accomplished in the world there must be
individuals exercising their capacities through specific actions. The virtuous person’s
action of attacking those very same energetic individuals who actually act can there-
fore hardly be justified by claiming that the action serves the abstract purpose of
accomplishing the Good.
Virtue has the purpose of bringing the Good to actuality by fighting against indi-
viduality, but it fails because “the side of actuality is itself nothing other than the side
of individuality” (212, ¶389). The externality of the reasons of virtue is reflected in the
fact that they never actually become reasons for action, for virtue only preaches without
accomplishing anything.19 Virtue has only “ideal” or “noble” purposes that “edify but
raise no edifice [erbauen, aber nichts aufbauen]” (212, ¶390). Only through the specific
purposes of the worldly person does the Good win actuality. The claim of virtue is
“bluff,” a mere blustering posture of universality. Virtue can claim that the worldly
person corrupts or inverts the fixed unchangeable standards of goodness. But, as Hegel
puts it in writing of the abstract Good as “the unchangeable,” the worldly person
“inverts the unchangeable, but it inverts it in fact from the nothing of abstraction into
the being of reality” (212, ¶389). The selflessness of virtue is inverted into the reality of
self-interested action, where that action is an accomplished reality in which value,
purpose, has been realized.

Hegel is quick to comment that “ancient virtue” is not subject to this critique because it has a
foundation in the “substance of a people,” and has as its end “an actual already existing good” (212,
52 hegel’s conscience

The problem at this point is that the worldly view appears not to be ethical at all.
The worldly person is only looking out for himself and only takes something as a
reason if it serves his individual purposes. This suggests mere instrumental reasoning
rather than any concern for ethical value. The typical duties or virtues, such as benefi-
cence and justice, seem to have no grip on such an agent. The victory of the way of the
world seems more a triumph over ethics than a modification of the requirements
of ethics.
In the Encyclopedia Hegel defends a version of the way of the world within his anal-
ysis of the conditions of individual action, and in doing so clarifies the relation of
individuality to ethical content. In the following passage Hegel writes that interest is a
necessary condition of action and elaborates on the claim in terms that clearly describe
the worldly person’s victory.

In so far as the content of the drive is distinguished as the thing [Sache] from this
activity [of carrying out a subjective purpose], and we regard the thing that has been
brought about as containing the moment of subjective individuality and its activity,
this is what is called the interest. Nothing is therefore brought about without interest.
An action is a purpose of the subject, and it is his activity too which imple-
ments this purpose: unless the subject were in this way even in the most disinter-
ested action, i.e. unless he had an interest in it, there would be no action at all.—The
drives and passions are sometimes depreciated by being contrasted with the base-
less chimera of a happiness, the free gift of nature, where needs are supposed to
find their satisfaction without the activity of the subject to bring about a confor-
mity between immediate existence and his own inner determinations. They are
sometimes contrasted, on the whole, with the morality of duty for duty’s sake. But
drive and passion are nothing other than the very liveliness of the subject: they are
needed if the agent is really to be in his purpose and the implementation thereof.
The ethical concerns the content, which as such is the universal, an inactive thing,
that finds its actualizing [Betätigendes] in the subject; and finds it only when the
content is immanent in the agent, is his interest and—should it claim to engross his
whole effective subjectivity—his passion. (EPS §475)

Hegel’s references to the “subjective individuality” in the action and to “the very liveli-
ness of the subject” are an endorsement of just those elements of action that “virtue”
attempted unsuccessfully to deny. The universal content is only accomplished through
purposive action of individuals. Hegel’s stress on “implementation” here is a stress on
the particular conditions of actually acting on one’s purposes. He writes that “even in
the most disinterested action” there must be a subjective motivating element. Echoing
his critique of virtue’s abstract universality, Hegel writes of the content as an “inactive
thing” that needs to be “actualized” through the subject.
I close this section by noting an ambiguity in Hegel’s phrase that “the content is
immanent in the agent.” Hegel’s willingness to talk about “the content” as “an inactive
thing” makes it seem that ethical content is defined independent of individuality, and
that interest is simply a necessary condition of individual action on the content. Hegel
53 Motivating and Justifying Reasons

certainly does think that ethical content can be contrasted with interest conceived as
merely self-interest. Thus in the lecture transcripts corresponding to this passage we
find “this must not be confused with selfishness, for this prefers its particular content to
the objective content” (§475Z). The implication could be that the objective content is
binding on my will regardless of my interests, but that (rather trivially) to act on eth-
ical content I must be motivated to act on that content. The content/reasons described
in this sense would be external content/reasons, and the subjective motivational
condition would be a necessary condition of the action, not a condition of having a
reason or counting as ethical content.
This ambiguity shows that the concept of motivating reasons is more elusive than it
first appears. The requirement of an affective state accompanying the content does not
simply make the imputation of reasons dependent on an agent’s motivational set.
Rather, the motivating reasons claim is that the content can only be objective content if
it is content that individuals can relate to their aims and purposes. I do not think that
Hegel clarifies this point in the passage above, but I will try to show in subsequent
sections that he thinks that the content itself is conditioned by the motivational
requirement. It is thus somewhat misleading to identify the content with the “inactive,”
since the concrete content includes an active side as well.


Two objections to Williams by T. M. Scanlon give us a preliminary glimpse of how
Hegel’s theory of motivating and justifying reasons diverges from Williams’s view.20
The first objection is that Williams puts too much weight on the third-person point of
view.21 Scanlon writes, “Williams’ examples are all put in the third person; they concern
the claims we can make about the reasons other people have. But his internalism seems
to force on us the conclusion that our own reasons, too, are all contingent on the
presence of appropriate elements in our subjective motivational sets.”22 In other words,
Williams’s account is skewed by too much attention to the reasons we impute to others
rather than to the reasons an agent imputes to herself. Given Williams’s attention to the
distinctiveness of the particular agent and her motivational set, this criticism is at first
glance surprising. Scanlon’s point is that we do not in many important cases take the
reasons for our own actions to be contingent on our motivations. Williams’s view
seems to imply that from the first-person standpoint of agency I typically include the
following disclaimer: “If I did not have my contingent motivational set, I would not
endorse the reasons that I am acting on.” Yet in the first-person stance I will not take
my reasons for action—especially my ethical reasons—to be relativized to my

Scanlon (1998), 365, emphasizes up front that Williams has a genuinely normative conception of
reasons, and that he is not “making the tautological claim that something can be an operative reason
for a person only if that person is moved by it.”
Scanlon (1998), 363–73.
Scanlon (1998), 367.
54 hegel’s conscience

contingent motivational set. When I make a judgment I commit myself to providing

reasons to others. To relativize those reasons to my motivational set seems to deflate
the force of the reasons, and also to call into question my commitment to them.
As Scanlon points out, this aspect of the first-person point of view also accounts for
why we do in fact criticize people for failing to feel the force of certain reasons. He
agrees with Williams that we should not call such people irrational, but he insists that
we do say that such people have reasons and that they are deficient (in some sense
beyond simple irrationality) in failing to recognize them. The pressure to use reasons
in criticism stems from what Scanlon calls the “universality of reason judgments.”23
When I make a judgment about a reason to act in a certain way, I have to think of the
reason as extending beyond my particular case to all other such cases, for calling it a
reason is to say that it would bind another agent in the same objective circumstances.
This explains the pressure from the first-person point of view to attribute reasons to
others quite apart from their contingent motivational set.
The second main objection concerns the consistency of Williams’s position on the
merely subjective status of S. Scanlon notes that there is an element in Williams’s char-
acterization of S that can account for our universal judgments, and that this element
stands in tension with the characterization of S as contingent and subjective. Williams
defines the agent’s subjective motivational set (S) to include not only ordinary passions
and desires, but also “dispositions of evaluation” (this is one way in which Williams
departs from a crude Humean view that would take the passions as dictating to reason).
Scanlon points out that things like “dispositions of evaluation” are not mere subjective
feelings, but include evaluations “of certain features of the objects evaluated.”24 That is,
S seems to include evaluations of the objectively valuable, which means that the agent
whose S is operative in deliberation will not take his reasons to be relative to his S, but
rather he will see the reasons as stemming from those valued items that he is commit-
ted to. This objection amounts to the charge that S includes reference to the objective
elements that are independent of merely subjective motivations.
The proper inference from this objection is that two main elements in Williams’s
motivational set S should be distinguished. We should divide S into (1) natural motives
(what Scanlon calls “subjective conditions” of action) such as drives and desires, and
(2) standing purposes (aims and dispositions of evaluation) that refer to value. I take it
that the standing purposes are the values that serve as the main source of motivating
reasons. This focus on what the agent finds valuable is the claim in Williams that
I mentioned above that value takes precedence over reasons. Taking the natural motives
out of the equation makes the move to motivating reasons less threatening, since val-
uing is more open to criticism than one’s mere natural drives. We can bring objective
value to bear when criticizing the behavior of others. We can also bring norms of

Scanlon (1998), 367. At 372, he elaborates this point, “If I believe that I would have reason to ϕ in
circumstances C, and that Jones’s situation is no different from mine in relevant respects, then the uni-
versality of reason judgments forces me to the conclusion that this reason counts in favor of ϕ-ing in
this case as well.”
Scanlon (1998), 367.
55 Motivating and Justifying Reasons

rationality to bear, but we should not pretend that a formal model of rationality by
itself is an ideal for ethical conduct. We can ask people for the reasons for why they
value certain items, but we should expect that their answers will be given in terms of
other values, and that the answers run out short of any rational ideal.
Given the primacy of value, what is the point in preserving talk of reasons and
rationality? The main point is that reasons do capture the universality of our judg-
ments and the accountability of the agent for his deeds. In shifting to value there is the
danger that the values will seem sui generis, a matter of mere preference. We ask for
reasons with the expectation that something more can be communicated than one’s
preferences, that we can say more than merely “this is how we do things here.” It is
a historical development, and not simply a metaphysical thesis, that the practice of
giving and asking for reasons has come to be important for us. This historical
development has to do with the authority of self-consciousness that I outlined in
chapter 1. The absolute freedom at the heart of Hegel’s universal conditions of the
authority of self-consciousness is a freedom that takes individuals to be able to abstract
from all determination. This abstract universality is one-sided, and does not by itself
provide determinate value. But without the universality of reason judgments, we would
inhabit our values differently, relate to our standing purposes differently (I dwell on
this point in the context of mutual recognition in chapter 5).
We can now formulate a revised version of the internalist view. Taking into account
the perspective of a first-person judgment about reasons for action, it would be wrong
to suggest that the agent’s reasons are contingent on the agent having certain desires
and drives. But Williams is right to suggest that the agent’s reasons are contingent on
the agent having standing purposes. The reasons refer to standing purposes (what an
individual takes to be valuable), and thus potentially to objective purposes (what is
standardly recognized as valuable) that are sources of reasons independent of their
relationship to me. Standing purposes are the source of motivating reasons, and the
extent to which those motivating reasons are also justifying reasons depends on the
extent to which the standing purposes are objective purposes, or can be intelligibly
linked to objective purposes (later I will substitute “nested within” for “intelligibly
linked to”).
The issue of holding one’s purposes together with objective purposes brings us
back to the issue of conscience. The concept of conscience can unite the motivating
and justifying reasons because its authority is simultaneously particular and universal.
In Williams’s argument and Scanlon’s objections we can already see how conscience
could serve as the basis of motivating reasons. Williams claims that defenders of
external reasons take a view that is too impersonal because they hold that reasons are
reasons for an ideal agent rather than for specific individuals. Taking thesis (R) to be
“A has a reason to ϕ,” Williams writes: “from both an ethical and a psychological point
of view it is important that (R) and its relatives should say something special about A,
and not merely invoke in connection with him some general normative judgment.”25
There is a natural way to interpret this point in terms of conscience. Williams’s choice

Williams (1995), 192.
56 hegel’s conscience

of his main example in the original article—Henry James’s Owen Wingrave—does in

fact bring his discussion into contact with familiar issues of conscience and first-person
authority. Owen Wingrave is an agent who is not moved by the reasons his family gives
for his embarking on a military career.26 As Williams formulates the case, joining the
military goes against all his desires. The insistence that he nevertheless “has a reason”
to enter military service must be the “bluff ” of an external reason since one assumes
that his family does not think that his having the reason depends on his present desires.
Acquiescing to their wishes would mean acting against his conscience, against his best
assessment of the reasons.
Scanlon’s objection based on the universality of first-person reason judgments can
be read as trying to draw out the way in which the authority of conscience is a claim
about both internal and universal reasons. The objection in fact implies some version of
RIC, some identity claim between the motivating and justifying reasons in which a
straight priority of the motivational (a la Williams) is ruled out. In ordinary uses of the
term “conscience,” the agent is describing the nature of her belief in the rightness of an
action. She is avowing the belief as precisely not dependent on her motivational set, but
as simply about what is right. Conscience is about my action and the reasons I find con-
vincing in a specific case, but it contains a claim to universality in the sense that it
appeals to reasons that are not merely reasons for me. In the case of Owen Wingrave, he
would seem oddly self-absorbed if his claim were just about himself, about his own
desires, and did not involve a belief in the badness of war in general. We might say that
peace is his standing purpose, and the incompatibility of that purpose with the practice
of war, with the objective purposes of the military life, is what grounds his judgment.
Summing up the results of our look at Williams for the Reasons Identity Condition,
it is important to recall that Williams’s internal reasons can be justifying reasons, so we
should not identify his external reasons with justifying reasons. The thrust of the
discussion and critique of Williams has been to clarify the sense in which one takes
one’s own reasons for action to have a certain universality, and therefore to insist that
we must be careful with how we formulate the motivational condition of ethical action.
That condition will not be the straight priority that Williams implies in denying that we
can attribute reasons to another if they are motivationally inert for her. We have seen
that we need to find a way to connect the motivational condition to a justificatory struc-
ture that does allow us to criticize agents for not recognizing the force of certain rea-
sons. The temptation is to simply reverse the priority and claim that justifying reasons
are reasons for agents regardless of their contingent motivations. That is the strategy of
Kant’s moral philosophy (at least on certain standard readings), and I turn now to an
attempt to align Hegel with Kant to see why this could not be Hegel’s strategy.


Before offering my own account, in this section I present and critique a contrasting
view of Hegelian reasons given by Alan Patten in Hegel’s Theory of Freedom. Patten’s

Williams (1981a).
57 Motivating and Justifying Reasons

account is especially instructive for addressing our problem because he tries to recon-
cile Hegel’s claims about the interest in any action with a universalist idea of rational
self-determination that requires an agent to abstract from all his “given” desires and
motivations. Patten attributes to Hegel the strongly universalist position “of complete
reflective awareness with respect to one’s determinations and the reasons underlying
them, an awareness that does not stop at anything ‘given.’ ”27 He takes Hegel to have a
very Kantian view of freedom because he holds that “there is an important sense, for
Hegel, in which freedom involves abstracting from one’s contingently given desires
and inclinations and acting on the basis of thought and reason alone.”28 This might
seem incompatible with Hegel’s claims in the Encyclopedia quote above about the
interest in any action, but Patten thinks he can unify the two claims. His strategy is to
read Hegel as saying that an agent must act for the reasons that justify the action, and
with an affect (what I have called a natural motive) that can itself be justified through
reason alone.
Patten distinguishes three models of freedom that he calls “natural freedom, reflec-
tive freedom, and rational freedom.”29 On the natural freedom account one acts on one’s
own drives and desires, and one is free simply because the drives and desires are one’s
own. According to Patten this action is in fact unfree because “it stops at something
given from outside.” The agent’s own desires are “alien” because they are simply given
by nature.30 Patten associates reflective freedom with freedom of choice and the life
oriented by the goal of happiness. One deliberates about which desires to follow, but
the desires themselves remain contingently given. The reflective individual is still not
free because “the menu from which he chooses, is given by nature.”31 Arguing that
rational freedom is the heart of Hegel’s considered view, Patten gives a number of for-
mulations of freedom as acting on reason alone:

It must, in some sense, involve a more complete abstraction from one’s actual
desires, inclinations, and so on, for not to do so would be to stop at something
‘given’ from ‘outside’ . . .32
Freedom, for Hegel, requires a grounding in reason that goes all the way
down: it is opposed to any process of determining one’s ends that stops at contin-
gently given desires and inclinations, even one that involves a degree of reflection
and deliberation.33
[T]here is an important sense for Hegel, as for Kant, in which one’s freedom
and reason are radically opposed to one’s contingently given desires and
inclinations . . .34

Patten (1999), 44.
Patten (1999), 47.
Patten (1999), 49.
Patten (1999), 50.
Patten (1999), 50.
Patten (1999), 51.
Patten (1999), 51.
Patten (1999), 52–53.
58 hegel’s conscience

Patten seems to be very Kantian indeed in the rather hyperbolic language of “complete
abstraction,” of a grounding that goes “all the way down,” and the claim that reason is
“radically opposed” to desires and inclinations. On this view, then, it seems that we must
take our reasons to be valid quite apart from our subjective motivations. How can this
view be squared with Hegel’s claims about the place of affects and passions in action?
Patten makes two basic moves to answer this question. His first move is to admit
the natural motives into the conditions of action and to claim that they too can be
justified through reason alone. This move is relatively straightforward in the case of
actions characteristic of Ethical Life. Patten gives a rationalistic interpretation of
Hegel’s view that certain dispositions are appropriate to actions required in Ethical
Life: “An agent who reflected on whether it is a good thing, in certain contexts, to be
motivated by dispositions such as love, fellow feeling, and patriotism could find rea-
sons for so being that did not appeal to his contingently given desires and inclinations
but only to pure rational considerations.”35 We can find on reflection “pure” justifying
reasons both for the content and for the natural motives.36
Patten makes the same case in relation to Hegel’s general claims about the agent’s
right to find satisfaction in his action. Bringing to bear his contrast between reflective
and rational freedom, Patten asks:

[D]oes it require that the agent enjoy “infinite subjectivity” with respect to the
determination (a complete or full rational awareness with respect to the determi-
nation, one which stops at nothing ‘given’) or is it enough that he enjoy ordinary
subjective freedom with respect to his determination (where he reflects on the
determination and sees that it is continuous with his particularity)?37

Though he thinks that Hegel “wavers” on this question, sometimes arguing for full
rational awareness and sometimes allowing that agents can be free without this aware-
ness, Patten holds that the preponderance of evidence supports the claim that for
Hegel the individual’s purpose in action is justified purely by reason, and that the
appropriateness of his affect is also justified purely by reason. To be free an individual
must be aware of the reasons both for acting on a certain purpose and for having a
certain motivational state, where these reasons must be “independent of his contin-
gently given desires and inclinations.”38 The key is thus “to distinguish between the
motivational conditions of freedom (where Hegel does take what he thinks is an anti-
Kantian position) and the question of what the ‘criterion’ or ‘justifying’ consideration
is in assessing the rationality of an action or motive and in deliberating and reasoning
about what to do or believe.”39 Having a purely rational criterion aligns Hegel’s account

Patten (1999), 56.
Patten insists that this “point is consistent with appealing to a ‘criterion’ (Kriterium) (Enz. iii,
§400) of appropriateness or rationality that abstracts from the agent’s contingently given desires and
inclinations and looks only to pure thought and reason.” Patten (1999), 57.
Patten (1999), 60–61.
Patten (1999), 62.
Patten (1999), 63.
59 Motivating and Justifying Reasons

with Kant’s, while allowing the presence of affective states distinguishes the account in
so far as Hegel does not think that transcendental freedom is required for ethical
Patten’s second strategy is to argue that Hegel’s account of motivated freedom is
distinguished from Kant’s in that for Hegel there is a (noncontingent) desire for free-
dom that is the basis of agency. Patten writes, “He maintains that, even when the will
abstracts from all its contingently given desires and inclinations, and attempts to jus-
tify its action in terms of its own thought and reason alone, it remains committed to
one important end: the end of promoting and sustaining its own independence and
freedom.”40 This end both possesses “animating force”41 and serves as the basis for jus-
tifying ethical content. Patten holds that the “content of Hegelian freedom is given by
the conditions for achieving freedom,” so that a “decisive reason-for-action for such an
agent, Hegel is claiming, involves an appeal to the end of developing and maintaining
his own freedom.”42 Patten goes on to argue that the objective content of freedom is a
set of conditions for securing the agent’s subjective freedom. In other words, the purely
rational consideration adduced in the first point is nothing other than the agent’s end
of developing his own freedom.
Before turning to my criticisms of Patten’s view, it is instructive to appreciate how
Patten’s view includes an endorsement of the Reasons Identity Condition. The claim is
that in every instance of full rational freedom, the agent’s motivating reason and justi-
fying reason will be the “end of developing and maintaining his own freedom.” This is
a version of RIC in which both sides of the identity will always be the same abstract
reason. There is a desire behind the reason, and there are drives and inclinations that
are conditions of acting, but the reason itself is always a direct expression of pure
rational freedom.
My first criticism of Patten’s account has to do with the idea of “contingently given
desires and inclinations.” Contingent relative to what? Everyone reaches adulthood, the
stance of full moral agency, with a certain set of desires and standing purposes that are
more or less malleable, and more or less traceable to aspects of their upbringing. But it
is not at all clear that anyone is ever actually in a position to sort out the given and
contingent from the essential and noncontingent. Without a perfectionist account of
the human virtues, or at least something more than the rather thin account of the ends
of freedom that Hegel gives in the Philosophy of Right, it is impossible to give content
to the idea of noncontingency. Eliminating contingency is even more problematic in
considering the major decisions one makes in life, such as whom to marry and what
occupation to pursue. Those decisions are a function of contingent desires and cir-
cumstances, and so a perspective that abstracts completely from our contingent desires
will be a perspective in which we do not recognize ourselves or our most important

Patten (1999), 98.
Patten (1999), 99.
Patten (1999), 100.
60 hegel’s conscience

The peculiarity of Patten’s picture comes out in his claim that a state such as love is
what actually gets someone to act as a good husband, but that if the agent reflected on
what he was doing, he should attain “an awareness that he has a reason to act as he
does, with the desire that he has, that is independent of his given desires and inclina-
tions.”43 Though the presence of the feeling of love is necessary, the reason on which he
acts, what justifies his action, is that being a family member is essential to maintaining
subjective freedom. The motivating and justifying reason is independent from his
desires and inclinations for these specific family members. The problem here is that
within the family one’s reasons refer to these specific family members, and my love for
these individuals counts as my reason, with no need to bring in a reason above and
beyond the particular attachment. On Patten’s picture, both the reasons and the moti-
vational conditions are supposed to be justified without (for instance) reference to the
particular objects of love. But a reason for action, my reason for action, does include an
appeal to the particular objects of my attachment, and not just to my desire to main-
tain my freedom. Patten’s account thus delivers a distorted moral psychology by giving
the agent, to borrow an apt phrase from Williams, “one thought too many.”44
My second criticism is that Patten misuses the “infinite subjectivity” of self-
consciousness in aligning it with reflection that goes “all the way down.” For Hegel
self-consciousness is not a foundation that can serve as a pure positive source of
authority generating value from its sheer indeterminacy. Self-consciousness is self-
referring negativity, which includes the possibility of abstraction from all content
only as a moment. Hegel takes his decisive advance to lie in his insight that the individual
I, in the act of negation, also negates its own claim to be a discrete source of authority.
Hegel emphasizes this point in the concept of the rational will that he gives in PR
§§5–7. The individual will contains both abstract universality and particular determi-
nacy. In the continuation of a passage on Bildung that Patten cites as evidence for his
interpretation,45 Hegel writes “that particularity becomes the genuine being-for-itself of
individuality; and since it is from particularity that universality receives both the
content which fills it and its infinite self-determination, particularity is itself present in
ethical life as free subjectivity which has infinite being for-itself ” (§187). This role for
particularity, the other side of negativity from the abstract Kantian dimension, is dra-
matically downplayed in Patten’s account. This is evident in his version of RIC and the
abstract commitment to freedom that underwrites all decisive reasons-for-action.
A third criticism, closely related to the other two, is that the appeal to the purely
rational in Hegel is very hard to cash out. There is no equivalent of the formal univer-
sality that Kant has in mind when he invokes pure practical reason. The abstract uni-
versality of the will’s first moment is empty, so it cannot be the source of justification.
When Hegel explicitly cites rationality in reference to content, it is usually with regard
to an overall system of content (as in PR §145) whose purity is anything but clear. The
(in)famous Doppelsatz itself, equating rationality and actuality, should give us pause in

Patten (1999), 62.
Williams (1981a), 18.
Patten (1999), 52.
61 Motivating and Justifying Reasons

thinking that pure or ideal rationality is available as a criterion for action or motives.
With his thesis that the end of developing one’s own freedom is the basic source of
reasons, Patten comes close to acknowledging the point from Williams that ends and
purposes, or value in general, has priority to reasons or rational considerations in
Hegel’s account. But the ultimate end on Patten’s view is just pure rationality of some
kind, which again raises the problem of emptiness, so the appeal to a fundamental end
does not seem able to underwrites specific reasons.
Patten is right to claim that freedom is the most important value in Hegel’s ethics.
The main task exposed by noting the deficiencies of Patten’s account is that of uniting
Hegel’s strong claims about freedom with the particularity of a modern agent’s com-
mitments to people, projects, and institutions that she takes to be objectively valuable.
An all-purpose desire for freedom will not capture the reasons that we act upon in
most contexts of everyday life. A claim to be acting on reasons has universal force (as
Scanlon stressed in his objection to Williams), but Hegel’s theory of self-consciousness
is supposed to allow us to claim such universality within the particularity rather than
requiring that we derive particular value in an external way from the abstract self-
consciousness of freedom. This claim to universality in particularity is the core of the
conception of agency that Hegel develops in the Phenomenology under the rubric of


In this section I aim to get a grip on how Hegel’s conception of conscience addresses
RIC and how it underwrites an alternative conception of freedom, performative free-
dom, that avoids the pitfalls of Patten’s three conceptions of freedom. I will do this
through Hegel’s discussions of conscience in the Philosophy of Right and in the
Phenomenology. I start with the Philosophy of Right account because conscience is pre-
sented more straightforwardly there. I then present the initial concept of conscience in
the Phenomenology and defend it as Hegel’s own view. Reading the Phenomenology
account in light of the Philosophy of Right helps guide the effort of drawing out Hegel’s
position through the dialectically treacherous Phenomenology texts.
The defining feature of the “Morality” section of the Philosophy of Right is the rela-
tion of the particular perspective of the individual and the universal requirements of
the objectively right. Whereas in the previous section, “Abstract Right,” the perspective
of the particular individual is largely irrelevant, in “Morality” the perspective of the
individual agent is essential. Hegel writes in the introduction to “Morality” that “the
right of the subjective will” is the claim that “the will can recognize something or be
something only in so far as that thing is its own, in so far as the will is for itself in it as
subjectivity” (§107). This is the authority of the first-person standpoint. Hegel develops
this authority in the dialectical transitions of “Morality” to the point that the subjective
will can make good on its implicit universality. The individual at the outset of “Morality”
is not merely subjective, but stands in relation to the objective. This means that there is
an implicit demand that the individual’s action be justifiable to others. The “for itself ”
dimension guarantees that the perspective of motivating reasons is given priority,
62 hegel’s conscience

while the universal or “in itself ” dimension gives the individual the task of acting on
justifying reasons as well.
The basic dynamic in “Morality” is thus between the motivating reasons that I take
to be my reasons, and the justifying reasons that provide the complete objective account
of an action. The two sides do not initially meet the presumed requirement of unity
(RIC). Hegel writes that the subjective will “has not yet been posited as identical with
the concept of the will, so that the moral point of view is consequently the point of
view of relationship, ought [Sollens], or requirement” (§108). Hegel thus presents two
sets of “rights” in Morality, one identifying the motivating dimension of rational
agency and the other identifying the justifying dimension. The contrast is evident in
the “right of particularity” (§124), the right to get personal satisfaction in one’s action,
and “the right of objectivity” that holds the agent accountable for the universal stan-
dards of action (§120, §132).46 The goal of the “movement,” which culminates in the
concept of conscience, is to unify the particular motivating dimension with the
universal or justifying element. This is the highest stage of the individual agent’s formal
subjectivity, which generates and is completed in the account of Ethical Life.
The final pairing of objective and subjective rights in “Morality” is the Good and
conscience, both of which claim to satisfy RIC though both are unable to secure the con-
ditions under which RIC is satisfied in a stable manner. Hegel’s conception of the Good
is closely related to Kant’s conception of the Highest Good. Kant argued in the Critique
of Practical Reason that Reason “seeks the unconditioned totality of the object of pure
practical reason, under the name of the Highest Good.”47 The Highest Good is this
object because it is a way of conceiving of the world such that both the demands of
freedom (the universal moral law) and happiness (one’s particular inclinations and
natural needs) are satisfied.48 These demands correspond in Hegel to the demands of
universality and particularity. Hegel’s Idea of the Good is “the unity of the concept
of the will and the particular will” (§129), which I take to be the (still abstract) unity of
justifying reasons (the concept) and motivating reasons (the particular will). In the
Good priority is given to the universal conditions, to the rights of persons and the wel-
fare of all. He writes that “In so far as the Good is still at this point this abstract Idea of

See Quante (2004) for a detailed discussion of this section.
Kant.Ak. 5: 108; PP, 226–27. For an excellent and influential discussion of the Highest Good, see
Düsing (1971).
In the Critique of Practical Reason Kant postulated God and immortality to show that the Highest
Good is possible, and in later writings he claimed that the Kingdom of Ends as a moral community
could be the basis of achieving the Highest Good. Kant insists that the Highest Good is our ultimate
end, even though our finite nature allows us only to strive towards the goal. Human action always
involves an end, a purpose to be realized empirically, so maxims of action cannot refer solely to the
individual’s relation to the form of the moral law, but must refer to the world in which she is situated
(in moral terms, the connection of virtue and happiness is a synthetic one). Kant tells us that for an
individual to will the realization of the Highest Good in her own life, she must consider her actions as
conducive to the best possible world, the world in which the most moral persons would also be the
happiest. We cannot bring this about, but can only hope for it, a hope made possible through the pos-
tulates of pure practical reason. Such hope is a source of motivation for moral improvement, but
cannot replace in Kant’s eyes the moral incentive itself.
63 Motivating and Justifying Reasons

the Good, the subjective will is not yet posited as assimilated to it and in conformity
with it. It thus stands in a relationship to the good, a relationship whereby the Good
ought to be its substantial character . . .” (§131). While the Good is supposed to incorpo-
rate individuality, the incorporation is deficient in the initial impersonal idea of the
Good. Initially, the moment of “particularity is distinct from the Good and falls within
the subjective will, the good is initially determined only as universal abstract
essentiality— i.e. as duty. In view of this determination, duty should be done for the
sake of duty” (§133). In other words, the Good is a stance that prioritizes abstract uni-
versality, the stance of justifying reasons, such that the individual experiences the
requirements of duty as an obligation that is opposed to his particularity, opposed to
his motivating reasons. In the PR Hegel cites Kant’s “duty for the sake of duty” thesis to
show how the moment of motivating reasons is included here, but only in an
abstract way. The justifying considerations—abstract universality, the Kantian moral
law—determine one’s motivating reason, which can only be the idea of duty itself. RIC
is satisfied, but only through one reason always operating on both sides of the
Hegel introduces conscience in the Philosophy of Right as “particularity in
general . . . the determining and decisive factor” (§136). Conscience is the claim of
validity for the agent’s determinate motivating reasons. Conscience too endorses RIC,
but says in effect that the justifying reasons must be identical to the agent’s motivating
reasons, thus reversing the priority in RIC from the abstract Good. The challenge in
the development of the concept of conscience is to show that its motivating reasons
really are capable of serving as justifying reasons. This development moves from
“formal” conscience to “actual” or “true” conscience, a development that Hegel does
not spell out in detail in the Philosophy of Right.
To get a detailed account of what action on conscience involves for Hegel, we need
to draw on the much fuller presentation in the Phenomenology. The dialectical context
of this “shape of consciousness” makes it very tricky to interpret the claims there as
Hegel’s own positive view. It has long been a source of puzzlement and controversy
that the historical account in the Spirit chapter of the Phenomenology, a social account
of institutional norms and practices, ends with a discussion of Morality. This is puzzling
because it seems to be a return to the individualism of “Reason,” and because Morality
does not hold such an exalted position in any of Hegel’s other writings. One would
have expected Spirit to culminate with something closer to the account of modern
Ethical Life that he gives in the PR. This is not the place to rehash the controversies on
this point,49 but it is important to note that much of the confusion is generated by the
assumption that once Hegel has moved to Ethical Life, an account of individual prac-
tical reason becomes superfluous. In my view, the Phenomenology account of conscience
is an account of conscience within modern Ethical Life, so the difference between the
two accounts is less severe than it seems. The main difference is that the Phenomenology

For an excellent discussion of the literature and a defense of Hegel’s consistency, see Dudley
(2008). For an argument that the Phenomenology and PR accounts are complementary, see Moyar
64 hegel’s conscience

account of Spirit is oriented by the form of modern normativity, namely the self-
conscious individual, while the Philosophy of Right is oriented by the content, which
can be nothing less than the complete system of ethical institutions.
Conscience in the Phenomenology is a shape of Spirit, so the individual is no longer
atomistically conceived as he is in “Reason.” Conscience emerges from the ruins of
“Displacement [Die Verstellung],” which represented the failure of Kant’s Highest Good
to secure the relation between pure duty and determinate purposes. Conscience unites
these two dimensions such that one’s reasons are motivating reasons, and because
other agents share the commitment to universality, the reasons of conscience are
(at least in principle) justifying reasons as well. Because the previous development of
Spirit has rendered the normative landscape hospitable to the authority of self-
consciousness, the agent no longer stands opposed to the world or to other agents
within it.50
As we saw in 1.4, Hegel writes that conscience is for the first time moral action as
action. This is the case not only because conscience has moved beyond the oppositions
of the Kantian moral worldview, but also because conscience’s reasons are motivating
reasons that bring the agent to perform an actual action. They serve the agent’s inter-
ests or purposes, and thus count as internal reasons in Williams’s sense. Indeed, as
Hegel presents “a case of action” (¶635) for conscience, the ethical landscape itself is
structured by the agent’s standing purposes, by what the agent takes to be valuable.
This is implied in the claim that “conscience knows the case in an immediate concrete
manner, and the case is at the same time only as it is known by conscience” (342, ¶635).
The agent views the ethical world through her practical commitments. This means that
there are reason-generating features of the world just in so far as those features are
related to the agent’s standing purposes. It is characteristic of these standing purposes
that the individual has an affective attachment to them, and is disposed to act on them
(this is why Williams calls them dispositions of evaluation). Hegel stresses this affective
dimension of the agent’s purposive relation to the world when he writes that “the case
is immediately in the sensuous certainty of knowing as it is in-itself ” (342, ¶635). The
in-itself is the value of the action and the “sensuous certainty of knowing” is the dispo-
sition to evaluate the case in certain ways. Hegel writes that the content of the action
“is determined through the interest” (342, ¶635) of the agent, a use of interest that I take
to be synonymous with standing purpose and commitment, but also to include the
way that the natural motives are structured through one’s attachment to purposes.
This picture of value and reasons appears to be dangerously subjectivist. But
although the picture of normativity is oriented by the subjective, that does not mean
that the norms cannot also be objective. Just as Williams with his internal reasons
claim does still aim at good reasons for action, so too Hegel’s claims on behalf of
conscience are compatible with a world of intersubjectively shared values and reasons.
Before moving too quickly to the perspective of other agents, it is important first to

Much of the argument for this transformation of the normative landscape takes place in the
middle section of “Spirit” entitled “Self-alienated Spirit; Culture.” I discuss this process in Moyar
65 Motivating and Justifying Reasons

understand how the agent himself relates to the values and reasons he is acting upon.
Hegel puts the emphasis squarely on the two elements I stressed in chapter 1, namely
the “determinate purpose” and the first-person belief in the action’s rightness. In an
ethical action “I have a determinate purpose and fulfill a determinate duty in which
there is something else besides the pure duty” (343, ¶637). This pure duty was supposed
to be both the motivating and justifying reason for the Kantian moral worldview. With
conscience, determinate motivated action is secured through the agent’s standing pur-
poses, and the commitment to the universality of the action is secured by the first-
person avowal of the action’s rightness. Hegel refers to these two sides as content and
form, respectively, when he writes:

This immediate concrete certainty of itself is the essence; viewed according to the
opposition of consciousness, the content of the moral deed is the doer’s own
immediate individuality; and the form of that content is just this self as a pure
movement, namely as the knowing or the doer’s own conviction. (343, ¶637)

Hegel’s language of immediacy and certainty here should be interpreted (according to

the argument of 1.1) as a practical immediacy that expresses the transparency of the
question of belief to the question of the truth. The deontic force of the avowal of that
belief is what Hegel here calls “the form,” the knowing or the conviction. The content
of this knowledge or belief is “the doer’s own immediate individuality,” his standing
purposes shaping the case of action before him. Because this agent assumes that others
share his standing purposes (an assumption that will be called into question later in
the argument), there is no contradiction between the requirement of transparency and
the dependence on one’s own individuality.
Hegel’s claim here about the identity of form and content is grounded in his
distinctive conceptions of individuality and negativity. By contrast with Kantian self-
determination through the positive medium of law-like universality (that I discussed
in 1.3), the authority of conscience is a joint product of the two sides of the negativity
of the self—pure universal freedom and the identification with a determinate purpose.
Hegel formulates the point through a contrast with the moral worldview’s conception
of the Highest Good, which did not succeed in integrating happiness with pure respect
for the moral law. The moral worldview had achieved a standard for justifying reasons
in the form of pure duty, but this standard could not be motivating, the agent could
not act, without jeopardizing the essence of morality. Hegel thus writes of the resolu-
tion of the Kantian Highest Good in the idea of conscience as negativity:

The contradiction of the moral worldview resolves itself, i.e. the difference which
lies at the base of the contradiction proves to be no difference, and it flows together
[zusammenläuft] into pure negativity; but this precisely is the self, a simple self
which is just as much a pure knowing as a knowing of itself as this individual con-
sciousness. Consequently, this self constitutes the content of what was previously
the empty essence; for it is the actual, which no longer has the meaning of being
foreign to the essence, no longer with laws of its own independent nature. As the
66 hegel’s conscience

negative, it is the difference of the pure essence, a content, and one, too, which is
valid in and for itself. (344, ¶638)51

Individuality has the structure of self-referring negativity that includes both the
universal and particular as “moments.” Hegel is referring to this dynamic in the claim
that there is no difference between actual consciousness and pure consciousness. When
he writes of this “simple self ” as both “pure knowing and pure knowing of itself as this
individual consciousness,” he is referring to the two opposing and yet identical
moments of universality and particularity in the logic of the rational will (the Concept,
The deontic force we normally associate with this power of withdrawal is what
Hegel calls at the end of the passage above the “pure essence.” To say that the self “as the
negative, is the difference of the pure essence” is to say that the agent of conscience is
the active negotiation of the universal form of reason-giving and the particularity of
his own contingent empirical self. When I act on a specific purpose I take responsibility
for all aspects of my deed in that I impute it to myself and claim it for my own. I avow
the specific purpose to be my duty because I am committed to giving reasons for it,
reasons that refer to my standing purposes. The point is not that I simply am as a
matter of fact motivated to act by the presence of natural motives (that I could upon
reflection justify by pure reason alone), but rather that I take myself to have reasons
that I can defend based on the value of my standing purposes. When Hegel writes that
the actual self is understood “no longer with laws of its own independent nature,” he is
referring to the physical or psychological laws supposedly governing our (sensibly
conditioned) volition on a naturalistic view of our embodied selves as pursuing happi-
ness (a naturalistic view that Hegel thinks is assumed in Kant’s moral theory). Hegel
holds that my sensible nature, or set of natural motives, is no longer “independent”
because it is no longer taken to be opposed to the rational motivation of morality.
Because my standing purposes have shaped my desires, there need not be any pull of
desire against my judgment of what is right.
The elaborations on this point in the PR’s discussion of conscience (in the student
transcripts of Hegel’s lectures on this section) contain a comment that highlights the
duality of conscience. After Hegel refers to conscience in the body of §136 as “particu-
larity in general,” he refers to it in the notes as the moment in which the agent is “no
longer chained to the purposes of particularity” (§136Z). Although the two comments
might sound contradictory, this duality expresses the central conundrum of the first-
person point of view. This conundrum came up in Scanlon’s objection that Williams’s
focus on particularity nonetheless missed something about the first-person character
of moral deliberation. When Williams stresses that reasons have to be linked to the
agent’s motivational Set, he has in mind the determinacy of individual agents—in all
their psychological contingency—who are actually moved to act (i.e., the standpoint
of “particularity in general”). The point that Scanlon makes against Williams, however,

Especially misleading in Miller’s translation is “runs away” for “zusammenläuft,” for this implies
a flight from the world, which is precisely not what is going on at this stage.
67 Motivating and Justifying Reasons

is that this first-person point of view is also the one in which the agent acts on what she
judges to be right, and such a “reason judgment” is implicitly universal (and so not
“chained to the purposes of particularity”). Conscience both embodies particularity
and is above particularity in that it expresses the unity of the two abstract sides of the
rational will.
Hegel’s comments in the Phenomenology following the long passage cited above
drive home that his target notion here is that of motivating reasons that can also be
justifying reasons. They also show that on this initial view of conscience (which will be
modified in the subsequent “experience” phase), action on those motivating reasons
satisfies RIC because the motivating reasons are immediately identical with the
justifying reasons. Hegel confirms that he is concerned with an identity of motivating
and justifying reasons when he identifies the self with duty and with the universal.
He writes:

Further, this self is, as pure self-identical knowing, the universal plain and simple
[schlechthin Allgemeine], so that just this knowing, as its own knowing, as convic-
tion, is duty. Duty is no longer the universal that stands over against the self; on
the contrary, it is known to have no validity when thus separated. It is now the law
that exists for the sake of the self, not the self that exists for the sake of the law.
(344, ¶639)

Hegel’s statement about the reversal of the self and the law is the claim that reasons are
determined by the conditions of actual motivated action of individuals rather than by
an abstract analysis of the conditions of justification.52 The claim that duty has “no
validity when thus separated” is a criticism of the impersonal bindingness of the law in
Kantian morality. Whereas Kantian morality prioritized the justifying reasons provided
by the form of the law, conscience defines justification through the values that actual
selves take to be the sources of their reasons. In the discussion that follows the above
passage, Hegel brings this point together with recognition (including the passage I
examined in 1.1) in order to emphasize that the claim for justification is included in
conscience. But he insists that this justificatory dimension (the reasons considered “for
another” as he puts it here) and the motivating dimension are interdependent. At this
point in the dialectic the motivating dimension has a certain priority, and the full iden-
tity or equilibrium is not reached until further complexity is introduced.53
I conclude this section by returning to Patten’s three models of freedom and sketch-
ing how Hegel’s conscience provides an alternative model. Patten’s three models were

Hegel almost certainly also has Jacobi in mind here, for in the 1819-20 lectures on the Philosophy
of Right he explicitly writes of Jacobi’s opposition in the “Letter to Fichte” to the Kantian and Fichtean
universal law. “If the law and man are separated, one must say man is higher than the law. This has no
actuality without man” (VPR19/20, 113). Though always critical of Jacobi, Hegel nonetheless main-
tained a grudging respect for him and his view of immediate knowledge.
He thus writes, “But, taken separately and alone, without the content of self, duty is a being-
for-another, the transparent, which has merely the significance of a contentless essentiality in general”
(345, ¶640).
68 hegel’s conscience

natural freedom (simply acting on one’s own desires), reflective freedom (the mere
choice among given alternatives), and rational freedom (justification all the way down
by abstracting from all desires and inclinations). Patten argued that ethical action for
Hegel is achieved only with “rational freedom.” But Hegel’s conception of conscience
as practical reason does not at all resemble a process of stepping back and reflecting on
“what reason demands.” The alternative provided by conscience gives an account of
what we can call performative freedom. This freedom is constituted by a commitment
to universality within the particular conditions of action. It differs from reflective
freedom in that the particular conditions are not merely “given alternatives” from
which we must choose. On this view one does not choose from among one’s given
desires, but rather one views the normative landscape through those standing pur-
poses (commitments) that one has developed over the course of one’s life. These com-
mitments are not just given, but they are also not just determined in reflection through
reason alone. The model of performative freedom differs from rational freedom in that
the agent does not abstract from all desires and inclinations. The deliberating agent
typically does not thematize his desires and inclinations at all (and thus does not
abstract from them) because he is concerned primarily with the reasons in the world
that bear on the case.
There are of course cases in which I must resist a desire in order to act in the proper
way, and such cases are those typically associated with the “pangs” of conscience.
Hegel’s use of conscience makes conscience much more affirmative, however, in so far
as it is the term for practical reason itself in the first-person perspective. Hegel in fact
worries about the narrow version of conscience that merely holds us back from action,
for it can too easily seduce the individual to the safety of indeterminate subjectivity.
The imperative in Hegel is not to be rational through providing abstract justifications
of actions and feelings, but rather to live meaningfully by acting on standing purposes
that really are valuable. The value of the purposes is secured largely through social
processes, but that should not make us think that the individual plays only a minor role
in determining the value of his own life.


The initial argument for conscience in the Phenomenology succeeds as an argument for
the necessity of motivating reasons, but it is clearly problematic as an argument that
the conditions of motivating reasons are sufficient to provide justifying reasons. The
problem is that the action’s claim to universality rests entirely on the form (the first
person belief), while the content is a contingent function of the individual’s standing
purposes. When viewed from the outside, intersubjectively, the judgment of the agent
may or may not actually secure justified content. Hegel addresses this very deficiency
in a well-known passage from the PR discussion of conscience, where he writes:

The ambiguity associated with conscience therefore consists in the fact that
conscience is presupposed in advance to signify the identity of subjective knowledge
and volition with the true good, and is thus declared and acknowledged to be
69 Motivating and Justifying Reasons

sacrosanct, while it also claims, as the purely subjective reflection of self-consciousness

into itself, the authority which belongs only to that identity itself by virtue of its
rational content which is valid in and for itself. (§137)

The problem is that conscience claims “the authority which belongs only to that
identity,” the identity expressed in RIC, but in its immediate or formal shape that iden-
tity is just “presupposed in advance” rather than confirmed in practice. The initial
claim of conscience is a claim by an individual who presumes the subjective univer-
sality inherent in reason judgments. Hegel’s point here is simply that the terms of jus-
tification cannot be secured by the individual alone.
The limitations of formal conscience are demonstrated in the Phenomenology in
the process that Hegel calls “the experience of consciousness.” The individual claiming
a standard of justification tries to put this into practice with other individuals who
claim the same standard for themselves. In the experience of conscience Hegel does
not discredit the authority of conscience in general, but only its immediate claim to
justification. The result is an altered concept of conscience that he calls “actual
In the opening moves of the experience phase of conscience, Hegel draws our
attention to the disconnect between the conditions that make reasons motivating for
an individual and the conditions the individual must satisfy in order to back up the
claim that the reasons also justify the action. The first of the conditions is the individ-
ual’s claim that he has exhaustive knowledge of the case. The agent knows that he does
not have such exhaustive knowledge, though he has enough knowledge to motivate a
particular action through his interests. Hegel writes that the knowing “of all the cir-
cumstances” of the case exists only as a “moment, as something that is only for others,”
while “his incomplete knowing, because it is his knowing, counts for him as sufficient
complete knowing” (346, ¶642). There is a gap between the supposedly all-inclusive
knowledge of the world that I use to justify my action to others, and a self-limitation
on knowledge that enables me to fully justify the action to myself. Both sides of this
disparity will have to give ground, for the God’s eye perspective is too demanding a
criterion for justification, and the “mineness” of my limited knowledge is too relaxed a
criterion to be sufficient for justification.
The appeal to conscience can easily be misunderstood as the view that the agent is
only self-determining if she can determine the content entirely and exclusively on her
own. This mistake means that the agent of conscience loses her grip on conscience as a
function of reasons at all. Hegel thus points out that the standpoint of conscience, of
motivating reasons, can easily become the standpoint of natural motives. From the
directive to determine content “out of itself,” conscience can regress to the status of
merely natural consciousness. Hegel writes that without referring to objective reasons,
there is nothing in “the circle of the self ” to determine an action other than our drives
and inclinations, Sinnlichkeit, or most pointedly, the “arbitrary will [Willkühr] of the
individual and the contingency of his unconscious natural being” (347, ¶643). The
“naturalness” of the certainty of conscience is not as damning as it seems, since as we
have seen Hegel holds that there is always an explanation for our actions that refers to
70 hegel’s conscience

natural drives. Our “natural being” is always an explanatory ground of an action-event.

But to take natural being as a reason is a misunderstanding of the authority of
conscience. In the terms I have developed, the standpoint of conscience that rejects
accountability to reasons can only base its decision on its natural motives. It can only
take a gut feeling as its reason.
Rather than saying that conscience necessarily is stuck with the appeal to natural
motives, Hegel introduces an example of modern agency that seems designed to show
that individuals can simultaneously act on particular interests, claim that those interests
define their duties, and have their actions recognized as right. No doubt with his
reading of the Scottish political economists in mind, the central example of the “expe-
rience of conscience” section invokes the intersection of moral and economic agency:

An individual increases his property a certain way; it is duty that each provides for
the sustenance of himself and of his family, not less for the possibility to become
useful to his neighbors and to do good for those who need help. (347, ¶644)

The agent justifies his action based on his duty to himself and to his family, and based
on his potential generosity to others. Were someone to ask for reasons for his action,
he could offer his interpretation of his deed in terms of his duties. Of course the reference
to the agent’s altruism as only “possible” raises suspicions, and leaves open the question
of whether my “real motive” is self-interest rather than duty. But the point of the
example, and Hegel’s point in defending the rationality of Civil Society, is that pur-
suing one’s interest is one’s duty, and we do not normally ask people to sacrifice their
interests for the common good. Hegel does worry that this justification is unstable, or
open to challenges by other such agents, as when he writes:

Others perhaps consider this certain way of acting a swindle; they hold themselves
on the other side of the concrete case, but the individual holds firmly to this aspect
because he is conscious that the increase of property is pure duty. (347, ¶644)

The “concrete case” contains both aspects, and is thus susceptible to both one-sided
interpretations. On the agent’s interpretation he is acting dutifully, and has sufficient
reasons to justify his action as moral, while to the others the action represents “vio-
lence and injustice.” An individual’s duty to maintain his independence stands in
obvious tension with the claims of others that, for example, the free market works by
oppressing the many for the sake of the few. Yet Hegel’s claim for the complementary
character of individual and universal ends is not just a provisional fiction internal to a
shape of consciousness. Hegel makes clear in the PR analysis of Civil Society that he
thinks the typical modern subject does pursue his own particular ends, his own pur-
poses, and is ethical in doing so.
Hegel entertains another possible objection to the priority of self-interpretation.
He writes that conscience, given its constitutive claim to universality, should approve
those actions which serve the universal good. As a form of morality, conscience does
after all arise out of the idea of the Good, and the requirement of universality (for
7 1 Motivating and Justifying Reasons

example, to improve the welfare of others) seems to favor certain actions over others.
Hegel writes:

It can seem that since in the actual case the duty in general divides into an antith-
esis, and thereby into the antithesis of singular and universal, the duty whose
content is the universal itself would immediately have the nature of pure duty, and
form and content would therefore be completely in accord; so for example it might
seem that the action for the universal best would be preferable to the action for the
individual. (348, ¶645)

This objection brings conscience to an apparent crisis. It seems obvious that only
actions “for the universal best” can be ethically justified. Yet Hegel’s first comment on
the objection points rather to its naivety. Such an invocation of “the universal” presup-
poses a “substance existing in and for itself,” or “right and law” that are valid indepen-
dently of knowing, conviction, and interest. But such an appeal to norms independent
of individual interpretation is no better that the one-sided appeal to the Good that
conscience has overcome. The individual’s avowal of the norm as a reason for his
action is now a necessary condition of a norm counting as a reason. Bringing in a per-
spective that automatically overrides that self-certainty in favor of the common good
is a nonstarter. It is an attempt to reverse the priority in RIC, so that the justifying rea-
sons would constitute the motivating reasons.
Hegel shows that the decisive strength of conscience to resist external imputations
of reasons and duties based on the common good lies in conscience’s integration of
particular and universal elements. This integration is mirrored in modern political
economy’s claim that more overall good is done if each agent worries first and fore-
most about his own good. With conscience modern economic and moral perspectives
converge, as Hegel indicates in generalizing the lesson that Adam Smith drew from
mercantile practices.54 The agent’s duties cannot, and need not, be defined in terms of
direct contribution to the common good. Like the profit-seeking merchant, the agent
can do what she knows is good for herself and in doing so she indirectly helps others.
Hegel writes:

Whatever the individual does for himself, the universal also comes to good; the
more he cares for himself, the greater is not only the possibility of his being of ser-
vice to others, but his actuality is only this—to be and live in conjunction with
others; his individual pleasure has essentially the meaning of giving up one’s own

The classic statement by Smith runs, “by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce
may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led
by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for
the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the
society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done
by those who affected to trade for the publick good. It is an affectation, indeed, not very common among
merchants, and very few words need be employed in dissuading them from it.” Smith (1979), 456.
72 hegel’s conscience

for the sake of others and helping them to win their own enjoyment. In fulfilling
the duty to individuals, therefore to oneself, the duty to the universal is also ful-
filled. (348–49, ¶645)

In this passage Hegel highlights the way in which the institutions of modern life and the
appeal to conscience naturally complement each other.55 Most of our actions (assuming
we are not government employees) take place in the family or in Civil Society. In the
family we are directly concerned with those closest to us, and in Civil Society (figured
primarily in economic terms) we pursue our interests through particular actions
designed to profit ourselves and to benefit our company or association. In the context
of family and Civil Society, the motivation to act will not be problematic in the way it is
often thought to be in the “selfless” actions of morality. In appealing to conscience one
need not be concerned about the explicit universality of one’s commitments given that
the particular duties of family and Civil Society are universal in virtue of their place in
a larger social system.
Despite Hegel’s often sympathetic portrayal of conscience in its experience, one
can easily come away from the Phenomenology with the impression that conscience is
fundamentally corrupt as a form of agency. What often goes overlooked in the analysis
of the Phenomenology text is that after two main phases of experience, Hegel unambig-
uously defends a view of conscience that he calls “actual conscience.” Hegel warns us
not to think that conscience must be opposed to the universal. He writes:

But actual conscience is not this persistence in a knowing and willing that opposes
itself to the universal; on the contrary, the universal is the element of its existence,
and its language declares its action to be a recognized duty. (357, ¶662)

I take this actual conscience to be the successful embodiment of a concrete identity of moti-
vating and justifying reasons (I discuss Hegel’s treatment of recognition and language in
chapter 5). Hegel presents a final stage of the experience of conscience in order to show
how the identity relation must be transformed so that actual conscience can function.
The final experience stage of conscience shows the problems with formal subjec-
tivity in two different guises. First, Hegel criticizes the individual who acts on conscience
and who assumes that his reasons simply define the justifying reasons and thereby sat-
isfy RIC. The individual of conscience becomes hypocritical when he takes his
conscience as a mask for preferring his own particularity to the universal. Second,
Hegel also criticizes a self-righteous judge who represents the opposite claim, namely
that pure justifying reasons determine what ought to be an agent’s motivating reasons.

While this passage is perhaps most easily read as a statement of “the spirit of capitalism,” it has
echoes in Hegel’s earlier writing on human relatedness. In his First Philosophy of Spirit of 1803–04,
Hegel writes of human distinctness from other animals, “that his singularity becomes immediately
absolute universality, that which the individual does for himself, becomes immediately a deed for the
entire species” JSE I, 182. Habermas (1999) also quotes this passage as an example of the early, “good
73 Motivating and Justifying Reasons

I will return to this scene in more detail later (in 5.5), focusing here only on the issue of
motivating and justifying reasons.
Hegel shows that the judge shares in the particularity of the hypocritical agent
while claiming to be purely universal. The judge criticizes the actions of others based
on particular motives that he discovers within their actions. Hegel gives three examples
of how the judge exploits the possible self-interest or natural motives behind the action
to impugn the value of the accomplished action. First, Hegel considers an action
“accompanied by fame.” This action is taken by the judge to necessarily have as its
determining ground the motive of a “craving for fame [Ruhmsucht].” Second, Hegel
considers someone who acts according to his station, but who does not occupy that
station as an “external determination.” Instead, this individual “fulfills this universality
through himself, and thereby shows himself to be capable of a higher station.” The
judging consciousness will accuse such an agent of being motivated by ambition.
Third, Hegel considers the general cases in which an agent has “intuition of himself in
objectivity,” or the “self-feeling of himself in his definite existence and therefore enjoy-
ment.” Even in these very abstract descriptions of satisfaction, the real motive of the
action is taken to be the “drive to its own happiness,” even if this is only “the foretaste
of the hope of a future happiness” (358, ¶665).
Hegel brings his discussion of the external, judging perspective to a head with the
claim that “No man is a hero to his valet.” The hero in this phrase is the agent of “actual
conscience” who actually acts on motivating reasons. The universal judge reveals him-
self as the “moral valet” by seeking the particular motivational sources of the individ-
ual’s action. Hegel writes:

No action can escape such judgment, because duty for duty’s sake, this pure
purpose, is the nonactual; it has its actuality in the deed of the individuality, and
the action thereby has within it the side of particularity. No man is a hero to his
valet. Not because he is not a hero, but because the valet is a valet. (358, ¶665)

“Actuality” requires the moment of particularity, and the particular always involves a
standing purpose that interests the agent. The representative of universality, in his
valet-like condemnation, in fact demonstrates that he too is hypocritical. The judge
cares about getting the upper hand rather than about realizing the good.56 The judge
can only see two options: natural motives and external justifying reasons. But actual
conscience acts on motivating reasons. The point the judge cannot understand is how
these can be reasons without just being the universal external justifying reasons. Both
the hypocritical agent and the universal judging consciousness fail to see that the
simple version of RIC is deficient, for both insist on an immediate or literal identity of
the justifying and motivating reasons.

Hegel writes that the moral valet is another form of hypocrisy because “it passes off such judg-
ing, not as another manner of being wicked, but as the correct consciousness of the action, setting itself
up in this unactuality and conceit of knowing well and better [Gut- und Besserwissens] above the deeds
it discredits, wanting to know its deedless talk taken for a superior actuality” (359; ¶666).
74 hegel’s conscience


The lesson from the experiences of conscience is that RIC needs to be modified so that
the agent’s motivating reasons in acting need not be strictly identical in content with
the reasons that justify the action. On Hegel’s view complete justification depends
on the systematic whole of the institutions of Ethical Life. Hegel does not think that
agents have the systematic whole in view when they act, so we need to modify RIC such
that one can act ethically without taking into account all the reasons that justify the
action. The need for such a modification is clear from a broad class of cases in which
one’s attachments to other agents are motivating. One’s motivating reasons are gener-
ated by specific individuals (e.g., by my standing purposes of securing the well being of
these members of my family) rather than by purposes of a general type (e.g., the general
roles involved being a family member). In such cases my reasons will not give the full
justifying reasons, but we would not say that my action therefore lacks ethical value.
It is one of the central insights of Hegel’s ethics that there must be room within the
reasons identity requirement for a “nonidentity” of the content of motivating and jus-
tifying reasons. I alter Hegel’s terminology of concrete identity and call the requirement
a complex identity.

Complex Reasons Identity Condition(CRIC): In ethical action, an agent’s motivating

reasons stem from purposes that can be nested within broader purposes that provide
the justifying reasons for the action.

This condition is meant to preserve the connection between moral motivation and
rationality while acknowledging that the complete justification of an action can draw
on considerations that go beyond the first-person point of view of motivating reasons.
This condition asserts two relations between reasons and purposes (“stem from,” “pro-
vide”) and a relation (“nesting”) between two sets of purposes. The reason-purpose
relations are not terribly difficult or controversial. On the side of motivating reasons
the relation is essentially the same as the one described by Williams between internal
reasons and standing purposes (the elements of his S that I distinguished from mere
desires and drives). The standing purposes describe what individuals take to be impor-
tant, to have value. The motivating reasons for acting on a specific ethical purpose,
such as going to the store to get diapers, derive from the value one places on the
well-being of one’s child (where that well-being is one’s standing purpose or commit-
ment). On the side of justifying reasons, the broader purposes are the values that are
shared in a social setting.57 These purposes are universal in the sense that they structure
institutions that are essential to a society’s proper functioning. Our society values the
institution of the family, and the reasons that fully justify my action with regard to my
family will refer to the institution. The institution has a shared set of meanings (though
an increasingly contested set), and individuals are accountable to those meanings in

I cannot in this study argue for an interpretation of Hegel’s position on the realism/antirealism
question about ethical value. My view of Hegel in brief is that he is a “practical realist,” meaning that
values are as real as they need to be for agents to act on them.
75 Motivating and Justifying Reasons

their specific actions. But it is not the case that individuals take the institution as the
proximate source of their reasons for specific actions, which in many cases would pro-
duce “one thought too many.”
The connection between motivating and justifying reasons, the nesting relationship,
is made through purposes because purposes by their very nature have a world-related
element. This means that the nesting relationships between the standing purposes of
individuals and the universal purposes of the social order can also be articulated in
world-related terms. To say that values are closer to the world than reasons will seem
counterintuitive to many. The point is not that reasons are more subjective than values,
but rather that the existence of reasons as stable entities in the world is hard to capture
without obscurity or confusion. We can say that agents have settled reasons, and that
there are reasons that have currency in society, but both these points are better cap-
tured in saying that the reasons come from (stem from, are provided by) purposes of
individuals and communities. As in the view we saw in Williams in 2.2, Hegel holds
values to be prior to reasons. This priority is expressed in making the nesting relation-
ship hold between purposes.
Stating aims or commitments in terms of standing purposes emphasizes the world-
related character even of commitments that are highly particular and apparently
subjective. If the standing purpose is a source of reasons for action, its meaning will be
as public as the action itself. My action can therefore be nested within purposes that
other people share. My love for this little girl can be nested within the institutional
structure of purposes of the family and its roles, and my conduct toward her (my
specific purposes) can be held to those objective norms. It is also true of course that
one’s standing purpose in an action may be a broad justifying purpose. One may, for
example, take the State to be one’s standing purpose, and in that case no nesting work
will take place to unite the motivating and justifying reasons. But the interesting cases,
and indeed the vast majority of our ethical actions, do draw their motivating force
from standing commitments to particulars. These are the actions that will guide my
account because they are the ones that raise the most interesting problems in our
understanding of ethics.
To warrant retaining the word “identity” in the complex identity condition, I need
to say how the nesting relationship establishes an identity between the purposes and
thereby between the reasons. The first point is that the identity in question is not one
that exists in the absence of agency itself. My deliberately passive “can be nested” in
CRIC leaves open who exactly is going to perform this function. There must be an
agent or agents to do the nesting that secures the identity. We can distinguish a subjective
and an objective version of the nesting relationship to designate whether the agent
himself is doing the nesting work (subjective), or whether the nesting describes a
system of purposes that can be invoked by other agents and institutional authorities as
authoritative over an individual’s action (objective). Let us call these CRICSUBJECTIVE and
CRICSUBJECTIVE is a condition that requires the agent to act from standing purposes
that are not merely his purposes, or interests, but ones that can be seen as contributing
to, or following the proper pattern of, broader institutional purposes. This is a
76 hegel’s conscience

requirement (to establish and maintain the identity of the motivating reasons and jus-
tifying reasons) that involves the capacities of the rational will and conscience that
Hegel calls self-referring negativity. Since CRIC is a condition on ethical action, there
will in the full-blown ethical context actually be three purposes that the agent must hold
together. The first is the specific purpose that describes the actual particular action I
carry out in the world. The second is the standing purpose that I refer to when I am
asked for my reasons in performing the specific purpose. The third is the universal
purpose that is the purpose of the institutional context in which my action takes place.
The requirement of conscience (of CRICSUBJECTIVE) is that the agent must connect the
specific purposes to the standing purposes, and must understand those standing pur-
poses as nested within the universal purposes that support the full justification of the
action. In the nesting relationship the agent of conscience recognizes the authority of
the broader purposes and reasons over his particular action. This nesting usually
remains implicit in everyday action and becomes explicit mainly in situations of nor-
mative conflict in which one must make explicit one’s priorities.
There is the further question of whether CRICSUBJECTIVE requires that an individual be
able, in order for his action to count as ethical, to give a complete account of how his
standing purposes are nested within broader purposes and reasons. For any given action
there will be many possible purposes in which the agent’s standing purpose can be
nested, and the individual need only identify the proximate institutional purpose (e.g.,
the family), not the entire social system that for Hegel gives the complete account of the
rationality of ethical action. Hegel generally holds the view that one need not have full
insight into all of the reasons relevant for justifying one’s action for one’s action to be
rational. He thinks that such insight, culminating in philosophical cognition, is generally
a good to be valued, but one need not be a philosopher to act ethically.
CRICOBJECTIVE is both a demand on the ethical world and a requirement that the
ethical world places on agents through other agents and through institutional author-
ities. For an ethical world to be rational, according to Hegel, it must be a system of
objective purposes that are structured such that the standing purposes of individuals
can be nested within them. If a social whole is organic in Hegel’s sense, the parts of
the whole (including particular standing purposes) will contribute to the identity of
the whole, and the parts of the whole will depend for their identity on being parts
of the organized whole (fulfilling a purpose/function within it). This means that indi-
viduals are accountable to the broader purposes (can be identified with them), but also
that the standing purposes must be able to be meaningful parts of the whole. So in
Hegel’s view an individual working in modern Civil Society needs to see himself as
part of a corporation and ultimately part of a State. But modern institutions also derive
their claims on individuals from the fact that the particularity of the individuals within
them is respected.
CRICOBJECTIVE and CRICSUBJECTIVE stand in a dynamic relationship, for individuals
cannot identify their purposes as universal without the proper objective context, and
Ethical Life as an objective system depends for its fulfillment on the activity of individ-
uals fulfilling CRICSUBJECTIVE. It is also important to see that the subjective and objective
senses cannot be reduced to each other. This would be the case if we thought that the
77 Motivating and Justifying Reasons

fulfillment of CRICOBJECTIVE in a rational system of institutions leaves individuals within

that system with nothing to do to sustain the identity for themselves.
The ultimate challenge for any condition of practical reason in Hegel is to explicate
how the condition functions within the realm of “Ethical Life” as Hegel presents it in
the Philosophy of Right and the corresponding lectures. The institutions of Ethical Life
are contexts of action in which CRIC is fulfilled. I will only make a start on this task in
this section, saving other dimensions of it for later chapters (especially 5 and 6). I limit
my task here to interpreting how CRIC relates to Hegel’s comments in the introduc-
tory paragraphs to the PR “Ethical Life” section.
The motivating reasons and justifying reasons will not be strictly identical in the
great majority of actions in Ethical Life, and indeed the complexity of the identity of
the reasons is what gives Hegelian Ethical Life its distinctive character. In the opening
paragraphs of “Ethical Life” Hegel emphasizes the institutional purposes and thus
CRICOBJECTIVE, giving the impression that the subjectivity of the “Morality” section has
simply been submerged within the ethical totality. Hegel has a great deal of faith that
the institutions as a self-reproducing system can ensure that the proper nesting of
individual purposes will occur. As he says, the “rationality” of Ethical Life lies in its
character as a systematic whole (§145). Yet CRICSUBJECTIVE is also crucial for a complete
understanding of these institutions, for that subjective sense captures the meaning of
these institutional contexts for the agents themselves. Though Hegel does not require
that the individuals themselves do that nesting work in every case of action, he does
hold that they have a definite sense (that they may not be able to articulate precisely)
of the dependence of their standing purposes on universal purposes. Hegel’s com-
ments in these introductory sections tend to highlight CRICOBJECTIVE, but the main
thrust of the introduction as a whole is to stress the interdependence of the subjective
and objective senses of CRIC.
This interdependence is Hegel’s focus in the opening section of “Ethical Life,” where
he sets up the main issues of motivation and justification in a typically compressed

Ethical life is the Idea of freedom as the living Good which has its knowledge and
volition in self-consciousness, and its actuality through self-conscious action.
Similarly, it is in ethical being that self-consciousness has its motivating purpose
and a foundation which has being in and for itself. Ethical life is accordingly the
concept of freedom which has become the existing world and the nature of self-
consciousness. (§142)

Hegel refers back to the abstract concept of the Good in writing that Ethical Life is
“the living good.” It has become “living” by being united with the concept of
conscience, with the particular judgments and actions of individual agents. The living
Good is thus the requirement of CRIC itself, viewed as a general purpose describing
the whole system of institutional purposes. Ethical Life has its “actuality through
self-conscious action” because the abstract purpose of the Good (which he called the
“final purpose of the world”) can only be realized through particular actions, known
78 hegel’s conscience

and willed by particular agents. This is the point I have made repeatedly about the
abstract purpose requiring specific purposes to attain actuality. When Hegel writes
that self-consciousness depends on ethical being as “its motivating [bewegende]
purpose and foundation which has being in and for itself,” he is referring to the
nesting of the specific purpose of the individual (“self-consciousness”) within the
broader purposes of the institutions.
It is important to underscore this “motivating purpose” claim, because it highlights
the sense in which particular motivating purposes are often directly or immediately
nested within the more general purposes that define the institutional context of action.
The institution of the family, for instance, can be conceived as a structure of purposes
and justifying reasons. At the most impersonal level, those purposes are defined by the
legal claims that come with the formal relationships of husband and wife, parents and
children (e.g., parents are required by law to care for their children). At a more concrete
level, the family is a structure of the characteristic actions that constitute the roles of
the family members. The family is the ethical being as the “motivating purpose”
because it describes the structure of value that the members’ particular actions exem-
plify. When I help my daughter with her homework my immediate motivating reason
is that my daughter, this girl here whom I love (i.e., value), needs my help. But my
action could also be described as aiming at being a good father. This description would
bring my “motivating purpose” closer to the purposes of the institution of the family.
If there were no such institution, my motivation would not have the same character
(though people who have children outside traditional family structures do still love
them of course, Hegel would claim that there is something lacking in relation to the
institutionally embedded love). Though I may act nearly all the time from my
immediate particular reasons, it is important that I am conscious of my duties in the
abstract and that I am committed to fulfilling them in the face of pressures to neglect
them. Being able to connect the particulars of my actions to the overall institutional
norms is a large part of being a conscientious family member. This is what Hegel means
in describing conscience as individuality, as a relational structure of particulars (my
daughter) and universals (my role as a father as doing “what any father would do”).
Viewing Ethical Life as a system of nesting purposes enables us to see what is wrong
with the often-expressed worry that Ethical Life absolves the individual from respon-
sibility for and reasoning about what to do. This worry is sometimes focused on Hegel’s
claim that the individual “finds his liberation in duty” in Ethical Life. The uncharitable
reading of this passage is typified by Habermas, who takes Hegel to be claiming that
individuals are just too weak to live up to morality, so they need to be liberated from
moral reflection by acquiescing to institutional demands.58 But Hegel’s claim is actu-
ally a defense of motivating reasons against a view (like Patten’s) that divides moral
deliberation between natural motives and external, or abstractly justifying reasons.

Habermas writes, “Through the specification and imposition of concrete duties, institutions
relieve the burden on the will and intelligence of overtaxed individuals.” (1999), 150–51. On my view,
Hegel is not “taking pity” on moral individuals, but rather specifically demanding of them that they
hold together—in conscience—all of their commitments, especially those embedded in institutions.
79 Motivating and Justifying Reasons

Hegel writes, “On the one hand, he is liberated from his dependence on mere natural
drives, and from the burden he labours under as a particular subject in his moral
reflections on obligation and desire” (§149). The problem with the view of Kantian
morality defended by Patten is that it implies that action has worth only if it does not
involve “contingently given desires,” and this seems to require that one isolate the
specific natural motive present in every action to make sure it is not “contingently
given.” On every occasion one must worry that there is a hidden self-interest getting in
the way of my doing my duty just for duty’s sake. We are beyond this claim in Ethical
Life because we have a conception of action in which natural motives do not typically
present themselves in opposition to acting on reasons. The motivating reasons stem
from standing purposes that one has a disposition to pursue. Because the objects of
these purposes are particular (this family, this job), there is nothing mysterious about
why one is in fact motivated to act on these duties. There should also be no worry
about the contingency of one’s desires because the desires have been incorporated into
the dispositions of evaluation. If I am an agent of actual conscience, when I make judg-
ments about specific situations my desires are responsive to the judgment and thus do
not battle with my commitment to doing my duty.
The liberation of Ethical Life is also a liberation from thinking that actions are only
justifiable if they are based on abstract universal reasons. Motivating reasons are gen-
uine reasons, so there is no need to search for the basis of action in pure reason alone.
Hegel writes that the individual “is liberated from that indeterminate subjectivity
which does not attain existence [Dasein] or the objective determinacy of action, but
remains within itself and has no actuality” (§149). This is a thinly veiled reference to the
beautiful soul and judge from the Phenomenology dialectic of conscience. Ethical Life
is a liberation from the “bluff ” of external reasons, from the morally self-righteous
who judge but do not act. If our reasons have to be given in terms that refer only to
abstract universal goods (rational inquiry, happiness, self-development, etc.), many
justifications will result in casuistry, and one’s confidence in what one is doing can be
eroded by the inability to satisfy what may look like mutually contradictory demands.
If one appeals instead to reasons that refer to determinate social practices—contexts
embodying mutual recognition—then one need not refer to one’s abstract conviction
or power of judgment.
With Ethical Life Hegel has not abandoned actual conscience as practical reason,
but he does attack a debased understanding of conscience’s authority. I close by
addressing Hegel’s lone reference to conscience in these sections, the rather worrisome
claim that a certain conception of conscience has “disappeared.” He writes;

[T]he self-will of the individual, and his own conscience in its attempt to exist for
itself and in opposition to the ethical substantiality, have disappeared; for the eth-
ical character knows that the purpose which moves it is the universal which,
though itself unmoved, has developed through its determinations into actual
rationality, and it recognizes that its own dignity and the whole continued
existence of its particular purposes are based upon and actualized within this
universal. (§152)
80 hegel’s conscience

The upshot of the passage is that conscience as the site of motivating reasons misun-
derstands its authority if it fails to acknowledge the dependence of the rationality of
“its particular purposes” on broader institutional purposes. What “disappears” in
Ethical Life is the tendency to refer to one’s own belief as the exclusive source of justi-
fication. The recognition of dependence comes to consciousness as knowledge or
insight, but it is also expressed as a certain disposition [Gesinnung]. It is a disposition
to give priority to justifying reasons, or to the valid reasons of an institutional context,
when they come into conflict with one’s own particular interest. The individual is
responsible for holding together her particular motivations and her commitment to
the universal purposes of the family, Civil Society, and State. There are many dimen-
sions of successful rational action, and though the institutional context normalizes the
success conditions of such actions, those conditions can come apart in the vicissitudes
of modern life. Conscience has the burden of maintaining the whole, and of resisting
the pressure to think that mere feeling or mere abstract principles can legitimate judg-
ments and actions.
holism and detachment

To make the case for the centrality of conscience to Hegel’s ethics, I need to confront
head-on the many prominent passages in which Hegel argues against a conception of
ethics that takes the individual’s belief in the rightness of an action to be the source of
obligation. The notorious preface to the Philosophy of Right contains the most direct
attacks against basing ethics on the conviction of an individual agent. Hegel writes that
the rationality of thought and the law “is justifiably regarded as the main enemy by that
feeling which reserves the right to do as it pleases, by that conscience which identifies
right with subjective conviction” (W 7, 20; PR, 17). Hegel goes on to attack recent phi-
losophers (in particular Fries) for preaching of friendship and “life” when in fact they
are only espousing the debased views of the ancient sophists. Hegel writes of these
views: “These principles identify what is right with subjective ends and opinions, with
subjective feeling and particular [partikuläre] conviction, and they lead to the destruc-
tion of inner ethics and the upright conscience, of love and right among private per-
sons, as well as the destruction of public order and the laws of the state” (W 7, 21–22;
PR, 18). Comments such as these do much to encourage the idea that Hegel is a defender
of conscience only to the extent that conscience conforms to the positive laws of the
state. Hegel seems to deny the authority of individual conviction in any case in which
that conviction diverges from whatever is in fact accepted by the community.
As the passages just cited from the PR themselves show, however, Hegel thinks that
there are correct and incorrect interpretations of the authority of conscience. He con-
trasts “that conscience which identifies right . . .” with “the upright conscience.” Though
Hegel bemoans a certain form of subjectivism in the ethical thought of his day, he is
famously confident and optimistic about the progressive development of freedom and
rationality, and with the free individual of conscience as the principle of modernity, he
can hardly argue that an ethics oriented by the individual subject is fundamentally
misguided. Hegel’s comparison of the philosophers of conviction to the sophists in
ancient Greece should not be taken as a criticism of subjectivity in general. He in fact

82 hegel’s conscience

goes on to refer to the “deeper principle” that was penetrating Greek ethics during
Plato’s lifetime, the “free infinite personality,” which is the authority of individual
self-consciousness that Hegel clearly endorsed in the form of conscience properly
The interpretive challenge is to understand how Hegel’s commitment to objectivity
in ethics, and to the existence of ethical truths, is compatible with the weight he puts
on free infinite personality. The attack on belief as a source of duty brings this challenge
to a head, and forces us to clarify just what authority the individual does have in
conscience. My claim in this chapter is that Hegel’s attacks on subjective conviction are
not attacks on the importance of individual belief in determining duty per se, but are
rather attacks on the detachment of belief, as one of the components of ethical action,
from the normative status of the complex whole. The question of detachment will lead
us into an investigation of conditionals in normative statements. We will see that
behind Hegel’s criticism of subjectivism is a holistic view of the roles played by the
subjective and objective aspects of an ethical situation.
We can formulate the issue of detachment in terms of the analysis of reasons from
chapter 2. The individual has authority over his belief in the rightness of an action
because he must deliberate and arrive at his own judgment of the course of action best
supported by reasons. Yet his answers to questions about why those reasons are
sufficient to pursue this specific purpose must refer to features of the world, both to
existing features and to those he intends to bring about to meet his commitments (to
meet what I have called the standing purposes that define what he takes to be valuable).
Reference to features in the world and to one’s standing purposes is what puts the
motivating reasons in the proper relationship to justifying reasons, for it takes the nor-
mativity of the action out of the exclusive authority of the individual by making his
action open to challenges from others. Those challenges often come from the perspec-
tive of the broader institutional purposes in which the individual action is embedded,
bringing home the sense in which one’s duty is not solely a function of one’s belief in
the relevant reasons. The attempt to insulate oneself from such challenges by appeal to
one’s belief alone is to detach one’s belief from the complex whole. Such detachment is
the real target of Hegel’s attack on subjectivism in ethics.


Jonathan Dancy has presented a powerful attack on psychologism in ethics that shares
many points with Hegel’s attack on the ethics of conviction. The main similarity is the
rejection of the idea that an individual’s belief that she has a duty is what makes the
action her duty. As Dancy puts it in an argument against such duty-grounding beliefs,
“It seems to me, however, blatantly obvious that most of our moral duties are grounded
in features of the situation, not in our beliefs about how things are.”1 My believing an
action to be my duty, though necessary, does not make that action into my duty. This
is an important point for Hegel’s discussions of conscience because the appeal to

Dancy (2000), 52.
83 Holism and Detachment

conscience is naturally (mis)interpreted as “I did it because (in my conscience)

I believed it was right.”
When Dancy refers to “features of the situation” he has in mind elements of moral
situations such as someone being in physical danger or the fact that one has made a
promise to someone. The “features of the situation” are the context or circumstances
of action, and the duty is the purpose one carries out in response to those circum-
stances. On the reading of Hegel I am defending there is an essential role for belief in
determining ethical content (duties), but only within the complex whole of context,
belief, and purposes. Though Dancy defends a rather extreme objectivist view of moti-
vating reasons, a view that goes well beyond the objectivist element in Hegel, his anal-
ysis of “complex objective duties” can serve as a model for Hegel’s claims about “actual
conscience.” My goal in this section is to show how such complex objective duties can
both account for the important role of belief in expressing motivating reasons and
secure the relation to “features of the situation” such that the action is fully answerable
to the demands of justification.
Dancy sets up his criticism of the idea that beliefs generate duties by examining the
cases of false belief that encourage such a view. We are tempted to think of belief as
generating duty because we tend to think that people have duties based on what they
believe about a situation, even if their beliefs about the situation turn out to be wrong.
To see the temptation here, consider Dancy’s alternatives of objective duty (OD) and
subjective duty (SD) in a simple case:

(OD) Since she was alone and in trouble, he should have offered help.
(SD) Since he believed that she was alone and in trouble, he should have offered help.2

On the objective duty reading, it is the fact of her being alone and in trouble that gen-
erates the duty, whereas on the subjective duty reading it is the belief that generates the
duty. The impetus toward SD comes from cases of false belief. She may not in fact have
been alone and in trouble. If the belief was false we cannot appeal to OD to ground the
duty, and yet we tend to think that the agent who believed she was alone and in trouble
did nonetheless have a duty. This problem translates easily into a classic problem about
conscience. If one believes in one’s conscience that a certain action is right, then one
has a duty to perform that action even if, as it turns out, one was mistaken due to
unforeseeable factual error in assessing the situation. If one does not act one will in an
external sense have done nothing wrong, but one will nonetheless have “violated” one’s
conscience and thus failed to meet one’s obligations. This failure seems to make sense
only if conscience itself, the individual’s belief, generates duty.
To show that belief does not play the role of making the action right, Dancy con-
siders three other ways of explaining our intuitions about cases in which we think
belief does play an essential role. The first suggestion is that the agent’s belief is playing
a role at the “evaluative” rather than the “deontic” level. The idea of shifting the role of
belief away from grounding a duty is that the belief is relevant to my evaluation of the

Dancy (2000), 49.
84 hegel’s conscience

agent’s conduct, rather than to the status of the action as a duty. We might thus say of
the agent who acts against conscience but nevertheless does nothing objectively wrong
that the person’s conduct is blameworthy even though the person’s action did not vio-
late an actual duty (since externally speaking there was no duty).3 The second sug-
gested role for belief is that of an agent-relative “epistemic filter.” The determination of
one’s duty depends on what one knows about the situation, and that knowledge cannot
be assumed to be limitless. We do not attribute a duty to someone when he could not
have known the facts that ground the duty (Dancy mentions Anscombe’s example of
the baby left on one’s porch in the middle of the night who dies without one knowing
it was ever there).4 This lets the agent off the hook for duties that are grounded in fea-
tures of the situation that could not be part of his belief about what he was doing
(Hegel’s classic example is Oedipus, who would not by today’s standards be held
responsible for his unknowing incest). But this filter also has a normative or objective
aspect in that the agent is obligated (within limits) to be cognizant of all the facts rele-
vant to his action.5 There are certain reasonable expectations that we use to set the
terms for how we hold competent agents responsible for their actions.
Dancy’s main argument for how belief can be united with objectivism is that we
should take duties that include a reference to belief to be “complex objective duties”
rather than subjective duties.6 These duties are complex because they include at least
two components – typically a belief and a purpose. The duty is objective because it
does not arise from, is not generated by, the belief alone. In the case of the SD state-
ment above, for example, Dancy thinks that the intuition that there is a duty even if the
belief is false can be explained with reference to “the objective duty that we all have of
offering help when we suppose someone to be in trouble.”7 This is a requirement on
the combination of belief and a purpose (offering help) rather than a requirement on
action generated by the belief. Dancy’s argument for complex objective duties comes
out especially clearly in the case of hypocrisy. With the duty not to be hypocritical what
is prohibited is a combination of action and belief, namely the belief that it is wrong
for others to do X coupled with my doing X. Dancy notes that there is a misguided
tendency to read such complex objective duties as subjective duties by holding that if
one of the two components is given (if I believe something or if I have acted a certain
way), then I have a duty to avoid the other component. This leads to the mistaken view
that my holding a certain belief about what others should do generates the duty not to
act in such a way that contravenes that belief. The move makes use of a bad inference
from a prohibition on a complex to the claim that if one part of the complex is given,
the other part is prohibited. From the duty against hypocrisy one infers that if I believe
it is wrong for others to do X, then I have a duty not to do X.8

Dancy (2000), 52–53.
Dancy (2000), 57.
Dancy (2000), 56–57.
Dancy (2000), 54.
Dancy (2000), 54.
Dancy (2000), 54.
85 Holism and Detachment

The inference to the prohibition not to do X based on my belief stems from the
error of accepting the logical move of “detachment,” a move that Dancy (and, I will
show, Hegel) argues we should reject. On Dancy’s analysis, the seemingly innocuous
claim of detachment in the moral realm is to move from a duty that concerns a com-
plex of belief and action, to a duty about the action given the existence of the belief.
Rejecting detachment means rejecting, for instance, that the complex objective duty
“offering help when we suppose someone to be in trouble” licenses an inference from
“I suppose someone to be in trouble” to a duty to offer help. The point is that there is
not a separate duty to offer help that is generated by belief, but only the complex
objective duty to offer help if you believe someone is in need. Dancy calls our attention
to the analogy of this move “with the well-known modal fallacy (N(p ® q) & p) ® Nq,
where ‘N’ stands for ‘necessarily.’ ”9 Complex objective duties are akin to the statement
(N(p ® q)) of a modal operator on a conditional.
The real problem here is moving from a duty that involves a conditional statement
connecting a belief and an action-performance to a duty to perform an action because
of a certain belief (or conversely, as we shall see in Hegel’s criticism of subjectivism,
inferring that an action can be made into a duty by acquiring the right belief).
According to Dancy, the temptation to detach comes in large part from not distin-
guishing “requirements on conditionals,” namely complex objective duties, and
“conditional requirements,” namely “moral requirements on us that only hold in
certain conditions.”10 There are many cases of the latter sort, as indicated by the notion
of an epistemic filter, where we only have a duty given certain conditions (where hav-
ing a belief about the case is not typically one of those conditions). But these are cases
of the form “if P, then I have a duty to X.” These should be sharply distinguished from
cases in which “I have a duty to X if P is the case” (a complex objective duty). If we take
these cases to be the same then we will think that detachment is valid. Complex objective
duties are requirements on conditions connecting belief and action-performance,
whereas conditional requirements simply reflect the circumstance-sensitivity of duties
in general. As we shall see with Hegel, what looks like a formal logical point about con-
ditionals is in fact a pernicious source of subjectivism in ethics.
The importance of this detaching move for interpreting Hegel’s position on
conscience becomes clear when we consider the relation of moral belief to moral
action as a question of how to interpret “follow your conscience.” Acting on conscience
means acting on a belief in the rightness of a certain action. The question is how we
can avoid thinking that the authority of conscience licenses the claim, “If I believe X
is right, then I have a duty to X.” The short answer is that we should avoid thinking of
acting on conscience as a conditional requirement, and think of it instead as a require-
ment on a conditional. It is not the claim that if conscience approves a purpose (if I
believe the purpose is right), then the purpose is my duty. But rather, it is the claim
that places the modal operator of duty—the necessity of obligation—outside of the
belief-act complex. The statement of conscience that accurately reflects the complex

Dancy (2000), 72.
Dancy (2000), 76.
86 hegel’s conscience

objective duty is “I have a duty to act according to my beliefs about the rightness of
the purpose.” Stated more baldly as a requirement on a conditional, it is the duty “if I
believe P is right, do P.” Or to put the claim of conscience in the negative, “I have a
duty not to act in ways that I believe are wrong” (a duty “if I believe P is wrong, not to
P”). Echoing Hegel’s warning, Dancy remarks, “The action is not made wrong by
one’s thinking it to be wrong, even though the complex prohibition [do not think X
is wrong and do it anyway] is sound and one does think the action wrong.”11 Even if
it is true that I should act only on what I believe, the fact that I believe an action is
right is not the reason on which I act. And the fact of my belief is certainly not the
reason that makes the action right.
The positive lesson from this analysis is that the imperative to follow your
conscience, if the belief is not detached from the complex duty, is fully compatible with
an objective conception of duty. Granting a certain authority to an individual’s
conscience is compatible with there being a truth of the matter concerning what is
one’s duty. To point out this compatibility is not really to solve the problem of the
authority of conscience, however, but only to frame that authority in a way that makes
intelligible the objectivity of conscience and the temptations to subjectivism.
We can now tie this discussion into the issue of motivating and justifying reasons
from the last chapter. In his earlier work, Dancy had taken motivating reasons to have
the form of an agent’s belief, which is the view that I am ascribing to Hegel. In the more
recent work (including the main text I have been drawing from), however, he has
argued that such a conception of motivating reasons is a form of psychologism since
motivating reasons, qua beliefs, are “psychological states of the agent.”12 Such states
cannot satisfy what he calls “the normative constraint,” which requires that a moti-
vating reason “be the sort of thing that is capable of being among the reasons in favor
of so acting.”13 That is, a motivating reason must be capable of being what makes the
action right. So Dancy’s normative constraint is a version of my simple RIC that says
that both motivating and justifying reasons are a single kind of reason that refers to
features of situations. A motivating reason that has the form of a belief cannot satisfy
Dancy’s condition, he thinks, since a psychological state is not the sort of thing that can
be a justifying reason (except in outlying cases). Hegel would agree with Dancy that
merely being in a psychological state is not a justifying reason. But Hegel would also
say that Dancy goes too far when he reduces motivating reasons to states of affairs,
“features of the situation” that are simply identical with the justifying reasons. When
he makes this move Dancy dismisses the role of belief, simply claiming that it operates
at the evaluative rather than deontic level.14
My strategy, by contrast, is to capitalize on Dancy’s own notion of complex objective
duties and to claim that motivating reasons as beliefs are compatible with anti-

Dancy (2000), 59–60.
Dancy (2000), 15. The earlier work is Dancy (1993).
Dancy (2000), 103.
“The normative relevance of the belief lies primarily at the evaluative level, rather than at the
deontic level where reasons lie.” Dancy (2000), 104.
87 Holism and Detachment

psychologism. We can view every duty as a complex objective duty involving belief and
purpose. If we do this, the conditions on something being a duty can include the agent’s
belief itself without running afoul of a psychologism that takes reasons to be
psychological states.
On Hegel’s view the content of the motivating reasons refers to features of the
situation and to one’s standing purposes. The form of the motivating reasons is belief,
and as such the reasons must meet the conditions of the authority of self-consciousness
(which has direct authority over one’s beliefs). The conditions of the authority of
self-consciousness are not mysterious or private, but are in fact the very conditions
that secure the answerability to others. As I discussed with reference to Moran’s view in
1.1, the authority of self-consciousness is not a privilege or concession but a rational
requirement, a demand that I take responsibility for the truth of my beliefs, the right-
ness of my action. I do this by defending those (motivating) reasons with reference to
“features of the world” and to the standing purposes realized in the intended alteration
of these features. This does not require that one’s reasons always be the justifying rea-
sons (the mistake of simple RIC), but rather it requires that one identify with the action
as a whole in a way that makes one accountable and allows others to connect one’s
action, and one’s standing purposes, to the broader purposes that underwrite the full
set of justifying reasons.
Holism is required in CRIC, where particular actions on the side of motivating rea-
sons are seen as nested within the universal purposes and thus as united with the jus-
tifying reasons. Looking back with the detachment problem in place at the dynamics
of Hegel’s argument for “actual conscience,” we can now say that the fault of the evil
agent and self-righteous judge was to detach one set of considerations and on that basis
claim authority over the whole (the claim of actually accomplishing one’s duty).
Hegel’s aim in developing a theory of institutions and a theory of conscience is then to
sustain the holism of CRIC and prevent detachments from the whole. In his concep-
tion of Ethical Life Hegel foregrounds the relationships of mutual recognition
characteristic of CRICOBJECTIVE, while the conceptual development in “Morality” culmi-
nates in conscience, which is the main subjective capacity for satisfying CRICSUBJECTIVE.


This section and the next are devoted to showing how Spirit and conscience arise in the
Phenomenology as answers to the problem of detachment and as the bases of
CRICOBJECTIVE and CRICSUBJECTIVE, respectively. On Hegel’s account the detachment
problem is resolved, and the holism of ethical action is secured, through free human
activity. The goal of the Phenomenology is to bring all claims to truth or objectivity
under the authority of self-consciousness. The goal is reached when, as he puts it in the
introduction to the Phenomenology, knowing “no longer has to go outside of itself,
where it finds itself, and the concept corresponds to the object, and the object corre-
sponds to the concept” (57, ¶80). The concepts that interest us are the concepts of
action. The object corresponds to the concept when the accomplished action (the
object) corresponds to the intended action (the concept). Hegel gives two accounts of
88 hegel’s conscience

modern individuals who are implicated in detachment because of an underdeveloped

appeal to the authority of self-consciousness. In the first instance, which I present in
this section, the “honest consciousness” learns that his detachment problems and his
failure to accomplish his intentions are resolved by the concept of the “spiritual
essence,” the basis of satisfying CRICOBJECTIVE. In the second instance, which I present in
the next section, the displacement of the Kantian moral worldview is resolved by the
concept of conscience.
The holism of complex objective duties and the problem of detaching the compo-
nent elements are not issues for Hegel only within conscience’s belief-purpose relation.
The belief-purpose relation is the main focus in Hegel’s arguments against the ethics
of conviction, but before we get to those arguments it is important to appreciate how
the holism requirement functions within Hegel’s views on action in general. Hegel typ-
ically presents the three main moments of action as the purpose, the means to accom-
plish the purpose, and the accomplished action. As I discussed in chapter 1, there is a
rough correspondence between these three moments and the universal conditions
(purpose), the particular conditions (means), and the individuality of the rational will
and conscience (accomplished action). In a crucial stretch of the Phenomenology’s
“Reason” chapter, Hegel argues for a holism in which the accomplished action is viewed
as the particular exemplification of the universal purpose. The argument brings us to
an abstract form of Spirit, which must itself undergo development in order to be
reconstituted by the concept of conscience.
The first concept of action in “Reason C.” takes off from the positive result of the
dialectic of “Virtue and the Way of the World” that I discussed in 2.2.15 The individual
knows that there are no justifying reasons completely independent of his motiva-
tional set (here Williams’s undifferentiated notion of S is most at home).16 Hegel
gives the initial form of individuality the rather ignoble title of “The Spiritual Animal
Kingdom” because one’s merely natural motivational set is the unchosen, unculti-
vated “element” of one’s actions. The individual’s own nature is not itself a social
product, has not been “tamed,” but is an “original specific nature” (216, ¶398).
According to this concept the individual expresses his nature, and only his nature, in
the action.17 This concept aspires to a holism of the moments of action because only
by doing so can all the moments remain expressions of his raw individuality. The
moments are (1) purpose, (2) means, and (3) the “work,” the accomplished actuality
(218, ¶401). In this shape of consciousness the moments stand in an immediate unity
for the subject, a unity that disallows an “external” criterion for the validity of the
deed or for the relations of the moments. The individual’s original nature just is the

It is widely recognized that the section of the Phenomenology entitled “The Spiritual Animal
Kingdom; Deception and the Thing-that-Matters,” contains one of Hegel’s most important discussions
of action. See recent essays by Brandom (2002b) and McDowell (2009b).
The idea that an individual’s action is constituted by the reasons that motivate (and justify) it is
not an eternal truth, but something that came to hold true with the advent of modern individuality. It
is the development of this freedom that Hegel is describing in Reason C. of the Phenomenology. On this
point, see Stewart (2000).
See Pinkard (1994), 112–13 for an excellent account of Hegel’s point of departure for Reason C.
89 Holism and Detachment

“in itself,” the standard and the actuality.18 For that reason, Hegel writes, “[I]t is all
good; and it would actually be impossible to say what badness was supposed to be”
(219, ¶403). A judgment of badness would have to involve “comparative thoughts
[vergleichenden Gedanke]” (219, ¶403), but this is just what is ruled out by the con-
cept of this shape. The difficulties with the concept of the individual in the “spiritual
animal kingdom” come to light when the “work” is assessed within the context of
intersubjective justification. The immediate holism of the concept of action is unsus-
tainable in light of the openness of the accomplished deed to interpretation and
challenge by others. Other individuals take the action to be a “foreign actuality” that
they must unite with their own interests, thus giving the accomplished action an
existence divided from the individual’s expressive unity.19 What is destroyed as a
result of exposure to other individuals is the unity of action asserted in the concept
of this shape. The relations among the moments of action become entirely contingent,
and this consciousness experiences the “unsuitability [Unangemessenheit] of the
concept and reality” (221, ¶406).
Hegel proceeds by illustrating the resilience of the agent who possesses the concept
of self-expressive individuality. The agent sets the terms of its unity with the world and
can interpret this contingency as a self-produced necessity.20 The agent simply asserts
her authority to determine what really matters in an action, and thus to determine the
meaning of the accomplished deed. She can say that it is the deed as interpreted by her
that really matters, not the mere external events viewed independently of her attitudes.
Despite the palpable absurdity of these interpretations in many cases, the authority of
self-consciousness is maintained, for there is no standpoint from which to deny the
assertion that the interpretation has the force of necessity.

Hegel’s initial presentation of this holism, in which there is no possible gap between agent and
context, shows how problematic such a view is for our ordinary conception of intentional action. The
world has become a mere semblance [Schein] that has in-itself the meaning of the agent’s original
nature, of its suitability to the agent’s “particular capacities, talents, character, etc.” (217, ¶401). There is
an obvious problem with the holism of this shape, namely that its action cannot get off the ground. The
problem is that the beginning depends on knowing the not-yet-achieved end. According to the “con-
cept of this sphere,” no difference whatsoever enters in between these aspects of the act. Yet this poses a
problem for action, since the goal is supposed to be one’s original nature (capacities, talents, character),
and one only learns this authentic nature from the action itself. Hegel expresses this difficulty with the
statement that the individual “seems to find itself in a circle, in which each moment presupposes the
other” (218, ¶401). This problem resembles what Brandom (2002a), 187, identifies as the fatal flaw of
“strong holism.” He writes: “The relata are in a sense dissolved into the relations between them. And at
this point we have a chicken-and-egg problem: the relations are individuated by their relata, and the
relata by the relations they stand in. But relations between what, exactly? . . . How does the whole thing
get off the ground? . . . What is supposed to be the very structure of determinateness itself seems wholly
indeterminate and unconstrained.”
“The work is in general something transitory, which is extinguished through the interplay of
other forces and interests” (221, ¶405).
As Hegel writes, “[B]ut the unity and necessity [of the moments of action] are just as much pre-
sent” (222, ¶408), and “[t]he necessity of the deed consists in that the purpose is strictly [schlechthin]
related to actuality” (222, ¶408).
90 hegel’s conscience

Hegel thematizes the objectivity of this interpretive power in the concept of die
Sache selbst, “the thing-that-matters.”21 Hegel links the agent’s claim over the meaning
of action to the authority of self-consciousness when he writes that the thing-
that-matters is “an object born of self-consciousness as its own, without ceasing to be
a free object in the proper sense” (223, ¶410). It is a “free object” because it involves ref-
erence to states of affairs in the world, but it is “born of self-consciousness as its own”
because it is only an object by virtue of the interpretive authority of self-consciousness.
Through the thing-that-matters self-consciousness reestablishes the holism of action.
Hegel thus writes that the thing-that-matters is opposed to the moments “as they are
supposed to count in isolation, but it is essentially, as the interpenetration of actuality
and individuality the unity of the moments” (223, ¶410). In its initial appearance the
activity of interpretation is unbounded, and this claim of holism is a source of norma-
tive instability.
The main shortcoming of the thing-that-matters in its initial appearance is that it
licenses the agent to detach arbitrarily the various moments from the whole. The
problem of detachment arises because the authority of self-consciousness in its
immediate appearance is abstract and “indifferent” to the moments of action. Hegel

The thing-that-matters has, in this immediate consciousness of its substance, the

form of simple essence which, as a universal, contains within itself all its various
moments and belongs to them, but, again, is also indifferent to them as specific
moments, and is free and independent, and as this free, simple, abstract thing that
matters, counts as the essence. (224, ¶411)

This is a genuine achievement in the progress of consciousness because the agent now
knows explicitly that all objectivity (all counting “as the essence”) is a function of the
authority of self-consciousness. Hegel thus praises this “honest consciousness” for hav-
ing reached “the idealism” that the thing-that-matters expresses.
But the honest consciousness can predicate the thing-that-matters of any arbitrary
moment of action. The agent can detach one moment of the whole as the thing-that-
matters and then interpret the other moments in whatever way allows him to preserve
his claim that the whole is an expression of his activity. The strategy of detachment is
to take an operator that applies to a complex whole and infer that given one of the con-
ditions of the whole, the operator is valid for the other part(s) of the whole. From the

See Pinkard (1994), 122–24, and 380–81 n 93, for a good discussion of the Sache selbst and its com-
plications. In his forthcoming translation of the Phenomenology, Pinkard uses “the thing that matters.”
I adopt this translation here, with the addition of hyphens (“the thing-that-matters”) to avoid con-
fusing this term of art with the ordinary use of the phrase. Because of the close relation of this initial
use to contingency, and especially because of the obvious shortcomings of the “honest consciousness,”
it can seem that Hegel uses die Sache selbst ironically. But this would be a mistake, since Hegel also uses
the term in ways that are not pejorative at all. The language Hegel uses to describe die Sache selbst is
striking: “self-consciousness has come into possession of its true concept, or has attained to a con-
sciousness of its substance” (223, ¶411).
91 Holism and Detachment

duty “not to believe X is wrong and do it oneself,” one infers that “if one believes X is
wrong, then one has a duty not to X oneself.” Here, instead of the claim that my belief
makes a purpose a duty, we have the claim that the thing-that-matters, predicated of
one moment of action, makes the whole action a genuine expression of my individu-
ality (something I can claim as my own).
The detachment problem in this shape will be clearer if we introduce a schematic
representation of the thing-that-matters. Designating the moments of action as P
(purpose), M (means), and A (the actuality or work of the completed action), we can
express the concept of the thing-that-matters as ttm = (P, M, A). According to the
holistic concept of the thing-that-matters, the moments of action are an integral whole
accomplished by the individual. Stated as a requirement on a conditional, ttm is ful-
filled and the action counts as the agent’s own if the agent took the appropriate steps
(M) to accomplish the purpose (P), resulting in a new actuality (A). This whole is
unstable because the purpose, means, and actuality of action get their determinate
standing solely through the agent’s interpretation of them as expressions of his
To illustrate the detachment endemic to this shape, Hegel takes a case in which the
agent has a certain purpose but does not bring it to completion or actuality. Hegel
writes, “[Y]et it did will the purpose, i.e. it makes the purpose as purpose, the pure deed,
which does nothing, into the thing-that-matters” (224, ¶413). Instead of ttm = [P, M, A],
we have ttm = P, therefore [M, A, and thus the action as a whole] count for the agent as
an expression of her activity. This is exactly the detaching move that Dancy analyzed as
a result of confusing a requirement on a condition and a conditional requirement. The
inference is from the validity of a genuine thing-that-matters claim, where the agent
has legitimate authority to claim the action as his own because the action is a rational
whole, to the bogus claim that given that one condition of the whole obtains, the agent
can claim the other two moments of the action (and thereby the whole) as his own.
The agent thus exercises his interpretive authority over what to consider a successful
action, going so far as to consider his failure, as caused by himself, to be a positive
accomplishment. Hegel likens this agent to a boy who enjoys a box on the ears simply
because he has brought it about.
In another example the agent takes an interest in some actuality (A) brought about
without his help, and interprets his interest in that actuality as the thing-that-matters.
He then uses this as a license to make that actuality something he can claim as his own
through the other moments. So “If it is a piece of good fortune that has befallen him
personally, then he is sure that it is his own doing and his own desert” (225, ¶413). That
is, he infers from ttm = [P, M, A], the claim that the whole expresses his individuality,
to ttm = A, therefore [P, M, and thus the action as a whole] count for the agent as an
expression of himself. Absurdly, if I am interested in this actuality, then I must have
intended the purpose and taken the steps to bring it about.
This consciousness is only an “honest consciousness” if it can claim that it does not
realize that the various moments are only valid within a whole and thus that it does not
realize that its detaching claims violate the objective relationships that makes [P, M, A]
a genuine whole. But the dishonesty of the detachment cannot go unnoticed by the
92 hegel’s conscience

agent. “The truth of this honesty is to be not as honest as it seems” (225, ¶415) because
given the level of self-consciousness of this sphere, the agent cannot pretend that he is
not aware of the different moments that he is supposed to be holding together as a
unified action. The concept of this shape is just to have the moments in an immediate
unity, so it is simply dishonest or in bad faith to claim that one does not know that one
is just manipulating the relations of the moments based on whichever condition does
in fact hold.
When several such “honest” individuals are considered in their relations to each
other, detachment becomes what Hegel calls deception [Betrug]. Hegel’s discussion of
deception boils the dynamics of detachment down to the formal level of being-for-
oneself and being-for-another.22 The detaching moves have shown that this agent is
really concerned that the thing-that-matters is satisfied in relation to his own self-
consciousness (being-for-itself), which he detaches from the authority the action has
in virtue of its standing for other agents (being-for-another). Hegel then considers
how the agent would justify his detachment in a context of other agents. The action is
approached by others who are only interested in it to satisfy themselves, to exhibit their
own capacities and talents. The agent then realizes that he is deceiving both others and
himself in his detachment.
The result of this unveiling of the agent’s detaching moves is the realization that
he can be satisfied in his action only in the right sort of objective social context, and
by acting on purposes that can be nested within the purposes of the whole. In this
situation the agent realizes that his deed is “immediately for others, or is a thing
[Sache], and is only a thing as the deed of all and each, the essence which is the
essence of all essence, the spiritual essence” (227, ¶418). The thing-that-matters is no
longer a predicate, but “the universal which has being only as this action of all and
each, and an actuality in the fact that this particular consciousness knows it to be its
own individual actuality and the actuality of all” (227, ¶418). This is not so much a
solution to the problem of individual interpretive detachment as it is a condition in
which the pressures to detach are no longer there. In a harmonious ethical
community there is no pressure to maintain the authority of individuality at the
expense of the universal. This is because within such a whole CRICOBJECTIVE is satis-
fied. The spiritual essence is the deed of all and each, so that motivating reasons and
justifying reasons are the same.
Hegel’s claims here encourage the view that a certain vision of harmonious social
existence will solve all the problems of ethical theory (encouraging the false view that
all such problems are pseudo-problems). Yet after his lengthy narrative of ancient eth-
ical community and modern Enlightenment, Hegel comes back to the very same prob-
lems of detachment. In presenting conscience as the solution to detachment, Hegel
shows that the individual does have a certain authority over the whole, and does have
the ability to satisfy CRICSUBJECTIVE.

227–28, ¶418.
93 Holism and Detachment


The Spirit chapter progresses from the beautiful ethical life of the Greeks through the
alienated Spirit of early modern Europe to the moral worldview and finally to the
conscience of Hegel’s own day. In subsequent chapters we will look at this trajectory
more closely. Here I only wish to make the points (1) that “Spirit” begins with
CRICOBJECTIVE satisfied in an immediate way and (2) that the endpoint of the trajectory
is a shape of Spirit, namely conscience, whose defining feature is that CRICSUBJECTIVE is
satisfied. At the outset of Spirit, in Greek Ethical Life, each citizen has his place within
the whole. As Terry Pinkard writes, “The Greek individual understood himself in terms
of his social role; his individuality is filled out by his social role, not by any idiosyn-
cratic and contingent features of himself.”23 The whole is an organic unity of individual
and universal purposes, but the nesting relationships are immediate in the sense that
they are not determined by rational principles and they are not responsive to the
authority of individual self-consciousness. The laws governing the nesting relation-
ships simply are, and for a time the Greek city-states were happy in that immediate
order. Yet, as Hegel writes of the ensuing process in the introductory paragraphs of
“Spirit”: “It must advance to the consciousness of what it immediately is, must sublate
the beauty of Ethical Life, and by passing through a series of shapes attain to a
knowledge of itself ” (324, ¶441). The process is one in which the social bonds (i.e., the
nesting relationships) between individuals and the whole become intelligible for the
individuals themselves. In “Self-Alienated Spirit” the immediate social bonds are
broken and the individual has to develop his own resources for relating to the whole.24
In the account of morality that culminates in conscience the individual’s relationship
to the objective purposes of the ethical world is restored, but on the new basis of the
subjective freedom of the individual will. Conscience is such an important shape of
consciousness because in it the individual has claimed authority over the nesting rela-
tionships and has thereby secured CRICSUBJECTIVE. My aim in this section is to explicate
Hegel’s claim that conscience has this authority as a holistic model of practical
Hegel makes explicit the contrast of conscience with the individual of “Reason” and
the detachment of “honest consciousness” in the crucial paragraph that concludes the
initial “concept” phase of conscience.25 This paragraph reformulates the moments of
action as developed within the “Spirit” chapter and identifies conscience as the agency
that can bind them together as a whole under the authority of self-consciousness. I give
the entire paragraph:

Pinkard (1994), 138.
See Moyar (2008a) for a detailed account of alienation in the Phenomenology.
If one were to rank the paragraphs of the Phenomenology based on the ratio of their importance
to the amount of attention paid to them in the secondary literature, the ratio for ¶641 would be the very
highest. Of all the recapitulatory passages in the text, this one has received the least critical attention,
despite the fact that Hegel repeats its claims and refers back to this paragraph in the opening phase of
“Absolute Knowing” (424–25, ¶793).
94 hegel’s conscience

If we look back on the sphere where spiritual reality first made its appearance, we
find that the concept involved was that the utterance of individuality is that which
is both in and for itself. But the shape which immediately expressed this concept
was the honest consciousness which busied itself with the abstract thing-that-
matters. This thing-that-matters was there a predicate; but it is in conscience that
it is for the first time subject which has posited all the moments of consciousness
within itself, and for which all these moments, substantiality in general, external
existence, and the essence of thought, are contained in this certainty of itself. The
thing-that-matters has substantiality in general in the ethical sphere, external
existence in culture, the self-knowing essentiality of thought in morality; and
in conscience it is the subject that knows these moments within itself. While
the “honest consciousness” always seizes merely the empty thing-that-matters,
conscience, on the other hand, wins the thing-that-matters in its fullness, a full-
ness given to it by conscience itself. Conscience is this power because it knows the
moments of consciousness as moments, ruling them as their negative essence.
(345, ¶641)

The three moments named in ¶641 refer both to the three main moments of action and
to the three main stages of the Spirit chapter. The moment of “substance” is the social
dimension of conscience, the moment of recognition that qualifies it as the basis in
practical reason for the institutional contexts of Ethical Life. This moment of recogni-
tion is also, in terms of the moments of action given in “Reason,” the moment of the
accomplished action or the “actuality” of the action (this is the claim from ¶640 that
I discussed in 1.1).26 The second moment, the “external definite existence” of Culture, is
the specific, well-defined purpose of the action.27 This is the aspect of external definite
existence because it is the specific means in the objective world for realizing one’s own
standing purposes and projects. The third and final moment is the “self-knowing
essentiality of thought,” which was first introduced in the (Kantian) world of morality.
This moment corresponds to the moment of the abstract purpose, or the first of the
three moments of action as they appear in the typical practical syllogism. Given that
Kant is usually thought of as valorizing principles over purposes, this alignment might

Lest this seem like a confusion of Hegel’s logical categories, it is worth noting that in the 1813
“Logic of the Essence” the category of “substantiality” falls within the part that bears the title “Actuality.”
As I indicate below, however, there is a sense in which the initial concept of conscience has only what
Hegel calls “formal actuality,” which is inadequate to capture substantiality, thus requiring a further
development within conscience.
It is largely owing to the moment of definite existence [Dasein] that conscience is the “fulfilled”
thing that matters. Hegel indicated an important dimension of this fulfillment when, in ¶357, he wrote
of morality arising from within substance such that the individual’s purposes would not need to be
aufgehoben. In the earlier version of the thing that matters, morality (as law-giving and law-testing) was
reached only through the elimination of the individual’s purposes, or interests, from the equation of
rationality. The transition to Absolute Freedom also contained a movement to eliminate individual
purposes in the name of freedom. In that case there was no determinate context left for action, no
world, because of the immediate relation of individuality and universality.
95 Holism and Detachment

seem odd. But Hegel in fact treats principles as abstract purposes, as universal require-
ments that are only “concrete universals” in that particular means are available to bring
the requirements to actuality. This is the moment of “the self-knowing essentiality of
thought” because it involves a commitment to giving justifying reasons for one’s
specific and standing purposes.
The contrast between the thing-that-matters as predicate and as subject is a con-
trast between two ways to view the authority of self-consciousness qua interpretation.
We saw in the last section that the thing-that-matters stands for the moments of
action conceived as a whole under the interpretive authority of the individual. This
strong interpretive authority came into being in order to block the dismantling,
through the interests of other agents, of the agent’s claim over the meaning of the
“work” (the actuality). Initially the thing-that-matters enabled the agent to convert
contingency into necessity by reinterpreting the moments of the whole. The problem
of the honest consciousness was that the agent’s authority was free from the whole and
from the moments, so that the agent could arbitrarily attach the thing-that-matters to
one moment and claim that the action as a whole is his own just because he has a rela-
tion to that one moment (e.g., the purpose or an “interesting” actuality). When Hegel
uses the term subject in ¶641 to contrast conscience to the honest consciousness, he is
not referring to a “passive subject” that simply bears accidents and predicates, but
rather he is invoking his own conception of the subject as “the self-moving concept
that takes back into itself its determinations” (42, ¶60). The concept is “self-moving”
because it can specify the particulars of its universality, and it “takes back into itself ”
those particulars as the individuality that identifies with the particular as the specifi-
cations of the universal.
This claim gets to the heart of Hegel’s performative view of practical reason
and freedom, according to which one is free within the determinate content of
one’s commitments, not just because one can always abstract oneself from deter-
minate content (such abstraction is only a “moment”). The authority of self-
consciousness in conscience is not “indifferent” to the “determinate actuality” of
the individual case. The individual of conscience treats the action as a whole, and
does not break down the action into various moments that could be played off
against each other (as in the “displacement” of the moral worldview). No single
moment of action can serve as a crutch for the others, but all must be satisfied at
once. The agent of conscience acts knowing that they are all satisfied at once. She
is certain that they are all satisfied, and she is committed to defending the action as
such a whole.
Unlike with the honest consciousness, here the authority of self-consciousness is
not detached from the reasons that the agent gives, reasons that refer to the objective
features of the world in the circumstances of the action. The progress of Spirit has alle-
viated the pressure to detach because in the process of the history of Spirit every resis-
tance to the activity of self-consciousness (every independent “in-itself ”) has been
made explicit for the subject and has been “taken back” into the authority of self-
consciousness. This means that the pressure to separate self-consciousness qua form
96 hegel’s conscience

(i.e., as pure duty) from the content of the action (i.e., as this specific purpose) has
dramatically decreased.28
The activity of self-consciousness in conscience may seem much too thin to con-
tain in a satisfying manner all the moments referred to above. But the belief (convic-
tion) and certainty of conscience will only seem thin if one reads them, as many
commentators on this section in the Phenomenology do, in ordinary colloquial terms
as episodic subjective psychological states. We should instead read them as technical
terms that Hegel is using to describe the authority of self-consciousness. Like many
contemporary philosophers, Hegel understands belief as truth-directed, so all first-
person believings are instances of believing-to-be-true.29 Claims about belief are there-
fore normatively significant and world-related. One answers questions of the form
“Why do you believe X is the right action in this situation?” not by doing a self-diagnosis
of one’s mental states (to answer, perhaps, “because I have a feeling in my gut”), but
rather by referring to features of the situation and providing reasons for thinking that
those features count in favor of a particular action.30 Certainty is achieved when one is
willing to avow an action as the action that one believes to be right. The appeal to cer-
tainty is not an appeal to mere feeling, but rather a commitment to the truth of one’s
belief in the rightness of the action. It is a declaration that the agent is willing to take
responsibility for the action as having a content that is justifiable with reasons. This
certainty “contains” the three moments of action in that it is a sufficient knowledge of
the case of action.
Hegel claims that conscience is knowledge, and that conscience’s believing is a
believing to be true, because he thinks conscience is constituted by the demand to know
everything that is relevant to judging the case. His claim for the holism of conscience is
the claim that the agent’s full relation to the circumstances of action already contains all
three moments of action. This draws on an intuitive point about what it means to gen-
uinely understand an ethical situation. If one fully understands an ethical situation one
will know what to do in that situation. The purpose called for, the means to achieve that
purpose, and the resulting actuality are all contained within the complete knowledge of
the context. Of course such knowledge will require a complex set of subjective capacities
and standing purposes, and there can be challenges to what constitutes the “complete”
description of the context, but this idea of action-directed knowledge renders more
plausible conscience’s claim to objectivity, to full normative authority.

In the Phenomenology preface Hegel writes of the subject properly conceived as becoming iden-
tical with the content: “The solid ground which argumentation has in the passive subject is therefore
shaken, and only this movement itself becomes the object. The subject that fulfills its content ceases to
go beyond it, and cannot have any further predicates or accidental properties. Conversely, the disper-
sion of the content is thereby bound together under the self; the content is not the universal which, free
from the subject, could belong to several others. Thus the content is, in fact, no longer a predicate of
the subject, but is the substance, the essence and the concept of what is under discussion” (43, ¶60).
This point is often made in connection with reflections on Moore’s Paradox. It is the moral of
Wittgenstein’s famous claim that if there were a verb “to believe falsely” it would not have a first-person
singular present tense.
This is what Moran refers to as “transparency,” which I discussed in 1.1.
97 Holism and Detachment

An agent lives up to the demands of conscience if he does not detach any of the
moments of action from the whole. If the agent says that the action is duty just because
others will accept that it is duty, he would be detaching the moment of recognition or
actuality. The agent would be guilty of detaching the moment of thought if he claimed
the action was a duty solely because it satisfies a universal principle. Finally, the agent
would detach the moment of definite existence or the means if he thought the action
was duty solely because it served his particular purpose.
The interpretive claim I am defending is that Hegel’s conception of conscience is a
conception of what Dancy called “complex objective duty.” There is a natural suspicion
(that Hegel himself encourages with some of his attacks on the ethics of conviction)
that conscience always involves the claim that duty is grounded in the mere fact of
subjective certainty. This would be a claim of “subjective duties” rather than a holistic
conception of “complex objective duties.” I am claiming that Hegel takes the idea of
subjective duties to be a misguided instance of detachment from the real complex
demand of conscience. Hegel’s conception of practical reason as actual conscience
involves maintaining a grip on all dimensions of the complex whole and resisting the
move to detach one element.31 Hegel is alluding to the tendency to misunderstand
conscience as solely a matter of belief in the 1819–20 lectures on the philosophy of right
when he says: “If someone appeals solely to his conscience and the action contains
objective determinations, then he has not acted merely according to his conscience”
(VPR19/20, 113). So in the case of catching a student plagiarizing, we can imagine the
professor who says, after long deliberation and with great seriousness, “My conscience
tells me I have to turn the student in,” and proceeds to notify the relevant deans, draw
up the formal report, etc. If he is a misguided detacher, this professor will think that his
earnest belief is what makes the action obligatory. He claims to act solely on his belief,
but no one would interpret his action as justified solely because of the strength of his
conviction. Seeing the purpose actually carried out, we would rather interpret him as
acting on his belief that his action is right (a belief containing the content of his moti-
vating reasons), but as justified through the facts of the case and the norms of the
institution. For others, an action is assessed primarily in terms of the agent’s standing
purposes and in terms of the justifying reasons that form the context of the action, the
“objective determinations.” If such determinations are present it will seem strange to
say that I acted solely on my conscience. We can also see from this example why Hegel
is suspicious of the appeal to conscience on the grounds that it often serves as a way to
claim special credit for simply doing the right thing.
The plagiarism example helps bring out the sense in which the “features of the
world” that generate duties are quite often highly mediated by various institutional
contexts. Given the frequent contestations over the meaning of such contexts (what
constitutes a true family? what ethical rules are applicable to the free market? what is a
just war?), it is obvious that these features are eminently interpretable and dynamic.
One can therefore agree with Dancy’s claim that features of the world, rather than

Westphal (2003), 47–48, has such a holism in mind when he writes of Hegel as advocating
“mature judgment.”
98 hegel’s conscience

beliefs, are what generate the vast majority of duties, and yet resist Dancy’s view that
the individual’s belief has only a negligible deontic role. Dancy can plausibly assert that
features of the world are obligating and motivating in simple cases such as physical
need, but in cases of any complexity issues of the self ’s authority, and the nature of his
belief, inevitably arise. Hegel challenges us to resist the temptation to reduce moti-
vating to justifying reasons, which means resisting the temptation to reduce the
authority of conscience to the authority of the universal conditions of action. Hegel
was more worried about rampant subjectivism, as the arbitrariness of detached belief,
than about rampant objectivism, which would mean acting on purposes and reasons
simply because they meet the expectations of other agents. This preponderance of
worry led Hegel to level his most forceful polemical attacks against the ethics of con-
viction, but we should not infer from those attacks that he impugns the proper
authority of individual self-consciousness.
There is however a legitimate worry about conscience that comes out in the claim
in ¶641 that conscience rules the moments as their “negative essence.” The “negative
essence” is Hegel’s terminology in the Phenomenology for what he later came to call
“self-referring negativity.” It is the authority of self-consciousness to identify with the
accomplished action as both universal and particular. I take the claim of ruling the
moments to mean two things: first, that the agent of conscience knows the limitations
of each concept (knows it as valid only as a moment of the whole), and second that the
action of conscience expresses the distinctive claim of each moment by subordinating
that moment to the authority of self-consciousness over the whole. The worry is that
Hegel’s claim for conscience here works decidedly better for the moments of thought
and definite existence than it does for the moment of substance. Taking the moment of
thought first, conscience knows the limitation of abstract universality in that it knows
the claim of pure duty to be implicated in “displacement” when it tries to capture the
value of determinate action. Conscience knows the Kantian law as a moment—“it is
now the law that exists for the sake of the self ” (344, ¶639). Because conscience is the
authority of self-consciousness, and includes a commitment to reason-giving, it can
also claim to more adequately express the moral worldview’s distinctive claim (rational
Conscience expresses the moment of definite existence because in conscience the
agent does not need to abstract from her particularity in ethical deliberation, does not
need to move to an artificial or hypothetical standpoint of universality. The agent of
conscience knows this particularity as a moment because she knows that there must be
a world of universal value for one’s particular valuings to be meaningful. The agent has
learned from the fate of the Enlightenment conception of utility and the resulting
French Revolution that action in a world defined solely through utility is self-defeating.
The agent of conscience thus does not refer to her interests as brute facts, but rather
appeals to her standing purposes in the world as bearers of value that depend on
broader institutional purposes (and thereby more adequately expresses the claim of
definite existence).
With the moment of substantiality the ruling as negative essence claim is highly
problematic. Substantiality is the social or communal dimension in which actions are
99 Holism and Detachment

“actual” because they are affirmed by other self-conscious agents. We have already seen
(in 1.1) the outlines of Hegel’s argument that conscience is a form of recognition.
Because of its answerability to others, conscience as a view of practical reason is at least
compatible with recognition. There is an important way in which the particularity of
the individual’s appeal to conscience gels with recognition, for one gains recognition
both for one’s distinctive individuality and for the universality of one’s actions.32 The
very idea of a “struggle for recognition” is that my sense of who I am is forged through
contrasts with others. I am recognized as an agent of conscience whom others take to
have the “negative” authority of only acting on what I believe is right. But to say that
conscience rules the moment of substantiality as its negative essence implies that an
individual acting on conscience has complete authority over what counts as substantial.
The problems with that claim to authority come out in the “experience” phase of
conscience, in which the holistic claim of conscience comes into conflict with the
demands of other agents of conscience for justification.
This deficiency is why, several paragraphs into the “experience” phase of conscience,
Hegel raises a similar objection of detachment to the holism of conscience as he did to
the “honest consciousness.” The objection is that the claim of holism can just serve as
a mask for arbitrarily choosing which aspects of action one wants to consider one’s
duty. In other words, the objection is that conscience can detach one of the moments
of action and interpret the others as needed to claim an action as a whole. In his
example Hegel considers the agent who is cowardly out of the duties of self-preservation
and being useful to his fellow beings. To count as conscience one must have the belief
that the action (say, avoiding military service) is one’s duty. Hegel writes that the
subject cannot be so inept as not to satisfy this condition, or else it would commit the
“ineptitude” of being immoral (348, ¶644).33 The suggestion is that one need only
acquire a certain skill at self-persuasion (less charitably, self-deception) in order to
convert self-interest into pure duty. After the agent identifies a purpose that he wants
to act upon, it seems that all the agent needs to do to make the action moral, to make
his reasons support calling the action his duty, is to get his belief in line with his purpose
and its reasons. But this matching of one’s belief to one’s merely desired purpose is an
egregious instance of detachment. It is guilty of licensing an inference from a valid
claim about the whole (the duty to act on a purpose that I believe to be best supported
by reasons) to the claim that given an action, I can make it a duty just by bringing
myself to have a conviction of its rightness. There is thus more conceptual work for
recognition to do in Hegel’s argument before conscience and recognition are fully
integrated (I pick up the progress of the Phenomenology on this point in chapter 5).
The basic point is that in its possession of CRICSUBJECTIVE conscience takes its subjective

See Moyar (2007a).
The full sentence reads, “But cowardice cannot be so inept as not to know that the preservation
of life and the possibility of being useful to others are duties—so inept as not to be convinced of the
moral obligatoriness of its action, and not to know that this obligatoriness consists in knowing it to be
such; otherwise it would be guilty of ineptitude, of being immoral” (347–38, ¶644).
100 hegel’s conscience

authority as sufficient on its own, and must come to understand that its authority in
CRICSUBJECTIVE is dependent on the authority of other agents and institutional powers


Hegel’s most sustained criticism of the “ethics of conviction” comes in §140 of the
Philosophy of Right, in which he catalogues various extreme versions of subjectivism in
ethics. My goal in this section is to analyze these criticisms in order to show that they
are aimed at debased forms of subjectivism rather than at the properly holistic appeals
to conscience. The criticism of the ethics of conviction is framed by a brief treatment
of the close relationship between formal conscience and evil, a treatment that can
easily give the impression that the authority of conscience is far too liable to abuse to
be worth preserving in ethics. But rather than being an indictment of conscience’s
authority, the discussion of evil actually highlights the burden on the individual to
maintain the commitment to ethical objectivity.
The claim in Hegel that has most often been read as an indictment of conscience
itself is that from the standpoint of formal conscience “the will’s inwardness is only a
relative and formal being-for-itself which can derive its content only from the determi-
nations of the natural will, from desire, drive, inclination, etc.” (§139). In the terms that
I have been using, this means that an appeal to conscience that refuses to refer to any
reasons, and that tries to justify its claim solely on the basis of its inwardness, has an
authority that is no better than the authority of natural motives. This makes sense of
the intuition that without further explanation the statements “Because my conscience
says so” and “Because I want to” are on the same level, normatively speaking. Hegel’s
claim in no way implies, however, that any appeal to conscience must be an appeal to a
natural motive.
The discussion of evil is meant to demonstrate the need to overcome the opposi-
tion of universality and particularity in the objective contexts of Ethical Life. This
overcoming does not, however, eliminate all possibility of such an opposition. Hegel
thus writes;

It is not that the point of view of division referred to above ought never to appear
at all—on the contrary, it is this which constitutes the distinction between the
unreasoning animal and the human being. But the will must not stop short at this
point and cling on to particularity instead of the universal as the essential; the
point of view of division should be overcome as null and void. (§139)

Without the possibility of an opposition between the merely natural and the “univer-
sality as inner objectivity,” it would be as if we acted on mere instinct. This would be a
picture according to which there is no possible gap between actions we perform by
nature and actions that are universally justified. We saw such a picture at the level of
the individual in the “Spirit Animal Kingdom,” a title with new resonance in light of
the passage above. Our capacity for evil and our capacity for freedom go hand in hand,
101 Holism and Detachment

for both result from the authority of self-consciousness.34 As Hegel puts it, “[B]oth
morality and evil have their common root in that self-certainty which has being for
itself and knows and resolves for itself ” (§139).35 Because of this common root, there is
always the danger of subjectivism within modern ethics, and it is always a challenge for
the individual to live up to the demands of ethical objectivity. This challenge of
conscience does not go away within the institutions of Ethical Life, even though those
institutions set a standard for “normal” action in which the claims of the particular
and universal are integrated in objective contexts.
While Hegel’s consideration of evil treated moral subjectivity as refusing to refer to
objective reasons, the extended criticism of formal subjectivity in §140 addresses the
ways in which the subject misuses the appeal to reasons by detaching moments of the
action from the whole. As in Dancy’s discussion of complex objective duties, Hegel
takes the example of hypocrisy as central because it involves the possible separation of
belief and action. The main text of §140 addresses the ability of the subject to make
unethical action seem good to others and to himself by giving reasons that he has
detached from the whole. The issues of hypocrisy and detachment arise because any
“concrete actual action,” including unethical action, has a “positive side,” something in
the “purpose” that self-consciousness can regard “as a duty and admirable intention”
(§140). The positive side refers to the moment of universality in every actual action
(this can be an empty universality, as Hegel indicates in referring back to his discussion
in §135 of the emptiness of the Categorical Imperative). The negative side of the action

Hegel’s point in the above passage is somewhat misleading, in so far as he suggests that he is
merely talking about humanity vs. animality. For the point is about modern freedom, not just about the
human ability to oppose our instincts. This comes out in the handwritten notes, where we find, “The
ancients did not have, did not know the question of the origin of evil; not this abstraction of the good
and evil (as knowledge of the good and evil)—admittedly evil, crime—but in its concrete shape of
persons and actions—not thus in opposition, as we are used to—thus also not the depth of spirit—
depth, spirit within itself ” (§139HW, W 7, 262). These claims should be read together with Hegel’s better
known claims that the ancients did not have conscience in our sense of the term.
My claim about conscience as negativity finds an important corollary here. Hegel explains that
his method is in a much better position to explain the traditional question of the “origin of evil” in the
world, for there is no merely positive authority or goodness assumed up front. After summarizing the
problem at the heart of “religious myth” as to how evil enters the world, he gives his answer: “The solu-
tion, from the point of view of the concept, is contained in the concept itself, for the concept— or in
more concrete terms, the Idea—has the essential characteristic of differentiating itself and positing
itself negatively. If we merely stick to the positive, i.e. to the purely good which is supposedly good in
its origin, we have an empty determination of the understanding which clings to such one-sided
abstractions and, by the mere act of asking the question, makes it into a difficult one. But from the
point of view of the concept, positivity is apprehended as activity and self-differentiation. Thus, evil as
well as good has its origin in the will, and the will in its concept is both good and evil” (§139Z). The
complaint that the understanding, “by the mere act of asking the question,” makes it into a difficult one,
is very much the complaint that Hegel expresses in the pivotal ¶162 of the Phenomenology, in which
Hegel described his concept of infinity, and writes of those who ask how difference can come from
unity “as if asking such a question were philosophy.” This is the point against Fichte that there is no
original, pure, unmediated I = I. Just as there is no original pure self-consciousness, there is no original
pure goodness from which determinacy, i.e., negativity, could be a falling away.
102 hegel’s conscience

is what gives the action determinacy against the other possible actions that one could
perform. The problems of subjectivism arise because of the different ways in which the
two moments can be manipulated once they are pried apart, “compared to each other,”
and each called “good,” with the arbitrariness of the comparison hidden, masked, or
treated as mere ironic play. In the terms I have been using, the “positive” moment is the
abstract expression of the justifying reason for the action, and what Hegel calls the
“negative essential content” is the subject’s particular stake in the action. In “actual
conscience” these moments are not opposed. But when an action is broken up into
these two sides, and the only thing maintaining their unity is the isolated individual,
problems of arbitrariness in interpretation arise, and they do so in a way that is much
harder to identify and to block than with the problems we saw with the “honest con-
sciousness.” Hegel gives five main forms of this detachment.

1. Hegel begins his survey of degenerate subjectivity with what he calls “bad conscience.”
In this kind of action I know what is right (the universal); I will to act instead on
merely particular grounds; and I am in a position to compare the knowledge of the
universal and particular. This moment of explicit comparison is necessary to count as
acting with a “bad conscience,” for without such a comparison one could know the
right and yet will something else without realizing that one is willing something that is
contrary to the right. The “comparative knowing” makes explicit for the agent himself
that the particularity he is willing is contrary to the universal.36 At first glance Hegel
seems to be endorsing a simple privilege of the objective determination over the
subjective knowing, and thus a one-sided appeal to objective justifying reasons. But
Hegel’s conclusion is actually a claim about the need to integrate the aspects of first-
person knowledge and objectivity:

The subjective right of self-consciousness to know an action in its determination as

either good or evil in and for itself must not be thought of as colliding with the
absolute right of the objectivity of this determination in such a way that the two are
represented as separably [trennbar] indifferent and contingent towards one another.

Hegel is not simply asserting the “absolute right” of objectivity over the subjective right of
self-consciousness. The main point of this passage is that the two rights are interdepen-
dent within successful action. A collision between them is possible, but we do not begin
deliberation on the assumption that these requirements will pull us in different directions,
as we might if they were really “separably indifferent and contingent towards one another.”
This characterization is a warning against detaching the two rights, which are unified
within actual conscience. The right of objectivity is internal to conscience, which means
that a claim of conscience must be subject to demands for justification. But we should also

Hegel holds that one’s action can still be evil even if one does not do it with a bad conscience. It
is not necessary that one be aware of the wrongness of one’s action for the action to be considered
103 Holism and Detachment

not detach that justifying dimension as the sole source of authority and assume that the
agent’s belief becomes superfluous given the existence of such an objective element.

2. Hegel notes that there is a further step from bad conscience to hypocrisy proper. In
hypocrisy one is untruthful to others about one’s action, presenting to others reasons
why the action is good when one knows that it is in fact evil (though just what this “in
fact” amounts to here is admittedly quite hard to discern). But Hegel makes clear that
the problem with hypocrisy is symptomatic of a larger problem concerning the abuse
of the authority of self-consciousness.37 Hegel shifts immediately away from talking
about one’s relation to others to talking about one’s relation to oneself, the possibility
that one deludes oneself into thinking that one’s action is good by manipulating the
multiple reasons relevant to any concrete case of action. For the sake of simplicity
I have assumed in much of my discussion of motivating and justifying reasons that a
single reason motivates and/or justifies an action. But obviously in most situations
there will be many reasons that come into play in ethical deliberation, and the problem
of ethical judgment will be how to determine what is right when one takes all the rele-
vant factors into account. This kind of judgmental holism opens up the possibility of
detaching one of the reasons from the whole. For instance, one interprets a bad action
as good because there is one good reason in favor of it. Hegel writes that “the evil
person may find in the good he does at other times, or in his piety, or in good reasons
of any kind, a means of justifying for himself the evil he does, in that he can use these
reasons to distort it into something he considers good” (§140). The detachment that
Hegel is describing here is not a denial of holism, but rather an abuse of it.
Conscience does not simply involve a claim about which action is best supported
by reasons; it includes a claim about which reasons are relevant to the action. From the
formal standpoint of Morality, there is nothing to set the conditions of relevance, since
there is no well-defined institutional context. Since judgment about a specific action is
holistic, nothing can be ruled out of consideration, and an indefinite number of rea-
sons can be made relevant to one’s judgment about the action. The underlying criti-
cism in the above passage is that one can detach one reason, any reason, and use the
relevance (implied by holism) of that reason to one’s action in order to validate the
action regardless of what other reasons or natural motives are in play (I discuss this
deliberative aspect of Hegel’s holism in chapter 4).

Hegel comments sardonically in the handwritten notes on this shift from the problem of hypoc-
risy to the problem of one’s self-relation: “Thus nowadays [there is] no hypocrisy, because the in-itself
evil is known as good, is determined as good through reflection” (§140HW, W 7, 282). He makes the
same point later in the main text when he writes, “for to describe evil as hypocrisy implies that certain
actions are in and for themselves misdemeanours, vices, and crimes, and that the perpetrator necessarily
knows them as such in so far as he knows and acknowledges the principles and outward acts of piety
and integrity [Rechtlichkeit] even within the pretence in whose interest he misuses them” (§140). That
is, one could call an evil action hypocritical because one could infer that one does not believe that one’s
action is right even while giving the impression (having the pretence) that the right (or good) is being
served thereby. But if one’s particular conviction is just what makes the action right, even if the action
is wrong one cannot assume that the knowledge of that wrongness accompanies the action.
104 hegel’s conscience

The same dynamic of detachment is at work in Hegel’s criticism of “probabilism,”

the doctrine that the action is permissible as long as one reason can be found for it. The
name probabilism indicates the problem, for duty is a question of necessity. That
necessity for Hegel is only won through considering the complex whole. If the validity
is inferred simply from one aspect of the whole, the action may be one’s duty, though
just as likely it will not be.
The idea that the reasons that are relevant can be enumerated and weighed in a
given situation opens the door to another subjectivist move of detachment, namely
that the morally correct action is determined by the individual just deciding which
reason is the most important one. Hegel writes that the case seems to come down to a
mere arbitrary decision because one assumes that there must be a single reason—that
can be detached from the rest—that will make the action right. Hegel is not thereby
denying that there are cases in which a genuine conflict of reasons is at stake, but he is
suspicious that one would take as the conceptually central cases ones in which the
order of precedence of reasons comes down to sheer choice.

3. The holism of the “moments” of action I analyzed in the last section emerges most
explicitly in Hegel’s argument against the detachment of the abstract purpose and the
means taken to accomplish it. Referring back to “willing the good” and the need to give
that abstract willing a particular content, Hegel attacks the idea that “particular subjec-
tivity [is] to give this abstraction its determination and fulfillment” (§140). The attack
is on the potentially arbitrary relation between an abstract universal purpose and the
particular actions through which the agent claims to instantiate the universal. This
easily becomes the idea of finding a universal “positive” description of one’s intention
that can be used to validate an action by detaching it from the entirety of the action.
Hegel cites as this positive element in an action “doing good to the poor, or caring for
myself, my life, my family, etc.” (§140), and worries that the subject can always make
this positive element into what is essential and use it to license bad actions. Hegel goes
out of his way in this discussion to bring up cases in which one’s reason is a real rea-
son—“theft . . . to care for one’s life or one’s (perhaps even impoverished) family”—so
as to drive home the point that the problem here is the detachment of one element of
action from the whole rather than the badness of all the relevant reasons.
The most familiar aspect of this move is to be found in “the notorious proposition
that the end [Zweck] justifies the means” (§140). Hegel’s own view of action is that the
means “has its determination and value in . . . its end [Zweck]—that is, if it is truly a
means” (§140). This statement expresses the required unity of purpose, means, and actu-
ality. To detach these elements leaves open the possibility of justifying evil “means” in the
name of an abstractly good purpose. For Hegel an action “is truly a means” if the particular
means are specified by the nature of the universal itself (in which case the universal
purpose is a “concrete universal”). It is an important expression of Hegel’s holism, and of
his account of Ethical Life, that there are essential means to abstract ethical purposes.

4. “Even the semblance of ethical objectivity has completely disappeared” (§140) in the
shape of formal subjectivity that declares that one’s conviction makes the action right.
This is the most direct expression of a “subjective duty” view that takes actions to be
105 Holism and Detachment

grounded in beliefs. Hegel takes this position to be a denial of the “cognizability

[Erkennbarkeit]” of the truth in ethics. Proponents of such an ethics of conviction hold
that the “the knowledge [Erkenntnis] of truth is an empty vanity transcending [überflieg-
ende] the sphere of cognition [Erkennen]” (§140). This view resembles certain versions of
emotivism and expressivism. Rather than taking there to be objective truth that the agent
aspires to, this agent’s principle of action is the “distinctive outlook of the individual and
his particular conviction” (§140). Hegel is accusing such an ethics of relativism, but it is
important to see that he is not simply opposing to it a claim of ethical truth that is
independent of the beliefs of individuals. In Hegel’s view belief aims at truth, and this
holds for ethical beliefs about specific contexts as well as for ordinary cases of theoretical
belief. He does not think we have a mysterious faculty of intuition that detects the truth
of ethical properties as odd metaphysical entities in the world. Hegel is a realist of a more
moderate sort, who takes ethical truth to be institutionally realized, to emerge through
processes of action and interaction. Beliefs will play a central role in this emergence, but
this role should not tempt us to detach the belief from the whole of action.

5. The final shape of subjectivism is irony. Here the agent recognizes that belief aims at
truth, but he detaches the authority of self-consciousness itself from the nature of belief.
That is, the ironic person considers the avowal in first-person belief to be a voluntary, arbi-
trary commitment that can be taken back by self-consciousness at will. Hegel writes:

Thus, it does indeed consist in knowledge of the objective side of ethics, but without
that self-forgetfulness and self-renunciation which seriously immerses itself in this
objectivity and makes it the basis of its action. Although it has a relation to this objec-
tivity, it at the same time distances itself from it and knows itself as that which wills and
resolves in a particular way but may equally well will and resolve otherwise.— “You in
fact honestly accept a law as existing in and for itself. I do so, too, but I go further than
you, for I am also beyond this law and can do this or that as I please. It is not the thing
[Sache] which is excellent, it is I who am excellent and master of both law and thing;
I merely play with them as with my own caprice, and in this ironic consciousness in
which I let the highest of things perish, I merely enjoy myself.” (§140)

Irony is particularly important because of its proximity to Hegel’s own methodological

concerns.38 Hegel’s basic argument is that the illusion that the particular individual

Hegel associates this shape with Fichtean idealism, and the influence of Fichte on Schlegel is no
doubt a major source of this conception of irony. The basic distortion of Fichte’s idealism is that
Schlegel takes the absolute I of intellectual intuition to be the personal, individual I, rather than the
universal transcendental I. But this distortion at bottom reflects a shortcoming of Fichte’s theory itself,
“which maintains that the ‘I’ is absolute, i.e. that it is absolute certainty, the universal I = hood whose
further development leads to objectivity” (§140Z). The way Fichte has set up this deductive structure
does imply that the “I” purely on its own is the source of all activity, and it is not clear that it can be
rendered dependent on any objectivity. Hegel defends Fichte’s Jena philosophy as not endorsing sub-
jectivism—“It cannot in fact be said of Fichte that he made the arbitrary will of the subject into a
principle in the practical sphere . . .” (140Z)—but the fault of Fichte’s method is that it starts with the
pure I rather than with the already mediated negativity.
106 hegel’s conscience

I could stand above all determination disappears as soon as one realizes that self-
consciousness is negativity and that therefore one’s authority never simply floats free
above all objectivity. Hegel claims to overcome irony in the move to Ethical Life, but to
many readers that has seemed to be throwing away the baby of autonomy with the
bathwater of subjectivism. The question moving forward is, how can the claim of irony
be defeated on the basis of the authority of self-consciousness itself? Can the contrast-
ing image of “self-forgetfulness and self-renunciation” really be defended as a theory of
autonomy? Can the authority of self-consciousness be expressed in complex objective
duties in a way that gets beyond the subjectivism of irony?


Thus far in this chapter I have interpreted Hegel’s attacks on the ethics of conviction as
attacks on various forms of detachment from the complex whole of action on
conscience. In this section I tie together the constructive elements of Hegel’s view to
outline the sense in which the attack on the ethics of conviction and the defense of
conscience actually amount to a theory of autonomy. One of the main challenges for
an account of Hegelian autonomy is to show what work there is for the individual given
Hegel’s claims about how this standpoint is overcome in Ethical Life. Focusing the
issues on the question of non-detachment shows that even in Ethical Life there are still
challenges in living up to the idea of freedom.
First of all, Hegel’s attacks on the ethics of conviction are consistent with the idea
that it is a necessary condition of a fully rational action that I act on my belief in the
rightness of the action. The important role of belief becomes especially prominent in
cases of ethical complexity and conflict. Hegel is wary of excessive analysis of moral
situations because he maintains that normal action is rooted in stable dispositions and
therefore is not typically the product of complex deliberation. There would be
something wrong, according to Hegel, if one were constantly beset by an either/or of
acting either on my belief or on the basis of reasons widely acknowledged as valid. But
Hegel is aware that genuine conflicts, and even systematic conflicts, do occur.39 There
may be cases where the State’s requirements and my belief come into conflict. Hegel
consistently asserts that the State has the higher right than the individual’s moral
reflection, yet full-fledged action within the State also requires my belief, not my mere
obedience to authority. To act simply because the State commanded would also be to
detach one part of the complex objective duty. The action is a duty because the
individual believes that it is right and the State requires it. If the State must regularly
assert its right against the agent’s belief, the State is not living up to Hegel’s Idea of
freedom, not fully meeting CRICOBJECTIVE.

His acknowledgment of the issue of conflict and his skepticism about its pervasiveness are evi-
dent in a passage from the 1819–20 lectures: “Thus the collision and the antithesis enters here; the
content of my particular conviction can stand in antithesis with that which is lawful in general. I can
therefore demand not to have to act without and even more not to have to act against my conviction”
(VPR19/20, 107).
107 Holism and Detachment

The burden of non-detachment offers a new way of understanding how Hegel

remains concerned, even within Ethical Life, with “the normative question”40 of what I
should do rather than just with the question of what agents as cogs in the institutional
wheel can be predicted to do. Hegel’s rejection of the ought of morality in favor of the
actuality of Ethical Life can give the impression that if we experience ethical require-
ments as imperatives, if we see them as something we aspire to rather than as something
we routinely occupy, then we are wrong in our self-conception, corrupted by the pre-
tensions of sentimental subjectivist theory. But as we saw very clearly in the discussion
of evil, Hegel maintains that the human will always contains a moment of possible
difference between the particular and universal. Denying any possible difference would
be to make the agent like a very intelligent animal, doing what is right on mere instinct.41
An individual can always fail to live up to the demands of non-detachment. Given
Hegel’s views about the necessary moment of particularity in all action, finding the
proper harmony of the particular and universal in action can be very demanding.42
Once an agent enters the mode of reflective deliberation on whether a specific action
gives priority to the particular over the universal, one enters the element of “self-
certainty” that defines the highest level of morality and that has “the same source as
evil.” In this element the question of how to distinguish what is moral from what is evil
can be very hard to answer.
The difficulty of holding the particular and universal sides together is especially
severe within the most distinctive sphere of modern Ethical Life, Civil Society, where
the individual pursues the universal through purposes characterized by ambition and
self-regard. Where is the line within that sphere between, for instance, greed and pro-
ductive capitalist ingenuity? The laws, and even the norms of your profession, are not
always going to answer that question conclusively. Hegel is wary of the kind of deca-
dent indecisiveness of a certain philosophic pose toward objectivity at the level of
moral reflection, but he consistently claims that the self-certainty of modern subjec-
tivity is the decisive moment in modern freedom. The very fact that acting with such
freedom is difficult is what has caused some of Hegel’s contemporaries, as he notes, to
turn toward Catholicism as a kind of escape from subjectivity.43 What bothers Hegel so
much about this turn is the surrender of the authority of self-consciousness to another
person (the priest as a second conscience as we saw in 1.2).
The mistake of those who retreat in horror from the supposed emptiness of
(Protestant) modern subjectivity is to think that the principle requires all reason and
value to flow directly and immediately from the activity of individual subjects. The
mistake of this view is to see the demand of autonomy as a kind of creation ex nihilo
rather than as the burden of non-detachment. The burden of non-detachment takes

See Korsgaard’s influential formulation of the issue. Korsgaard et al (1996), Lecture 1.
See also his worries about the merely objective will in PR §26.
This is not to deny that Hegel thinks of ethical life as a system of institutions that can be viewed
as an interlocking whole of self-reproducing action from a standpoint other than the agent’s own; that
is, from a standpoint other than one in which the normative question is fundamental.
PR §141Z.
108 hegel’s conscience

the general objectivity of reasons and values for granted, and locates freedom in the act
of holding oneself to the rightness of one’s own judgment about the demand of reason
in this particular case. The mistake of thinking that autonomy requires a creation ex
nihilo of normativity is closely related to the mistake of thinking that only the simple
Reasons Identity Condition can preserve the connection between morality and ratio-
nality. We saw this mistake in chapter 2 in the Kantian moral worldview’s claim that
“pure duty” is the only motivating and justifying reason that can give an action moral
worth. One of the main burdens of autonomy on the view I am attributing to Hegel is
to maintain the Complex Reasons Identity Condition relation between motivating and
justifying reasons (CRICSUBJECTIVE). This burden can take the form of negotiating
conflict between two reasons, as in Hegel’s example of refusing military service
(refusing the authority of justifying reasons stemming from the broad purpose of the
State) in order to provide for one’s family (to satisfy motivating reasons stemming
from the subject’s standing purposes). But it can also, more typically and pervasively,
involve patterns of action in which one’s concern for one’s own particularity (which
Hegel does of course think is central to modern ethical life) erodes one’s concern for
the universal purposes of the State that sustain the particular purposes.
Hegel uses the language of “character” and “disposition” to describe the ethical
individual in part because he thinks that a proper upbringing instills a capacity of self-
monitoring that goes on below conscious deliberation. This quality of character in the
ethical individual prevents the pull of particularity from becoming so strong that one
forgets the dependence of one’s standing purposes on broader purposes. The agent of
actual conscience does not feel the need to depart from the universal because she has
a tendency to maintain the precedence of justifying reasons within deliberation
and action. This tendency is important because most of our relationships with “the
universal” are indirect. We have for instance our own particular career goals, and
exclusive pursuit of such goals can lead one to view the entire normative landscape as
simply and exclusively instrumental to one’s own gain. The universal purpose in Civil
Society might be maintaining the integrity of one’s profession, but the guiding ideals
of the profession may not often come explicitly into view at the level of our daily
action. The rationality of our actions does, however, depend on being capable of mak-
ing the connections between our particular pursuits and the overarching goals of the
profession. Hegel often reflects on this connection by invoking moments of crisis, most
notably (and notoriously) the case of war. If one has maintained a healthy sense of the
dependence of the particular on the universal, one’s support for one’s country in wars
(of self-defense) will be a matter of course. If one has come to believe that one’s
particular interests float free of their “substantial basis” in ethical institutions, it might
come as an unwelcome surprise to think that one is bound to sacrifice one’s particular
goals for the universal.
I have already indicated the sense in which conscience is constituted by a kind of
answerability to others. We are now in a better position to understand what this claim
amounts to, and why conscience is not reducible to the abstract forms of this answer-
ability. Hegel asserts that the concept of truth is available in ethics, and he thus defines
his position in the contemporary landscape as a cognitivist position. Hegel does not
109 Holism and Detachment

think, however, that ethics is reducible to conformity with certain abstract require-
ments, or even to the general norms administered by other agents. His terms of “self-
intuition,” “satisfaction,” “spiritual witness” all point to the avowal of an action as an
element that cannot go missing if the action is to count as free. The burden of non-
detachment is to keep oneself from making the move, always tempting and sometimes
imperceptible, from the avowal of first-person belief as a necessary condition of ethical
action to thinking of first-person belief as a sufficient condition of ethical action.
We can also shed light on the answerability issue by noting that the burden of non-
detachment must be met not only by the person who acts, but also by the person who
assesses that action. Though Hegel takes pains to criticize the philosophers whose
claims of conviction and brotherhood seem to license unethical actions, he is also criti-
cal of those who condemn actions based on abstract moral principles. Those persons
are guilty of detaching the justifying reasons from the whole belief-action complex,
thereby taking no account of the actual conditions of action (engaging in what Williams
calls “bluff ”). There is something unethical in the posture of self-righteousness that
seeks out the particular aspect of an action with the aim of negating the worth of that
action. Once again, avoiding this move is not always easy. It might seem that Hegel
himself succumbs to this temptation in some of his stronger claims about the righ-
teousness of Ethical Life. But it is significant that Hegel’s most critical comments are
directed to postures of inaction as guilty of bad faith. Judging the actions of others is
also an action, but an action particularly susceptible to detachment because it seems
just to be an innocent and straightforward appeal to the truth. The truth in ethics
cannot be appealed to in the way that we appeal to the truth of the law of gravitation.
Without the effort to sustain its efficacy through actions, and through the actual giving
of (and asking for) reasons, the grip of that truth on us, and hence our ability to be free,
can evaporate.
Rather than remaining in the posture of judgment from an observer’s perspective,
to be free individuals we must take specific “means” to the abstract purpose. This
amounts to the claim that one can only be free if one lives a valuable life by acting on
specific purposes that draw on the broader purposes that embody various social goods.
We saw in 3.2 and 3.4 the dangers attending on separating the purpose from its essential
means. The biggest detachment problem in “Morality” is that the purposes of morality
are not accompanied by the specific means, the specific actions, to accomplish them.
But this detachment is encouraged by the picture of morality according to which moral
value can only be achieved through pure motives. Conscience is the moment of
“content” because it aims at the particulars of action, of action is specific circum-
stances, and insists on the holism of action. Following one’s conscience on this view
will mean enacting one’s purposes rather than merely protecting one’s moral purity.
The demand is not to be a moral hero or genius, but rather to participate in prac-
tices of value with both passion in one’s convictions and self-forgetfulness of one’s
I close by considering briefly a natural objection to my use of anti-detachment as
the main figure for autonomy. One could object that this is a very truncated form of
autonomy, for rather than establishing or legislating the ethically valuable, the subject
110 hegel’s conscience

seems to merely affirm them in his action of his belief. This is closely related to the
worry we saw in the last chapter that Hegel’s view of freedom might just be Patten’s
(second-best) model of reflective freedom. In both cases this freedom would fall far
short of the value-creating activity that many have seen as the core of the Kantian rev-
olution in moral thinking.
In response to this worry we can now add to the account I gave of performative
freedom that Hegel’s view includes an element best described as practical incorporation.
Hegel’s claim is not that you reflect on what is given and put a stamp of approval on it
through your belief. Rather, the model is that you make the objective your own through
action—not a single action, and not action in isolation, but by developing patterns of
action as one matures in one’s family, career, and citizenship. Hegel does take up the
apparent problem with the objectivity of knowledge, namely that it can be represented
as the merely external, and the “dead letter” that is only valid when I make it a law for
myself. He writes, “Such a law may have the authority of God and the State behind it,
and the authority of the thousands of years for which it was the bond by which human
beings and all their deeds and destinies were held together and sustained—authorities
which encompass countless individual convictions” (§140). His appeal to the fact that
the “deeds and destinies were held together and sustained” is an appeal to a holism of
action and belief. Because of Hegel’s worries about subjectivism, it is easy to lose sight
of the fact that he thinks there is a process of development that is driven by the actions
of individuals. Objective justifying reasons have standing because they have been the
basis of action within a form of life, and those norms are constantly being altered
through individual and collective actions.
deliberation and justification

In his published writings Hegel frequently implies that there are no difficult moral
issues for an individual who wants to live an ethical life. These comments support the
textbook view that Hegel rejects individual autonomy in favor of a more conventional
ethics of “my station and its duties.” On such a view there is no need for an individual
to deliberate on moral problems or to give moral justifications that go beyond “because
that’s what social role X involves.” But as we have seen, Hegel’s view of ethical action is
in principle very complex. The very fact that he includes particular purposes and
universal principles as central ethical elements of action opens his account to com-
plexity in a way that Kant’s ethics with its formal procedure (at least on traditional
readings) does not. This complexity makes the need for deliberation that much more
acute, while also making it harder to conceive of a formal model that could guide eth-
ical deliberation.
In his lectures on the philosophy of right Hegel stresses the complexity of concrete
cases and the genuine moral conflicts that the individual must face. After discussing
evil toward the end of his treatment of morality, Hegel adds:

But in the genuinely good, evil also always appears. A human being who has to act
in a concrete and fulfilled life must also know to be capable of evil. In the pursuit
of the essential purpose, a host of purposes that could otherwise be valid are
neglected. Thus if evil is on the one hand a moment [of the will], it furthermore
also always appears in actuality. (VPR19/20, 112)

Evil on this view is an aspect of any complex moral situation. It is a consequence of not
being able to do justice to the “host of purposes” that come into play in “a concrete and
fulfilled life.” In a concrete and fulfilled life, one’s actions are bound up with a variety
of relationships to other agents (individual and communities), such that the “genu-
inely good” will leave some other good undone. Such moral complexity threatens to

112 hegel’s conscience

become a serious problem for Hegel, a problem that could preclude stable moral justi-
fication, largely because of the inclusiveness of his holism. He refuses to exclude up
front the ethical relevance of the many purposes that shape one’s life, and he must
therefore answer the question of how the agent is to negotiate the ethical landscape in
A central problem for moral judgment and deliberation is how to conceive of the
individual’s capacity to reach rational conclusions without oversimplifying cases of
action and without making cases so complex that one must be a moral genius to dis-
cern the best action. Hegel rejects the idea of a formal procedure to guarantee the
rationality of one’s judgment in part because of the inability of such a test to deal with
moral complexity. But he is equally wary of the sophisticated reflection of those who
can find “collisions” of duties in every situation. Hegel’s real problem with the stand-
point of moral reflection is that it assumes a model of justification that he finds inde-
fensible on epistemological and moral grounds. In the moral reflection model of
justification, one attempts to discover which action one can in each case support with
reasons that go “all the way down” (to recall the phrase Patten used to describe “rational
freedom”). The model assumes that the individual must be able to prove to any neutral
party that the action is supported by a specific chain of reasoning, taking nothing for
granted and admitting only what can be established by individual reasoning alone.
Hegel’s epistemological objection to this model is that such justification is susceptible
to skeptical arguments, especially to the Agrippan skeptic. His moral objection to the
model is that it assumes that the agent can do all the work in ethical judgment himself,
thereby denying the ethical status of other agents and social norms.
In this chapter I explicate Hegel’s alternative model of justification and the accounts
of reflection, conscience, and social institutions that come with it. The challenge for
theorizing social institutions on the basis of a deliberative model is to understand how
a structured set of norms actually solves rather than dissolves the problem of deliber-
ation. The rationality of the institutions must not simply replace the rationality of
individuals deliberating on morally conflicting aspects of action. Hegel does indeed
think that for a variety of well-defined contexts we will not need to deliberate about
what to do, but he also clearly admits the possibility of moral conflict, or “collisions,”
even within Ethical Life. We need to understand why Hegel thinks that collisions will
be less frequent and less destabilizing within the system of modern institutions, and
how a properly hospitable normative landscape could address the challenges we nor-
mally associate with moral conflict.


Some of Barbara Herman’s most influential work centers around explaining Kant’s
counterintuitive claim that “a collision of duties and obligations is inconceivable.”1
Much like Hegel himself, Herman attacks the simplistic strict deontological model of

Kant.Ak. 6:224; PP, 379.
113 Deliberation and Justification

Kant’s ethics in favor of a social and holistic account of deliberation. 2 Conscience is so

important for Hegel in large part because it allows the subject to act in light of multiple
ethical considerations. Herman pulls Kant in Hegel’s direction partly in order to give
an autonomy-based explanation of the phenomenon of moral conflict, and she thus
reproduces many insights that Hegel reached with his conception of conscience.3 In
this section I present five related aspects of her view that tie into the elements of Hegel’s
account we have already seen and that provide a clear framework for the subsequent
explication of Hegel’s texts.

1. Herman makes a distinction between judgment and deliberation. Moral judgment is

routine in the sense that we regularly judge and act without having to ponder the right
course of action or doubt whether what we are doing is the right thing. We still are mak-
ing practical judgments when we are in contexts in which we can easily recognize our
duty: “Normally we act within a moral framework that is without further thought ade-
quately action-guiding…. recognizing what ought to be done, and being aware that there
are no competing claims, appropriate action follows.”4 Moral deliberation by contrast is
occasional, only being called for under certain circumstances. As Herman puts it:

The characteristic moments of moral deliberation will occur when an agent per-
ceives her circumstances as exceptional or as containing conflicting moral consid-
erations or directives. There is need to deliberate when, for example, you would do
something you know is usually wrong but you feel that the action is justified, or
even required, in this case; or when considering the effects of a proposed action
makes you aware of opposing moral claims. The perception of such conflict elicits
the fuller justificatory structure of the willing, setting the terms for beginning
moral deliberation.5

The reference to the “fuller justificatory structure of the willing” contrasts with the
often implicit justificatory structure in many of our moral actions (on routine moral

The difference of course is that Hegel took the simplistic model to be Kant’s actual view, whereas
Herman takes it to be a misunderstanding of Kant’s actual view. This does not matter for my account
here, since determining who is right about the historical Kant is no part of the current project. I will
not be at all concerned with the question of whether Herman’s view is identical with Kant’s view in
every particular. She is clear that she is developing Kant’s ideas in directions that render the main ele-
ments of his theory maximally plausible as an account of ethics for today. While this study aims to be
much closer to the letter of Hegel’s philosophy than Herman is to the letter of Kant, for my purposes it
does not matter whether her argument captures Kant’s meaning or is an extension of it. Naturally I
think she is extending Kant in the direction of Hegel, as will become evident in the course of this
Though Kant himself thought of conscience as helping to answer the question of moral conflict,
he did not adequately integrate those reflections with his overall moral philosophy. For an account of
conscience in Kant, see Moyar (2008b), and for a contrasting view, Hill (2002a).
Herman (1993), 145–46.
Herman (1993), 146.
114 hegel’s conscience

judgments). The process of deliberation issues in a conclusion that is reached by

working through the deeper justificatory structure. Herman makes the crucial point
that we should not think that deliberation is “always possible” in the sense that there
always is a deeper justification than the one provided by the context of the action. The
idea that deliberation is always possible goes together with a view of our moral lives in
which “the omnipresence of the moral question”6 makes every case a matter of moral
struggle and every routine action a matter of sacrificing the possibility of doing some
even greater good.

2. Herman holds that a major error in those critics of Kant who think his account
leads to conflicts of duty is the thought that duties necessitate the performance of
certain actions. For Herman, however, a Kantian duty simply constrains deliberation,
and the performance of an action is a result of an episode of deliberation. If there is
someone in need, and helping them would require that I lie, then deliberation is called
for, the conclusion of which identifies my actual duty in this case. Even in so-called
perfect duties such as promising, the duty does not necessitate performance, which is
clear from the fact that the obligation to keep a promise can be overridden. As Herman
writes, “In promising to do x, I incur an obligation to do that thing. But if obligation
carries practical necessity, this is at odds with the fact that we frequently think we have
good reason not to do what we have promised to do.”7 In deliberation, the obligation
to keep the promise can be overridden by another ground of obligation in a way that
does not entail that the agent has thereby violated a duty (as Herman writes, there is no
perfect duty of promise-keeping in Kant). The duties considered in the abstract have a
presumptive force, but they are defeasible. Herman claims that the necessity of
performance is reserved for such deliberative conclusions, and not for claims of duty
formulated in the abstract, which can stand in tension within deliberation as two
grounds of obligation. When one deliberates, one resolves the tension by determining
which ground of obligation is one’s duty in this case, and then one acts.8
Deliberation, not abstract duty, determines what action one ought to perform
given that other factors may intervene to defeat the force of the obligation generated by
the promise (you have promised to give your friend back his gun when he asks, but you
see now that he is angry and drunk . . .). As Herman puts it, “In holding that moral
deliberation issues in a requirement of practical necessity, one might say we have
offered Kant’s interpretation of the idea that the conclusion of the practical syllogism
is action.”9 We need to be careful here, since there is an obvious sense in which deliber-
ation does not conclude in an action, but rather in an intention to act. For the agent the

Herman (1993), 146.
Herman (1993), 171.
Herman’s claims about deliberative presumptions and performance align her with the anti-de-
tachment view I discussed in the last chapter. She is in effect saying that the constraint on deliberation
is the general duty “if you have promised, keep your promise,” rather than the detached conditional, “if
you have promised, you have a duty to keep your promise.” The latter interpretation is precisely what
Herman is arguing against in claiming that Kantian duty does not necessitate performance.
Herman (1993), 168.
115 Deliberation and Justification

conclusion and its practical necessity are first expressed as a belief in the rightness of
the specific action. That belief will have the force of necessity and will result under
certain conditions in action itself, uniting the practical necessity and actuality.
Highlighting the role of belief shows that Herman is working with an idea of a delib-
erative task that is quite close to what I have described as action according to conscience.
The need for deliberation on her view is the same as the need for conscience on Hegel’s
view, namely that one has to determine for oneself which action is in the end practi-
cally necessary. Action-performance is not necessitated by the grounds of obligation,
but is rather necessitated by the belief (for Herman, the first-person statement of the
maxim) that is the conclusion of conscience as deliberation.
A central problem that arises from this account of deliberation is how to conclu-
sively determine that there are no other considerations that could deflect the force of an
obligation. I call this the Deliberative Closure problem, which is one of the two main
themes in this chapter. It is the problem that a conclusion of deliberation, “a require-
ment of practical necessity,” can only be reached once one knows that all moral consid-
erations relevant to a case have been accounted for.

3. Herman’s third distinctive contribution is to identify the descriptive and prescrip-

tive claims that one must bring to deliberation for the idea of autonomy to be at all
plausible as the basis of ethical authority. Herman uses Kantian notions such as respect
for persons and the Categorical Imperative test, but she insists that these secure inputs
to deliberation rather than serving as mechanisms for determining practical necessity
in specific cases. On the descriptive side she argues that even to formulate a maxim of
moral action for Kant’s CI test one must already be using moral categories, describing
one’s purpose in terms that refer to the world as a context of moral concern. The agent
must already have at her disposal what Herman calls “rules of moral salience.”10 These
rules are learned in the course of one’s moral education, and “they structure an agent’s
perception of his situation so that what he perceives is a world with moral features.”11
These rules “constitute the structure of moral sensitivity”12 in that they call the agent’s
attention to elements of his environment that are morally relevant. Rules of moral
salience (RMS) are descriptive terms that define moral reality.13 RMS will typically
make us pause in our normal mode of prudential rationality. They identify a “burden
of justification”14 that will require us to reflect on whether what we are doing is in fact
morally permissible. Herman actually calls this reaction “the mark of his ‘conscience’ ”15
because rules of moral salience often serve to warn us against instrumental justifica-
tions of actions by making us see that further deliberation is required.

Herman (1993), 77.
Herman (1993), 77.
Herman (1993), 78.
They can be the bedrock of our moral practice, but they also encode prejudices in a particularly
deep way. Herman discusses racism and sexism as categories that were incorporated into “prevailing
RMS.” Herman (1993), 88.
Herman (1993), 78.
Herman (1993), 78.
116 hegel’s conscience

While noting the historical specificity and variability of RMS, Herman is concerned
to provide a standard for RMS such that we can judge whether an existing set is defective
or not. Her basic strategy is to take the fundamental Kantian notion of respect for persons
as determining a range of issues that agents must be knowledgeable about in order for
moral judgment to be possible. These are: “(1) Who is a moral agent or end-in-himself?
All humans? adults? rational adults? . . . (2) What are the conditions of agency for ends-
in-themselves? In what ways are such agents vulnerable? . . . (3) What are the marks of
reasonable claims and restraints? . . .”16 While the answers to (2) and (3) are likely to be
quite variable, the answer to (1) is more definite on a Kantian view and thus a source of
possible criticisms of existing RMS. “Rules that specify adult white males as the only
entities who are to be treated as moral agents are surely mistaken,” and “any agent who is
rational and free is to be accorded moral respect.”17 There can be little doubt that Hegel
had a view of moral knowledge akin to RMS, for such socially instituted background
knowledge is clearly a primary aspect of the social contexts of Ethical Life. The point
I would like to stress here is that Hegel does endorse universalistic claims such as Herman’s
claim about respect. Many of the rights defined in “Abstract Right” and “Morality” should
also be read along one or more of the three dimensions listed here.18
Even with the RMS in place, the CI test still does not validate specific dutiful actions,
according to Herman, but rather establishes a class of what she calls deliberative pre-
sumptions. Herman writes that the CI test is not suitable for testing the maxims of
specific actions because it produces false positives and negatives. What the CI test can
do is give results for what Herman calls “generic maxims” of the form “to do x-type
action for y-type reason.”19 The CI test will, for example, reject the generic maxim “to
deceive for self-interest.” Even these generic maxims presuppose RMS, but unlike RMS

Herman (1993), 86.
Herman (1993), 87.
His well-known pronouncement of the moral progress made with Christianity is a clear celebra-
tion of the expansion of RMS to include all agents, not just a restricted class and so it addresses
(Herman’s (1) above). This is what he calls the “Idea of freedom”:

Whole continents, Africa and the East, have never had this Idea, and are without it still. The Greeks
and Romans, Plato and Aristotle, even the Stoics, did not have it. On the contrary, they knew only
that it was by birth (as, for example, an Athenian or Spartan citizen), or by strength of character,
education, or philosophy (—the sage is free even as a slave and in chains) that the human being is
actually free. It was through Christianity that this Idea came into the world. According to
Christianity, the individual as such has an infinite value as the object and purpose of the love of
God, determined [bestimmt] as Spirit to live in absolute relationship with God himself, and have
God’s Spirit dwelling in him: i.e. man is in-itself determined to supreme freedom. (EPS, §482)

The idea of “infinite worth” is very close to Kant’s claim of free and rational agency that Herman
makes the bedrock of the correct RMS. This way of thinking about Hegel’s historical narrative is quite
helpful in understanding claims such as the one that Hegel makes after the above passage: “this Idea
itself as such is the actuality of humans, not one that they have, but rather they are [this Idea].” (EPS,
§482) This is supposed to give the claim the kind of descriptive import characteristic of RMS. The claim
that all human beings count as free is a claim about the input into moral judgment rather than a prin-
ciple of moral judgment itself.
Herman (1993), 147.
117 Deliberation and Justification

they are prescriptive rather than descriptive, and their prescriptive force is generated by
the CI. Like the “burden of justification” raised by RMS, which Herman called “the
mark of his conscience,” the deliberative presumption creates a “burden of proof ” on
the agent, who must “show that her circumstances deviate in a morally significant way
from those specified by the principle.”20 Such a burden of proof can be discharged only
by appeal to something other than self-interest.21
Like RMS, such presumptions can come into conflict, and can help explain the level
at which moral conflict is experienced. Considering the example of lying in order to
help a friend, Herman illustrates deliberation as the process of determining whether
helping the friend is the right kind of reason to override the deliberative presumption
against lying. If the reason is that the friend’s need is causing me distress, rather than
the moral reason of my obligation to my friend, it will not count as the kind of reason
that can override the presumption. These presumptions are sources of justifying rea-
sons, and are for Hegel primarily given through the “necessary relations” of Ethical
Life. In Hegel, as in Herman, they do not necessitate the performance of an action
directly, but do bind the will in the absence of competing deliberative presumptions
that would defeat the obligation.

4. According to Herman the goal of theorizing deliberation is to find “a way to rank or

compare or weigh different moral considerations.”22 Understanding Hegel’s view of
this goal is the second main theme of this chapter. To rank or compare different moral
considerations we need what I call objective precedence relations. Such relations set out
which moral considerations take precedence over which others, and under what con-
ditions they do so.23 To provide such relations, Herman proposes comparing the value
at stake in each deliberative presumption. Herman holds that any plausible moral
theory, including Kant’s, will include a theory of value. As she puts it in her manifesto
“Leaving Deontology Behind,” “[W]ithout a theory of value it is not at all clear how we
are to make the reasoned comparative judgments necessary for deliberation in circum-
stances containing competing moral considerations.”24 In Herman’s formulation, strict
deontology has no way to “answer any ‘why’ questions” of the sort that are answered in
giving the purpose for which a certain action is performed.25 To say that moral theory
must have a value dimension is to say that it must give purposes an essential role in the
moral equation (whereas on the standard picture of strict deontology only the prin-
ciple of the action matters). Herman identifies value with revealing “something that
matters,” and claims that the universalizability test must, if it is to produce “determinate
moral results,” tell us why the negative consequences of everyone performing a certain

Herman (1993), 148.
Herman (1993), 149.
Herman (1993), 153.
We could also call these inferential relations, for their function is to constrain the kinds of infer-
ences that agents can make. I have pursued this line in terms of Hegel’s account of inferences in Moyar
Herman (1993), 210–11.
Herman (1993), 210.
118 hegel’s conscience

action are in fact bad.26 The process of deliberation begins when there is some kind of
conflict, either between one’s interests and a moral consideration or between two
moral considerations. She thinks she can give a Kantian theory of value, and a way to
compare different moral considerations, by locating “the bases of comparative judg-
ments . . . in the arguments through which the CI procedure rejects generic maxims.”27
The value element of these arguments derives from the value of the good will, or the
value of rational agency.28 Her strategy for ranking or comparing different moral con-
siderations is first to locate “the aspect of rational agency”29 that is valued in each
consideration and then to compare the values of those aspects.30 Although Hegel does
not endorse even this role for the CI procedure, he does share Herman’s view that only
value considerations will provide objective precedence relations.

5. The element of Herman’s view that perhaps best captures the spirit of Hegelian
deliberation is what she calls a “unified deliberative field.” Herman consistently stresses
that living a moral life is not a matter of always setting aside relative value to act solely
on the nonrelative value of rational agency. Her view is almost the opposite of the text-
book view of Kant’s moral philosophy according to which moral requirements have a
special force in deliberation and intervene at discrete moments to strike down our
desires and curb our interests. On the unified deliberative field view, by contrast, one
does not start with discrete considerations and then attempt to add or weigh them, but
rather one views the normative landscape in a way that takes all aspects into account as
valuable in relation to the conditions of rational willing. The idea of a unified deliber-
ative field is not to reduce all value to the single value of the good will, but rather to
think of all value in relation to the conditions of rational willing generally and thereby
as existing for the rational will. Like Hegel’s agent of conscience who “does not separate
the case into various moral substances,” Herman’s deliberating agent views action as a

Herman (1993), 153.
Herman (1993), 153.
In the Categorical Imperative procedure this value “is to be expressed in the commitment to
refrain from adopting principles that are not possible for all others of one’s (rational) kind. Positively,
each must view her maxims as candidates for principles that could constitute a community of free and
equal persons. That is why universalization matters.” Herman (1993), 154.
Herman (1993), 154.
Herman uses this idea of “translating” a deliberative presumption into value terms to try to
answer the question of whether it is permissible to lie to save someone’s life. We “translate” both the
presumptions (against lying, and for saving another’s life) into value-terms and in deliberation we
compare those values. So in the case of lying to save a life, we need to attend to the reason why the CI
procedure rejects the lying and why it rejects the maxim of aiding another whose life is in danger. The
aspects of rational agency respected in each case are the integrity of the agent’s will (that I violate in
lying to him) and the conditions of life (that I violate in not helping). So the question becomes “may I
manipulate a rational agent’s will (violate its integrity) for the purpose of supporting the conditions of
a life of a rational agent?” Herman (1993), 155. She concurs with Kant that one may not lie because the
integrity that one violates through lying is a “nonrelative value,” whereas “the conditions of a life of a
rational agent” are of relative value. One may fail to save a life while still respecting rational agency,
whereas the “assault on the integrity of a rational will” (156) in lying negates rational agency itself.
119 Deliberation and Justification

whole because in deliberation the values one acts on in the world are all a function of
the purposes of the rational will. As Herman puts it, “Because the field is unified, the
agent does not engage in multiple courses of deliberation: what I want to do, what
would be good for me, what morality requires. We do not determine what, on the one
hand, morality requires and what, on the other, one ought to do ‘all things consid-
ered.’ ”31 The field includes various value and is shaped by an individual’s actual biog-
raphy and contingent interests,32 for we deliberate through what I have called our
“standing purposes.”
The relation of particular and universal is captured in Herman’s claim “that we
think of an agent’s deliberative field as containing representations of her interests, pro-
jects, and commitments that have been ‘normalized’ to varying degrees to the princi-
ples of practical agency, both moral and nonmoral.”33 The difference between the
Kantian and Hegelian views consists in how this normalization process takes place.
Herman hopes that the Categorical Imperative can generate deliberative presumptions
(what she calls here “principles of practical agency”), whereas Hegel thinks that those
presumptions, even the moral principles, are grounded in and justified through the
values operative within a form of life that he calls a shape of Spirit. The idea of an
individual’s purposes being “normalized” through the social institutions of Ethical Life
rather than by principles of practical agency only raises the specter of a conservative
conventionalism if we do not appreciate that those institutions themselves incorporate
moral principles and respect subjective freedom.


In this section I examine an important set of arguments in the Phenomenology in light of
the preceding points from Herman. At the end of the “Reason” chapter, following his
argument for “spiritual substance” that I examined in 3.2, Hegel puts forth and critiques
two law-based accounts of normativity (“Law-giving Reason” and “Law-testing Reason”)
and makes a sudden transition to Spirit. These two accounts immediately follow the
introduction of the “spiritual essence.” I argued in the last chapter that the “spiritual
essence,” the basis of CRICOBJECTIVE, arose in response to the problems of detachment of
the honest consciousness. The two law-based forms of normativity are not guilty of
detachment, but they do retain the individualistic framework of the earlier shapes.
Hegel’s argument in criticizing “Law-giving Reason” is that moral principles are deliber-
ative presumptions rather than principles that can determine the practical necessity of
actions. In “Law-testing Reason” Hegel criticizes Kant’s Categorical Imperative proce-
dure’s pretension of generating practical contradictions. Hegel’s point in criticizing these
shapes is to show that the universality required to secure objectivity for action must be

Herman (1993), 182.
Herman writes, “An autonomous moral agent sees a complex world containing physical, social,
and moral limits and possibilities. Some of what the agent finds is unalterable. Other features are reflec-
tions of contingent circumstances and structures.” Herman (1993), 183.
Herman (1993), 198.
120 hegel’s conscience

conceived in terms of universal purposes rather than in terms of laws. The first step is to
argue that laws cannot provide deliberative closure and thereby necessitate performance.
The second step is to show that the bindingness of universal norms cannot come from
the form of the law alone. The law’s ability to generate contradictions (to prohibit or
permit actions) depends on objective precedence relations conceived in terms of value.
Hegel’s appeal to Spirit as a social world consisting of an objective order of valuable pur-
poses is thus motivated by the same concerns as Herman’s appeal to considerations of
value to compare or rank deliberative presumptions.
The claim that ethical laws should be taken as deliberative presumptions rather than
requirements on performance is the basic lesson in the section of the Phenomenology
entitled “Law-giving Reason.” According to the “concept” of this shape of consciousness,
every individual is in possession of a stock of moral commands that determine universal
judgments of actions. “Law-giving Reason” assumes that “healthy reason knows immedi-
ately what is right and good” (229, ¶422). The breakdown of “Law-giving Reason” shows
that the individual rational agent, possessing only a list of ethical truisms, does not have
the resources to judge in specific cases which action is right. Hegel’s two examples are
“Each should speak the truth” and “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” The laws turn out to be
conditioned by the agent’s specific knowledge. Each should speak the truth in so far as he
knows the truth. One should love one’s neighbor, but only if one does so intelligently.
Hegel points out that such laws, absent knowledge of when they apply, can just as easily
do harm as good. The agent with the concept of Law-giving Reason had claimed to pos-
sess determinate ethical content bearing the force of necessity, but lacking this knowledge
the claim to necessity disappears. Hegel writes, “[H]ere the point in question was about
a specific content, a distinction in the ethical substance. Yet this immediate determination
of the substance is a content which showed itself to be really completely contingent” (230,
¶424). The contingency of knowing fails to match the “right in and for itself.” This failure
becomes evident in that the laws must be reformulated as commands, as imperatives that
assume that there are obstacles to their fulfillment.
The result of the failure of “Law-giving Reason” is thus quite similar to the argu-
ments that Herman makes against thinking of Kantian duties as necessitating
performance rather than as constraints on deliberation.34 What might seem like perfect,
exceptionless duties, are in fact presumptions that can be defeated by other presump-
tions.35 The laws cannot get us to necessary deliberative conclusions, which means they
have no way of accounting for deliberative closure. They are much too general and
context-insensitive to help with the task of judging a specific action and conclusively

This point has become quite common in recent years as a hallmark of moral particularism.
Hegel’s point can also be expressed in the idea that principles always require ceterus paribus clauses,
so that they are necessary “all things being equal.” For a good account of particularism’s rejection of
ceterus paribus clauses, see Little (2000). Hegel’s view is that all things are never equal.
Hegel is also preparing the ground here for the need of conscience to be an “epistemic filter” of
the sort I discussed with reference to Dancy in 3.1. Such an epistemic filter too easily becomes the
arbitrariness of mere subjective insight, however, without the backing of the objective relations of
Ethical Life.
121 Deliberation and Justification

determining that all relevant factors have been accounted for. One of Hegel’s points in
the move to Spirit is that only in well-defined social contexts are there restrictions on
the relevance of competing claims, and so only in those contexts is it possible to reach
deliberative closure and thus practical necessity.
In “Law-testing Reason” Hegel argues that the CI procedure is inadequate to pro-
duce determinate moral results. Close attention to Hegel’s argument here shows that
not only is he arguing that the CI is an empty formal standard, but he is also intro-
ducing a claim about the dependence of ethical rationality on value considerations.
Hegel’s main argument against formal universality is based on the Kantian example of
the “law” that “there is property in and for itself, not on the grounds of usefulness for
other purposes” (233, ¶430). The argument is that the formal criterion of lawfulness
can only produce results by breaking up the “simple determinacy” (233, ¶430), which if
taken on its own is not self-contradictory. Hegel charges Kant with artificially dividing
the claim of non-property into the different moments of “individuality and univer-
sality.” It is only by playing off these moments against each other that Kant is able to
generate a contradiction. The conclusion will be that the value of property as an insti-
tution is not generated by the law of noncontradiction, but within a form of life, a
shape of Spirit, in which the individual (here used in the sense that I am generally
using “particular”) and universal conditions are already integrated.
Hegel first sets out two Kantian arguments for why non-property is contradictory
and then shows that the same contradiction can be generated for property if one also
analyzes the property relation into the different moments of universality and individ-
uality. If there were no property, and we just took up individual things and used them
as we needed at particular points in time, there would be an unacceptable contingency
in our relation to objects. This would violate “the nature of the conscious essence,”
which “must think of his need in the form of universality, must provide for the whole
of his existence, and acquire a lasting possession” (233, ¶430). The other non-property
alternative, communal property, also fails the CI test, or is contradictory, because it
cannot satisfy simultaneously the principle of individual need and the principle of
universal equality. Natural differences mean that different individuals have different
needs. In the community of possessions, either each gets as much as he needs, and
hence universal equality is violated, or everyone gets the same, and the universal prin-
ciple of need is violated.
Hegel shows that these arguments fail as conclusive arguments against non-
property by showing that similar contradictions can be demonstrated for the norm of
private property. He writes that to own something means that the thing counts as
“universal, fixed, enduring,” but this contradicts the nature of mere things, which are to
be used for our needs and thereby consumed. Property is even more contradictory
when one considers it as something “mine, that all others recognize and exclude them-
selves from” (233–34, ¶431). That others recognize me implies my equality with them,
which is the opposite of exclusion. The very recognition by others that my property is
exclusively mine is self-contradictory, for we must all have equal status in order to rec-
ognize each other, and this universal equality would seem to be violated by the exclusive
(individual) property relationship. So both property and non-property can be shown
122 hegel’s conscience

to be self-contradictory, for they both have moments of individuality and universality

that can be shown to contradict each other.
At the heart of Hegel’s arguments is the idea that the CI procedure only reaches
conclusions by dividing a norm into two separate value claims and showing that these
value claims are opposed. In the argument against non-property, the value of “each
according to his needs” is opposed to the value of “each deserves an equal share.” In the
argument against property, the value of “recognition of my exclusive right by all” is
opposed to the value of “universal recognition implies equality and therefore non-
exclusion.” This shows that it is not the mere universality of the property claim that
makes it valid, as would be the case if it were generated by the CI. Rather, it is the value-
ordering and value-interpretation of the moments of property that allows the CI to
give the results that Kant needs. The CI procedure thus gives results only on the
assumption that we already have ordered the values in a certain way, that we already
possess objective precedence relations. The problem is that such an ordering of value,
such an interpretation and integration of the moments, is not to be had from the
conceptual resources of Law-testing Reason itself. We need a different conception of
normativity and value.
The transition from Reason to Spirit is a transition from the priority of the law in
determining what is right to the priority of the good, of value, in determining what is
rightful (and lawful). A decisive clue to this value reading of the transition to Spirit
comes in Hegel’s sudden and strange introduction of Antigone’s appeal to the gods.
The most natural way to read Hegel’s frequent pronouncements about the gods is to
read them as claims about value-spheres. The transparent eternal laws of the gods are
the spheres of objective value. This point is only difficult to see because Hegel describes
the gods in terms of law and right, thus suggesting some kind of hyper-deontology. But
when Hegel introduces the various gods of “Spirit,” his point is to emphasize their plu-
rality and their objectivity in relation to the life of the Greeks. He writes:

The differences within the essence itself are not contingent determinacies; on the
contrary . . . they are “masses” [Massen] articulated into groups by the life which
permeates them, undirempted spirits transparent to themselves, stainless celestial
figures that preserve in all their differences the undefiled innocence and harmony
of their essential nature. The relationship of self-consciousness to them is equally
simple and clear. They are, and nothing more . . . (235–36; ¶437)

The mention of “contingent determinacies” refers to “Law-giving Reason” and its

immediate laws. The term “masses” is an unusual use of the term for “measure,” which
is closely related to our use of value (to take the measure of something is to assess its
value). Given the awkwardness of all the literal options, I would even be tempted to
translate “Massen” with “value-spheres.” The “differences within the essence” are differ-
ences in what counts as authoritative (the essence), namely different value-spheres
associated with the different Greek gods. There are gods or goddesses of love, fertility,
the underworld, marriage, the home; of hunting, agriculture, commerce, the sea,
wisdom and war, to give an incomplete list. To call these value-spheres is to say that the
123 Deliberation and Justification

activities characteristic of them, the purposes pursued in their general domain, have a
distinct value and can conflict with the other values.36 The harmony of a society is
secured by the harmonious interrelation of the value-spheres, which is why such hom-
age was paid to Zeus, the god with the power of ensuring that harmony. In Hegel’s
passage, the division of labor between these gods is a function of the “life which per-
meates them,” namely the actual ethical practice of the city.
The condition I have called CRICOBJECTIVE is satisfied in the objective value orderings
of the system of purposes that is Spirit. Hegel refers not only to Antigone and the
Greek gods in introducing Spirit, but also to Kant’s deposit example from the
Groundwork, “Suppose something has been entrusted to me; it is the property of
someone else and I acknowledge this because it is so, and I keep myself unfalteringly in
this relationship” (236, ¶437). Hegel denies that there is a formal contradiction in
changing my attitude toward the property and keeping it for myself. He continues, “It
is not, therefore, because I find something is not self-contradictory that it is right; on
the contrary, it is right because it is what is right” (236, ¶437). Hegel’s point here is that
within Spirit as a system of ordered values, there is no need for inquiry into the source
of the value of property, which simply has objective standing within the social order.
There is also no need for deliberation since the objective order forecloses the possibility
of defeaters that would override the promise to keep the deposit safe.
As I mentioned in 3.3, the trajectory of Spirit in history in the Phenomenology is to
make the value-spheres intelligible, to show their common source in self-consciousness
so that individuals can judge and deliberate with rational authority, thus securing
CRICSUBJECTIVE. The authority of value must be seen as continuous with rational
authority rather than just as a given divine source. The Spirit chapter in the Pheno-
menology shows, through a series of conflicts, how a unified normative field for delib-
eration has been achieved through a historical process. Hegel’s account begins with the
Greeks and the tragic conflict of value that showed that the harmonious social order of
the Greeks was unsustainable. When the account of Spirit draws toward a close with
conscience, Hegel completes the circle by writing that the individual’s relation to eth-
ical substance is immediate, like the Greek’s, “but it is not character, as that ethical
consciousness is which, on account of its immediacy, is a specifically determined Spirit,
belongs only to one of the ethical essentialities, and has the characteristic of not know-
ing” (324, ¶597). One of the main problems with Greek ethical life was this specificity
of character, which reflected the radical difference in value-spheres and which led to
heroism and tragic conflict. Hegel will adopt the language of character for his own
view of modern agency, though it will then become a conception that includes the
subject’s ability to “dissolve” all “ethical essentialities” to arrive at a holistic judgment
of the situation.

In PR §145, the student lecture-notes read, “Ethical Life has therefore been represented to nations
as eternal justice, or as gods who have being in and for themselves, and in relation to whom the vain
pursuits of individuals are merely a play of the waves” (§145).
124 hegel’s conscience

The claim of moral conscience is to know the actual ethical world as its own nature,
to have deliberative access to all the spheres of value, and yet to have the motivational
immediacy of Greek ethical life. In developing to the point at which conscience is the
dominant normative concept, all the spheres of value that were the source of major
normative conflict have been subordinated to the power of self-consciousness.
Conscience as deliberation is only possible because of this historical development, but
this does not mean that conflict disappears. It does mean that such conflict is normally
not tragic because it can be negotiated (if not always resolved) within individual


The history of Spirit shows how a unified deliberative field has been achieved for the
autonomous agent. But although such a field will make tragic conflicts of value far less
of an issue, it raises another pressing problem. The leading idea of the unified deliber-
ative field, namely that all value stands in relation to the rational will (is for the rational
will), is easily misconstrued to imply that all obligations are produced through a pro-
cess of subjective reflection. This misconstrual is the claim that Herman herself iden-
tified as thinking that deliberation is always possible, a claim that she rejected on the
grounds that in normal ethical contexts what is required is normal judgment rather
than deliberation. We can see Hegel’s criticisms of reflection as following this same
line. His worry is that the individual takes every situation as a case of deliberation
rather than recognizing that within Spirit, within structures satisfying CRICOBJECTIVE,
judgment (in Herman’s restricted sense) is normally good enough.
The question of reflection under conditions of moral conflict comes up most
pointedly in the 1819–20 lectures on the philosophy of right in Hegel’s discussion of the
subject merely choosing which among the many relevant reasons to act upon (a criti-
cism that I discussed in 3.4).37 He admits that we sometimes find ourselves in the posi-
tion of having to thus choose, but he stresses that we act confidently even without
reflection and should not think of practical judgment as always involving complex
analysis and deliberation. He writes:

There can result first of all a kind of fear of action in general, a mistrust of actuality.
There arises here a doubtfulness, a tendency to stop and consider even in the case of
something that seems good. This is the condition of scrupulosity. This reflection
makes action more difficult. It admittedly has the right on its side in one respect; for
the exercise of duty intervenes in many relationships and touches upon many
individual factors [Individuen]. There is always something in action of which one
could wish that it would not be neglected. The more educated a mind [Gemüt] is, the
more it uncovers such possibilities of disturbing other relationships. (VPR19/20, 116)

He is making much the same point that he makes in the opening paragraph of the “experience”
phase of conscience in the Phenomenology (346, ¶642). In this case the lectures, even though they are
student notes, are a better indicator of Hegel’s own view.
125 Deliberation and Justification

The reflection that Hegel is referring to here is the kind of analysis that tries to trace
out all the possible reasons involved in an action and all the possible consequences of
different courses of action. It suffers from the opposite problem of the “probabilism”
that acts based on any single good reason. Reflecting on all the reasons that need to be
taken into account makes reaching a conclusive practical judgment unacceptably diffi-
cult. We can see from this passage that Hegel thinks that the reflective model is right
about the nature of action, which does indeed typically involve many “relationships”
and “individual factors.” If one acquires the kind of educated insight that enables one
to imagine many possible causal links and justificatory contexts, it can seem as if no
moral judgment can be conclusively justified.
The problems of reflection are problems of the possibility of justification of moral
knowledge in specific cases. The overly scrupulous individual is one who thinks that he
needs to give a justification of a specific action “all the way down” from pure reason
alone. The individual acknowledges the relevance of various deliberative presump-
tions, but in subjecting the case to his own reflection he aims to defend the rationality
of those presumptions based on his own knowledge and conviction about the case.
Hegel thinks that this model is deficient on epistemological grounds because either
one never comes to a satisfactory conclusion, or one does so only by arbitrarily cutting
off the justification based on one’s own contingent decision. If this were the only avail-
able model of justification, one would be right to become a skeptic. Hegel thinks that
this model is deficient on ethical grounds because it seeks to find the worth of the
action in the individual will itself. On Hegel’s view this is a way to seek moral credit for
one’s reflection although the moral value of an action lies in the purpose accomplished
rather than in the reflection that produces it. He is worried above all that the posture
of reflection either leads one not to act, or it leads one to self-righteously judging and
evaluating the actions of others based on one’s own reflection. One does not act
because one does not think that one has achieved for oneself a standard of moral
knowledge that warrants action; or, one takes a skeptical stance toward the actual deeds
of others, pointing out their failures of justification, asking them to demonstrate the
sufficient evidence and insight that justified their action.
When Hegel criticizes reflection, he often does so on the grounds that reflection
takes every situation as an occasion for moral deliberation. As Herman argued, this
stance goes together with “the omnipresence of the moral question,”38 which for Hegel
would be the omnipresence of reflection on whether this action is really the right one
given the other moral purposes one could fulfill if one acted differently. It is properly
the task of moral deliberation to assess the deeper justificatory structure of the case,
and to make explicit the various factors that bear on one’s actual obligation. Hegel
holds, along with Herman, that only when there is a perception of a moral conflict is
such an explicit, reflective, deliberative stance warranted. The problem is that the moral
point of view can find collisions everywhere. Hegel writes, “But such collisions must be
genuine ones, for moral reflection can invent collisions for itself wherever it likes and
so give itself a consciousness that something special is involved and that sacrifices have

Herman (1993), 146.
126 hegel’s conscience

been made” (PR §150). The problem is that from the perspective of moral reflection
there is no way to decide when conflict counts as genuine and when not. To check this
tendency to “invent collisions,” we need a shift in perspective away from the individual
agent as the sole basis of justification.
We can see Hegel’s shift from Morality to Ethical Life as running parallel to a
difference in theories of justification between a “Prior Grounding” and a “Default and
Challenge” model of justification. Michael Williams has presented an elegant formula-
tion of the Prior Grounding conception that shows that anyone who holds it is exposed
to the Pyrronhian skeptical argument that all justification falls short of knowledge.39
We can read Hegel’s attacks on Morality as attacks on the Prior Grounding conception
of justification in favor of a “Default and Challenge” model that is not defeated by the
arguments of the ancient skeptics.
The famous “problem of the criterion” is the problem of how one is to justify
knowledge as true when one first must justify the criterion of truth. An important for-
mulation of this problem is in terms of the Agrippan trilemma: an individual, when
pressed to justify a criterion, will be caught in a vicious regress (a continuous chain of
other beliefs), will have to assert an unsupported assumption (dogmatism), or else will
argue in a circle.40 This skeptical argument is fatal, however, only if we assume a Prior
Grounding conception of justification. The Prior Grounding conception requires a
certain kind of “personal justification” through the “epistemically responsible behavior”
of taking something to be true only when one has adequate grounds.41 The conception
holds that adequate grounds for belief are supplied by evidence of a certain sort, and it
further holds that the individual must possess and be able to use the evidence that
grounds the belief.42 With these requirements in place, the skeptic’s case is easy to make,
for with all the weight of justification placed on the actual capacity of the individual to
provide grounding for his belief, he can easily be pushed onto one of the three horns
of the trilemma.
The applicability of the Prior Grounding conception to moral reflection and
conscience is quite clear. A common interpretation of conscience is indeed very close
to a model of justification that puts all the weight on an individual’s capacity to give
reasons for his action. One takes it to be one’s responsibility to act only on a belief in
the action’s rightness that one can fully justify by citing the grounds that make it right.
Acting without conscience is just to leave it to some other authority to decide for me
whether my action in this case is right, which means giving up my freedom. A common
charge against conscience is that the agent of conscience accepts the Prior Grounding
conception of justification and is impaled on the horn of dogmatism by appealing to
the brute fact of his own certainty (“because my conscience says so”).

Williams (2001), 146–48.
For arguments relating Hegel’s epistemology to ancient skepticism, see Forster (1989), Westphal
(1998), and Heidemann (2008).
This is part of what Williams calls “the Dependence Thesis.” Williams (2001), 147.
Williams calls this a “strongly internalist account of what it is for someone’s belief to be ade-
quately grounded.” Williams (2001), 148.
127 Deliberation and Justification

The contrasting Default and Challenge conception avoids the appeal to explicit
grounding that allows an opening for the skeptic’s charge. On this model, “epistemic
entitlement is the default status of a person’s beliefs and assertions.”43 In the absence of
“defeaters,” one is entitled to one’s belief even if one has not taken all of the reflective
steps to provide a full and explicit justification of the belief. As Williams puts it:

What we should reject is only the idea that a responsible believer’s commitment to
providing grounds is unrestricted. A claim to knowledge involves a commitment to
respond to whatever appropriate challenges emerge, or to withdraw the claim
should no effective defence be available. In claiming knowledge, I commit myself
to my belief ’s being adequately grounded—formed by a reliable method—but not
to my having already established its well-groundedness. This sort of defence is
necessary only given an appropriate challenge: a positive reason to think that I
reached my belief in some unreliable manner.44

In the practical case the “reliable manner” will mean knowing and judging by those
patterns of assessment that I have called objective precedence relations (as well as know-
ing the moral considerations—Herman’s Rules of Moral Salience and deliberative
presumptions—themselves). One’s competence as a judge will not be called into
account on every occasion. But one can be challenged, which is why the Default and
Challenge model is not overly “externalist” in its reliance on dispositional responsive-
ness. One can always be asked to stop and give one’s reasons. Such a challenge, how-
ever, must be issued on specific grounds, and not in an “unrestricted” way. That is, a
challenge must be issued on the basis of a relevant moral consideration—charging that
one has left neglected a consideration or that one is mistaken about a precedence
I submit that Hegel’s distinction between formal and actual conscience reflects the
distinction between the Prior Grounding and Default and Challenge models. Formal
conscience is the claim to decide from one’s own resources what counts as right, and it
brings with it an unrestricted commitment to providing grounds. It claims to be able
to meet the Prior Grounding requirement and is for that very reason always subject to
skeptical attacks. These attacks are impossible to fend off because the agent of formal
conscience has no way to restrict the possible defeaters to his judgment. He takes
responsibility for an unrestricted knowledge of the case, but this means that he never
reaches deliberative closure in a way immune to skeptical attacks.
Hegel’s claim for actual conscience, on the other hand, also describes the indi-
vidual’s belief in the rightness of an action, but that belief is situated in well-defined
contexts that restrict the range of possible defeaters to one’s judgment. He writes that
the agent of actual conscience has “the disposition to will what is good in and for
itself” (§137), which just means that his process of judgment is assumed to be reliable.
When Hegel writes of the assumption of validity behind the “ambiguity of conscience,”

Williams (2001), 149.
Williams (2001), 149.
128 hegel’s conscience

he is referring to conscience as an explicit way to refer to the default entitlement status

of our beliefs about the goodness of our actions: “conscience is assumed in advance to
signify the identity of subjective knowledge and volition with the true good” (§137).
We assume that when one appeals to conscience that one is appealing to one’s dispo-
sition to will what is good, but one misunderstands this appeal if one thinks that
conscience is immune to all challenges (I say more about such challenges in the next
How do this judgment and deliberation function for Hegel? We can answer this
question in terms of the Hegelian CRIC condition. The problems of judgment and
deliberation are first and foremost problems of CRICSUBJECTIVE, namely problems of
how one’s immediate reasons and purposes are connected to broader reasons and
purposes. In Hegel’s view practical judgment and action ordinarily occur without
much reflection because our patterns of motivating reasons and their purposes are
comfortably nested within larger purposes. The contexts of our actions are familiar
and our dispositions are structured by repeated actions within institutional settings.
Hegel’s comments on normal action need to be read in no stronger terms than this,
and they certainly do not mean that we can do without moral judgment. Moral delib-
eration, on the other hand, is rather trickier. What I have called the “nesting” of pur-
poses within other purposes is just the relationship that is thematized for an individual
when a conflict elicits what Herman called “the fuller justificatory structure of the
willing.” My motivating reasons and my particular purposes need not make me think
regularly about the full justifying account of my actions. But if I am carrying on in my
daily pursuits and I am brought up short by a conflict, then I need to think through
the full justifying reasons for my action. So too if I am challenged by another agent
who finds fault with my claim to be acting rightly, I must be ready to bring out the
fuller structure of justification. I do not need to answer challenges from nowhere, but
rather only from those who question me within the definite terms of my context of
Hegel’s confidence in agents to know what is right in Ethical Life should not be
taken to mean that the agent has no work to do in Ethical Life. Hegel’s idea of institu-
tional contexts that support the default entitlement of our claims to know our duty
does not imply that there are available, as if in a handbook of ethical actions, preset
answers to all questions of competing ethical reasons. In a passage that refers to a shape
of agency that he discusses elsewhere under the rubric of conscience, he invokes the
notion of character. The revealing passage occurs in a discussion about conflicts of
duties and how to decide between them:

The deciding particularity is in general what one calls character; the person can
only act in so far as he is a particular. The demand for a casuistry of this kind con-
tains the claim that the person will be relieved of the burden of having a character.
This burden can be relieved in any case by a guide to conscience, a confessor (who
receives sugar and coffee); and such a guide to conscience knows how to give
good and pious reasons for everything. Sound, substantial action demands self-
forgetfulness with respect to one’s particularity. (VPR19/20, 119)
129 Deliberation and Justification

The polemical references to Catholicism make clear that with this notion of character
Hegel is referring to the kind of conscience that became possible through reformed
religion.45 The idea of character is that the agent has deliberative capacities that can
lead him to give precedence to the right considerations even in difficult cases of conflict.
The ethical agent, the agent of “actual conscience,” does not get stuck weighing every
aspect of actions, wishing for a casuistry that could answer for him the question of
what he should do.46 The conclusions of character can be challenged, and extending
Hegel’s point in the passage, one could even say that one develops a character through
the process of being challenged and having to respond. There remains the question of
how character or conscience can be challenged given the highly personal nature of
many conclusions of deliberation. To understand the authority of conscience better we
need to delve further into Hegel’s theory of action.


I turn now to the account of conscience as judgment in the Philosophy of Right. Calling
the treatment of conscience as judgment an “account” is actually rather generous, since
Hegel does little more in the published text than announce conscience as the power of
judgment before moving quickly to his criticisms of the moral point of view. By leav-
ing out a detailed account of the structure of ethical judgment, Hegel gives the impres-
sion that the judgment of conscience just consists of those debased forms of moral
reasoning that he criticizes in §140. His appeal to “true conscience” also gives the
impression that there is no need for individual judgment or deliberation once we
appreciate the nature of Ethical Life. But before we assume that we know what
conscience as judgment does inside and outside of Ethical Life, we must situate the
judgment within the overall theory of action in “Morality.” What we discover when we
do so is a multilayered account of the value expressed in action. Unpacking this account
will open a path to seeing how actual conscience and the justifications available in

This use of character is different from the use (see 4.2 above) in which he contrasts the limited
notion of character from ancient Greek Ethical Life with the modern notion of the moral agent. In the
use in this passage character is a description of the modern ethical agent who can decide for herself and
not succumb to the temptations of subjectivism.
Right after the passage on scrupulosity above, Hegel writes, “In that he makes the thing into his
own, he has no subjective, but rather an objective interest. When it comes to the substantial, then all
these secondary considerations [Nebenrücksichten] fall away. . . . In any case a person of experience, of
cultured spirit and mind, can, when he follows the main thing, also let secondary considerations
remain valid. . . . When therefore the main thing is held firm, then a host of secondary considerations
fall away as minor matters” (VPR19/20, 117). The idea is that the person who understands the main
“objective interest” at stake in the situation will not get caught up in the various secondary aspects of
the situation. McDowell has argued persuasively that Aristotle’s conception of the virtuous agent, as
opposed to the merely continent agent, does not “weigh” various considerations in an action against
each other. See McDowell (1998c), 55–56, and (1998a), 90–93. McDowell also admits that this is an ide-
alized picture, and that there is always some degree of mere continence in our actions, some degree of
feeling the pull of other considerations.
130 hegel’s conscience

Ethical Life address the issue of deliberative closure and provide objective precedence
The curiously structured “Morality” chapter consists of three sections, which Hegel
in his marginal notes aligns with three types of judgment from his Logic.47 “Purpose and
Responsibility” involves an “immediate judgment,” “Intention and Welfare” involves a
“judgment of reflection,” and “The Good and Conscience” involves a “judgment of the
Concept.” A major difficulty in understanding these three levels and the roles therein of
the three types of judgment is that a single action can be characterized at all three levels,
and in terms of all three types of judgment. I will not be concerned here with the first
type and its relation to the other two. The first judgment simply entails that an action is
only attributable to me if I know or should have known what the immediate conse-
quences of the action would be and the relevant contextual information about the
action.48 It sets the basic terms of imputation of an action to a subject, but does not touch
on the issue of the value of the action. The important question for us is how to charac-
terize the latter two judgments and how those judgments are related in ethical action.
The intention of the action expresses the value that the action has for me. That is,
an action is described as intentional in the description under which I find the action
valuable. The discussion of intention is on the surface very puzzling because Hegel
identifies the intention with the “universal quality” (§119) of the action, but also with
particular interests and with the “subjective essence” (§120) of the action. But these are
just two sides of the same coin: the purpose expressed in value terms and the interest
that the agent takes in that purpose. The intention thus captures what I have called the
agent’s standing purpose. The intention is “the manner in which its universal character
is determined for me—this constitutes the value of the action and the reason why I
consider it valid, i.e. its intention” (§114).
Michael Quante has argued convincingly that the judgment of reflection in the
intention is a judgment that a specific purpose exemplifies or instantiates a universal.49
For example, the universal purpose can be career-advancement, which I pursue
through working on my manuscript. The advancement of one’s career is a standing
purpose, one that is intelligible as valuable to all agents, and my pursuit of this specific
purpose to accomplish that goal is generated by my interest in pursuing my career.
Though the form of the standing purpose is universal, the content of the purpose
at this level in Hegel’s argument is particular.50 Hegel writes that the content available

PR §114N, W 7, 214. The relational character of the judgment is what makes it appropriate to
“Morality.” Hegel writes that “The judgment is the Concept in its particularity, as the distinguishing
relation of its moments, which are posited as being-for-themselves and as identical with themselves,
not with each other” (E §166). The judgment is peculiar because it expresses an identity through the
copula, but an identity between two nonidentical terms. Hegel thus comments that the judgment can
be viewed from either of two sides, from the original unity of the terms in the Concept, or from the
independence of the extremes (the two terms in the judgment).
For a thorough treatment of this judgment and its relation to the second stage, see Quante (2004).
Quante (2004), 144–50.
This is why Quante distinguishes the “form of the content” and the “content of the content.”
Quante (2004), 58–59.
131 Deliberation and Justification

at this stage in his argument is one’s “natural subjective existence” (§123). Within Hegel’s
developmental argument in the PR, there is at this level of subjectivity no necessary
content for the ethical will. All that constitutes reasons and purposes thus far for the
individual are his desires and interests, which taken together are what Hegel calls the
individual’s happiness or welfare. Given this relatively low-level characterization of
action, it might seem that when Hegel makes the transition to “The Good and
Conscience” he is dealing with an entirely different type of rationality, and the inten-
tion’s judgment of reflection is simply left behind in the judgment of the Concept (of
what is right and good). But that would be a mistake, for the judgment of intention
holds for all my standing purposes, including those determined at later stages of Hegel’s
The “judgment of the Concept” that Hegel identifies as the logical structure of
conscience typically employs the predicates good and bad, right and wrong, to judge a
certain action. In the most basic terms, such a judgment expresses the adequacy of a
certain action to a universal standard. The judgment captures “the universal value of
the action” (§114Z) rather than just what makes it good for me. The agent who appeals
to conscience is not saying merely that he believes it is the right thing for him to do.
Rather, there is an implication that it would be the right thing for anyone in his circum-
stances. The agent thus refers to his specific purpose (value) as falling under a universal
purpose that accounts for why my valuing is intelligible to others.
The clear difference between the judgments of intention and of conscience, then, is
that in the intention the judging subject makes a judgment relative to himself as a
particular agent, whereas in conscience the subject judges as a universal subject. The
difference at the level of content is much harder to sort out because we are not used to
thinking of a single action having different contents. At the level of intention the
content of the purpose came from my interests, my welfare. At the level of conscience
the content of the purpose should be universal, reflecting the goodness of the action
independent of my interests. The question that arises then is whether in an ethical

Quante (2004) unfortunately reinforces this impression with his claim that the concept of action
is independent of the moral considerations introduced in “The Good and Conscience.” I agree with this
claim in so far as it is the claim that an action need not involve a moral attitude in order to count as an
action. This is a relatively weak claim, and Quante at times seems only to have this in mind. But he also
makes the stronger claim, which I wish to contest, the “arguments that speak for Hegel’s theory of
action having no implications for moral philosophy” (166). The main claim is that if one describes
actions “only with the concepts that for Hegel belong to the concept of ‘action,’ then this connection
[with moral philosophy] will not arise” (167). This claim holds for the section “Purpose and
Responsibility,” but it does not hold for “Intention and Welfare.” Quante’s most convincing argument
bypasses the latter in referring to Hegel’s contrast of the “right of insight as such” with the “right of
insight into the good” (§132). He writes, “The decisive point is that the moral quality and moral judg-
ment of the agent are not necessary for his act to be an action. The right of knowledge and volition, on
the other hand, establishes whether an act is an action at all, and it also establishes the description
under which an event can be attributed to an agent as his action” (169). This skips the element of value
in the intention, which is the way in which my action is recognized by others, and which provides the
link between my subjective interests and the interests of ethics.
132 hegel’s conscience

action the universal purpose must simply replace the particular purpose and become
my intention, or whether the action can have multiple purposes.
Hegel does hold that an action can have more than one purpose, and that we
should not try to pry apart the purpose relative to the agent (the intention) and the
objective purpose expressed by conscience. This is why Hegel warns, even before he
introduces “The Good and Conscience,” against the moralistic stance that takes
subjective and objective purposes to be incompatible. He wants to defend the view,
already implicit in CRIC, that one can simultaneously pursue one’s interest and
accomplish the ethically good. Given this compatibility, we should not worry about
isolating the determining ground of action. That is, we should not worry about iden-
tifying whether the ethical purpose on its own would have been sufficient for the
action. Hegel is discussing this very point when he writes, “What the subject is, is the
series of its actions. If these are a series of valueless [wertlose] productions, then the
subjectivity of volition is likewise valueless; and conversely, if the series of the indi-
vidual’s deeds are of a substantial nature, then so also is his inner will” (§124). Hegel
is not saying that the only value is the universal value of grand ethical purposes. He is
rather saying that having multiple layers of value in a single action is the norm in
ethics, and the actions and the subjective will can be assessed on their objective merits
regardless of what other more subjective purposes were attained thereby. He criticizes
“the view that, in volition, objective and subjective purposes are mutually exclusive”
(§124). The value of an action comes both from one’s own interest in the action and
from the broader purposes that the action serves. The judgment of the action as good
thus expresses my interpretation of my intention (and its subjective value) as serving
the ethically good. The judgment of conscience (as a judgment of the Concept) is a
commitment to CRICSUBJECTIVE and thus expresses my willingness to do the nesting
work if challenged.
The judgment of the concept presupposes that the agent of conscience knows what
constitutes the concept of good action. As with Herman’s agent who judges a generic
maxim to be right based on the CI, the agent of conscience must have general moral
knowledge of the Good that goes into the specific judgment of a good action. Hegel
introduces “The Good” in the Philosophy of Right as a summation of the previous
claims in the Philosophy of Right, unified in a single abstract purpose.52 I read his claim
as a list of various all-purpose deliberative presumptions, general requirements on
action that constrain and shape one’s deliberation without actually telling us what to
do in specific situations. He writes:

The Good is the Idea, as the unity of the concept of the will and the particular will,
in which abstract right, welfare, the subjectivity of knowing, and the contingency

While laying out his philosophy of action, Hegel simultaneously outlines the status of the “sub-
ject” along Herman’s dimensions of “the conditions of agency for ends-in-themselves” and “the marks
of reasonable claims and restraints.” Herman (1993), 86. What Hegel calls “welfare” figures prominently
among the conditions of agency. What Hegel calls the “right of intention” or “right of knowledge” is
among the main considerations in determining what counts as “reasonable” claims and restraints.
133 Deliberation and Justification

of external existence [Dasein], as self-sufficient for themselves, are superseded; but

they are at the same time essentially contained and preserved within it.—[The Good
is] realized freedom, the absolute and ultimate purpose of the world. (§129)

The Good puts the earlier claims of right into the form of an all-encompassing purpose
for all agents, that is, into the form of objective value. The earlier claims can be read as
RMS, and the move to the Good is to make them into deliberative presumptions, obli-
gating the will of every agent.53
Making the point that RMS and deliberative presumptions do not necessitate the
performance of specific actions, Hegel points out their abstraction: “what is duty? For
this definition [Bestimmung], all that is available so far is this: to do right, and to pro-
mote welfare, one’s own welfare and welfare in its universal determination, the welfare
of others (see §119)” (§134). Hegel follows this statement with another version of his
critique of Kant’s moral theory as an empty formalism and then very quickly, with only
a gestures toward the logical determination of the transition, moves to invoke the par-
ticularizing judgment of conscience.
In the Encyclopedia he motivates the introduction of conscience in a more perspic-
uous way. There he presents the Good as containing conflicting requirements. He

For the sake of the indeterminate determination of the Good there are in general
manifold goods and many kinds of duties, whose differences stand dialectically
against each other and bring them into collision. At the same time they ought to
stand in agreement for the sake of the unity of the good, and at the same time
each is, though a particular duty, absolute as duty and as good. The subject should
be the dialectic, which resolves [beschliesse] a connection of the same with the
exclusion of others and thereby with the sublation of this absolute validity. (E,

This is a description of a deliberative task set for conscience and objectively

resolved in Ethical Life. The subject “should be the dialectic” that resolves these

The one exception to this is the “command of right: be a person and respect others as persons”
(PR, §36).
In the Phenomenology he makes this point against Kant in writing, “The moral consciousness
as the simple knowing and willing of pure duty is, in the doing of it, brought into relation with the
object which stands in contrast to its simplicity, into relation with the actuality of the complex [man-
nigfaltigen] case, and thereby has a complex moral relationship with it. Here arise, in relation to
content, the many laws generally, and in relation to form, the contradictory powers of the knowing
consciousness and of the non-conscious.—In the first place, as regards the many duties, the moral
consciousness in general heeds only the pure duty in them; the many duties qua manifold are specific
and therefore as such have nothing sacred about them for the moral consciousness. At the same time,
however, being necessary, since the concept of acting implies a complex actuality and therefore a com-
plex moral relation to it, these many duties must be regarded as possessing being in and for them-
selves” (328, ¶605).
134 hegel’s conscience

conflicts of goods, or prioritizes the value. A conflict also arises within the Good
with regard to the particularity of individual freedom and the universality of the

β) To the subject, who in the definite existence of his freedom exists essentially as a
particular, his interest and welfare ought to be, on account of that existent sphere of
freedom, an essential purpose and therefore a duty. But at the same time in the
purpose of the Good, which is the non-particular, but rather only the universality
of the will, the particular interest ought not to be a moment. On account of this
independence of the two determinations of action, it is likewise contingent whether
they harmonize. And yet they ought to harmonize, because the agent, as individual
and universal, is in itself a single identity. (E §509)

Individual interest and welfare are themselves essential ends and therefore duties. But
according to the abstract universality of the Good, it is unclear how we are to incorpo-
rate our interests into the picture. The universal purpose of the Good appears to con-
tradict itself by negating the particular interest that individuals take in actions
(including actions that realize the Good itself). This conflict, though in principle
objectively resolved in Ethical Life, demarcates the problem of the subject’s integrity
(as “in-itself a single identity”) in deliberation.
The two problems just mentioned set two tasks for conscience. First, conscience has
the task of judging in light of conflicting duties and conflicting goods. Conscience is
capable of making such judgments because the individual can take up all the existing
duties and goods into self-consciousness. The agent of conscience is therefore capable
of making comparative value assessments, determining precedence relations, among
the different goods. Hegel calls the subject a “dialectic” here to indicate that the subject
knows the limited value of certain goods and the greater value of others, such that one
factor can be subordinated to another. He refers to the negativity of conscience in the
exclusion involved in resolving to act in a certain way. This judgment must determine
objective precedence relations between the goods. The second task (set by the second
passage) is to understand the relation between one’s own interests and welfare and the
abstract universal requirements of the Good. The proper understanding of this rela-
tionship is that of CRICSUBJECTIVE, namely that one acts on purposes and interests that
can be nested within broader purposes. To be an ethical agent means being prepared to
give precedence to those broader purposes in cases in which they conflict with one’s
own interests. For instance I should be willing to forego my expensive hobbies for the
sake of my family.
The unity of these two tasks of judgment marks out Herman’s unified deliberative
field. The agent does not see one set of requirements calling for certain actions, and
another set of requirements calling for another. One’s personal purposes are both con-
strained and shaped by the broader purposes, including the universal purposes of con-
cern for the welfare of all in the abstract. The problem with formal conscience conceived
in terms of these two tasks is that the judgment remains subjective and contingent. The
subject is capable of determining precedence relations and nesting his interest within
135 Deliberation and Justification

broader purposes, but as of yet there are no objective precedence relations and no
system of purposes.


The normative authority of the judgment of conscience is dependent on objective
contexts of judgment, but the essential negativity of the judgment makes it difficult
for conscience itself to recognize this dependence. When Hegel identifies conscience
with judgment in Philosophy of Right §138, he refers to the subject’s capacity to “evap-
orate into itself all determinate aspects of right, duty, and existence” (§138). This evap-
orating moment plays an important role in enabling the holism of practical judgment.
Holism requires that the “determinate aspects” do not stand in rigidly fixed relations
to each other, and the evaporating moment that breaks down the normative fixity is a
precondition of judgment.55 The contribution of the normative aspects to the overall
judgment can vary depending on the situation: the agent needs to suspend provision-
ally their normative force in order to arrive at a total judgment. The “determinate
aspects of right” have a certain immediate binding force, or practical necessity, and
the power of conscience can render this immediate force into that of a deliberative
presumption, on par with the other relevant factors in a case. This moment is essential
for judgment because the unity of judgment is made possible through the power of
self-consciousness. For the power of judgment to operate synthetically the elements
of the manifold have to stand in relation to the unifying subject. This evaporating
moment is thus the act of subordinating the necessity of the discrete norms to the
deontic force of the I’s self-referring negativity. The agent does not always consciously
do this, but as a moment in judgment this evaporating process logically precedes

The rationale for this first negative moment becomes clear in his comments in the preface to the
Phenomenology on the difference between ancient and modern philosophical education. He writes that
for the ancients the task of education was to raise their already organic ethical life to the level of explicit
universality. Hegel writes of his modern situation and task: “In modern times, however, the individual
finds the abstract form ready-made . . . Hence the task nowadays consists not so much in purging the
individual of an immediate, sensuous mode of apprehension, and making him into a substance that is
an object of thought and that thinks, but rather in just the opposite, through the sublation of the fixed
determinate thoughts to actualize and enliven the universal. But it is far harder to bring fixed thoughts
into fluidity than to do so with sensuous definite existence” (28, ¶33). The references to “fluidity” here
serve exactly the same function as the evaporating power of conscience. Following the above passage
Hegel refers to the task of philosophy to organize the content into an organic whole. In the same way,
an individual who makes the ethical norms fluid must arrive at a whole judgment. In the ethical case
the “fixed determinate thoughts” are the moral principles, abstract formulations of duties. Thinking in
terms of such laws has become natural to us, so the task of education is more to understand the whole
in which those laws have practical meaning than to make sure that we know the universal within our
already concrete action (the task of the ancients). This power of the individual conscience to “inter-
nalize” fixed content and claim authority for its own judgments is a modern achievement. It is not that
the Greeks were not able to live with multiple commitments (as represented by the panoply of gods),
but that they could not understand the power of the individual agent over that multiplicity. It was the
objective order of value that allowed the commitments to coexist.
136 hegel’s conscience

arriving at an intention. The effect of evaporating the norms is to turn their force
from that of necessity to that of possibility. The various universal aspects become
“fluid” and can therefore be understood in their relations to the overall circumstances
and possibilities of action.
This move to possibility seems to open the door to the forms of detachment ana-
lyzed in chapter 3, for there is no guarantee that what the individual judges to be right
from the perspective of possibility will turn out to be anything other than a contingent
product of his own idiosyncracies. Because the negativity of judgment in “Morality”
has no objective context, conscience’s judgment of the good action is still burdened
with an ought, namely that the judgment ought to identify an action that is actually
We need to be very careful how we conceive of the deficiency of formal conscience.
Recent commentators have claimed that Hegel’s arguments against conscience, both
here and in the Phenomenology, are arguments for a form of fallibilism.56 Fallibilism is
the position that knowledge can be well-justified and yet turn out not to be true. It can
seem that Hegel takes conscience to be subject to error in this way because after all, if
individual conscience were not fallible, why would we need the truth-conditions (not
to mention the enforcement mechanisms) supplied by Ethical Life?
Hegel does think that there is an external dimension to the assessment of action, so
an agent declaring his certainty in an action’s goodness does not make it good. But
Hegel also thinks that the claim of fallibilism goes awry if it means that conscience is
fallible, and seeing why he thinks this brings out more clearly just how he conceives of
the authority of conscience.
Hegel rejects in very strong terms the idea that the agent herself should think of
conscience as capable of error. In the handwritten notes to PR §137, he writes “an erring
conscience—Thereby the person gives up his dignity, substantiality” (§137HW, W 7,
257). He then writes about the underlying trust that holds a society together, and con-
trasts with it the following:

If I had to presuppose that they were erring consciences, [who] recognized as right
only what they found in their subjective conscience, so that they [could] find
therein the opposite of everything that is right and ethical, then I would find myself
in more danger than among robbers, for [at least] I know of them that they are
robbers—but these [erring consciences] have the external appearance and all the
ways of talking—even of religion, of right, of the good, of conscience. (§137HW,
W 7, 258)

Hegel rejects the idea of an erring conscience because conscience is the basic responsi-
bility one takes for one’s actions, and as such is the source of our “dignity and substan-
tiality.” The claim of conscience is a claim of reliability—that one’s judgments are
formed with due consideration of the operative deliberative presumptions in our

See especially Westphal (2003). Speight (2001) stresses the “corrigibility” of the knowledge of
one’s intention, and equates that with claims about conscience that imply fallibilism.
137 Deliberation and Justification

society and that one is willing to defend one’s actions with reasons. Conscience thus
expresses the default entitlement we have for our beliefs, an entitlement that depends
on the assumption that our beliefs and intentions are formed in a reliable way. For me
to say that I have an erring conscience is to declare my unreliability, and thereby to
declare that I cannot be trusted to do what is right. So fallibilism about the content of
one’s judgments in specific cases can be admitted, but conscience is a question of one’s
commitment to will what is good, and thus one cannot impute to oneself an erring
conscience. To say that conscience is fallible would be tantamount to saying that we
should be skeptical about the “external appearances” of the goodness of other agents.
We would have to challenge them at every moment to give evidence to show that they
really mean what they say and believe. This would lead to the collapse of ordinary
ethical practice.57
In a recent book Will Dudley comes closer to getting the deficiency of formal
conscience right in his cogent account of how the practical philosophy is guided by the
transitions in the Logic.58 Dudley argues that conscience is a relatively low-level embodi-
ment of freedom owing to its inadequate judgmental structure. He writes, “It is thus
the logical limitations of judgment that limit the moral will, that make it conceptually
incapable of being the actuality of freedom.”59 In his reading of how conscience matches
up with judgment, Dudley’s main negative criterion for freedom is “externality.” As
long as the subject and predicate are external to each other (a singular action X and the
predicate good in “X is good” are external to each other), the agent who acts on such a
judgment is not free. The characteristic feature of the judgment is that the identity of
the copula is “merely immediate,” so that “the individual subject and the universal
predicate are mutually external.”60 Dudley associates this structure with the category of
finitude, which must be overcome in order to truly be free. He reads conscience as
engaged in subsuming “a singular (this action) under a universal (the concept of the
good),”61 which is the structure of an assertoric judgment (the first of Hegel’s judg-
ments of the Concept). He writes that this judgment “is called assertoric because it is
merely asserted, and its justification is therefore merely subjective. That is, its justifica-
tion does not rely on an internal determination of the particular contents of the
universal concept (‘good action’), but on something external to that concept.”62 Because

This is much the same point that Williams makes in writing of the need to restrict challenges to
those that are motivated by specific concerns. He writes, “Overlooking this connection will lead us to
transform the ever-present possibility of contextually appropriate demands for evidence into a[n]
unrestricted insistence on grounds, encouraging us to move from fallibilism to radical skepticism.”
Williams (2001), 150.
Dudley (2002). One main reason that Dudley’s argument takes the direction it does is that his
overall goal is to show how freedom for Hegel is ultimately only achieved in “Absolute Spirit,” and most
fully in philosophy itself. My view is that the perspectives of agency, on the one hand, and art, religion,
and philosophy, on the other, are more continuous.
Dudley (2002), 53.
Dudley (2002), 43.
Dudley (2002), 51.
Dudley (2002), 51.
138 hegel’s conscience

he holds that all that conscience can use to determinate its duties is “subjective
certainty,” Dudley goes so far as to say that the moral will is “reduced” to the level of
conscience, or mere assertion.
While I agree that judgment has the deficiency that Dudley ascribes to it, I think
that his critique does not map onto actual conscience. Dudley is selling conscience
short even at the level of judgment, for an individual who judges through conscience
is capable of making what Hegel calls an apodictic judgment. This kind of judgment
can move from the particulars of a situation to a universal category, and indeed Hegel’s
own example of the apodictic judgment (the highest level of judgment) is “The action
constituted in such and such a way is right” (L II; SL, 661). This is the highest level of
judgment because it contains the determinations of rightness (the particulars of “such
and such a way”) that accounts for the rightness of this individual action. Even formal
conscience has the resources of the Good, and indeed many moral reasons at its dis-
posal, a point which Hegel assumes in his discussion in §140 of the many ways to abuse
the authority of this judgment.
Yet Dudley is on the right track with his claim about conscience as judgment that
“its justification does not rely on an internal determination of the particular contents
of the universal concept (‘good action’),” for at the level of formal conscience the
“internal determination” of the good action is underdescribed. There are general delib-
erative presumptions, but no context to warrant the default entitlement for one’s
beliefs. Formal conscience must take every situation as an occasion for moral deliber-
ation because it assumes that it will only be justified if it can provide prior grounding
for its actions. But such a grounding assumption ensures that this standpoint will fall
prey to skeptical arguments that can question in an unrestricted way the justification
of one’s claim to truth (rightness, goodness).
The essential deficiency of the judgment is the inability to exclude other reasons
that may defeat the obligation of promise-keeping. The structure of the judgment
itself cannot account for that exclusion. What “actual conscience” needs to know is not
only a number of particulars that could make the action right, but also that these are
all the relevant reasons and that there are precedence relations among them with
objective standing. The requirements of deliberative closure and objective precedence
relations take us beyond the judgment of conscience.
But we cannot yet go straight to Ethical Life (where these requirements are satis-
fied), for we have not yet exhausted the formal rationality of conscience. In the same
section in which Hegel calls conscience the power of judgment, he also refers to
conscience as “the actuality of the Good” (§138). The latter phrase indicates another
conceptual activity, an activity more advanced than the forms of judgment. In the final
section I will show how Hegel’s theory of the inference represents the rationality of the
subject in a well-defined context.


In order to understand the second power of conscience, the way in which it is the
“actuality of the Good,” we will need to understand Hegel’s account of the disjunctive
139 Deliberation and Justification

inference and of the inference of action. In his Logic Hegel’s account of the inference
begins with the two premise and conclusion argument structures we typically label
syllogisms. All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; Socrates is mortal. These are what
Hegel calls “formal” inferences, which are quite naturally thought of as subjective
forms that can be filled by any sort of content. But Hegel writes that “[e]verything is an
inference” (E §181), a point which seems to take us well beyond our intuitive grasp of
the syllogism. Hegel nonetheless claims that we are familiar with many forms the

[T]he various forms of the inference reassert themselves continually in our cogni-
tion. For instance, when someone hears the creaking of a cart in the street as he
wakes on a winter’s morning and is led by that to the conclusion that it must have
frozen quite hard, he is performing here the operation of inferring, and we repeat
this operation every day in the most varied and complicated ways. (E §183Z)

We would normally say that we draw an inference here from the sound of the creaking
cart, via the premise that carts creak when it gets very cold, to the conclusion that it
must have gotten very cold the night before. The inference is supposed to be an advance
on the judgment because it not only separates the moments, or exhibits the differences
of the Concept (and of empirical judgments), but also connects them in a way that is
more determinate than the mere “is” of the judgment. We could make the judgment
that Socrates, because he is human, is mortal, but the logical structure of such a judg-
ment is made more explicit when recast as an inference.
The inferences that Hegel details in the Science of Logic are distinguished by the
relationships within them between the moments of the Concept (individuality, partic-
ularity, universality). Hegel presents three general kinds of inferences, beginning with
the familiar formal inferences, then moving to inferences of “reflection,” and con-
cluding with inferences of “necessity.” The goal of the development of the inference is
to make the universal, particular, and individual terms stand in a necessary unity, such
that each is exhaustively defined through the others. For moral judgment and deliber-
ation, this development aims at a conception of rationality that accounts for all the
morally relevant features of a situation and gives the precedence relations that deter-
mined an individual content as a necessary action.
The aim of full rationality is obviously not met in the first category of inferences,
whose formality can be seen as the source of one stock criticism of Kantian morality.
On a simplistic reading of Kant he has a conception of many perfect duties, each with
the force of necessity, and a model of subsuming cases under the universal that in
many cases will produce bad practical inferences. So a naive Kantian formal inference
might go as follows: All promise-breaking is wrong; this action involves promise-
breaking; this action is wrong. Or reformulated in terms of duty: In all actions there is
a duty not to break one’s promises; with this action I would break my promise; this
action is wrong. But the deliberative presumptions in favor of promise-keeping can be
defeated. Hegel’s full story of the inference aims to cover the whole case, meaning that
it lays out the precedence relations in their totality, thereby accounting for all possible
140 hegel’s conscience

defeaters, bringing deliberative closure, and thus securing the necessity of the singular
Hegel frequently indicates the deficiency of the lower-level inferences with the lan-
guage of the ought and writes of the goal of the process as a “totality” in which the
ought is overcome.63 The goal of the development of the inference is reached with the
disjunctive inference in which the ought has been overcome because the totality of
the possible determinations has been made explicit. This inference marks a distinc-
tively Hegelian conception of rationality, and in presenting it he characteristically relies
on his conception of “self-relating negativity.” In a disjunctive inference an individual
term, specified through the particulars, exhausts the “differences” within the concrete
universal. Hegel notes that this inference can be represented schematically in either of
the two following ways:

A is either B or C or D, A is either B or C or D,
But A is B, But A is neither C nor D,
Therefore A is neither C nor D. Therefore A is B. (L II, 147; SL, 701)

The basic move here is to individuate a term (e.g., a right action = A), and thereby
specify its content, through determinate exclusions.64 In relation to the moments of the
Hegelian Concept, the achievement of this figure is to unify all three moments, univer-
sality, singularity, and particularity, in the middle term. It does this because the “genus”
is divided into its “species,” which Hegel calls the “total particularization.” The content
of A is secured as a “negative unity, the reciprocal exclusion of the determinations” (L II,
146; SL, 701), or what Hegel calls the “self-referring determination” of the second
premise (and the conclusion). This is an identity that is mediated through the determi-
nate exclusions made possible by the exhaustive “either-or” of the particulars.
How exactly does the model of the disjunctive inference help with the problem of
deliberation? The achievement of this inference is twofold. First, it includes a concep-
tion of the totality of the determinations that provides an exhaustive enumeration of
the morally relevant factors. Second, it provides determinate relations of exclusion that
make possible comparative assessments of the various factors. These are what I have

A passage from the very end of “Subjectivity” in the Science of Logic sums up the entire progres-
sion of inference through its forms. This passage provides a concise contrast in terms of the ought of
relational identity (of judgment) and the conception of totality that is the endpoint of the development
of the inference: “The figures of the inference exhibited each determinacy of the Concept individually
as the middle term, which at the same time is the Concept as an ought-to-be, as a demand that the
mediating factor shall be the Concept’s totality. But the different genera of the inference exhibit the
stages of fulfillment or concretion of the middle term. In the formal inference the middle term is only
posited as totality in that all determinacies, though each singly, function as the mediating factor. In the
inferences of reflection the middle term appears as the unity that gathers together externally the deter-
minations of the extremes. In the inference of necessity it has likewise determined itself to the unity
that is no less developed and total than simple, and the form of the inference which consisted in the
difference of the middle term from its extremes has thereby sublated itself.” L II, 148; SL, 703.
In Brandom’s language, it is the point that the content of a term (or claim), its meaning, is given
through its incompatibility relations. See Brandom (2002a).
141 Deliberation and Justification

called objective precedence relations. For moral action, let us take as the “universal”
genus the predicate “right.” Corresponding to Hegel’s “species” are the “right-making”
features of the situation, those things that can favor or disfavor acting in one way or
another. In the promise-keeping case there is the obligation incurred by making the
promise, but there may also be, for example, obligations to third parties that take pre-
cedence over my keeping the promise. Taking the disjunctive inference as the model,
one could say that A is an action made right by B or C or D, where each of those stand
for the reasons that are relevant for the rightness of the action. When deliberating on a
course of action in conscience, all of the precedence relations between these reasons
come into play, and deliberative closure is reached once one is satisfied that one has
comprehended the totality of the context of action and understood all the precedence
relations. For this conclusion to be the verdict of conscience, to express my conviction,
I must be aware that I have taken everything relevant into account. My practical
conclusion may be explicitly based on a subset of those relevant factors, but an account
of the total action will need to be able to say why many of them were not, finally,
important. Thus the rationality of conscience is that of the disjunctive inference in
which all particulars are accounted for, and conscience concludes its deliberation in a
singular action based on which reasons are decisive within the totality.
I have been referring to reasons in this presentation of the inference, but the full
account of the rationality of action given in the Logic turns on a totality conceived in
terms of purposes, and hence in terms of value.65 Hegel’s abstract formulation of value
is the Idea of the Good, and conscience comes on the scene in the Philosophy of Right
to provide the moment of particularization for that Good through action on specific
purposes. The lesson of the transition from conscience (and from Morality in general)
to Ethical Life is that the Good and conscience are only successfully integrated within
the totality that is Ethical Life. Conscience sets the formal deliberative structure, but
each individual on his own cannot secure the conditions of value and cannot deter-
mine the correct priority relations. The demands of the Good are limitless, but the
institutions channel our valuing into determinate purposes and bring institutional
action to bear on moral problems. Ethical Life can still be very demanding, but its set
of contexts do accord balance between the morally good conceived in abstract universal
terms and the good life as what he calls a “concrete and fulfilled life.” So, for instance,
being a husband with children would for most of us rule out the demand that we
donate one of our kidneys to save a stranger’s life. In this sense Ethical Life as a whole
gives conditions for excluding the unlimited pursuit of morality that our universality
might otherwise demand of us.
We can now tie together the main themes from Herman with the Default and
Challenge account of justification and with the activity of conscience in judgment and
deliberation. Modern Ethical Life presents the agent of conscience with what Herman
calls a unified deliberative field. The abstract requirements of Abstract Right and
Morality are integrated into a single conception so that they inform one’s contexts of
action, but they do not normally demand distinct lines of inquiry (as in “Okay, let’s see

I have analyzed the passages from the Logic in Moyar (2007b).
142 hegel’s conscience

what morality tells me in this situation and I will see if I can nevertheless do what I
want to do”). It is not as if one no longer thinks of moral requirements when one
thinks of oneself within Ethical Life. But the incompatibilities or exclusions implied by
morality (general principles such as to care for the welfare of others, treat others as
persons, etc.) are incorporated into the shape of one’s purposes.
There are “normal” or regular nesting relationships which secure the default enti-
tlement of individual action and ordinary judgments most of the time (Herman’s
point that judgment is routine). These relationships also form the context for
well-grounded challenges to an individual’s judgments, for they provide specific (rather
than unrestricted) grounds on which others can question the rightness of one’s actions.
The moral conflict that occasions deliberation is not typical in Ethical Life, but it is
perfectly intelligible within and between the various contexts of Ethical Life. It is
essential to the nature of modern Ethical Life that there be distinct normative spheres,
each with its own principles of justification (its own distinctive purposes). To show
how these distinctive purposes fit together as a whole is to meet the task of deliberation
at the institutional level (to deny such multiplicity would mean ignoring rather than
incorporating the dynamics of deliberation). The institutional purposes are the major
source of what Herman calls “deliberative presumptions.” There are such presump-
tions characteristic of the family, of various dimension of Civil Society, and of the
State. The point of a dialectical structure of a whole system of institutional purposes is
to be able to say that certain deliberative presumptions are “higher” or “stronger” than
others. This is not to say that in a conflict between the demands of the State and the
demands of the family deliberation must always favor the State. For the presumptions
are circumstance-sensitive. If there is a war of self-defense, the presumption of the
State does indeed override all others; but if there is a family crisis and the State is under
no threat, the presumptions in favor of the family may very well take precedence.
Hegel’s conception of Ethical Life thus does provide objective precedence relations, but
it does so in a way that is not rigid or mechanical. It makes the process of deliberation
less common and less onerous than in the vacuum of “Morality,” but it does not elim-
inate the need for deliberation.
We now have a clear picture of how structural features of deliberation inform
Ethical Life and how Ethical Life is supposed to provide objective precedence relations.
But we have not yet seen how those relations themselves are grounded. What accounts
for their rationality? Hegel gives arguments for the rationality of the entire system as an
interlocking set of inferences, but that structure on its own does not say why the pur-
poses are valuable. His program in practical philosophy, as we have seen, is to develop
ethical content from “the Concept,” which means developing it immanently from the
structure of the rational will. The structure of purposive agency has led him to the
Good and conscience, but there seems still to be a large gulf between these concepts
and the specific institutions he outlines in “Ethical Life.” We thus come to the role for
mutual recognition, for recognition provides a bridge principle to move from the
formal freedom of deliberative structures to the freedom embodied in the purposes of
ethical institutions.
mutual recognition

The justification of ethical content in Hegel is typically formulated as the question of

how to account for objective freedom. Objective freedom is the freedom of an
individual agent, and according to Hegel’s stated method in the Philosophy of Right, the
ethical content that the objectively free individual acts upon should be derivable from
the concept of the rational will. Though this is the concept of the individual rational
will, Hegel criticizes the atomism of Rousseau and of the social contract tradition gen-
erally and thus rejects approaches to content on rational choice models of what a
rational individual would consent to under the appropriate conditions.1 Hegel’s argu-
ments on this score count against any attempt to view ethical content simply as the
objective conditions for subjective freedom, which would still put the specifically
ethical dimension in individual subjective freedom.2 Hegel’s stated alternative at key
moments in the Phenomenology and the Philosophy of Right (in the introductory
sections of “Ethical Life” and of “The State”) invokes the priority of social substance
to individual freedom. Hegel’s claims seem to imply that the “free” content of the
individual will can simply be imputed to the individual (as binding on his will)
regardless of whether the individual identifies with the content (freely, or in his
conscience). Hegel’s many claims in support of subjective freedom (some of which we
have seen) thus set the interpretive task of squaring the formal freedom of the individual
subject and the objective freedom of the social substance.
Mutual recognition has rightly been seen as the key to meeting this challenge. But
because Hegel does not spell this function out in the Philosophy of Right, his inter-
preters have to reconstruct the exact nature of recognition’s role in securing content.

Neuhouser (2000) shows how much of Hegel’s claims about “social freedom” can be read in a
contractualist mode.
This is the strategy pursued by Patten (1999), who reads objective freedom as fostering the capac-
ities for subjective freedom, which he defines (as we saw in chapter 2) in very Kantian terms.

144 hegel’s conscience

The most natural reading is that mutual recognition consists of treating each other as
free, and ethical content consists of the specific ways in which we respect each other
as free agents. This is a second-person answer to the shortcomings of first-person
(empty and formal) and third-person (too external) approaches to ethical content.
But how exactly is the second-person stance supposed to help? On the face of it, this
second-person stance looks like another attempt to take individual subjective free-
dom as primary and argue for objective freedom as the conditions to achieve
subjective freedom (we saw a version of this in Patten’s account in 2.4). Other free
individuals are the condition for affirming my subjective freedom in an objective,
quasi-external manner.
This doubling of subjective freedom does not on the surface get us very far in
locating ethical content that could have the priority and rationality Hegel ascribes to
ethical substance. We can choose to treat each other as formally free in an infinite
variety of ways, including ways that will seem highly unethical to many (is the labor
market a domain of mutual recognition or of exploitation?). Without an account of
why some of these ways are better than others, an account that would seem to need to
presuppose content as given prior to the recognition relationship, recognition suffers
from the same formalism objection as formal subjective freedom generally. Even if we
argue that there must be some such objective content through which we recognize each
other as free, we do not seem much further along in determining the specific nature of
that content.
The mistake of the natural reading of recognition is that it tries to get too much out
of a single type of activity. Treating another agent in a certain formally specified way,
or taking another agent to have the abstract capacity for freedom, is too simple a
model, even when mutuality is built into it. That activity cannot both affirm the agent’s
freedom and establish an action as ethical (i.e., having ethical content). In this chapter
I argue that the role of recognition in determining ethical content is multilayered
and best conceived in terms of value. As I indicated in the last chapter (4.2), Hegel’s
historical account of Spirit assumes that we begin from a form of life that has an up-
and-running system of values (the Greeks). We cannot provide an original derivation
or construction of those values from a single principle, not even from mutual recogni-
tion. But recognition does serve as a central principle, as the social correlate of
conscience, for understanding Hegel’s performative view.
From this account of value, two related distinctions in recognition become cru-
cial. The first of these is recognition as a process versus recognition as a relation. The
subjective process dimension of recognition, which is the focus of Hegel’s use of rec-
ognition in the Phenomenology, is an account of how a society’s values are trans-
formed over time through various, progressively more transparent attempts to
justify actions to each other. By contrast, the objective relation dimension of recog-
nition is a view of existing norms at a single point in time as the structure of value
through which we recognize each other’s actions as free and rational. This relational
dimension of recognition is the focus of the PR account of Ethical Life, in which the
historical account takes a back seat to the logical account of the modern ethical
145 Mutual Recognition

The second distinction is between direct and indirect recognition. In recognizing

each other’s actions, we recognize first and foremost the value of each other’s purposes.
This is what I call indirect recognition, in which another agent’s capacities for freedom
are only secondarily an object of our attitudes. The agent herself typically acts because
she takes her purpose to be valuable, not because she expects the recognition by others
of her agency. Such an expectation reflects the default entitlement that comes with act-
ing in normal contexts of action. Of course there are some actions that are performed
for the sake of explicit or direct recognition (honor-based actions, such as dueling,
being the most obvious of these). Direct recognition is the norm in case of challenges
to an agent’s action, which brings out the full justification of the action and thus the-
matizes the agent’s competence as a free agent. Such challenges drive the process of
recognition forward, fueling the transformation of norms over time.


In this section I lay out the elements of my account of recognition by identifying a
number of roles for recognition and by showing how recognition completes Hegel’s
performative account of practical reason. I present the view here without extensive
reference to Hegel’s texts, which I analyze in support of the view in subsequent sec-
tions. One word on those texts is in order here. I do not orient my treatment of recog-
nition by its most basic and most famous use in Hegel’s system, which is the struggle
to the death and the Master-Slave dialectic in the Phenomenology. The “struggle for
recognition” portrayed there as a fight to the death to prove one’s freedom is not the
best model for thinking about recognition in Hegel’s ethical thought. That struggle
takes place at the very basic level in which the human being comes to think of himself
in universal terms rather than as a mere creature of desire. The issues of desire and
reason, and of competitive contexts of recognition, do reappear at a higher level in
Hegel’s ethics, but they do so within the context of intentional action that already
assumes far more about the agent than does the master-servant account. We distort
Hegel’s ethics if we take the master-servant account as paradigmatic for the role of rec-
ognition in Hegel’s ethics.3
The three moments of action in Hegel are the abstract purpose (universal), acting
in a specific way to accomplish that purpose (particular), and the accomplished action
(individual). I have argued that each of the first two moments corresponds to a set of
conditions that must be fulfilled for the action to count as ethical, and that an action is
ethical if those two sets of conditions are jointly satisfied and held together as a unitary
whole by the individual agent. Recognition plays a primary role in both the universal
conditions of the purpose and in the individuality of the accomplished action, and a
secondary role for the particular conditions. The universal dimension captures the role
of recognition at the “input” end of agency, and the individual dimension is the role of
recognition at the “output” end of agency. In between is the activity of the agent her-
self, including the deliberative activity of conscience in arriving at a specific intention.

Kojeve has rightly been taken to task for doing just this. See Siep (1996) for a corrective.
146 hegel’s conscience

Recognition also plays a role in the moment of particularity or specification. In this

section I will flesh out how recognition functions within these three moments.
How does recognition function in the universal conditions of action and agency?
There are objective and subjective universal conditions for which recognition is central.
On the objective side there are rules of moral salience and the existing norms—the
deliberative presumptions—that represent the discrete ethical factors in any action.
On Hegel’s view these universal elements are binding because of their contribution to
the functioning of a form of life, or a shape of Spirit, for they are ways in which that
society’s individuals have come to guide their behavior towards one another. Also on
the objective side are the universal purposes that are open for individuals to pursue.
These are purposes that a society has come to recognize as valuable, such that individ-
uals pursuing them would be recognized as living valuable, free lives. In some societies
in history only the warrior and political classes pursued purposes fitting for free agents,
whereas today we think that all agents can pursue purposes, such as participating in the
political process, that are purposes of freedom. On the subjective side of universality
there are the wide range of capacities that individuals could only develop within the
proper social environment. This is the point, frequently made in discussions of recog-
nition’s role in Hegel’s argument against social contract theory, that the rational capac-
ities assumed by social contract theory as given in the state of nature (and thus available
for use in rationally choosing to enter the social contract) are in fact a product of
political community. As such a product, they cannot be used to legitimize that
community. The capacities for free action, including conscience itself, are products of
an environment in which the agent develops through a long process of practical edu-
cation in society’s norms. The capacity to take responsibility for one’s actions (and
beliefs and desires) is itself not natural or innate, but is developed through the expec-
tations of others that one do so and through having to respond to the consequences of
failing to take responsibility.
These universal capacities are instantiated in individuals and exercised in individual
cases in particular ways. Recognition is a secondary element in the conditions of par-
ticularity because when it comes to reaching a deliberative conclusion and taking
responsibility for this particular deed,4 the agent is concerned with the specifics of the
case and whether he, as this specific individual, can will it as his own. The subjective
particular conditions mainly concern one’s “internal” deliberative processes. In the
deliberative question—what am I to do?—the I is the empirical self with specific inter-
ests and a specific biography. Hegel takes his view to be distinct from Kant’s on just this
point. He presents the agent of conscience as not having to abstract from her empirical
self to arrive at her duty. The subjective particular conditions include this identification
of the self as a particular agent with a specific action, and the condition of actually
being motivated as a particular agent to perform the action. Even though I am gener-
ally disposed to act in the right way by virtue of the “second nature” I acquire as a

The action is still intended as a type of action, though the purpose is specific rather than
147 Mutual Recognition

member of an ethical community, I still must take responsibility for my desires and
interests as this particular self. The objective particular conditions are conditions of the
ethical landscape that present individuals with well-defined possibilities of action
through which they can instantiate the broader purposes. To take Hegel’s most
prominent example, the problem with the French Revolution was that it offered only
the abstract purpose of freedom as the will of all, and it could not provide differenti-
ated purposes of freedom because its conception of freedom did not respect the
particular conditions. The idea behind the freedom of Hegelian Ethical Life is to secure
institutional structures such that individuals can be recognized as free in their particular
pursuits rather than simply in the abstract.
The output of practical judgment and deliberation is the “accomplished action” on
ethical content in which the universal and particular conditions are jointly satisfied.
The conditions must be held together in an integrated whole, as I have repeatedly
stressed. The individual does aim at universality in his deliberation in so far as he aims
to act in a way that can be rationally justified, and his holding together the two dimen-
sions of the accomplished action (a particular action embodying universal capacities
and purposes) is the mark of actual conscience. It is the commitment to what I have
called CRICSUBJECTIVE. But the joint satisfaction of the conditions must have objective
existence as well, which is why recognition comes in at the output end of action. Recall
that in 3.3 we noted the problem that conscience claimed to “rule” over the moment of
substance. I took substance to be the moment of the accomplished action and recogni-
tion in conscience. To identify a role for recognition at the output end of conscience is
to claim that conscience does not rule absolutely over the moment of substance, for the
condition of recognition means that the success of one’s action (whether one’s purpose
is really accomplished) is not under one’s complete control.
Recognition is such an important dimension of Hegel’s ethics because it possesses
the structure of the individuality of the rational will, so that rational individuality and
mutual recognition ought to have the same success conditions. This is clear in Hegel’s
example of friendship (from PR §7), which is a form of recognition that is simulta-
neously a realization of the form of the rational will. When I commit to another person
as one of my standing purposes, as I do in friendship or love, I give up my abstract
universality (negate myself) by making myself dependent on that particular person.
That dependence counts as the self-referring negativity of individuality when the rec-
ognition is mutual, for then I see that the other who limits my will has negating himself
through me, and so in the other person I recognize myself. I thus see my limitation as
a self-limitation. Close friendship and romantic love are paradigmatic instances of
direct recognition, even though they are not always or purely direct (more on this
below). Indirect recognition works through the purposes of actions by enabling indi-
viduals to exhibit their free agency in objective form. When for example I restore a
nineteenth-century house, I realize the values characteristic of an aesthetic apprecia-
tion for historical architecture and interior design. I take my particular actions to
express these “universal” values and other agents recognize my work as a distinctive
expression of those values. Of course others might say that I wrecked the house with
my distinctive touches, and so they would not recognize my actions as expressing the
148 hegel’s conscience

universal values. I cannot claim that I accomplished my purpose if I am the only one
who sees my work as the expression of the original values that went into the design and
decoration of the house.
It can seem that actions are recognized only in so far as they meet the requirements
of existing universal norms, so there is a strong temptation to think of the universal
conditions of action as all there is to recognition. One might think that even though
the accomplished action is always a particular accomplishment, it is recognized as a
free action and as the product of free agency solely on the basis of its conformity to the
universal. But there are two lines of thought about particularity in Hegel that count
against this idea. One is that he thinks that ethical assessment is relative to the finite
conditions of agency, so that we recognize agents as free and ethical in relation to their
particular circumstances. Hegel addresses this point in the handwritten notes to §124
of the Philosophy of Right:

Action is actuality. So we must take into account particularity, circumstances, all

advantages, disadvantages of birth, of talent, character—extent [Umfang] of the
deed, effects—Must be viewed without envy. I was not this, am not this. I for my
part, must be actuality within my relationships, what I can—What the person
should do, that he can do, Fichte—such empty universal words. What each should
do is different for each—Moral evaluation of people—assessment of himself and
others, himself in relation with others, and others in relation with himself.
(§124HW, W 7, 235)

Actuality includes all the circumstances of action, including the biography of the free
agent himself. Hegel criticizes Fichte here precisely for ignoring the particular and tak-
ing the universal conditions of freedom as sufficient. For Hegel the universal standards
of evaluation should not be applied as abstract judgments, but only through compar-
ative assessments based on who a person is and what, on the basis of that identity, they
have done. In recognizing another as free, I bring my own situation to the table and
must be prepared to offer a fair assessment, “without envy,” so that I do not devalue
another’s actions based on the unearned privileges the agent was born with (wealth,
physical characteristics, intelligences, etc.), and, conversely, so that I do not devalue
myself because I have not managed to do so much compared to others.
The second dimension of Hegel’s view of particularity that bears on recognizing
the accomplished action as particular is his often repeated point about the value of
particularity in the modern age. The “right of particularity” is the right of the subject
to find satisfaction in his actions. This right is the source of the competitive struggle for
recognition in which individuals compete for honor and prestige as part of the normal
functioning of Civil Society. At the level of the accomplished action, this right means
that it does not count against an action’s value if the universal norm/purpose is given
a novel particular form. We are very good at recognizing actions as the expression of a
universal norm or purpose in the honor- and fame-seeking forms typical of Civil
Society. We also value people morally for demonstrating that they have shaped their
individual life through a distinctive pattern of practical incorporation of ethical
149 Mutual Recognition

concerns. It is not just that we concede to people leeway in their actions based on their
particularity, but rather we expect people to find their own satisfaction in their actions,
and modern institutions must be structured to enable that satisfaction. Hegel thus
writes, “In the states of antiquity, the subjective end was entirely identical [schlechthin
eins] with the will of the State; in modern times, however, we expect to have our own
views, our own volition, and our own conscience” (§261Z).5 We expect people to act on
their own conscience rather than to look to an external authority to tell them what to
do (as always, Hegel’s main opponent here is the Catholic father-confessor). This right
is institutionalized in Civil Society, but also in romantic love with its mutual recogni-
tion of each other as valuable in each other’s full contingency. Hegel calls this right the
“universal actual principle of a new form of the world” (§124), which expresses the way
that the universal and particular are integrated in modern institutions. The right of
particularity itself has become a universal principle for ethical content, which means
that the universal and particular elements of action are united in modern ethical
The interplay of the universal and particular elements of action is what drives the
progressive social process of recognition forward. The meanings of the universal norms
that set the input conditions for deliberation are constantly developing as the result of
new actions on those universal conditions by particular individuals. The process of
recognition is dynamic because the values that are instantiated are subject to inter-
pretation and can be revised over time as new exemplars of the value are realized.
Individuals cannot simply invent new interpretations of the universal norms, for their
actions are only successful in so far as they are recognized as such by other agents (at
the “output” end). For Hegel this process is always gradually taking place, but at certain
crisis points the old norms come to be seen as fundamentally flawed and a new shape
of Spirit is born, a shape with dramatically new forms of recognition. Hegel exhibited
this in the portrayal of “Culture” leading to the French Revolution’s’ concept of abso-
lute freedom, a new ideal of fully mutual, though abstract, recognition (which of
course had problems of its own).
As a process, recognition should be construed as a source of value, for value is
invested in certain actions and social practices based on the ability of individuals to
recognize each other within them. We do not invent or construct value on this picture,
but the values in a society are transformed through processes in which societies and
individuals discover how they are able to flourish. At most (nonrevolutionary) points
in time, the values in a society will demonstrate stable relations of recognition. The
creation of new constellations of objective value is a slow process that can take gener-
ations, but when decisive shifts do occur, we are no longer able to treat each other as we
had before, and there is no going back.

The “expect” in Nisbet’s translation does not have quite the same connotations as the “expect”
that I am opposing to “concede.” It comes across in the translation as an expectation that my claim to
my own views and conscience will be acknowledged by society. The German word is fordern, for which
Nisbet himself gives “to require, to demand” in the glossary. There is thus more of a suggestion in the
original that having one’s own conscience is also expected of the individual.
150 hegel’s conscience

We should not overstate the dynamic or process element in Hegel’s ethics,

though owing to the drama and conflict of the moments of revolutionary transfor-
mation the urge to do so is understandable. If our norms were always in major flux,
we could not conceive of justification on the Default and Challenge model I laid out
in the last chapter. The default entitlement of our beliefs about what is right and
wrong depends on a largely shared context of meanings, of objective relations
through which we recognize each other’s actions. If the relations were always
breaking down (as they do in times of transition), we would always be challenging
each other, but there would then be no stable shared basis from which to issue such
challenges or to answer them. My challenge to the justifiability of your action is a
call for direct recognition, for you to show me why I should treat your action as the
result of free agency. You must show me that you can make your competence
explicit. But it is crucial that I can only challenge you if I have a recognized basis for
doubting the rightness of your action and thus for questioning your competence.
Recognition is a two-way street. If I just say “bullshit” I have not given you reason
to recognize my authority to challenge you.
In ordinary ethical practice recognition will be indirect recognition, which is a way
of relating to each other as free through actions on purposes with recognized value.
We do not typically thematize each other’s competence in our actions. Even what
looks like the paradigm case of direct recognition—the romantic love of modern
marriage—is mediated by the norms of the institution (I elaborate on this in 6.1).
Love within marriage and thus marriage itself are sustained through the patterns of
action appropriate to married life. A marriage in which “How do I know that you
really love me?” were a serious question every day would be a marriage in danger of
disintegration. Yet the possibility of direct recognition is always there, preventing
married life from becoming a mere going through the motions. So too in Hegel’s
other institutions, I act with the awareness of being in a context of recognition, and
so under the assumption that I recognize others as free and they recognize me as free.
But I act on purposes I take to have value, not because I can thereby prove to you that
I am free. Those purposes have come to have objective value through processes of
recognition over time, but I do not typically thematize those processes in determining
my action.


Recognition is central to the very method of the Phenomenology, for the dialectic of
shapes of consciousness is driven forward by challenges to the claim of each shape by
another consciousness.6 These challenges are immanent to the shape itself, for they are
made based on the conceptual resources of that very shape and they make explicit the
shape’s limitations and contradictions. The account in the Phenomenology is not merely
negative, for it is designed to show both the limitations of various claims to knowledge

This challenge-structure is only implicit in the “Consciousness” chapters, but becomes explicit
with the “Self-consciousness” chapter and continues to be so throughout the rest of the book.
151 Mutual Recognition

and that those claims are grounded in self-consciousness itself.7 To be satisfactorily

grounded in self-consciousness means to be grounded not just in an individual I, but in
a form of universal self-consciousness, which means in a form of recognition. The pro-
cess of recognition is a source of value in the Phenomenology account because through
challenges to the actions of individuals, new conceptions of value emerge. Conscience
has a special status in the process of recognition as the shape of practical reason that
incorporates the lessons of all the other shapes.8 In chapter 3 I interpreted Hegel’s claim
that conscience contains the other moments, but I left open there how exactly conscience
relates to the moment of substance, which is the moment of objective value and the
communal recognition of that value. In this section I analyze the initial relationship of
conscience and substance more closely, claiming that the recognition of the actions of
conscience should be conceived as a form of indirect recognition.
To prepare the claim that conscience is a shape of recognition, Hegel recapitulates
his presentation of the “shapes of Spirit” from ancient Greece up to his own day. He
presents each of the three main sections as culminating in a distinctive “self ” that he
describes in terms of a distinctive mode of recognition. There is first the “legal status”
of the Roman world in which each individual is recognized as a numerically distinct
person. The second self is the self of “absolute freedom” that was the ruling concept of
the French Revolution. The “object and content of this self is being-recognized or
universal will and knowing” (341, ¶633), the Rousseauian project of full mutuality in a
State governed by the general will. The third self is conscience, which is the shape of
autonomy in which actions are recognized by other agents based on the belief and lan-
guage of the agent. Each of these selves arises within Hegel’s dialectical argument as the
result of the failure of a certain social world, a certain configuration of value, to sustain
stable patterns of recognition of individual and State action. The Roman world arises
from the tragic conflict between traditional piety and State power (Antigone and
Creon), the French Revolution from the alienated condition of the poor in aristocratic
society and the conflict of religion and the Enlightenment, and conscience from the
displacement of Kantian moral teleology.
Before examining the move to conscience, it is worth sketching the earlier movement
to modernity that Hegel identifies in the Phenomenology with the “alienated Spirit” of
seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France. This period’s normative disruption renders

Each main division of immediate content culminates by locating its ground or ultimate presup-
position in self-consciousness. This includes the explicit version at the end of “Force and the
Understanding” and conscience as the practical self-consciousness that is the culmination of Spirit.
That this is Hegel’s intent is clear enough in the preface, where he ends the famous description of the
Phenomenology as a ladder to Science with the following claims: “So long as Science lacks this actual
dimension, it is only the content as the in-itself, the purpose that is as yet still something inward, not yet
Spirit, but only spiritual Substance. This in-itself has to express itself outwardly and become for-itself,
and this means simply that it has to posit self-consciousness as one with itself ” (25, ¶26).
The Phenomenology has to show how self-consciousness belongs to Science, which means showing
that self-consciousness is the self-knowledge or being-for-self of spiritual substance. By ending his
account of Spirit with conscience, then, Hegel is showing how ethical substance is one with
See Redding (2007) for an account that links conscience and recognition.
152 hegel’s conscience

all value up for grabs, so to speak, by disrupting the dependence of value on any divine
or natural order.9 Specifically, alienated Spirit prepares the ground for the Enlightenment,
which tries to naturalize all value by bringing it to the level of ordinary human interests.10
The “truth of the Enlightenment” in Hegel’s narrative is the shape of “utility” that tri-
umphs by reducing all the value-spheres to a single metric of usefulness to us. In this
move, “the heavens are transplanted down to earth” (316, ¶581) because the objective
value that had its grounding in the divine is now solely a function of human activity.
The step to absolute freedom is taken when the claim of utility is recognized for what
it in truth is, namely that there is nothing of value, no practical objectivity, other than
what we will to invest with value.11 Hegel thus describes absolute freedom as “self-
consciousness which grasps the fact that its certainty of itself is the essence of all the
spiritual spheres [Massen] of the real as well as of the supersensible world” (317, ¶584).
Self-consciousness is the ground or essence in the form of the universal will, which is a
form of “certainty of itself” and of recognition. The distinctive claim of the French
Revolution is that all value has its direct source in the universal recognition characterized
by a participatory political community in which all agents are in every important respect
equal. All the differentiated values and work of the different ethical spheres are collapsed
into this one source of value.12 This ideal contains a vision of self-determination and
equality, and thus a clear idea of mutual recognition (expressed in the Revolution in the
catchword of fraternity). But by interpreting the pure universal will as the sole source of
value, the only action possible is the destruction of existing social structures and the per-
secution of all enemies of “the people” in the Terror. In the isolation that the abstract free
will achieved in the French Revolution, the freedom of the general will forfeits positive
constructive action, leaving only the “fury of destruction.”13

Hegel champions the figure of Rameau from Diderot’s famous dialogue Rameau’s Nephew pre-
cisely because he embodies the pluralism of “culture” as “the widespread wealth of its moments.” (285,
¶524) The problem with this agent is not that he has appropriated the multiple sources of value and can
make use of them in witty speech, but rather that he cannot constructively act on them. His action is
only telling jokes, or put on a kind of theatrical show. The telos of modern freedom is to locate oneself
in one’s action, and the alienated self cannot do that.
The Enlightenment triumphs over religion, on Hegel’s view, because it shows the inconsistency
of the two sets of purposes, two sets of values, that the religious try to maintain in a “separate
housekeeping” (310, ¶572). The Enlightenment attempts to rationalize the world, but, in a replay of the
conflict of divine and human law (of Antigone and Creon), is burdened by its opposition to religion.
The enormity of this claim comes out in the takeover by the political community of divinity
itself. He thus comments on the “empty Supreme Being [Etre suprême]” as all that remains of the
divine. 318, ¶586.
317, ¶585.
Hegel writes, “Universal freedom, therefore, can produce neither a positive work nor a deed;
there is left for it only negative action; it is merely the fury of destruction.” 319, ¶589. Once this destructive
energy was spent, France naturally returned to a system of institutions that each express different
values. He writes, “[T]he organization of spiritual spheres [Massen] to which the plurality of individual
consciousnesses are assigned thus takes shape once more. These individuals . . . arrange themselves in
the various spheres, and return to an apportioned and limited task, but thereby to their substantial
actuality” (321, ¶593). The task set for the moral worldview is how to think of self-consciousness and the
freedom of recognition as the master value without reducing all value universal freedom. See also
318–19, ¶588, for a description of a differentiated freedom.
153 Mutual Recognition

The Kantian moral worldview shares with the French Revolution the idea that
human willing is the source of all value. Hegel distinguishes the two through the
claim that the moral worldview “lets its universality free” (341, ¶633). This refers to
Kant’s insistence on an objective world governed by natural laws that are distinct
from the moral law that agents give to themselves. The good will of the individual
agent is the sole source of moral worth, but the goodness of the world of determinate
purposes can only be the object of moral hope (for the world can only be known in
a strict sense through mechanistic laws). The “displacement” problem is that
particular moral actions are supposed to realize moral value in a world determined
by universal natural laws, but given the opacity of the will in Kant we never really
know if we have achieved moral value. In the passage in which Hegel links conscience
to recognition, he makes a point of saying that Kantian morality fails to provide
an adequate account of action because it lacks the moment of recognition. Hegel

The moral self-consciousness does not have this moment of being recognized, of
the pure consciousness which is there [da ist]; and it is thereby in general not acting,
not actualizing [nicht handelndes, nicht verwirklichendes]. Its in-itself is for it
either the abstract non-actual essence, or being as an actuality that is not spiritual.
(344–45, ¶640)14

I take it that what Hegel calls the moral worldview’s “abstract non-actual essence” is the
good will that does duty for duty’s sake. In other words, the good will is the source of all
value on Kant’s picture. As in the case of absolute freedom, the problem with the moral
self-consciousness is that it has no way to connect the unconditioned value of the good
will and the finite conditional value of determinate actions. In taking as the source of
value the good will defined in terms of the form of lawfulness, the Kantian picture
renders unclear how the specific purposes get their value or are affirmed as valuable
in action.
The moment of recognition as a “pure consciousness which is there,” on the other
hand, involves an agent both acting on a definite purpose that can be assessed by others
and affirming that purpose through the first-person avowal of the belief in its right-
ness. I discussed Hegel’s claim that conscience includes recognition in my opening
discussion of self-consciousness in chapter 1, where I related it to claims in Moran and
stressed the formal requirements of subjectivity contained in conscience (avowal and
transparency). We are now in a position to reexamine Hegel’s claims from the side of
the content of the action. Whereas earlier I put the emphasis on the agent’s commit-
ment, my analysis here focuses on the purpose of the action. The thrust of my argument
is that the recognition Hegel describes in the following passage is indirect recognition,
by which I mean recognition of the accomplished action rather than of one’s agency
itself (which would be direct recognition). Hegel writes:

The latter reference is a repetition of Hegel’s well-known claims that political right in Kant and
Fichte is “not spiritual” because it assumes that individuals are isolated and self-interested atoms.
154 hegel’s conscience

The existent [seiende] actuality of conscience, however, is an actuality that is self,

that is, a definite existence [Dasein] which is conscious of itself, the spiritual
element of becoming recognized. The deed is thus only the translation of its
individual content into the objective element in which the content is universal and
recognized, and it is just the fact that the content is recognized that makes the
action into an actuality. The action is recognized and thereby made actual because
the definitely existent [daseiende] actuality is immediately linked with the belief or
with the knowledge; or, in other words, the knowing of one’s purpose is immedi-
ately the element of definite existence, universal recognition. Because the essence
of the action, the duty, consists in the belief of conscience that it is such; this belief
is just the in-itself itself; it is the in-itself universal self-consciousness, or the being
recognized, and hence actuality. (345, ¶640)

The contrast Hegel is drawing with the moral self-consciousness turns primarily on
the references to “definite existence” and the “individual content.” Whereas the moral
self-consciousness valued action only according to the universal conditions of action,
conscience takes the individual content of the accomplished action as the target of
evaluation. The content is recognizable because it is an individual content rather than
an abstract universal requirement. The crux of this passage is the claim that “the know-
ing of one’s purpose is immediately the element of definite existence, universal recog-
nition.” In chapter 1 I aligned this claim with the transparency to truth of one’s
first-person belief. We can now say that the truth or objectivity here refers to the
objective value of the action. The claim is that the first-person knowledge of an inten-
tion is knowledge of why the action is valuable, which is knowledge of the purpose as
a universal. The distinctive mark of conscience is the commitment to nesting that
purpose within broader purposes (CRICSUBJECTIVE). That commitment, expressed in the
agent’s belief, is the “in-itself universal self-consciousness.” The agent is committed to
the objective value of the specific purposes, but from the analysis in chapter 2 it is now
clear that the specific purpose may only be valuable for others through (i.e., as medi-
ated by) the universal purposes in which my standing purpose is nested.
With the language of “translation” from the “individual” to the “objective,” Hegel is
saying that when one’s purpose is realized in action the value expressed in the individual
intention is instantiated in the actual objective world. He emphasizes that the content
is recognized, which thus makes the deed actual.15 It is a translation, meant to preserve
the content but change the form, because the value itself that I affirm in my knowledge
of my intention does not change in being recognized. Under the proper conditions,
what is known in my knowledge of the value in my action (the content of the inten-
tion) just is its recognized value (the content of the accomplished action). The agent of
conscience acts on specific purposes within contexts of action formed through
processes of recognition, so there is no gap to be bridged between reasons for me and

This is obscured by Miller’s translation of ¶640. He translates “er” with “it” instead of with
“content” in the second and third uses of “content” in my translation. English readers naturally take “it”
to refer to the deed, but in German there is no ambiguity.
155 Mutual Recognition

reasons for others. This analysis makes sense of Hegel’s comments following the above

There is, then, no more talk of good intentions coming to nothing, or of the good
man faring badly; on the contrary the duty that is known to be such is fulfilled and
becomes an actuality, just because the dutiful is the universal for all self-consciousnesses;
it is that which is recognized and thus is existent [Seiende]. (345, ¶640)

Hegel has eliminated the gap between the action’s intention, on the one hand, and the
actuality of the accomplished action as it is recognized by other agents, on the other.
The value of the action is in the accomplished action, not simply in the “good inten-
tion” that one claims to be behind an intention that has come to nothing.16 Because the
agent of conscience takes all circumstances into account in deliberation, he foresees
both the consequences of the action and how others will relate to it. His intentions, the
conclusions of his deliberations, therefore as a rule do not turn out badly.


An objection to my thesis that recognition is typically indirect derives from statements
in which Hegel seems to imply that all of ethics is a matter of direct recognition. The
implication in the following passage from the Encyclopedia account of “universal
self-consciousness” seems to be that in ethical contexts we always have the freedom of
other agents directly in view:

Each is thus universal self-consciousness and objective; each has real universality in
the shape of reciprocity [Gegenseitigkeit], in so far as each knows itself recognized
in the other free self, and is aware of this in so far as it recognizes the other and
knows him to be free.//This . . . is the form of consciousness of the substance of each
essential spirituality—of the family, fatherland, state, and of all the virtues, love,
friendship, valor, honor, fame. (E §436)

The agent’s freedom is objective “in the shape of reciprocity” because he is recognized
by another whom he recognizes as free. Hegel connects this to the main institutions of
Ethical Life and to the virtues in a way that seems to make the direct awareness of
another the whole of Hegel’s ethics.
I do not want to deny that such directness is an important aspect of Hegel’s view,
but I do want to insist that it is secondary in ordinary practice. Even in this passage we
can see how the thesis of indirect recognition is in play. What Hegel actually says is
that this reciprocity is “the form of consciousness of the substance” of the ethical

We find in the handwritten notes to the Philosophy of Right’s discussion of intention: “αα) no
noble intentions and bad actions, ββ) no bad intentions and noble actions, γγ) no noble intentions and
no actions at all—playing around with intentions in interiority—not actuality of the individual—
intention does not remain inner, but rather is given together with the action itself ” (§124HW, W 7, 234).
156 hegel’s conscience

determinations.17 If we substitute “value” for “substance” here, we can read Hegel as

saying that when we reflect explicitly on “each essential spirituality” and consider why
it is valuable, then we understand that it is valuable because within it our freedom is
objective in the shape of reciprocity. But when we act within the family or within the
State, we are not explicitly seeking that recognition by others (except in a limited class
of cases). Rather, we act on purposes that are objectively valuable and our action is
recognized because it expresses or achieves that value. Suppose I aim to get equal
housing legislation enacted as law. I do not seek recognition of my agency, but of the
value of the legislation itself. But I might, in arguing for passage of the legislation,
appeal to our sense of reciprocity as members of the same political community, and I
might illustrate this reciprocity with a scenario of direct recognition, perhaps by bring-
ing those without adequate housing face to face with those who have the power to
enact the legislation. Such a face to face encounter is a reminder of the source of our
values in concrete human interactions. Direct recognition should be viewed as the
source of the value, of the substance, but in my actions on that value I do not make it
my primary intention to win recognition for myself.
The distinctively modern practice of conscience enables the recognition of value in
actions to be simultaneously the (indirect) recognition of the freedom of the agent.
I take an action to be my duty based on my freely determined belief in the action’s
rightness, and I expect others to recognize the action as valuable (and indirectly to rec-
ognize my agency as free) because I sincerely take the action to be my duty.
Hegel’s criticisms in the first experience phase of conscience in the Phenomenology
(¶¶642–50) show that the practice of conscience, at least in its initial description, does
not do enough to fix the terms of what counts as a legitimate claim to duty. The agent’s
expectation that others will recognize his action assumes that others value the action
as he does. In acting conscientiously one is presupposed to be acting universally, such
that the default entitlement status of one’s claim of duty holds. But problems can arise
in interpreting an action as valuable (Hegel’s example, as we saw in 2.4, is the increase
of property that can be taken as one’s duty but that others take to be a swindle).
Moreover, others can challenge the rightness of one’s action, thereby necessitating an
explicit defense (bringing out the deeper justificatory structure). The problem Hegel
raises is that the recognition of action simply as a determinate purpose accomplished
in the world does not yet fix the value of the purpose. Without a settled interpretation
of the action it is not even clear how the action can be challenged on terms that address
the agent’s reasons for performing the action. As a mere event, the action could appear
to others simply as the fulfillment of my “pleasure and desire” (350, ¶650). In modern
societies the possibilities of failure of recognition have increased as the ethical landscape
has become more complex, thus making action more susceptible to multiple and com-
peting interpretations.

The Wallace/Miller translation of the Philosophy of Spirit inexplicably leaves out “of the sub-
stance,” an omission that has contributed to the oversight of the crucial connection (see below) of
recognition and substance for Hegel.
157 Mutual Recognition

The task that is set by the problem of interpreting an action’s value is to find a
medium that can publicly express the agent’s own interpretation of her action and her
commitment to that interpretation. Hegel turns toward the idea of such an expressive
medium when he writes that the agent’s commitment to the value of the action must
“be there” in the accomplished action.18 He writes:

What ought to be there, is here an essentiality solely because it is known as self-

expressive individuality [sich selbst aussprechende Individualität]; and it is this being
known that is recognized by others, and which as such ought to have a definite
existence [Dasein]. (350, ¶650)

“Essentiality” here is a reference to value. The action has no claim to be recognized as

valuable by others without the connection to self-expressive individuality as the bearer
of value. The question is how my commitment to the action as my duty can be made
sufficiently explicit for others so that they can evaluate the action according to the
terms in which I intended it.
Hegel writes, “We see here again language as the definite existence of Spirit” (351,
¶652), and he thus introduces a modification of the concept of conscience. Hegel claims
that language is the true objectivity of self-consciousness, and that language contains a
mutuality that no other form of recognition can capture.19 He writes:

It is the self that separates itself from itself, which as pure I=I becomes objective to
itself, which in this objectivity equally preserves itself as this self, just as it coalesces
directly with other selves and is their self-consciousness. It hears itself just as it is heard
by others, and this hearing is just definite existence which has become self. (351, ¶652)

I remain myself in my words and I am recognized as committed to the description

of the value of my action.20 In (spoken) language universal self-consciousness has
objective existence because language is the common medium of rational claim-making.

Hegel writes, “But the action of conscience is not only this determination of being which is for-
saken by the pure self. What should be valid, and be recognized as duty, is so only through the knowledge
and conviction of it as of the duty, through the knowledge of oneself in the deed. If the deed ceases to
have this self within it, it ceases to be that which alone is its essence” (350, ¶650).
See Siep (1979), 129–31, for a good explanation of Hegel’s claims about language and recognition.
Hegel uses the verb “vernehmen,” which can mean to hear/perceive, but also to question/interrogate/
examine. He thus captures the way in which linguistic relations are at once the most direct and the most
open to interpretation. Once I have spoken, the words exist “outside of me,” they are taken up by another
as the same words, as objective. The extremely compressed summary of Hegel’s theory of language given
in ¶652 is in fact a reprise of the account given in the earlier stage of Culture. In ¶508, Hegel writes, “This
vanishing is thus itself at once its abiding; it is its own knowing of itself, and its knowing itself as a self that
has passed over into another self that has been taken up and is universal” (276, ¶508). Hegel’s account in
¶508 is very general, so can for the most part be extracted from its dialectical context to help elaborate the
“conscience” account of language. As he says of the language of culture, it appears in its “characteristic sig-
nificance” [eigentümliche Bedeutung]. Both accounts also largely agree with Hegel’s discussion of language
in the 1805–06 Realphilosophie, in the first part of “Spirit According to its Concept.”
158 hegel’s conscience

Yet my language remains the language of a particular self, expressing a particular indi-
vidual’s interpretation of an action. Because we share the same language, you can rec-
ognize my interpretation as the expression of the value I took there to be in the action
(that I am committed to defending with reasons).
The introduction of language occasions yet another (the third in “Conscience”)
recapitulation of the main phases of the “Spirit” chapter.21 The main foil is the previous
shape in which language had played such a prominent role, namely in the language of
“Culture” epitomized by Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew.22 In contrast to the content of the
“inverted and inverting and disrupted self of the world of culture,” the content of the
language of conscience is the “Spirit returned back into itself, certain to itself and in its
self certain of its truth or of its recognition, and as this knowing is recognized Spirit”
(351, ¶653).23 In the language of conscience a definite purpose and a definite value are
expressed, along with the avowal that the action is my duty because I believe it is right.
Hegel stresses that language allows recognition between distinct agents whose actions
have determinate content. He writes:

Language, however, only emerges as the middle term, mediating between independent
and recognized self-consciousnesses; and the definitely existent self is immediately
universal being-recognized, a manifold [vielfaches] being-recognized, and in this
manifoldness simple being-recognized. The content of the language of conscience is
the self knowing itself as essence. This alone is what it declares, and this declaration is
the true actuality of the deed, and the validity of the action. (351, ¶653)

The condition that Hegel describes as “immediately universal being-recognized” can

be rendered in terms of the notion of transparency that I first introduced in discussing
Moran’s position in 1.1. The agent of conscience is saying that he is committed to the
truth of his belief in the rightness of the action. Because one has avowed the belief in
speech, others can assume that there is no gap between the declared description and
the actual purpose.
In writing that the self is the “true actuality of the deed and the validity of the
action,” Hegel is working with a familiar point from recent action-theory. An action, as
opposed to a mere event, is identified as intentional through a certain description.

351; ¶653. The first, in ¶633, declared conscience to provide a content for the earlier selves, and the
second, in ¶640, linked conscience with determinate recognition.
282–85; ¶¶520–24. In the passage on Rameau’s language, Hegel in fact foreshadows the achieve-
ment of conscience, writing of the ideal, “the pure concept, in which the simple self and the in-itself, the
former a pure ‘I’ and the latter this pure essence or thought, are the same—this unity of the two sides,
between which there is a reciprocal relation [Wechselwirkung] is not present in the consciousness that
uses this language.” 282, ¶520.
The other two shapes that Hegel mentions in his recapitulation are the “law and simple
command” of ancient ethical life and the mute interiority of the moral consciousness. It might seem
odd for Hegel to refer to Kantian moral theory as “mute,” given Kant’s emphasis on explicit maxims of
action. Hegel’s point here is that because on Kant’s view I cannot know if my action actually has moral
worth, I cannot communicate and others cannot recognize the true value of my action.
159 Mutual Recognition

In the language of conscience the agent describes his action in a way that opens his
action to assessment by others as he intended it, under the terms that the action counts
as an intentional action.24 Other individuals will draw different inferences from my
declaration because of variations in their belief networks, and may challenge the right-
ness of my deed. The challenge will be to the description of what I took myself to be
doing, and will therefore not have the character of an unrestricted challenge that
cannot be conclusively answered.
The communicative activity of the language of conscience is a form of indirect rec-
ognition because the aim is to recognize the value of the action. But since language is the
form of objectivity of self-consciousness, this recognition verges on the direct affirma-
tion of, or challenge to, one’s agency itself. In the subsequent experience phase of Hegel’s
presentation in the Phenomenology, direct recognition is achieved through language in
the famous scene of confession and forgiveness and the transition to “Religion.” The
Phenomenology has this trajectory because it is oriented toward grounding normative
claims in self-consciousness. In the Phenomenology challenges are answered by trans-
forming the existing world of value into a direct function of subjectivity (most dramat-
ically in utility and the French Revolution), and eventually by taking other subjects as all
there is to the world. By contrast the account in the Philosophy of Right typically answers
the challenges by giving more comprehensive structures of value, developing a world of
value that is an indirect function of subjectivity. The Phenomenology’s “Spirit” chapter
shows that ethical truth is just as much subject as substance, but the Phenomenology
cannot within its own trajectory give the new account of self-conscious substance, of
Ethical Life and its ontology of value. When the individual’s resources for the objective
normativity of action run out in the Phenomenology a transition is made to Religion to
a self-conscious interpretive community above the level of finite action. Before assessing
the import of the scene of confession and forgiveness for Hegel’s ethics, we can clarify
where we stand and set the stage for what follows by taking a detour through an
argument on intersubjectivity and value put forth by Christine Korsgaard.


Hegel’s issues of self-consciousness, intersubjectivity, language, and value are central to
Korsgaard’s interpretation of Kant’s moral philosophy.25 In this section I focus on a
single essay in which she presents her view on value as intersubjectivist.26 She argues

In Encyclopedia §508, Hegel calls conscience “the unspeakable [das Unsagbare],” suggesting that
its only language is interiority. I take this to be a narrow claim about the subjective form of formal
conscience that is consistent with the basic claims in the Phenomenology about the agent of conscience
having to say what he takes himself to have done.
As in the discussion of Herman in chapter 4, it is not part of my aim here to evaluate whether
Korsgaard’s claims in Kant’s name are an accurate account of Kant’s writings.
The essay is “The Reasons We Can Share: An Attack on the Distinction Between Agent-Relative
and Agent-Neutral Values.” Korsgaard (1996), 275–310. I do not thematize the agent-relative/
agent-neutral distinction here, as it would take us too far from our primary topic of recognition. I have
addressed this distinction in Moyar (2010).
160 hegel’s conscience

that her position avoids the difficulties of subjectivism, at one extreme, and objectivism
at the other. The subjectivist view is the familiar Humean line according to which our
purposes are valuable just in so far as they serve our desires (and practical reason is
simply reasoning about the means to achieve the ends toward which our passions
direct us). The objectivist view, by contrast, is the kind of view espoused by G. E. Moore
in his theory of intrinsic value, namely that “the good” is a simple unanalyzable prop-
erty without any relation to human interests. Korsgaard describes her own view, based
on the value of our common humanity, as follows:

According to Intersubjectivism, objective values are derived or, better, constructed

from subjective ones. Our individual, subjective interests become intersubjective
values when, because of the attitude we take towards one another, we come to share
each other’s ends. On this view, our relation to values is one of creation or

On her view there is a natural presumption in favor of subjectivism, since the idea of a
good unrelated to any human interests is almost incoherent. Korsgaard compares
Moore’s intrinsic value to the sun as an entity that gives us light simply because it is
there; like the sun the values would be there even if there were no “creatures who see
and respond to reasons.”28 The goal of the intersubjective account is to understand the
objectivity of value as the product of our common humanity, of our common ability
to set ends and respond to reasons.29
Korsgaard in effect offers a theory of recognition as the source of value and thus of
reasons. It is through recognizing another’s humanity and being recognized in turn
that specific ethical content is generated. She writes, “As persons, we have a claim on
one another’s help when it can readily be given or is desperately needed. It is the status
of humanity, as the source of normative claims, that is the source of all value.”30 Each
agent values his own humanity and sees the humanity of another as a source of reasons

Korsgaard (1996), 278–79. In an earlier essay Korsgaard labels her Kantian theory “rationalist,”
and summarizes it with the claim that “an object or state of affairs is good if there is a sufficient prac-
tical reason for realizing it or bringing it about.” (1996), 226. I take the intersubjectivist view to be a shift
in emphasis rather than a shift in her actual view.
Korsgaard (1996), 278.
The thrust of her argument in Lecture Four of The Source of Normativity is that we should not
think of reasons as “private entities” at all, but rather show that reasons are “public in their very essence.”
Korsgaard, et al. (1996), 135. The objectivist can help himself to this conclusion because he simply
thinks that value is out there, objectively, for everyone to intuit. Korsgaard thinks that reasons are gen-
erated through processes of recognition: “[t]he public character of reasons is indeed created by the
reciprocal exchange, the sharing, of the reasons of individuals,” but we should not take this basis in the
discrete individual to have much weight, for “their privacy must be incidental or ephemeral; they must
be inherently sharable.” Korsgaard, et al. (1996), 135. She takes as her model of this kind of argument
Wittgenstein’s private language argument, drawing a close parallel between language and practical rea-
sons, and writing that “the idea of a private language is inconsistent with the normativity of meaning.”
Korsgaard, et al. (1996), 137.
Korsgaard (1996), 299.
161 Mutual Recognition

to act toward the other in certain ways. This reciprocity is supposed to count against
both metaphysical theories of value and consequentialist ethical theories. Korsgaard
aligns the metaphysical Objective Realist with consequentialism and claims that an
Intersubjectivist about value cannot be a consequentialist because the Intersubjectivist
sees all value as value for someone. She writes:

To say that you have a reason is to say something relational, something which implies
the existence of another, at least another self. It announces that you have a claim on
that other, or acknowledges her claim on you. For normative claims are not the claims
of a metaphysical world of values upon us: they are claims we make on ourselves and
each other. It is both the essence of consequentialism and the trouble with it that it
treats The Good, rather than people, as the source of normative claims.31

We respond to reasons and put forth reasons with other agents in view. A “metaphysi-
cal world of values” would presumably consist of values and sources of reasons that did
not refer to other agents. Since Hegel does have a theory of “The Good,” which he calls
the “final purpose of the world,” and since he does use the metaphysical language of
substance, there is a strong suspicion that he is guilty of the sins Korsgaard ascribes to
the objective realist consequentialist. Yet Hegel is also an intersubjectivist, so the
challenge is to see if these two claims can be reconciled.
Korsgaard claims not only that all value stems from the recognition of humanity in
ourselves and in other persons, but also that we directly recognize humanity in
respecting another’s purposes. She seems to think that if the purposes themselves are
allowed to bear the value, rather than the humanity of the agent acting on the purpose,
we will be saddled with an overly metaphysical picture of value. She thus writes:

To share another’s ends, or at least to grant that they could be shared, is to see them
as expressions of that capacity, and so as expressions of our common humanity. The
Intersubjectivist sees the other as human, and therefore shares or tries to share the
other’s ends. That is why she helps others to pursue their ambitions. But the Objective
Realist sees no reason to help unless he first sees the other’s ends as ones that he can
share. His relationship to others is mediated by his relationship to their ends.32

This depiction of recognition makes it a relationship that must always involve direct
recognition of humanity prior to a relationship to purposes. Another’s purposes will
only generate reasons for me if I recognize in them the other’s humanity, the source
that confers all value.33 On the view of Hegel I have been defending, by contrast, he

Korsgaard (1996), 301.
Korsgaard (1996), 290.
At points Korsgaard indicates a more nuanced thesis. She writes, for example, of many possible
sources of value, such as “friendships, marriages, local communities, and common interests . . .”
Korsgaard (1996), 282. Her conclusion is ambiguous, for though she claims to have undercut the dis-
tinction, her closing remarks suggest that all she has accomplished is shifted the terms of the debate to
the sources of different kinds of reasons.
162 hegel’s conscience

both holds an Intersubjectivist view of value and thinks that individuals’ relationships
to each other are mediated through their purposes. He is an Objective Realist in the
sense that he thinks that value really does reside in the purposes. But because he thinks
that the value has come to reside in those purposes through processes of recognition
there is no contradiction between the Objective Realist and Intersubjectivist claims.
At times Korsgaard herself seems to entertain a view that would allow her to recon-
cile the Intersubjectivist and Objective Realist views. She holds that we can come to
treat values “as if ” they were objective. She writes:

You may come to see the value of mountain climbing, or philosophical ethics, or
stamp collecting, and to take it as your own. And then, between the two of you, the
value functions as if it were a value in the Objective Realist sense. It is a fact about
your relationship that you both see this as a good thing, which you share a reason
to promote. This is why those who share particular ambitions form communities
which acknowledge special and reciprocal obligations to one another. In this way
Intersubjective values can come to function like Objective Realist values with
respect to the very communities which they themselves create.34

In these communities of shared values the obligations are generated by the valued
thing (in the world) itself, which is why the values function like Objective Realist
values. Because the values exist, however, within the context of the community of val-
uers, they remain Intersubjective values. It is rather puzzling that Korsgaard does not
attempt to generalize this account to cover all shared value. Korsgaard insists instead
that reasons “spring from our respect for one another, rather than from our respect for
one another’s ends.”35 For the “as if ” to mean anything, there must be a contrast with
the really Objective Realist view that takes there to be value even in the absence of
human beings. But it is not clear who would hold this view, or if it is even intelligible
when applied to values such as “philosophical ethics.” If we say that the world becomes
a world of objective value through processes of recognition, then it is not clear that the
“as if ” means anything at all, for we can speak simply of the world possessing objective
value for us (to use Hegel’s phrase, “in and for itself,” where the “in itself ” is the objective
and the “for itself ” is for human beings). The question then is whether it violates
Korsgaard’s antimetaphysical strictures to write as Hegel does of the purposes them-
selves as bearers of value that individuals realize in acting on the purposes.
There are clearly elements in Hegel that Korsgaard would find objectionable given
her stress on the direct recognition of our common humanity. It is essential to Hegel’s
conception of Ethical Life that the value resides in the purposes. An adequate ethics is
only possible according to Hegel if it is oriented by a social system of purposes rather
than by the abstract original value-conferring activity of end-setters. I take it that
Korsgaard would object to the Hegelian conception of the State, in particular, which
Hegel describes as “this actual God” (§258Z). Hegel uses this metaphysical language

Korsgaard (1996), 290–91.
Korsgaard (1996), 290.
163 Mutual Recognition

precisely to make a point about the State as the complete condition of value: the State’s
purposes realize what Hegel calls the Good because the State provides an overarching
context for all other spheres of activity. It is as citizens of the State that we share
common purposes, and through those purposes recognize each other. Hegel’s ethics
can indeed seem frighteningly metaphysical, but when his metaphysical terms are
unpacked they turn out to be claims about value, agency, and action. They are meant
to show that the Good is not just an abstract ideal, but a totality of conditions that is
realized in the institutions that we share.36 They are based on a model of indirect
Before I turn to the Philosophy of Right account of that recognition, I will return to
the final scene of direct recognition in the Phenomenology, the confrontation of the
actor and judge that ends in confession and forgiveness. This scene does bring Hegel
close to Korsgaard, but it also illustrates the need to move beyond Korsgaard’s picture
of common humanity if we are to theorize objective ethical content.


Hegel and Korsgaard differ fundamentally on how we should conceive of the ontology
of value, a difference which becomes obvious in considering Hegel’s claims about
Ethical Life as substance in the Philosophy of Right. But on another level they are quite
similar, for Hegel takes individuality, with the self-referring negativity of the Concept,
as a source of value that constitutes humanity. It is the task of the “Spirit” chapter in the
Phenomenology to argue for this source through a series of challenges to the adequacy
of historically specific configurations of objective value. In the final challenge, follow-
ing the language of conscience, two agents representing the two discrete dimensions of
individuality (universality and particularity) are brought to a direct recognition of their
common humanity. In this section I present a reading of this scene of confession and
forgiveness that Hegel calls the mutual recognition of Absolute Spirit. I also argue that
this direct recognition is not a suitable basis for the secular ethical norms of Hegelian
Ethical Life.
The final dialectic of recognition (that I already introduced in 2.6) arises because
even mutual recognition through the language of conscience can be challenged.
Speaking the right words does not guarantee that one does in fact believe that a certain
action is one’s duty, so a more direct mutual recognition is required. Hegel presents
two separate claims to complete authority over what counts as valuable: one is the
claim of self-consciousness qua particularity (I henceforth call this self-consciousness
the actor). The other is self-consciousness qua universality (I henceforth call this

Korsgaard recognizes the dimension of Kant’s view that stresses systematic purposiveness, but
she only uses it to make a polemical point against appeals to objective value that try to eliminate the
relation to human interests. Commenting on a passage from the Critique of Judgment, she writes that
an intelligible world is “a rationally intelligible world, is a system of purposes organized around free
rational beings taken as the final purpose of the system, a Kingdom of Ends.” Korsgaard (1996), 243.
164 hegel’s conscience

self-consciousness the judge). There is a confrontation because both think that they
have a set of necessary and sufficient conditions for what counts as ethical content.
Neither of them have fully appreciated the performative nature of practical reason and
ethical content. The judge holds onto his strict universality as the condition of believing
an action to be fully justified, and the agent maintains that in the particularity and
contingency necessary for action he has a fully legitimate claim to the recognition of
others. Both of these sides must acknowledge the one-sidedness of their view. Hegel
assumes the actor is hypocritical—he says one thing (that his action is pure duty) while
doing another (taking his particularity, contingency, as decisive). The entire dialectic is
directed toward showing that the judge’s agency has the same structure as the actor’s
agency. Hegel uses this dialectic to argue for a conception of humanity as the capacity
for practical reasoning that contains particular and universal dimensions. The goal of
the recognition is to show that both moments are equally essential, and fully compat-
ible, but also that our capacity for free agency is finite and contingent. Recognizing our
common humanity means recognizing our common limitations.
Hegel draws out the particularity of the judge, and thereby the judge’s hypocrisy, in
two steps that both rely on his performative view of practical reason. He first shows
that the judgment does not meet the performative criteria of content (that would allow
for a valid judgment), and second he shows that the judgment when viewed as a
performance (as an accomplished action) has an unacknowledged particularity. He
first notes that in his typical judgment—that the actor ought to have acted according to
a certain universal law—the judge admits that the “universal law” is not actual because
his judgment implies that the law does not in fact motivate agents.37 Motivation is
among the particular conditions of genuine ethical content, and by having to insist on
the ought the judge shows that his claim—to possess ethical content in the universal
law—is fraudulent. Hegel argues that the judge’s failure to capture the conditions of
content comes out in the inadequacy of his mere language to meet the performative
criteria. Hegel writes:

It does well to preserve itself in its purity, for it does not act; it is the hypocrisy
which wants its judging to be taken for an actual deed, and instead of proving its
rectitude by actions, does so by uttering fine sentiments. (357, ¶664)

In pretending to act while in fact only expressing its “fine sentiments,” the judge is
hypocritical in claiming the status of actuality that is only achieved by accomplishing
an actual purpose in the world. This first phase is already enough to show the basic
similarity of the hypocritical actor and the hypocritical judge.
The identity of the two shapes becomes “more complete” in the second phase when
Hegel views the judgment of universal consciousness as an action. For the universal

Hegel thus writes of the judging consciousness, “In denouncing hypocrisy as base, vile, and so
on, it is appealing in such judgment to its own law, just as the evil consciousness appeals to its law. For
the former comes forward in opposition to the latter and thereby as a particular law. It has, therefore,
no superiority over the other law, but rather legitimizes it” (357, ¶663).
165 Mutual Recognition

judge to actually raise his typical objection, he must first dissect “the concrete action”
into its universal and particular sides, and impute only the particular motives to the
agent. The judge “plays the action off into the inward realm,” meaning that the judge
himself must draw on his own particular motives to criticize the other, revealing more
about the pettiness of his own character than about the actor’s true motives. Hegel
writes that the judge

explains it as resulting from an intention different from the action itself, and from
selfish motives. Just as every action is capable of being looked at from the point of
view of conformity to duty, so too can it be considered from the point of view of
the particularity [of the doer]; for, as action it is the actuality of the individual.
(358, ¶665)

The judge explains the action through hidden intentions and selfish motives. This criti-
cism of the judge introduces the already cited (2.6) passage about the judge as the
“moral valet” who tries to reduce all actions to the lowest level selfish purpose (plea-
sure, ambition, etc.). The judge has missed the lesson (discussed in 4.4) that an action
can realize multiple purposes, multiple values. A skeptical challenge to the value of the
action has to do more than to point out that other purposes besides the ethical are
served by an action. The judge’s own action, viewed as a performance, shows the
ineluctable particularity of action and therefore reveals that the judge, in claiming the
high ground of pure universality, is a hypocrite.
The actor, seeing that the judging universal consciousness is just as invested in par-
ticularity as itself, confesses. “I am so [Ich bins]” (359, ¶667) is the language in which the
agent identifies himself as having given precedence to his particular interests while
claiming pure universality. Given that Hegel has just defended the particular element
in all actions, there arises the question of just what the agent has actually done wrong.
The agent cannot be asked to simply give up his particularity, either as a natural motive
or as a dimension of motivating reasons, for particularity is essential to his actuality.
That one does not renounce one’s particularity is what Hegel means when he says that
the confession does not involve “an abasement, a humiliation, a throwing-away of him-
self in relation to the other” (359, ¶666). Rather, the agent must acknowledge that his
own individual self-consciousness, his self-certainty, is not a kind of privileged evi-
dence that entitles him to claim universal authority for his action.38 Thinking that one
is the sole source of sufficient evidence is not just an epistemic mistake, but also a
moral fault and thus worthy of a confession.
The very form of language, as the expressive medium of humanity, creates the
expectation that the judge will recognize his identity with the actor who has confessed.
But the judge cannot accept the identity with the actor that is implied in the confes-
sion, and becomes the “hard heart” who holds onto his purity, his withdrawal from
embodiment. Hegel writes of this refusal of community as the “highest outrage” of
self-certain Spirit. It is the denial of one’s shared humanity with another. But finally the

Compare the discussion in Bernstein (1994).
166 hegel’s conscience

hard heart “breaks,” and the judge forgives the acting conscience. What the “hard heart”
gives up is its “knowing that clings to the difference of the individual and universal
sides of action” (361, ¶669). The judge acknowledges that action must be taken as a
whole, and that his common humanity is the always fragile effort to maintain the right
priority relations within that whole. Moral assessment is also an expression of
humanity, and needs to look at the whole action and context rather than fixating on
the particular side’s opposition to the claimed objective value of the action. This judg-
ment must be comparative but “without envy” (5.1), acknowledging the full range of
circumstances that have shaped our lives.
The account of “Spirit” comes to a close only when the direct mutual recognition
of each other as a source of value has been reached. The Phenomenology thus does
argue for direct recognition of humanity, but Hegel’s conception of self-consciousness
provides a very different understanding than we find in Korsgaard of where such direct
recognition leads and what its limitations are. The language of conscience has become
the language of forgiveness:

The word of reconciliation is the existing [daseiende] Spirit, which intuits the pure
knowing of itself as the universal essence in its opposite, in the pure knowing of
itself as the individuality being absolutely within itself,—a mutual recognition
which is absolute Spirit. (361, ¶670)

The term “intuits [anschaut]” is indicative of the directness of this recognition. The
identities of the two agencies are explicitly the issue, rather than a concrete ethical
action (that typically invokes indirect recognition). They are reconciled in that they see
that value does not derive from pure universality or from determinate particularity,
but rather that value is a function of processes of recognition that include both
particular and universal moments. They are aware of themselves as the source of value
not each on their own, but in so far as they participate in processes of struggling to
achieve mutual recognition under the conditions of finite action. They are now aware
that value is not created from scratch by individuals in their beliefs or particular
actions. They know that they must recognize a valuable world as always already there,
and that their actions will change it, contribute to transforming it, but only bit by bit.
The affirmation of this self-understanding occurs in a community of direct recogni-
tion, namely in the modern religious community. The members of the community
recognize each other directly and interpret the world that has come to be in light of
their new self-understanding.


The Phenomenology establishes individual agency as the source of normativity and rec-
ognition as the process through which determinate value is generated. This all seems
to accord reasonably well with Korsgaard’s intersubjective, antimetaphysical and anti-
consequentialist view of value. But when we look to the Philosophy of Right, where
167 Mutual Recognition

Hegel presents his full account of agency and value, the picture seems to be entirely
different. Hegel presents the Good as “the absolute final purpose of the world” (§129),
which seems to be exactly the kind of Objective Realist claim Korsgaard rejects.
Nowhere in the presentation of the Good or in the subsequent transition to Ethical
Life does Hegel thematize recognition. He thus seems to think of value in a metaphysi-
cal vein disconnected from how individuals treat each other. Humanity appears to be
submerged within a logic of value that is cut off from the experience of individual val-
uings and interactions. These appearances are, however, misleading. Though Hegel has
major differences with Korsgaard’s theory of direct recognition, his arguments do rest
on the dynamics of practical reasoning and the goal of mutual recognition of autono-
mous actions. His model in the PR is indirect recognition among individuals and bet-
ween individuals and institutional agency. By keeping in mind Hegel’s performative
view of practical reason we can understand Hegel’s moves and his metaphysical lan-
guage in terms of the expression and embodiment of the value of freedom.
Hegel’s arguments in the PR reflect his mature conception of Objective Spirit. We
can read from his abstract description of this realm of Spirit (which encompasses all of
the PR) the nature of this kind of normativity and why it primarily involves indirect
recognition. Hegel introduces “Objective Spirit” in the Encyclopedia with the claim that
it “is the absolute Idea, but only existing in itself; in that it is thereby in the terrain of
finitude, its actual rationality retains the side of external appearance” (E, §483). The
“absolute Idea” is the complete system of realized freedom and rationality. This system
is for-itself as the self-conscious communal practices of Absolute Spirit, of art, religion,
and philosophy. Objective Spirit, by contrast, is the world of finite action, of purposes
that are carried out in a world in which the external appearances are not completely a
function of self-determining subjectivity (as they are in the idealized practices of
Absolute Spirit). Hegel gives a fuller description to indicate how Objective Spirit is a
realm of freedom despite its limitations:

But the purposive action of this will is to realize its concept, freedom, in the exter-
nally objective side, so that freedom is a world determined through the Concept, in
which the will is thus at home with itself [bei sich selbst], locked together with itself
[mit sich selbst zusammengeschlossen], and the Concept [is] thereby fulfilled as the
Idea. Freedom, shaped into the actuality of a world, receives the form of necessity,
whose substantial context [Zusammenhang] is the system of determinations of
freedom and whose appearing context is power, being-recognized [Anerkanntsein],
i.e. its validity in consciousness. (E §484)

In writing of “the purposive action of this will” Hegel is referring to the methodology
of the dialectical arguments of Objective Spirit. The dynamics of purposive action,
with the structure of the Concept (universal-particular-individual), determine a world
of freedom by generating conditions of the realization of freedom that the world must
meet. In the most important transition, from conscience to Ethical Life, the require-
ments of the purposive action of conscience result in the determinations of Ethical
Life. We will see in a moment how the argument works. For now we should note that
168 hegel’s conscience

the goal is a determinate world of freedom in which individuals are free because they
identify with the purposes in that world. To say that the world has “the form of
necessity” is to say that the content of the world is binding on the wills of individuals.
In this passage Hegel distinguishes a substantial side and an appearing side, which
designate the status of the world’s normativity considered from the outside, as a
“system of determinations of freedom,” and for the agents within the world. The “sub-
stantial” is the system of value, embodied in a world of objective purposes, that is self-
reproducing in the sense that its parts are mutually supporting, and in the sense that
individuals are born and raised to occupy its roles. The values appear to consciousness
as valid, as having binding force (i.e., “power”) on the will. I take Hegel’s use of “being-
recognized” here, which clearly describes the bindingness of a normative world on an
individual consciousness, to indicate what I have called the relational aspect of recog-
nition (as opposed to process). It also implies an indirect recognition between individ-
uals. We recognize certain values as objective, and recognize each other’s actions as
valid in that they instantiate those values.
With this sketch of Objective Spirit as a guide, I turn now to Hegel’s argument for
“the Good.” Hegel argues for the Good on the basis of his performative account (struc-
tured by the Concept) by generating a conflict between the universal and particular
conditions of action. The leading universal condition at that juncture of the PR is the
right to property outlined in Abstract Right. The particular condition is the right of
personal welfare, the sum total of one’s subjective interests, which Hegel developed in
the second section of “Morality.” Hegel brings these two conditions into conflict by
assuming that given the contingencies of external resources one’s very life can be
threatened by lack of sustenance. This leads to a conflict with the property of other
agents and to what Hegel calls “the right of necessity.” This is the right to take someone
else’s property if that is the only way to stay alive. Hegel defends the right of necessity
on the grounds that to deny someone’s right to live is to deny someone’s right com-
pletely. He writes:

[T]he alternatives are an infinite injury to existence with total loss of rights, and an
injury only to an individual and limited existence of freedom, whereby right as
such, and the capacity for rights of the injured party, who has been injured only in
this specific property, continue to be recognized. (§127)

The right of necessity is a recognition of the right of the one in need and of the
capacity-for-right-even-in-limited-violation of the property owner. But it clearly is
not a mutual recognition between the two. The argument for the right of necessity is
that recognizing every individual’s right to exist is a fundamental imperative of right,
so that even a property claim cannot be upheld at the expense of an individual’s right
as a person.
Hegel’s argument from the right of necessity to the Good is an argument about the
conditions of mutual recognition between agents. The thrust of the transition to the
Good is to integrate the two conditions in a manner designed to secure indirect recog-
nition. Hegel writes that the right of necessity reveals the “contingency of both right
169 Mutual Recognition

and welfare, of the abstract definite existence of freedom as distinct from the existence
of the particular person, and of the sphere of the particular will as distinct from the
universality of right” (§128). This “right of necessity” relation between the two agents
is unacceptable and requires that the world be determined so that such justified
breaches of mutual recognition do not occur. The goal is to determine a purpose that
provides comprehensive, universally binding content. Only on such a basis will
individual actions (as serving that universal purpose) be recognizable as expressions of
a common universal purpose. According to the division in Hegel’s description of
Objective Spirit, the subsequent determination is of an objective purpose in the world
(the Good as the absolute final purpose of the world) and the individual subject’s com-
portment towards the world (conscience). In the Good and conscience, “[t]he two
moments in right and subjectivity” are “integrated so as to attain their truth and iden-
tity” (§128). They are seen as jointly sufficient conditions of individuality, or the
accomplished purpose. To say that the Good and conscience have the structure of the
accomplished purpose means that they are purposes of individuals that take universal
considerations, such as the welfare of others, into account. The focus remains on the
individual who acts on a universal content rather than on individuals directly recog-
nizing each other.
Despite the superficial similarity of Hegel’s Good and the Objective Realist Good
criticized by Korsgaard, Hegel’s conception of the Good does not suffer from the defi-
ciency of the Objective Realist model. It does, however, introduce a claim about
objective value that accords value to purposes independent of the individuals who
pursue the purposes, and this is where Korsgaard and Hegel part company. Recall that
Korsgaard criticized the Good as a source of value independent of human interests (or
even human existence!). Hegel’s conception of the Good by contrast is based on the
human will, “as the unity of the concept of the will and of the particular will” (§129).
The Good is thus emphatically about human interests, but it is also a conception of
value that has ontological standing as the “final purpose of the world.” Hegel thus
writes that it is “the substance of the particular will” (§130), and that “the subjective
will . . . has value and dignity only in so far as its insight and intention are in conformity
with the Good” (§131). This means that we recognize each other as valuable only in so
far as our actions realize the value of the Good. As I have repeatedly emphasized, we do
not know at this point in the argument how to specify the Good in action. It is up to
conscience, as the moment of particularity, to specify the Good. But formal conscience
is unable to carry out this specification in an objective manner, which brings us to the
transition to Ethical Life.
The performative view of practical reason and ethical content is again the key to
understanding the integration of the Good and conscience that Hegel sets out in PR
§141. These two sides are roughly the same as the two sides in the scene of recognition
between the judge and actor in the Phenomenology. The outcome, however, is much
different. Instead of the direct recognition of confession and forgiveness, Hegel moves
to the contexts of indirect recognition that constitute Ethical Life. Rather than focusing
on the agent and unmasking the hypocrisy of both sides, the argument is focused on the
successful action. The goal is a world of objective value (substance) in which individuals
170 hegel’s conscience

are motivated to act on that value (the value has “power, or being-recognized”). Neither
the Good nor formal conscience possesses stable, determinate, actual content. Hegel
thus writes in the handwritten notes of the inability to secure recognizable content:

Forms—conscience as the determining—for-itself, infinite form without content,

activity, ideality, unrest,—having and leaving nothing stable [Festes]—the Good in
itself, the being [Seiende], eternal, unchangeable—infinite content without form,
thereby no content. (§141HW, W 7, 287–88)

Both abstract value and subjective determination of value fall short of recognizable
content, which is only available when both dimensions are integrated.
In the Philosophy of Right’s presentation of the transition, the two premises of the
practical inference (corresponding to the judge and the agent in the Phenomenology
account) are the abstract universality of the Good and the particular action of
conscience that ought to be good. The claim of the one-sided shapes is a claim to be the
whole inference, the ability to account for the rationality of action through itself alone.
We can see in the very compressed text of the transition the role of negativity in the
performative view of practical reason and ethical content. Hegel writes:

The nature of the limited and the finite—which in this case are the abstract Good
which merely ought to be, and an equally abstract subjectivity which merely ought
to be Good—is for them to have their opposite present within them, the Good its
actuality, and subjectivity (the moment of the actuality of the ethical) the Good;
but since they are one-sided, they are not yet posited as what they are in themselves.
They become posited in their negativity, for as they one-sidedly constitute them-
selves as independent totalities, both refusing to accept what is present in itself
within them—the Good lacking subjectivity and determination, and the determi-
nant, i.e. subjectivity, lacking what has being in itself—they sublate themselves
[sich aufheben] and are thereby reduced to moments, to moments of the concept
which becomes manifest as their unity and has attained reality through this very
positing of its moments, so that it now exists as Idea. (§141)

Hegel presents the two sides as containing their opposites. Within the structure of the
practical inference the Good is the major premise, the abstract purpose, while
conscience is the particular means (the actuality of the particular subject) to accom-
plish that purpose. The sides become explicit as moments within a whole when “pos-
ited in their negativity,” namely in having to deny (“both refusing to accept what is
present in itself within them”) the validity of the other moment. This implicit identity
of the universal and particular becomes explicit when each side is viewed as capturing
the whole inference of the accomplished action. The two sides are aufgehoben and
become moments in the completed inference of the “accomplished purpose,” the infer-
ence that secures the rationality of content qua individual.
How does this account of the transition help with our problem of understanding
Hegel’s appeal to metaphysical concepts such as substance in Ethical Life? Ethical Life
17 1 Mutual Recognition

is supposed to finally solve the question of ethical content because it is the “system of
the particularization of the Good” (§142HW, W 7, 292), the system of determinate
objectively valuable purposes. The language of substance designates the primacy of
objective value in accounting for the content of duties and rights. When Hegel writes
of the source of this value he often refers to the gods, but from the Phenomenology and
the Philosophy of History it is clear that the values represented by the gods arise within
the life of people through processes of recognition. In the present case the substance is
a system of value in which agents’ actions are recognized and in which they can thus
live valuable lives.
The role of Ethical Life in securing indirect recognition comes out in Hegel’s notes to
his own copy of the PR that “Ethical Life [Sittlichkeit] is the Idea as actual life,” which
is the “unity of inner and outer, so that one can no longer say what is inner and what is
outer” (§141HW, W 7, 290). The conditions of the rationality of the intention and con-
viction, on the one hand, and of outer performance, on the other, are no longer sepa-
rate. This means that my actions are recognizable as products of free agency. There is
no need for the direct recognition of humanity in the typical contexts of Ethical Life.
The moral agent who tried to make judgment difficult (by making every judgment a
matter of open-ended deliberation) had tried to win direct recognition for his agency
in part because he took the interiority of mere intention to be the essential site of free
agency. Once we understand that the intention is in the accomplished action and that
agency is recognized through that action, the need to stand out from the ordinary run
of ethical norms will lose much of its urgency.
The indirect recognition of Ethical Life, whose “system of these determinations
[laws and institutions] of the Idea constitutes its rationality” (§145), operates through
CRICOBJECTIVE, which we can now give further definition. I take the systematicity of
these determinations to be an expression of the network of nesting relationship of the
various objectively valuable purposes. As I argued in chapter 2, individuals act on
motivating reasons that are generated by purposes that refer to their specific attach-
ments (to people and to occupations and to other interests). Actions are ethical when
the reasons derive from purposes that can be nested within broader purposes.
CRICOBJECTIVE involves an agency other than the individual, an agent who does the
nesting work by connecting the individual’s action to the broader purpose(s). This is
not wholly external, for it means that the recognizing agent must view the action under
the description willed by the agent. Because there is “no difference between inner and
outer” the recognizing agent is able to do this in the contexts of Ethical Life. The value
of an individual’s action is subjective in the sense that his standing purpose has refer-
ence to particulars, but the action is a token of an objective type of value and can be
recognized as such by others. My action performed out of love for my child is recog-
nizable as the action of a “family man” even though I will the action with specific ref-
erence to my child and not for the sake of being known as a family man.
It is not only other individuals who recognize my actions, but also the institutional
agencies (e.g., the legal system, the government) under whose authority I act.39 It is in

Siep (1979) and following him, Williams (1997) have emphasized this dimension of recognition.
172 hegel’s conscience

this institutional recognition that the right of subjective freedom plays an important
role (as we shall see in the next chapter) in determining the nature of the institutional
authority. To have the right to impute actions to me (i.e., to authoritatively recognize
my actions as actions of a certain universal character) the institution must treat my
actions as the result of free agency, and I must recognize myself in that institutional
agency. One further point can be made at this level. The institutional agencies (the
family, the corporation, the State) are valuable in that they accomplish valuable pur-
poses. Hegel writes of their importance in consequentialist terms as doing far more
good than, for instance, individual acts of charity. Individuals bring about value and
are recognized as valuable in their own right (the discreteness of persons is not com-
promised), but there is nothing that stops us from thinking of the value of the “ethical
powers” in consequentialist terms. It is among the cardinal virtues of Hegel’s ethics
that he is able to establish this continuity between individual-oriented ethics and the
(necessarily consequentialist) aims of social and political philosophy.
The burden of CRICSUBJECTIVE is to act in such a way that one’s actions are recogniz-
able. An agent of conscience acts in such a way that others can see or infer the value of
the action. To do this one must be able to take the perspective of others on one’s action,
and give precedence to the right values.40 One must also aim in one’s deliberation at
making the universality of one’s actions accessible, so that one can answer challenges
to these actions in clear, straightforward terms. On Hegel’s view of a well-functioning
modern Ethical Life, this CRICSUBJECTIVE condition will not be hard to meet. We do not
need to be moral saints, heroes, or geniuses in order to act ethically. This is the case
because “[t]he objective sphere of ethics, which takes the place of the abstract good, is
substance made concrete by subjectivity as infinite form” (§144). The individual subject
can identify with actions as his own and expect them to be recognized. Subjectivity has
“made concrete” the substance through the ability of subjects (as “infinite form”) to
identify their particular actions as universal. Hegel is referring to a historical process
that has created institutions (primarily Civil Society) that encourage individuals to
pursue particular interests. Hegel writes of this process (as we saw in 1.2) as enabled by
the Reformation’s transformation of conscience, but it is also a process of recognition
in which people come to trust each other to remain committed to the precedence of
the universal even while pursuing their particularity. Conscience itself is a social prac-
tice of trusting each other to be reliably committed to universal purposes. Recognizing
another as so committed is to recognize her as free.

See PR, §152.
practical reason in ethical life

Hegel claims that Ethical Life provides the content, gives the truth conditions, of ethical
action. It is thus natural to assume that Ethical Life simply fulfills the “right of
objectivity” (§132), which is a right exercised by other individuals and institutions who
hold the agent accountable for the ethical norms widely accepted as valid. This assump-
tion would neglect the great puzzle in understanding Ethical Life, namely how the
subject-oriented rights laid out in “Morality” do real work in determining the institu-
tions of Ethical Life. These rights include the rights of self-consciousness, of intention,
of subjective freedom, of particularity, and of insight into the good. I henceforth call
these the “subjective rights.” Taken together they form the overall conception of the
authority of conscience. The puzzle is that if the truth conditions of ethical action just
are given objectively in the institutions, as institutional norms that have the “form of
necessity” and “rule” the lives of individuals, it is unclear how there is any room to
exercise the subjective rights. To exercise them would seem to involve a claim of direct
authority over content, whereas Hegel seems to insist to the contrary that the institu-
tional content has direct and ultimate authority over the individuals.
The mistakes that makes this puzzle seem insoluble are thinking of the objective
norms as abstract universals and thinking of individual actions as particulars sub-
sumed under such universals. But to the extent that ethical requirements are abstract
universals, their legitimacy is mediated by further, particular requirements. The
universal norms do not directly determine action, but only do so in conjunction with
the exercise of particular rights by agents themselves. The elements of practical reason
that I have discussed in the last five chapters all support thinking of Hegel as pursuing
such a strategy of indirection. A brief recap of these elements will set the stage for a
consideration of the three main institutions of Ethical Life.
In chapter 1 I introduced Hegel’s performative view of ethical content by outlining
his conceptions of self-consciousness and the rational will. The individuality of the
rational will is what he calls self-referring negativity. This is the fundamental basis for

174 hegel’s conscience

his strategy of indirection because it is the activity through which an agent identifies
with a particular determinate action as the expression of a universal norm. It is this
conception of the will (as having the structure of the Concept) that underwrites the
claims of identity between items that are not strictly speaking identical. What Hegel
calls a concrete identity or unity and what I call complex identity is, in more familiar
terminology, a relation of a universal to its instantiations or exemplifications. This is an
ontological principle for Hegel, but it is also an identity that is achieved by a rational
individual will and that must be maintained by the efforts of individual agents.
In chapter 2 I addressed the question of motivating and justifying reasons. I argued
that Hegel conceives of the ethical individual as typically acting on “motivating rea-
sons,” which are like Bernard Williams’s internal reasons in that one is motivated to act
on them because they serve one’s standing purposes. They are reasons, but they have
roots in one’s natural motives, which are enabling conditions of individual actions.
I considered the relation between motivating reasons and justifying reasons, with the
conclusion that I have called the Complex Reasons Identity Condition: “In ethical action,
an agent’s motivating reasons refer to purposes that can be nested within purposes that
provide justifying reasons.” This counts as an identity condition because the specific
purposes partly constitute the broader purposes, which Hegel therefore thinks of as
concrete universals. The self-referring negativity of the rational will accounts for
CRICSUBJECTIVE, which involves the subject actually doing the nesting work, maintaining
the concrete identity between his own purposes and the overall purposes. CRICOBJECTIVE
is the right of objectivity applied indirectly, as the subject is held to objective norms in
relations of recognition, through objective nesting relationships that do not directly
determine the agent’s actions.
In chapter 3 the main problem was how to read Hegel’s criticisms of the ethics of
conviction. Those criticisms have seemed to many readers to be an assertion of the
direct right of objectivity over the individual subject’s claim to self-determination. My
argument was that Hegel should be seen instead as arguing against a direct determina-
tion of ethics based on the subjective rights. Such a direct determination is behind the
move of detaching the belief in a duty from the objective conditions of action on that
belief. When action is conceived properly as an integrated whole, the subjective rights
contained in the first-person belief are preserved along with accountability to objective
In chapter 4 my account of deliberation focused on the issues of deliberative clo-
sure and objective precedence relations. Deliberative closure is an issue because nor-
mative constraints inform deliberation but do not tell us what to do in particular cases.
There are competing considerations, and even in Ethical Life one consideration can be
defeated by another. The nesting of purposes within other purposes required by CRIC
is, in a well-ordered society, governed by objective precedence relations. For most of
our daily actions we know how our purposes fit within the institutional structures, to
the point that we normally do not reflect on that fit in performing those actions. We
expect each other to judge well, such that our beliefs in the rightness of our actions
have a default entitlement status. But these nesting relations are not completely fixed.
If they were, deliberation would be unnecessary or even impossible. We deliberate, and
175 Practical Reason in Ethical Life

courts and governments deliberate, because the norms are revealed to be indetermi-
nate when new situations arise that do not allow easy resolution. Deliberation described
as individual conscience, as judicial discretion, and so on, is informed by past precedent,
and the conclusions of deliberation are always open to challenge. Those challenges are
often marked by contestations of interpretation and refusals by others to acknowledge
the rationality of the decision.
Finally, I argued in the last chapter for understanding recognition as primarily
indirect in that other agents engage with the value of the accomplished action through
the individual’s description of the intended purpose. The other indirectness in Hegel’s
argument about recognition and objectivity stems from the distinction I have drawn
between the subjective processes of recognition (as a source of value) and relations of
recognition (as a structure of value). The objective relations of recognition emerge as
the result of subjective processes. The institutions become valuable through processes
of recognition among individuals, where those processes involves (and has increas-
ingly come to involve) the subjective rights. Objectivity is indirectly a product of
subjective processes over time, so there need not be any opposition between the two.
The institutions have incorporated and continue to incorporate the subjective rights.
I can appeal to the subjective rights explicitly, but I can also exercise them in modern
Ethical Life without needing to demand direct recognition of my individuality.


The contrast between the perspectives of Morality and Ethical Life is evident in the
shift from the interiority of individual conscience to the “immediate or natural ethical
spirit” (§157) of the family. Though one does not as a family member approach one’s
duties through the detached moral reflection we typically associate with practical
reason, all the major aspects of Hegelian practical reason I have detailed in this study
play a role in the account of the family in PR. Hegel uses the language of self-
consciousness to describe love as the basic determination of the family and he thus
illustrates how the content of Ethical Life is supposed to be determined through the
concepts of individuality and mutual recognition.1 He writes:

The first moment in love is that I do not wish to be an independent person in my

own right [für mich] and that, if I were, I would feel deficient and incomplete. The
second moment is that I find myself in another person, that I gain recognition in
this person [daß ich in ihr gelte], who in turn gains recognition in me. Love is there-
fore the most immense contradiction; the understanding cannot resolve it, because
there is nothing more intractable [Härteres] than this punctiliousness [Punktualität]
of the self-consciousness which is negated and which I ought nevertheless to pos-
sess as affirmative. Love is both the production and resolution of this contradiction.
As its resolution, it is ethical unity. (§158Z)

See Hirsch (1973) on the connection of the themes of love and moral reflection. See also Ormiston
(2004) for a study of Hegel’s political theory that draws out the centrality of love.
176 hegel’s conscience

Love is the most intense and personal manifestation of the dynamics of individuality
and of recognition. The intractable self-consciousness is the first moment of the rational
will, the pure universality that abstracts from all determinations. This is negated when
the individual falls in love, which is why love is so often experienced as a kind of com-
pulsion. All of a sudden one is bound to another, a particular other, and the move to the
pure indeterminacy of abstract universality no longer seems attractive (one “would feel
deficient and incomplete” in that abstraction). The resolution of “the most immense
contradiction” of love is the affirmative aspect of recognition in the love between indi-
viduals. This is a version of “self-referring negativity” because the person can identify
herself in the negation of her abstract independence. This is possible because she knows
she is loved by the other whom she loves. Hegel takes this form of love to be a modern
form of recognition, just as he takes the rational will to be the structure of modern sub-
jectivity. He identifies marriage based on romantic love with the “subjective principle of
the modern world,” since in it one’s “infinitely particular distinctness” is affirmed in
another (§162). He worries that too much emphasis on the passions of romantic love
can make it seem like a matter of sheer contingency, but he does not object to the
contingency itself, which is a necessary element in modern institutions.
Hegel’s description of love gives the impression that he does indeed have a direct
recognition view of marriage in which the direct intersubjective bond is sufficient to
characterize the institution. But he defends the marriage ceremony and the need for
marriage to be law-governed against the view (expressed in Schlegel’s Lucinda) that the
ceremony and formalities in general are unnecessary and even harmful. Though Hegel
rejects Kant’s view of marriage as a contract for the reciprocal use of each other’s sexual
capacities (he calls it “disgraceful” at §75), he does agree with Kant that the dimension
of formal legality is essential to marriage. He writes that “the precise nature of marriage
is to begin from the point of view of contract—i.e. that of individual personality as a
self-sufficient unit—in order to supersede it [ihn aufzuheben]” (§163). The independence
is essential, but so too is the notion of membership in the family. There is a fundamental
difference between being such a member and being a party to a contract.
Given the close link of recognition and language examined in the last chapter, we
should not be surprised that Hegel holds that the language of the marriage ceremony
is the essential external dimension of marriage. He writes of the declaration in the

[R]ecognition and confirmation by the family and community constitute the

formal conclusion and actuality of marriage. . . . It is accordingly only after this cer-
emony has first taken place, as the completion of the substantial [aspect of marriage]
by means of the sign—i.e. by means of language as the most spiritual existence
[Dasein] of the spiritual (see §78)—that this bond has been ethically constituted.

As he wrote in the Phenomenology, language is the existence of self-consciousness as

self-consciousness, the only medium in which the agent can “be there” for other agents
in a manner that does not become merely external. Love may be the felt bond of
177 Practical Reason in Ethical Life

marriage, but as an ethical bond love must meet the performative conditions, including
an element of externality that is represented here by language. Marriage is an institu-
tion of indirect recognition, though it is the least indirect of the institutions of Ethical
Life. Love is direct recognition, but “self-conscious love” (§161), as Hegel calls love
within marriage, is mediated through the formalities of the institution.
The self-conscious love within marriage is a leading example of the relations I ana-
lyzed in chapter 2 between natural motives, motivating reasons, and justifying reasons.
The natural motives in love are the drive toward procreation and the desire for sex.
Hegel distinguishes marriage from “concubinage” precisely on the grounds that
whereas in concubinage the pleasures of sex are the primary aim, “this drive is made
subordinate within marriage” (§163Z). The drive is subordinate not to some motiva-
tionally inert pure duty, but rather through what I called in chapter 2 motivating rea-
sons and their standing purposes. This is how Hegel describes the subordination:

The ethical aspect of marriage consists in the consciousness of this union as a sub-
stantial purpose, and hence in love, trust, and the sharing of the whole of individual
existence. When this disposition and actuality are present, the natural drive is
reduced to the modality of a moment of nature which is destined to be extin-
guished in its very satisfaction, while the spiritual bond asserts its rights as the sub-
stantial factor and thereby stands out as indissoluble in itself and exalted above the
contingency of the passions and of particular transient caprice. (§163)

The natural drive does not disappear, and does not need to be actively repressed, but
rather becomes a “moment” within the spiritual union. The union is based on the “sub-
stantial end” or shared purposes of the couple. These are the source of their motivating
reasons for their daily actions. The feelings that accompany acting on those reasons are
those of love and trust. The desire for sex is not suppressed, but its satisfaction is
integrated within the overall constellation of purposes. Hegel thus writes, “their union
is a self-limitation, but since they attain their substantial self-consciousness within it, it
is in fact their liberation” (§162). This echoes the comments in the general description
of Ethical Life that the individual is freed from the “moral reflections on obligation and
desire” (§149). Self-limitation in marriage is a liberation from limitless desire and
enables “substantial self-consciousness” in the sense that one’s valuing activity takes on
definite recognized shape within the marriage’s comprehensive intimacy.
The opposite view of sex is the one Hegel associates with Catholicism and “the
monastic attitude which defines the moment of natural life as utterly negative and, by
this very separation, endows it with infinite importance in itself [für sich]” (§163). We
can see from this contrast how Hegel’s claim about integrating rather than denying the
desire for sex parallels his claim about integrating sensible inclination in the agency of
conscience. The monastic attitude seeks to repress the moment of natural life in the
service of purity or holiness, just as the moral worldview claimed that pure duty was
opposed to inclinations. And just as pure duty thereby bestowed on natural inclination
an independent standing outside of self-consciousness, so too the monastic attitude
toward sex gives it “infinite importance” by attempting to negate it entirely.
178 hegel’s conscience

The holism I discussed in chapter 3 is at work in Hegel’s view of marriage as

requiring both subjective love and the objective affirmation of ceremony. He thus
stresses that neither the love nor the external affirmation can be detached as the sole
determinant of the ethicality of marriage. His anti-detachment position comes out
when he criticizes the view that the marriage ceremony is a merely external constraint.
He agrees that this would indeed make the ceremony seem unnecessary and even
harmful, but he argues that this objection would only hold because the ceremony has
been detached from the disposition. On the other side, Hegel does hold the disposi-
tion (love) to be essential to the marriage, but he also holds that love cannot be
detached as the sole source of ethicality. Hegel’s anti-detachment view becomes clear
in his comments on divorce. Marriage “has its objective actuality in the inwardness of
subjective disposition and feeling” (§176), which means that if that subjective dispo-
sition breaks down, and the two are estranged, divorce must be permitted. Yet Hegel
takes a fairly strong line on the State or Church making divorce difficult, for he think
that if it were too easy (“no-fault” divorce) the institution would be compromised
because the disposition would in effect be admitted as a sufficient criterion for the
ethicality of marriage. The fact that he defends divorce shows that he thinks the legal
institution is also not sufficient on its own to maintain the ethical status of marriage
in the absence of feeling.
Hegel makes further progressive claims about marriage by appealing to the mutu-
ality of recognition based on rational individuality. He argues for monogamy on the
grounds that marriage must be “immediate exclusive individuality” that enters the
relationship, which depends on “the mutual and undivided surrender of this person-
ality” (§167). Only if the other gives himself up “as a person, i.e. as atomic individu-
ality,” and is thus fully present in the relationship, does he gain the “right of being
conscious of oneself in the other” (§167). So too the independence of persons is the
prerequisite of the proper recognition relationship in marriage. There is no recogni-
tion properly speaking without independence of personhood. This is Hegel’s reason
for rejecting marriage between blood relations. He writes:

Furthermore, since marriage arises out of the free surrender by both sexes of their
personalities, which are infinitely unique [eigen] to themselves, it must not be con-
cluded within the naturally identical circle of people who are acquainted and
familiar with each other in every detail—a circle in which the individuals do not
have a distinct personality of their own in relation to one another—but must take
place [between people] from separate families and personalities of different origin.
Marriage between blood relations is therefore at variance with the concept of
marriage as an ethical act of freedom rather than an association based on immediate
natural existence [Natürlichkeit] and its drives, and hence it is also at variance with
genuine natural feeling. (§168)

The intimacy of growing up close first cousins, for example, would mean that even if
in relation to the outside world one were an independent person, in relation to each
other one’s bonds would already be based on “immediate natural existence” and the
179 Practical Reason in Ethical Life

free act of marriage would not be “an ethical act of freedom.” The ethical act presup-
poses a certain indeterminacy, or negativity, with regard to one’s natural inclinations.
This emphasis on the free personality makes it all the more blameworthy when Hegel
asserts the inferiority of women and their natural place within the domestic sphere. He
infamously compares women to plants, unfit for higher pursuits such as philosophy, with
their proper place in the home. We can attribute some of these comments to the universal
prejudices of his day and to Hegel’s particular issues with strong-willed women. But it is
of systematic concern when he cites this role differentiation as the basis of “a concrete
unity” (§165) of the family. This is cause for concern not only because it represents a rigid
gender-role structure that is supposed to be grounded in natural differences in aptitude,
but also because it threatens to vitiate the picture of the CRIC that I have developed in
this study. The notion of a concrete unity or a complex unity draws its intuitive force
from the desirability of accounting for differentiation within an overall unity. Such a
unity is richer, more dynamic, and more motivationally efficacious than a unity in which
strict or simple identity among the parts is demanded. But if the differentiation extends
to the persons who are assigned to the various purposes, a complex identity will be tan-
tamount to a not strictly equal view of persons, or the view that some are “more equal
than others.” So in Hegel’s conception of the family the man represents the family in
“external acquisition,” and is in charge of “the control and administration of the family’s
resources” (§171). Hegel seems to be saying that within the institution there will be one
individual who has authority over the subordinate purposes of the institution, which are
fulfilled by other presumably inferior agents. These claims cast a pall over Hegel’s general
comments about the independence of women entering marriage.
This is not the place to give a full critique or a sympathetic reconstruction of Hegel’s
views of the family as a whole. Three points can be made, however, to explain Hegel’s
view (if not to excuse it). First, he is concerned with how the family appears in relation
to other families and other institutional contexts. With the family, as with the State
(headed by the sovereign monarch), Hegel thinks that only a single individual can rep-
resent the family unity in its dealings with the outside. Just as the monarch must
represent to other nations the sovereignty of the State, there must be a head of the
household to represent the family. A second, and much more convincing reason for
Hegel’s differentiation of the sexes is his aim of preserving the distinctive nature of the
family’s normativity. Hegel does not devalue the immediacy of family life, but rather,
as his admiration for Antigone and his frequent references to the household gods (the
penates) make clear, he values the family very highly, taking it to be one of the bedrocks
of society. It is important to the overall differentiation of Ethical Life that the family
remain a distinctive sphere, and the task he assigns to women of maintaining the
sphere’s integrity is a crucial one. The third point to note about the differentiated pur-
poses of the family is that Hegel is not at all as rigid as one might expect about the
nature and ordering of those purposes. He writes:

If, in order to establish or assess the legal determinations [of marriage], it is asked
what the chief end [Hauptzweck] of marriage is, this chief end will be understood
to mean whatever individual aspect of its actuality is to be regarded as more
180 hegel’s conscience

essential than the others. But no one aspect on its own [für sich] constitutes the
whole extent of its content which has being in and for itself—that is, of its ethical
character—and one or other aspect of its existence may be absent, without preju-
dice to the essence of marriage. (§164)

A couple may not have children, or may not engage in sex, without the marriage
thereby ceasing to count as a marriage. So Hegel does not think that the husband can
coerce his wife to fulfill some supposedly “essential” domestic purposes, or that laws
should be enacted to enable such coercion. The essence of marriage lies in the mutual
recognition of self-conscious love, and while actions are necessary to sustain the eth-
ical bond, Hegel does not have a rigid picture of just what actions are required.
None of these considerations, however, excuse his view of women or his claims
about their limited intellectual capacities. It is not even clear how the women Hegel
describes as bound to the purposes of the family could actually support the purposes
of the modern family, given that a leading purpose of the modern family is to produce
children who are independent and can lead their own lives outside of their original
family. The upbringing of children is supposed to raise them “out of the natural imme-
diacy in which they originally exist to self-sufficiency and freedom of personality,
thereby enabling them to leave the natural unit of the family” (§175). The children
must leave the nest, a purpose that actually illustrates how the purposes of the family
in general are nested within the purposes of Civil Society. We say that we raise children
to be productive members of society, which means that we do not try to keep them
bound to the family or clan. Subordinating one’s desire as a parent to keep one’s chil-
dren in one’s domestic sphere is no small feat, but it is demanded on Hegel’s view of
the modern institution.2 The family produces the individuals who constitute Civil
Society, and who themselves begin their own families.


The cluster of institutions that Hegel calls Civil Society is both the best evidence of his
concern for the right to particularity in Ethical Life and the greatest challenge to the
overall coherence of his ethics. After the great fanfare of the general introduction of
Ethical Life, with its claims to truth and stable ethical determinations, it comes as quite
a surprise to learn that most individual actions outside of the family take place in a
sphere of activity that does not seem ethical at all. Hegel’s vision of particularity in
Civil Society is familiar to citizens of modern liberal democracies:

Particularity in itself [für sich], on the one hand indulging itself in all directions as
it satisfies its needs, contingent arbitrariness, and subjective caprice, destroys itself

Hegel notes rather poignantly that “children love their parents less than their parents love them,
for the children are increasingly independent and gain in strength, thereby leaving their parents behind
them, whereas the parents possess in their children the objective and concrete form [die objective
Gegenständlichkeit] of their union” (§175).
181 Practical Reason in Ethical Life

and its substantial concept in the act of enjoyment; on the other hand, as infinitely
agitated and continually dependent on external contingency and arbitrariness and
at the same time limited by the power of universality, the satisfaction of both
necessary and contingent needs is itself contingent. In these opposites and their
complexity, civil society affords a spectacle of extravagance and misery as well as of
the physical and ethical corruption common to both. (§185)

Though there are traces of Rousseau’s analysis of modern society in this and related
passages, there is little of the lament for lost wholeness that one finds in Rousseau.
Hegel celebrates the latitude accorded to the development of one’s interests and
acknowledges that those interests may be quite distant from any common purpose that
could be justified to all. The question is how modern societies are able to allow this
productive particularity without drastically weakening the family and the State. I argue
in this section that Hegel’s conception of conscience as practical reason is the answer
to this question.
Asked in comparative terms, the question is why modern societies thrive on the
principle of particularity when the principle was a corrupting influence in the ancient
world. In the preface to the Philosophy of Right Hegel writes of Plato’s theory as a reac-
tion against the principle of individual subjectivity that was beginning to infiltrate
Greek ethics through the sophists. With no help from the religion of the time in curb-
ing this new movement, Plato had to erect a substantial (we would say authoritarian)
State. Hegel writes of the Republic’s ideal in the introduction to Civil Society, “[t]he
principle of the self-sufficient and inherently infinite personality of the individual, the
principle of subjective freedom, which arose in an inward form in the Christian reli-
gion . . . is denied its right in that mere substantial form of the actual spirit” (§185).
Hegel indicates here that the denial of the subjective rights in ancient ethical life went
together with the absence of Civil Society. Hegel continues the contrast with particu-
larity in the ancient world, writing:

The self-sufficient development of particularity (cf. Remarks to §124) is the

moment which appears in the states of the ancient world as an influx of ethical
corruption and as the ultimate reason [Grund] for their downfall. These states,
some of which were based on the patriarchal and religious principle and others on
the principle of a more spiritual, though simpler, ethical life, but all of which were
based on original natural intuition, could not withstand the division [Entzweiung]
which arose within the latter as self-consciousness became infinitely reflected into
itself. As this reflection began to emerge, first as a disposition and then in actuality,
they succumbed to it, because the simple principle on which they were still based
lacked the truly infinite power which resides solely in that unity which allows the
opposition within reason to develop to its full strength, and has overcome it so as to
preserve itself within it and wholly contain it within itself. (§185)

The division Hegel refers to here with self-consciousness (“infinitely reflected into
itself ”) is just the division between abstract universal norms and the particular
182 hegel’s conscience

individual as a source of value.3 The “simpler” ethical life of ancient societies did not
have a subjective rational authority to hold together the unity of the Complex Reasons
Identity Condition. The differentiation that did exist in those societies was “based on
original natural intuition” as a beautiful ethical whole that was strong only as long as
the mythic narratives of the poets were effective in maintaining the ethical bond.
What exactly is the “truly infinite power” that prevents the modern individual’s par-
ticularized activity from undermining and destroying ethical life itself? Two objective
answers are available here, and have been the focus of most scholarly attention to this
question. Hegel writes in the PR that the State curtails the fragmenting force of Civil
Society, for instance by checking market forces. This would be an appeal to CRICOBJECTIVE,
for it would credit the higher authorities with maintaining a stable ordering of nested
purposes. What is odd about this claim is that it leaves entirely unclear why the Greek
states could not also check the fragmentation of particularity. Furthermore, as we shall
see below Hegel credits the strength of the modern State to the development of partic-
ularity, so it cannot be the State alone that enables particularity to be a positive force.
Another objective suggestion is that the nature of modern labor, of modern economic
practices, accounts for this change. Hegel is quick to point out that agents in Civil
Society are not as independent as they think they are, for he has learned from the
Scottish political economists that the greater our degree of particularity, or specializa-
tion, the greater is our all-around dependence on others. This is also an appeal to
CRICOBJECTIVE, for it is the claim that the overall purpose of the market is served by the
particular purposes of individuals. But the integrative aspect of modern economic

In the Encyclopedia account of World History, Hegel reads the claim that philosophers should
rule as the claim that “the Idea” should rule. In Plato we get the Idea as “in-itself the free self-deter-
mining thought” (E, §552), but this thought is both abstract and lacking the moment of being for itself.
To clarify what has gone wrong with Plato’s political philosophy Hegel has recourse to the underlying
“conceptual distinction.” He finds that in Plato’s metaphysics the “genus” relates to the individuals in
the model of “natural things” only, in which the individuals only have the “form of universality”
through the genus. This misses the essence of human thinking, which has its own form as its content.
Hegel writes that Aristotle recognized this essence in his idea of “thought thinking itself.” The lesson of
this rather obscure discussion of Greek metaphysics is a way of redeeming subjectivity: “But thinking
in general contains, for the sake of this very determination, equally the immediate being for itself of
subjectivity as the universality, and the genuine Idea of the spirit concrete in itself is just as essentially
in one of its determinations, of subjective consciousness, as in the other, the universality, and is in one
as in the other the same substantial content.” (E §552) Hegel is arguing that the particular moment of
the concept, of self-consciousness, is essential. The problem is that this particular subjectivity is also
characterized by “feeling, intuition, representation.” These must take on an objective meaning through
religion before they can be raised to thought and to political validity. The required transformation is
Hegel’s justification for why the Christian religion, as the absolute religion, had to precede the politics
and philosophy of freedom. In Plato’s own time, this subjectivity could only appear as sophistry: “The
form in its infinite truth, the subjectivity of the spirit, broke forth first only as subjective free thinking,
which was not yet grasped as identical with the substantiality, which had itself not yet been grasped as
absolute Spirit” (E §552). The characteristic form of this initial appearance of the subjective was a kind
of instrumentality, using thought for strategic purposes. Of course the danger of sophistry remains
with the principle of subjectivity, but Hegel thinks that modern developments have given the principle
a new integrity.
183 Practical Reason in Ethical Life

practices is also inadequate to account for how the development of particularity can be
integrated with the universal. This inadequacy can be inferred from Hegel’s discus-
sions of the need to have reformed religion in order to have a free political system. He
does not recommend that States first develop modern labor markets and means of
production, but rather he traces modern freedom to the shift in the sense of personal
responsibility that came with the Reformation.
Only by reading Hegel’s historical account and his initial descriptions of Civil
Society together with his account of conscience in the Phenomenology does a coherent
picture emerge of how modern subjectivity enables Ethical Life to draw its strength
from (and not merely tolerate) the pursuit of particularity. We should understand
what Hegel refers to as “the truly infinite power” in the above passage in terms of the
activity of conscience. Hegel is referring to the authority of self-consciousness, the
capacity to take responsibility, that is the basis of conscience as practical reason.
The “truly infinite” describes the nature of self-consciousness as both particular and
universal in its self-referring negativity, and the ability of the agent of conscience to
unite the two dimensions. For on Hegel’s view of the will as self-referring negativity
the agent has the force of his integrity in his specific commitments, while also knowing
that each of those commitments has its full “universal” import and its full justification
within the institutional purposes in which it is nested. There is an implicit demand in
self-consciousness so conceived to make this move to full justifying reasons, and being
conscientious is maintaining the justifying considerations in the background of one’s
I have presented this ordering in terms of “nested purposes” of action, such that
more specific purposes are nested within institutional structures, and ultimately within
the State. The main thrust of the transformation Hegel finds in modernity is that indi-
viduals are governed by a condition of pure responsibility to self. The agent’s responsi-
bility in CRICSUBJECTIVE is to maintain the interconnections of his various commitments
and to be accountable for an ordered priority of those commitments. This responsi-
bility, which first appeared “inwardly” in Christianity, becomes the practice of ethical
conscience that requires a subject to maintain the unity between his particular moti-
vating reasons and the universal justifying reasons. The pure responsibility of
conscience that makes this possible is not best thought of as a second-order reflection
or motivation, but rather as a standing commitment to rationality that means that no
matter what I am doing in particular, I know that I can be asked to justify it according
to the recognized reasons within that sphere of activity. When one knows that one is
accountable to others and that one must give reasons to others that meet certain con-
ditions of rationality, any particular justification (even one that refers to self-interest)
can be linked to contexts shared with others, and ultimately to shared citizenship in the
same State. This is not to say that the standpoint of justification must always take pre-
cedence in our deliberation. It is clear that Hegel thinks that many actions are done
primarily from self-interest, and in the context of Civil Society that is often not an
objection to them.
We can sum up the answer to our question. When the principle of particularity
develops in societies (e.g., in the ancient world) based on “natural intuition,”
184 hegel’s conscience

particularity can only be pursued at the expense of the principle of public life. The
modern individual of conscience, on the other hand, views the substantial (i.e. the
State) as his most important commitment, and yet most of his everyday activities
are oriented by the immediate purposes of family and economic well-being. It was the
historical rise of the reformed religious conscience that secured the subjective condi-
tions for holding together the universal and particular purposes.
We are not born with a fully formed conscience. What Hegel describes as Bildung
in the introduction to Civil Society is the education of conscience to know how to con-
nect the particular and universal, and to give precedence to the universal. Hegel formu-
lates the issue as how the individual with particular interests is educated to the universal.
He writes:

Individuals, as citizens of this state, are private persons who have their own interest as
their purpose. Since this purpose is mediated through the universal, which thus
appears to the individual as a means, they can attain their purpose only in so far as
they themselves determine their knowledge, volition, and action in a universal way
and make themselves links in the chain of this continuum [Zusammenhang]. (§187)

The uneducated individual sets out from a perspective in which the particular interest
is the purpose and the universal is merely the means. This inverts the proper relation-
ship, according to which the universal is the purpose and the particular is the means.
With Bildung Hegel is describing a dynamic relationship between the subjective and
objective senses of CRIC. One only develops the subjective sense, the full capacity for
holding the particular and universal together, with the objective existence of such insti-
tutions and objective precedence relations between them already in place. In turn the
subjective sense of CRIC sustains and supports the objective order. This comes out in
the elaboration:

Furthermore, this form of universality to which particularity has worked its way
upwards and cultivated [heraufgebildet] itself, i.e. the understanding [Verständigkeit],
ensures at the same time that particularity [Besonderheit] becomes the genuine
being-for-itself of individuality [Einzelheit]; and, since it is from particularity that
universality receives both the content which fills it and its infinite self-determination,
particularity is itself present in ethical life as free subjectivity which has infinite
being-for-itself. (§187)

The individual achieves universality, but likewise the universal achieves its content
and “infinite self-determination” from the interests and actions of individuals. The
exact nature of the process of Bildung is difficult to pin down because in Hegel’s
view education happens through action itself rather than through book learning.
He certainly does not think that religious education is important in this process,
though he does rely on the background culture of reformed religion and the unitary
character of conscience (as opposed to the two conscience model of the Catholic
185 Practical Reason in Ethical Life

In addition to the role of conscience in maintaining the links between individual and
universal interests in Civil Society, there is also a specific moral dimension to Civil Society.
The distinctive marks of the “moral” for Hegel are the use of abstract formulations of
duty and the contingency of the agent’s specific moral goals. Hegel writes, “[T]his is also
the field in which the understanding, with its subjective purposes and moral opinions,
gives vent to its discontent and moral irritation” (§189). In this passage Hegel treats
morality as a standpoint of consciousness above action, commenting on and criticizing
the miseries of the modern social system. But Hegel is not simply critical of the moral
attitude, and finds a distinct place for moral beneficence to act within this sphere. He
writes, “Morality has its proper place in this sphere, where reflection on one’s own actions
and the ends of welfare and of particular needs are dominant, and where contingency in
the satisfaction of the latter makes even contingent and individual help into a duty”
(§207). The contingent actions of isolated individuals are duties in this sphere because
Civil Society itself is a system that only contingently satisfies the needs of individuals.
There is thus a clear field for the altruistic dimension of conscience in which the existence
of others in need is sufficient to ground a duty to aid them. In commenting on the per-
sistence of poverty in modern societies, Hegel comments that poverty “also requires
subjective help, both with regard to the particular circumstances and with regard to emo-
tion and love. This is a situation in which, notwithstanding all universal arrangements,
morality finds plenty to do” (§242). He does not deny that we have individual duties to
help others, just as little as he denies that there are cases in which explicit deliberation on
what to do is required. He remains suspicious, however, that such “contingent” solutions
to problems of welfare are best thought of as individual problems. He refers to the activity
of charity in this sphere, but he criticizes charity for feeling “injured and offended” when
universal, or legal, remedies are taken to alleviate the need for charity. Charity is no sub-
stitute for systematic action at the institutional level to correct the systematic shortcom-
ings of the modern world. As a reflection of his willingness to argue on consequentialist
grounds, Hegel holds that the superiority of institutional action derives from the greater
good that State power can accomplish compared to the charity of individuals.


The elements of Hegel’s theory of practical reason that I addressed in chapters 4 and 5
come to the fore in the section of Civil Society entitled “The Administration of Justice.”
In this section I show that the application of the laws reflects the pressures of deliber-
ation, and that Hegel’s arguments for the nature of the judiciary, especially for trial by
jury, follow from the demand of recognition arising from those deliberative pressures.
The context of action here is the court of law. The court is obviously directed at satis-
fying the right of objectivity in so far as the court aims to know what laws apply to a
given case, to determine what exactly happened, and thereby to prove guilt or inno-
cence. In arguing for what the subjective rights require within the legal system, Hegel
makes substantive claims about the proper character of the modern legal system, thus
illustrating how the formal demands of practical reason actually inform the nature of
the institutions.
186 hegel’s conscience

Hegel’s discussion of justice begins by indicating how some of the general consid-
erations from the earlier treatments of Abstract Right and Morality function within
the actual institutions of the legal system. He makes the claim here about “the identity
of all” as persons, a claim that I interpret as a fundamental principle of the type Herman
dubbed Rules of Moral Salience: “A human being counts as such because he is a human
being, not because he is a Jew, Catholic, Protestant, German, Italian, etc. This con-
sciousness, which is the aim of thought, is of infinite importance, and it is inadequate
only if it adopts a fixed position—for example, as cosmopolitanism—in opposition to
the concrete life of the state” (§209). The claim of universality here is a claim of equality
of persons under the law. The cases that can come under the purview of the court are
restricted to the property claims of Abstract Right, claims that now arise in a more
definite way out of the “system of needs.” The cases are those defined in terms of needs
and interests that have public standing. Hegel thus dismisses, with astonishing brevity,
the right of positive law over moral action proper. He writes, “Since morality and moral
precepts concern the will in its most personal [eigensten] subjectivity and particularity,
they cannot be the object [Gegenstand] of positive legislation” (§213). This restriction
also reflects the right of self-consciousness, namely the right to conscience that Hegel
earlier claimed that the State must respect—“conscience is a sanctuary which it would
be sacrilege to violate” (§137). We can say then that Hegel’s bark about the restrictions
on conscience’s authority is worse than his bite, for he explicitly bars legislation that
would require moral belief or that would make it the court’s business to decide what
one’s moral disposition must be.
The concerns of chapter 4 are reflected most directly in Ethical Life in Hegel’s char-
acterization of the activity of a judge deliberating on a legal case. In actual courts of
law, positive law is interpreted and applied to specific cases in a way similar to, if not
strictly analogous to, the way in which individuals apply moral principles in cases of
action. These passages display Hegel’s commitment to legal rationalism (in the univer-
sality of the law and the transparency of legal proceedings), but they also show a sur-
prising willingness to allow the particular case to be settled in a holistic manner despite
the seemingly mechanical workings of the law. Hegel’s introduction to the legal system
is remarkable in that he criticizes the hallmark of “Hegelian” social theory, namely the
emphasis on the organic or living quality of norms. He foregrounds the “determinate
universality” of the law and emphasizes that the law is not merely an abstract “rule of
behavior” (§211). But he quickly takes issue with the idea of “customary rights,” or
unwritten law, as somehow having priority over a formal legal code merely because of
the “living” character of those rights. His example of such an empirical collection of
laws is England, and to highlight this inadequacy he points to the excessive power
of the judge in that system. Without a written legal code “the judges constantly act as
legislators” (§211). This excessive authority stems from an ambiguity in the conception
of common law conceived of as applying and extending precedent according to an
unwritten law. Hegel’s complaint is that while such judges are bound to the judgments
of their predecessors, they are also independent of those predecessors in that their real
standard is an unwritten law. Such an unwritten law is as good as no law at all, for it is
up to the judge in the new case to decide whether the judgment in the previous case did
187 Practical Reason in Ethical Life

in fact conform to the unwritten law or not.4 This is the same worry that Hegel expresses
in his criticism of the possible subjectivism in ethics, where one can use the appeal to
conscience as a way to legislate new ethical norms in each case.
Hegel defends the codification of laws as necessary even though such an explicit set
of laws leads to “collisions.” In raising the issue of collisions of laws, an issue parallel to
the collision of duties for the individual agent, Hegel attempts to come to terms with
how deliberative closure can be reached. He writes that this is “where the under-
standing of the judge has its place; this is entirely necessary, for the implementation of
the law would otherwise be a completely mechanical process” (§211Z). He defends this
use of “the understanding of the judge” in conjunction with codified laws against the
alternative of relying merely on the “discretion” of the judge. Such discretion, we can
assume, would be like the ungrounded subjective determination of duty that Hegel
argues against at the end of “Morality.” The proper role of conscience, like the proper
role of the judge, is to adjudicate between competing principles (laws) in their applica-
tion to determinate cases. Hegel’s preferred solution for minimizing collisions and to
minimize the need for the judge’s discretion is for the laws to form a system. Such a
codified system, rather than an appeal to some vague standard of what is “living,” is the
proper task for legislation.
Describing the functioning of the courts themselves, Hegel links the justice of this
process to the properly holistic character of the deliberations, and suggests that this
holism is essential to our recognizing the value of the institution. While the court is
responsible for “actualizing the right in particular cases,” it does so (presumably in
contrast to individual judgment) without “the subjective feeling of particular interests”
(§219). Hegel endorses a “court of arbitration” or a “court of equity,” an institution
associated with the English legal system that was more oriented by particular cases
than universal determinations.5 Hegel writes, “Equity involves a departure from formal
right in the light of moral or other considerations, and relates primarily to the content
of the legal action” (§223). While the legal system is primarily a realm of procedural
justice, here Hegel acknowledges that there may be other factors that warrant depart-
ing from strict procedure. The point of such a court is to take account of circumstances
in which there are claims that should override the strict claim of a certain law. Such a
“court of equity,” according to Hegel, “will also reach its decision in the interests of the
individual case in its own right, and not in the interests of making a universal legal dis-
position” (§223). The idea is that such a court would not have to worry about setting a
precedent. We can read Hegel’s support of this court as a function of his concern for
the determinacy of specific cases, and his wariness of the mechanical character of the
justice system. Implicit in this description is that the individual can recognize the
authority of the court because the individual sees that the court’s function is to carry

Brandom has on several occasions invoked the common law analogy to interpret Hegel’s view of
normative change as a kind of pragmatism. While I do not think that Hegel’s objections here count
decisively against Brandom’s analogy, they should make us much more cautious before accepting such
a common law interpretation.
See Wood’s editorial note on this passage at PR, 448.
188 hegel’s conscience

out at the institutional level the specifying activity that takes place in individual moral
When he turns to the nature of the laws and their implementation, Hegel explic-
itly invokes the “right of self-consciousness” to require that the laws be universally
known. This means that the laws should be written down and that no specialized edu-
cation should be required to comprehend them.6 The agent must know what the prin-
ciples of deliberation are, and know that those principles are open to processes of
recognition. The openness to challenges characteristic of the process of recognition is
the issue when Hegel asserts “the right of subjective consciousness” (§224) in the legal
system by advocating the publicity of the court proceedings. The justification of this
publicity is based not only on the universal interest, but also on the increase in
“confidence” that the public thereby has in the judiciary. The people should have the
belief or conviction that right is being done, and the only way for this to be the case is
for the process of right to be transparent. Hegel divides the transparent process into a
phase of (1) “the knowledge of the case and its categorization,” and (2) the subsump-
tion of the case under a law and the determination in criminal cases of the proper
sentence. The first task involves determining the description under which the action
was intended (was it premeditated or not?) and determining how the law will classify
the action (murder or manslaughter?). Alluding to his discussions of Catholicism and
Protestantism, Hegel treats the knowledge involved in the first step as something that
any ordinary person should be able to assess, rather than relying on a special class
(lawyers, Catholic priests) to interpret one’s action in relation to the divine (law,
Hegel is also clear that the “proofs” available in this phase are not like mathematical
proofs, relying as they do on testimony, circumstance, etc., and this brings us back to
conscience. There simply is no “absolutely objective determination” to decide on the
particulars of a case. Hegel states that for the proper official description of the case,
“the ultimate factors in such a decision are subjective conviction and conscience (animi
sententio); and in the case of the proof, which rests on the statements and affirmation
of others, its ultimate (though subjective) guarantee is the oath” (§227). It turns out
that conscience is indispensable, is even a kind of standard, for the proof. This point,
though, turns out to be ambiguous. Whose certainty are we talking about here? The
certainty of the one who did the deed (to restrict our case to a criminal proceeding), or
the certainty of the judge who makes the decision?
In Hegel’s answer to these questions there is an important parallel to the direct
intersubjective confrontation of the last stage of conscience in the Phenomenology,
which also features an agent and a judge. In the description of the legal system in the
published text of the PR Hegel stresses that the judge is in a better position than the
agent to be the bearer of the truth of conscience. In the lecture notes, though, the case
is presented as nearly identical to the Phenomenology’s dialectic of conscience, though
with a different outcome.

PR, §215.
189 Practical Reason in Ethical Life

This certainty is subjective conviction or conscience, and the question here is, what
form should this certainty assume in a court of law? The requirement commonly
encountered in German law that the criminal should confess his guilt has truth on
its side inasmuch as the right of subjective self-consciousness is thereby satisfied;
for what the judge pronounces must not differ from what is in the consciousness,
and only when the criminal confesses does the judgment no longer contain
anything alien to him. But the difficulty arises here that the criminal may deny his
guilt, with the result that the interest of justice is prejudiced. If, on the other hand,
the subjective conviction of the judge is to prevail, an element of harshness [eine
Härte] is again introduced, for the person in question is no longer treated as a free
individual. (§227Z)

The options for matching objective judgment with subjective belief are the confession
of the criminal and the hard heart of the judge. The route of confession does not work
because one cannot assume such a willingness within this legal realm. Likewise the
judge cannot be in the business of forgiveness, for that is contrary to the justice of
retributive punishment.
The direct recognition that characterizes confession and forgiveness and the process
that led to Absolute Spirit in the Phenomenology is blocked in the Philosophy of Right
by the conditions of Objective Spirit. The relational aspect of indirect recognition takes
priority. This discussion of the application of the law shows, however, that these lawful
relations are inherently indeterminate, for there can always be cases in which the inter-
pretation and application of the law is in doubt. Further, given the conditions of fini-
tude, there will frequently be doubts about the facts of the case and the way to
characterize the agent’s intention. We have already seen that Hegel supports courts of
equity for ameliorating some of the strictness and limitations of the law. But though
that helps with the side of deliberation, it does not answer the fundamental issue of
how processes of recognition can enter the legal system and direct its development.
The goal is for “the right of subjective self-consciousness” and the “interest of jus-
tice” both to be satisfied. The right of self-consciousness is clearly a demand that the
agent recognize in the judgment of the court the truth of the action that he actually
performed. If he confesses then the recognition condition is satisfied, for the court is
just reciprocating the self-imputation. But if the agent denies his guilt, the court case
becomes a standoff between the agent’s word and the decision of the judge. The judge
is characterized as also having a “subjective conviction,” which makes sense if we align
him with the abstract good, with the “hard heart [das harte Herz]” who does not rec-
ognize the agent on the agent’s own terms. The question, then, is how can the demand
of self-consciousness be met under adversarial conditions?
Hegel’s answer is trial by jury, placing the responsibility of the judgment in the
hands of the community.7 The lecture notes conclude: “The mediation [between these
possibilities] is the requirement that the verdict of guilt or innocence should emanate
from the soul of the criminal—as in trial by jury” (§227Z). The claim is that in so far as

See Brooks (2004) for an excellent discussion of Hegel’s views on trial by jury.
190 hegel’s conscience

the agent is already part of a community of recognition, the judgment of such ran-
domly chosen agents has a claim to the agent’s recognition. This meets the agent’s need
to be “confident” that “the particular subjective and external content” has been ade-
quately assessed. Hegel writes, “This confidence is based primarily on their equality
with the party concerned in respect of their particularity, their social status and the
like” (§228). The requirement here is that the agent be aware that the members of the
jury know the case as he himself knows it, so that other more esoteric determinations
or descriptions do not prevent the agent from recognizing the authority of the court as
the authority of self-consciousness.
To defend this right, Hegel imagines (counterfactually) that we could prove that a
pure professional court system would be better managed than a jury system, and

It is of no relevance, for on the opposite side there is always the right of self-
consciousness which retains its claims and finds that they are not satisfied.—Given
the nature of the entire corpus of laws, knowledge of right and of the course of
court proceedings, as well as the ability to pursue one’s rights, may become the
property of a class which makes itself exclusive even by the terminology it uses,
inasmuch as this terminology is a foreign language for those whose rights are at
stake. In this situation, members of civil society, who depend for their livelihood
on their activity, their own knowledge and volition, remain alienated not only from
their own most personal interests but also from the substantial and rational basis
of these, namely right, and they are reduced to a condition of tutelage, or even a
kind of serfdom, in relation to the class in question. Even if they have the right to
be physically present in court, to have a footing in it (in iudicio stare), this counts for
little if they are not to be present in spirit and with their own knowledge, and the
right which they receive will remain an external fate for them. (§228)

This right of self-consciousness in relation to the application of civil and criminal

law is the right to have one’s agency, one’s activity and knowledge, recognized by the
legal system. Hegel returns to the theme of language in citing the technical jargon of
the professional courts as a decisive factor in alienating individuals. This alienation
refers to both the personal interests of the individual and to the right, the “substan-
tial and rational basis.” The claim that the subject must “be present in spirit,” with
knowledge, is the claim that the individual must see that her rationality is recognized
by the public institutions. From the other direction, the individual needs to be able
to recognize the institution as identical to herself. She can thereby obey its authority
as an extension of her own. Anything less than this makes the process of justice a
kind of “fate,” a recoil by an unintelligible force on one’s actions. A trial by jury based
on clear written laws is the legitimate process whereby the individual’s action is
examined and judged. The agent is recognized indirectly, through the action, in so
far as he can recognize both the laws by which he is judged and in so far as the agents
doing the judging share in his rationality and judge him based on transparent
191 Practical Reason in Ethical Life


Hegel’s opening comments on the State have done more than any other single set of
comments to encourage the view that his political philosophy is unacceptably meta-
physical and authoritarian. He claims that the State is “an absolute and unmoved end
in itself ” (§258), “the divine which has being in and for itself ” with “absolute authority
and majesty” (§258), and that the State “consists in the march of God in the world . . . this
actual God” (§258Z). Because we often associate the State with the government, we
naturally read these comments as endorsing an unrestricted governmental authority
that must be obeyed as practitioners of monotheistic religions obey their God. Yet
Hegel does not identify the State with the government. Rather, he takes the State to be
the totality of the institutions of Ethical Life. The State is constituted by the activity of
all the individuals within it, not just the activity of the members of the government.
The modern State, in Hegel’s idealized picture of it, is a systematic relationship of
individual activity and institutional activity. The State is the overall system of purposes
that enables the Complex Reasons Identity Condition (in both senses) to be satisfied.
The basic elements of Hegel’s conception of the State-individual relationship are
on display in his programmatic description of “concrete freedom.” This description
underscores the two other institutions of Ethical Life (family and Civil Society) as hav-
ing standing of their own but as ultimately incorporated within and directed toward
the interest of the State. Hegel gives the basic dynamics in the following passage:

The State is the actuality of concrete freedom. But concrete freedom requires that
personal individuality [persönliche Einzelheit] and its particular interests should
reach their full development and gain recognition of their right for themselves
(within the system of the family and of civil society), and also that they should, on
the one hand, pass over of their own accord into the interest of the universal, and
on the other, knowingly and willingly acknowledge this universal interest even
as their own substantial spirit, and actively pursue it as their final purpose
[Endzweck]. . . . The principle of modern states has enormous strength and depth
because it allows the principle of subjectivity to attain fulfillment in the self-
sufficient extreme of personal particularity, while at the same time bringing it back
to substantial unity and so preserving this unity in the principle of subjectivity
itself. (§260)

The “concrete freedom” here is the satisfaction of the Complex Reasons Identity
Condition that I have put at the heart of my account. The individual’s particular inter-
ests are among those standing purposes that constitute the source of the agent’s moti-
vating reasons. Those interests are developed and already raised into a more universal
form in the institutions of the family and Civil Society, which themselves include
universal elements in which the particular purposes are nested. The subject determines
his own purposes within the subordinate institutions, which allow space for particular
differences (in Civil Society the potential for particular differences is nearly unlim-
ited). We should read Hegel’s claims about the “principle of subjectivity” as references
192 hegel’s conscience

to CRICSUBJECTIVE. Having an “actual conscience” means keeping in mind the proper

precedence relations among the purposes. This means keeping in mind that one
achieves one’s “universal interest” and “substantial spirit” within the State, which is
their “final purpose.”
The language of final purpose clearly develops Hegel’s claim about the Good (the
“absolute final purpose of the world”), and indicates that the agents take the State to be
the ultimate bearer of value in the actual world. The State shares the unconditioned
status of the Good without the limitations of abstraction and indeterminacy. Hegel
thus agrees with Kant’s account of the Highest Good that the will needs a “complete
object,” while disagreeing with Kant that this can only be an object of hope. The State
is a determinate final purpose that encompasses all the rest. That Hegel thought of the
State this way is evident in his likening of the State to the march of God in the world.
Kant needed God to guarantee the Highest Good, and when Hegel brings the doctrine
of the Highest Good to the political level the State becomes God as an institutional
structure that realizes moral goals. The State acts not out of duty but according to the
law, and one of its main purposes is to see that conscientious hard work (the equivalent
of Kant’s virtue) within Civil Society is rewarded by welfare (the equivalent of Kant’s
In the terms of CRICOBJECTIVE, the State is the final purpose in which all other pur-
poses are nested, and which itself preserves an objective order among the nesting rela-
tions. Hegel’s claim is that this chain of contexts must end somewhere. There must be
an “unmoved mover” somewhere, and this is where the State plays the role of a kind of
“complete object” of the will, an object that has no further conditions and that “con-
tains” all the conditions within itself. The structure of nested purposes that links the
individual to the State is clearest in Hegel’s discussion of the relation between one’s
duties and rights vis-à-vis the State. One has a small number of explicit duties to the
State, but our other purposes are all nested within the State and thus fulfill the pur-
poses of the State. Hegel writes:

In relation to the spheres of civil law and private welfare, the spheres of the family
and civil society, the State is on the one hand an external necessity and the higher
power to whose nature their laws and interests are subordinate and on which they
depend. But on the other hand, it is their immanent purpose, and its strength con-
sists in the unity of its universal and ultimate purpose with the particular interest
of individuals, in the fact that they have duties towards the State to the same extent
as they also have rights. (§261)

Hegel mentions the four subordinate spheres of right (abstract right, morality, family,
and Civil Society), and acknowledges that there is an element of external necessity to
the State’s power as the highest authority. But he then describes the State as the “imma-
nent purpose” of the subordinate spheres, which indicates a nesting relationship. The
“rights” he is referring to at the end of the passage are just those purposes that are the
existence of one’s freedom in the family and Civil Society. What then does it mean to
say that we have duties to the State “to the same extent as” we also have such rights?
193 Practical Reason in Ethical Life

The modernity of Hegel’s view comes from the indirect character of the relations of
the duties and rights. It is easy to misconstrue this point from his claim that, “duty and
right are united within the State in one and the same relation” (§261). The complexity of
the Complex Reasons Identity Condition comes from this phrase “in the same relation.”
With this phrase Hegel claims a “formal identity” and denies an identity of content bet-
ween right and duty. He therefore contrasts “absolute identity,” in which duty and right
would be identical in form and content, with the “concrete Idea, developing itself in
itself, [in which] the moments are distinguished” (§261). Hegel explains this difference
when he writes that my particular purposes (which are my rights) are indirectly served
through doing my duty to the State:

But if we consider the concrete aspect, i.e. the Idea, we can see that the moment of
particularity is also essential, and that its satisfaction is therefore entirely necessary;
in the process of fulfilling his duty, the individual must somehow attain his own
interest and satisfaction or settle his own account, and from his situation within
the State, a right must accrue to him whereby the universal cause becomes his own
particular cause. Particular interests should certainly not be set aside, let alone sup-
pressed; on the contrary, they should be harmonized with the universal, so that
both they themselves and the universal are preserved. The individual, whose duties
give him the status of a subject, finds that, in fulfilling his duties as a citizen, he
gains protection for his person and property, consideration for his particular wel-
fare, satisfaction of his substantial essence, and the consciousness and self-awareness
of being a member of the whole. (§261)

This passage expresses the manner in which the broader purposes can gain strength by
nesting within them the particular purposes of agents who are motivated by the “sat-
isfaction” of their particularity. The modern State is strong in so far as the duties it
requires are united in the dispositions of individuals, through the nesting relations,
with the purposes that provide personal fulfillment.8 This passage also raises the
important question of whether the individual’s relation to the State is too instrumental.
Hegel is so keen to stress how modern societies are sustained by particular interests,
and he has so little to say about our actual duties to the State, that the picture shades
into the familiar one of the State as a mere service-provider and guarantor of the con-
ditions for pursuing private aims.
I raise this issue here from the side of the subject because it shows how the detach-
ment problem discussed in general terms in chapter 3 becomes a more specific issue at
the individual-State level. The issue is how to understand the source of one’s duty to
the State. The general argument against detachment was that the individual should not

The language in which Hegel states his version of this claim is quite striking: “The State is actual,
and its actuality consists in the fact that the interest of the whole is realized in particular ends. Actuality
is always the unity of universality and particularity; it is universality’s being broken apart into particu-
larity, which appears as self-standing, even though it is supported and maintained only in the whole”
(§270Z). See Neuhouser (2000), Ch. 4, for an excellent discussion of this and related passages.
194 hegel’s conscience

think of his belief in the rightness of an action to be the source of a duty, even though
the belief is a necessary condition of the duty being the individual’s duty. When it
comes to the source of one’s duty to the State, the temptation is to think that one has a
duty to the State simply because the State is instrumental in enabling one to pursue
one’s interests and to satisfy one’s desires. The passages above encourage this connec-
tion of interest-satisfaction and duty to the State, a connection that Hegel does take to
be one of the defining elements of the modern State. But it would be just the mistake of
atomism in modern political philosophy to take individual interests as the basis for the
authority of the State and my duty toward the State.
The important point from the analysis of CRICSUBJECTIVE that can correct this instru-
mentalist tendency is that the State does not enable our interests to be satisfied in a
merely external manner. The State does not function the way a gym does in allowing
me to pursue my interest of getting into shape. Rather, the nesting relationships in
CRIC mean that I can view my actions on specific purposes as expressions of universal
purposes. The State does not just set universal conditions within which we achieve
particular actions defined independent of the universal rules. Rather, the subject’s very
sense of what his particular purposes are and why they are meaningful depends on the
nesting of those purposes within the State. The agent’s duty to the State is thus not
based on purely instrumental grounds, but rather on the grounds that through the
State the individual’s actions have much greater significance than actions performed
without those broader contexts. The source of duty is the objective context, yet its
roots are in the autonomy of the moral subject. When Hegel refers to the individual’s
“substantial interest,” he is referring to the universality constitutive of the self-
determining rational will. If we were merely self-interested creatures the indirect con-
nection between particular agents and the universality of the State could not be
sustained. But the individual moral autonomy is also not a purely original source of
duty. We become moral beings through institutional contexts, a fact that gives us yet
another reason for regarding the institutions as deserving of our allegiance.
The more common detachment mistake in the reception of Hegel’s philosophy has
been the detachment of the authority of the State from the claims of individuals, a
detachment that results in an authoritarian or totalitarian conception of the Hegelian
State. Because Hegel writes that the State has ontological primacy over its constituent
parts, there is a natural temptation to think that the State has legitimate authority over
the lives of individuals for whatever broader purposes the government sees fit to
pursue. But Hegel’s State is an inclusive institution, consisting in part of the individuals
and their purposes. The modern State can only be the authority that it is if the individ-
uals within it have the personal rights, moral subjectivity, and familial and civic lives
that Hegel describes in the corresponding sections of the Philosophy of Right. The
State’s authority and purposes cannot be detached from the purposes and actions of
the parts of the State, including the beliefs and actions of individuals. Just as the
individual views his specific actions as universal through their connection to the State’s
purposes, so too the State’s purposes depend for their actuality on the actions of
self-conscious agents (the State too “has its knowledge and volition in self-consciousness,
and its actuality through self-conscious action” [§142]). Hegel does give a certain
195 Practical Reason in Ethical Life

primacy to the objective authority of the laws and agencies of the State. The State is a
“world of freedom” with binding force on individuals within it. Any conception of the
individual as a self-standing originator of authoritative claims that does not appeal to
such an already existing world is a fantasy. There might be much to criticize in this or
that State, but the primacy of the State as the complete context of normativity and the
proper site for thinking of ethical content is hard to contest.
This picture of the individual-State relation helps solve a thorny problem raised
most forcefully in the recent literature by Frederick Neuhouser and Thomas Lewis.9
This is the question of role differentiation among members of the State and the require-
ment of participation in the State. As in his argument for the role differentiation in
marriage, Hegel makes claims about the different classes within Civil Society and the
nature of active political citizenship that seems to exclude some groups from actively
engaging in all levels of free activity. It seems that Hegel thinks that whole classes of
people can be objectively free simply by being a part of the overall system, without
actively participating in the State. As Neuhouser puts this “strongly holistic position,”
the claim is “that for Hegel only Sittlichkeit taken as a whole realizes (or approximates)
the rational structure attributed to a spiritual entity and that an individual comes as
close as he or she can to achieving this ideal simply by occupying a specialized position
within such a rationally structured whole.”10 This view, which Neuhouser attributes to
Charles Taylor, ascribes objective freedom to individuals not through their actually
participating in all the elements of Ethical Life, but simply through their functioning
as a part of the rationally organized whole. The contrasting interpretation that
Neuhouser defends is that “a defining aim of the rational social order is to allow for all
(male) individuals to incorporate, as fully as possible, each of the types of identities
associated with membership in the three basic social spheres.”11 The main motivation
for Neuhouser’s view is to involve individuals explicitly in the universal purposes of
citizenship, and to be able to think that all individuals (excluding females, on Hegel’s
view) can achieve the full rationality of the Concept. Each individual, on this view,
would be fully free in realizing “the full range of possible modes of selfhood.”12
Interpreting Hegel in this manner provides a way to think of his political philosophy
as requiring political participation, and would thus give a more attractive democracy-
oriented or civic humanist account of Hegelian politi