The Phenomenology of Spirit: The Moral Worldview

Chapter 5, entitled “Spirit”, has passed through two moments.  First, we found that the harmony of the ethical world was unsustainable due to the unstable relation between family and state.  Second, we saw that  culture inevitably produces alienated individuals, an alienation that is quickly recognized as freedom.  The initial attempt to directly realize freedom, the French Revolution, ended in chaos and terror.

The moral worldview is a second attempt to realize freedom, while avoiding anarchy.  It must balance freedom and duty.  Hegel tackles the moral worldview in its Kantian form, which he characterizes as an interplay between two sides of consciousness: the rational self, which recognizes duty, and the natural self, which is driven by various particular, contingent concerns.

In that interplay between the rational and natural selves, Hegel finds “a whole nest of contradictions.”  The rational self seeks after duty, while the natural self seeks happiness.  The basic contradiction is this: because both are moments of the self, they are both equally present and cannot be separated.  However, the moral, rational self is just as much the essential moment, while the natural self is inessential.  Put another way, duty and happiness are equal, but duty is more equal.

This basic contradiction produces a series of other contradictions.  Kant does recognize this, and introduces the postulates of freedom, immortality and God in order to resolve them.  Hegel criticizes the postulates as a series of insincere dissemblances; basically, the moral worldview constantly shuttles back and forth between universal and particular, duty and happiness, rationality and natural impulses, in an attempt to place the contradictions at an infinite distance.

Self-consciousness becomes tired of this endless displacement, and seeks to establish personal conscience as the ultimate authority.  It tries to create a purely moral world, yet discovers that it cannot banish the lower impulses.  Hegel’s own solution to the relation between pure duty and the impure impulse to happiness is forgiveness: moral self-consciousness recognizes that one cannot keep their hands clean, and the natural self-consciousness recognizes its complicity in evil.  They learn to forgive one another, and true spirit – the I that is we and the we that is I – is actualized in the world.

The Kantian Background

Morality is “the idea that individuals spontaneously set their own ends both personally and collectively (to distinguish it from ethical life, the ‘way things are done’).  The idea of modern ‘morality’ is bound up with the modern conception of what is authoritative for belief: that nothing can count as a good reason for belief unless we collectively or individually come to take it as counting and determine for ourselves what criteria are authoritative in adopting such reasons.” (Pinkard, 190)  Hence, freedom is the ability to spontaneously set one’s own criteria for action – and setting one’s own criteria means forming one’s own representations of duty.

A moral agent could only be spontaneous in opposition to “natural” determination; the agent must not be subject to a natural law, but a self-imposed law.  “Kant claimed that it was a nature of the representations that such a moral agent formed ‘within’ himself that was the key to the proper account of the ‘moral worldview.’” (Pinkard, 191)   Something could only be a representation if it conformed to the conditions under which something could be a representation for an agent – i.e. apperception, the I Think. 

The act of ascribing all my representations to myself is groundless because there is no evidence external to the I’s own self-ascribing activity to determine what counts as the same “I”.  The I synthesizes itself – it makes itself the same I that is aware of X and Y.  The synthetic unity of apperception is a necessary condition of all experience.  For there to be a single complex thought of XYZ, there must be a unitary subject.

Something similar goes on with practical reason: the agent spontaneously elects to have certain representations of the good count.  The agent has two sides: the rational and the natural self.  The rational self combines them: self-given imperatives and externally given determinations, like sense data and impulses and desires.  The two sides are apparently indifferent to each other – impulses cannot determine imperatives and vice-versa.  This simultaneous indifference and domination of rationality, produced by the structure of spontaneous synthesis of representations, is the rock upon which morality falters. 

Context: Spirit That is Certain of Itself

The term “spirit” was introduced as early as IV. The Truth of Self-Certainty, but as a form of consciousness, heavily tilted towards individuality.  In VI. Spirit, spirit is the form of a collective world, rather than a form of consciousness.   It’s no longer about the individual, but about the collective subject.  The spirit of a people as a whole.

Morality is described as “spirit as it is certain of itself.”  That is, it is not just spirit in its “truth,” i.e. the ethical life, but its “certainty for itself,” as it exists in and is confirmed by the subjects who compose it.  The phrase “certainty for itself” was used all the way back in chapter 5, but in reference to the individual subject and its theoretical development, but this sort of individuality was overcome in the worlds of culture and faith. (Beiser, 209-210)

In Hyppolite’s terms, Self-certain spirit has raised itself above objective spirit and become self-knowledge.  Spirit knows itself, and this knowledge is its essence, just like self-consciousness raised itself above life by being knowledge of life.  Morality looks like the goal we’ve been looking for all along – the identity of knowledge and the object of knowledge.  In culture, one had their substance outside themselves (the aristocrat required recognition), now, spirit has its substance within itself.  Substance is no longer an alien reality, like power, wealth or heaven – but a pure duty.  (Hyppolite, 467-468)

C. Spirit that is certain of itself. Morality

The failure of the ethical world produced the alienated individual of culture and faith; that alienation resulted in a form of spirit in which the distinction between self and object collapses, i.e. spirit possesses substance.  Substance is both immediate (like ethical consciousness) but also mediate (like culture).  With that mastery of the object, the sole content of consciousness is its freedom. (§§596-598)

Hegel says that “Self-consciousness knows duty to be the absolute essence.  It is bound only by duty, and this substance is its own pure consciousness, for which duty cannot receive the form of something alien.” (§599)  Yet as always, self-consciousness is essentially negativity, so it always implies a relation to an otherness.  This otherness, because duty is the sole aim of consciousness, appears to be a reality without significance.  That otherness is nature, all the personal inclinations and contingent circumstances that make up life.  We get two worlds; the essential duty and the irrelevant nature.

The whole issue is the relation between duty and nature.  Their relation is based on the fact that they cannot determine one another: duty cannot will our inclinations into line, and inclinations cannot affect our duty.  They are mutually indifferent.  Despite this mutual indifference and apparent equality, duty is held to be the essential moment while nature is without significance.

The development of morality is an attempt to deal with that contradiction.  It produces three conflicts and three attempts at resolution.  First, duty cannot promise happiness, but happiness is still desired: hence, postulating the highest good, which is to strive to unify happiness and duty. (Beiser, 213-214)  The second conflict is that of impulse vs duty.  Duty requires this conflict, because morality means nothing without temptation.  The solution is to postulate the infinite task of learning to act morally from inclination.  The third conflict is between specific and general duties.  In a nutshell, the categorical imperative both requires and excludes specific content.  The solution is postulating God, who is capable of sanctifying specific duties. (Beiser, 215-216)

The First Conflict

For moral consciousness, duty is the essence, and action it fulfills and actualizes this duty.  But moral consciousness also presupposes the freedom of nature – i.e. nature does not care if one does their duty or not, and one may become happy or not.  From morality’s point of view, nature is only an occasion for acting.  The non-moral consciousness has cause for complaint here, as there is no connection between duty and happiness.

The moral consciousness can’t just forget about happiness and leave it out of its “absolute purpose.”  The purpose, which is seen as pure duty, implies an individual self-consciousness, hence individual conviction and the knowledge of that conviction are an absolute element in morality. When duty is done, that element of individual conviction is enjoyment.  In other words, doing one’s duty produces enjoyment.  Kant makes an effort to separate enjoyment from duty, at least one the level of personal feeling, but the actualization of duty produces enjoyment nonetheless, so duty and enjoyment cannot but be intertwined.  Hence, while individuality is supposed to be in contrast with the abstract purpose of duty, it is actuality at one with it.  

The experience of their disharmony is necessary, given their mutual indifference.  But given that consciousness experiences both nature and morality (that is, the rational and natural self), they must be thought of as unified, i.e. postulated as unified.  “For to say that something is demanded, means that something is thought of in the form of being that is not yet actual – a necessity not of the Notion qua notion, but of being.” (§602)  What is demanded is not the contingent demand of a single consciousness, but is implied in morality itself; the unity of duty and happiness is not just a wish, but a demand of Reason.

The Second Conflict

Nature is not only an external mode of being; it is a part of consciousness.  Nature is the name for volitions and instincts, and is opposed to the pure purpose of duty as contents of consciousness, but due to apperception, maintains a unity.  In the conflict between reasonable duty and sensuous nature, the important thing for reason is that the conflict be resolved.  A unity between them must emerge – not the original unity provided by apperception, but a unity which proceeds from the known conflict.  Only this unity is actual morality, because only that combines the self and the universal.  One must act on duty because one wants to.

That unity is the mediation which is essential to morality.  Nature is otherness, negativity, and duty is the essence.  Since no element of duty can be given up, it looks as if nature has to be eliminated; but since nature is a cog in the machine that produces the unity, instead we have to say that nature must be brought into conformity with duty.  That conformity is also postulated; it is not actually there. What is actually there is the conflict.  But unlike the first postulate, the unity of duty and inclination is one in which duty implicitly strives to eliminate inclination.  Their proposed harmony falls outside of nature.

Basically, consciousness has to work to bring about this unity.  But the actual success has to be projected into a future which is infinitely remote, because if the unity was achieved, it would be the end of the moral consciousness – because it would do away with the negativity of the moral consciousness, and consciousness requires negativity.  The harmony would destroy the conflict, and the conflict is the impetus for the harmony.  Hegel says,

“The consummation, therefore, cannot be attained, but is to be thought of merely as an absolute task, i.e. one which simply remains a task.  Yet at the same time its content has to be thought of as something which simply must be, and must not remain a task: whether we imagine the [moral] consciousness to be altogether done away with in this goal, or not.” (§603)

To summarize, the moral consciousness not only sees nature as something external, but also as present in the form of impulses.  These impulses stand in opposition to duty.  But, because of apperception, consciousness is one, and the conflict must be resolved.  But the conflict can’t be resolved by eliminating nature, since it is the real element in morality.  So nature must be made to conform to duty.  But that is a postulate and a matter of endless work.  It is infinite, both unreal and real.  As Findlay says, “Infinity is a good place for such contradictory accommodations.”

The Third Conflict

The first postulate was the harmony of morality and nature, the final purpose of the world.  The second postulate was the harmony of morality and will, the final purpose of self-consciousness. These harmonies are not yet developed into objects; they do this when they appear as sides of each other, when the first is recognized as in itself and the second is recognized as for itself.  In other words, the harmonies become actual objects of consciousness when the rubber hits the road: “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 case, and thereby has a complex moral relationship with it.” (§605)  The moral consciousness is the simple knowing of duty, but has a complex relationship with actual circumstances.

There are many duties, but the moral consciousness only sees the One pure duty in them.  The many duties are a manifold, and they have nothing particularly sacred about them, but at the same time they are necessary, since morality involves doing .  So it is postulated that another consciousness makes them sacred, or knows them and wills them as duties.  This consciousness holds to pure duty, indifferent to all specific duties, while the other consciousness retains a relationship to “doing” and specific content.  It is just like the postulated unity of duty and happiness – there is a separation between the self-same consciousness and the manifold of actuality.  This is the the postulated harmony of pure and determinate duty in God.

This is how duty falls outside of consciousness and is sacred.  Consciousness knows its knowledge of duty to be imperfect and contingent, and its motives are tinged with natural inclinations; hence it is unworthy and happiness can only be a gift of grace. Even though it is imperfect in actuality, duty remains the essential.  But the absolute being is a being that is thought, beyond reality.  It is the thought in which morally imperfect willing and knowledge are held to be perfect, and ascribes merit to the imperfect moral consciousness.

The concept of the moral worldview has two aspects: pure duty and actuality, and they are a unity; that each is a superceded unity becomes realized in the final moment of the moral worldview.  That is, it places duty in something other than itself – existing only in thought. But the moral consciousness doesn’t quite manage to develop its concept properly; it remains unaware of the form/content problem.  It knows only the pure essence, and this is an abstract knowing.  “Consequently, the object of its actual consciousness is not yet transparent to it; it is not the absolute Notion, which alone grasps otherness as such, or its absolute opposite, as its own self.” (§611)  It holds reality to be unessential, and has the freedom of pure thought – like nature which is equally free.  So consciousness is stuck: it is both only in thought (duty) and in being (nature), and their unity is one of imagination.

b. Dissemblance or duplicity

Hegel begins by rephrasing his critique.  The moral worldview has a basic contradiction in it: it  both consciously produces its object and posits it as objective being.  It is both within and without, transcendent and immanent..  The moral worldview is basically the elaboration of this contradiction:

“It is, to employ here a Kantian expression where it is most appropriate, a ‘whole nest’ of thoughtless contradictions.  This elaboration involves going back and forth between different moments; first, one moment is essential, then it is set aside for another moment, but then it returns to the first moment.

“At the same time, it is also aware of its contradiction and shiftiness, for it passes from one moment, immediately in its relation to this very moment, over to the opposite.  Because a moment has no reality for it, it posits that very same moment as real; or, what comes to the same thing, in order to assert one moment as possessing being in itself, it asserts the opposite as the one that possesses being in itself.” (§617)

On the one hand, moral consciousness is supposed to create the moral world order, which should be only the product of its activity, because the moral order is not an object of faith but a goal for action here in this life.  But on the other hand, moral consciousness sees that moral order as something beyond its powers, as an object lying far off in “a foggy distance.”  The highest good is an ideal to approach, but never attain — infinite striving.  So the highest good is contradictory – both immanent and transcendent.

The first postulate is that the harmony of morality and nature in the highest good.  The problem is that this is self-defeating: if we act on it, we destroy what we intend to create.  It says there ought to be complete harmony between morality and nature/happiness, but it also presupposes that we do not realize it, because realizing the ideal would require it to become natural, and the motivation for moral action (duty vs the temptation of impulse) would disappear.

The second postulate is the potential harmony of reason and sensibility.  Moral consciousness lays down the strict concept of duty, and so we must act for the sake of duty alone, and repress all sensible motives.  “The highest ideal of morality is the holy will, where we would act immediately and necessarily according to moral precepts without any of the temptations of desire or hesitations of feeling. (Beiser,218)  However, morality cannot eliminate sensibility, because sensibility is the media of all action.  Insofar as morality is to be an effective force in the world, it has to adopt sensibility as an incentive.  Humans can only act on mixed motives.

The third postulate, God, is an attempt to resolve the problem of how to derive a specific duty from the general, universal duty.  Only the pure form of the law is the essence of morality, but the pure form requires content from nature.  The postulate lays down a moral legislator, who determines the worth of specific maxims by comparing them to the pure form of law. One is certain about the categorical imperative, but not certain about how to apply it in any given way.  The general duty is in and for itself, but cannot be known from a finite perspective – which assumes it is known from an impersonal, God’s eye view.   It tries to make specific duties obligatory, even if we are uncertain about what exactly they are.  The pure form needs content, but any and all content tarnishes its purity.  Morality has to be independent of nature, but requires content from nature, so it is both/and.

c. Conscience

Conscience is another attempt to avoid those contradictions, which arose because of the split between the transcendental and the empirical.  Consciousness now tries to avoid that split, avoiding any dualism between duty and action.  What is crucial now is not the self in its universality and necessity, i.e. the transcendental or rational self – but the self in its particularity and contingency.

Morality, placed in the particular and contingent individual, is conscience.  It is a personal conviction, an immediate certainty that what I do is right.  The self of conscience is the “third self” to emerge out of spirit.  The first was the ethical person, the one who exists entirely in the context of a community.  The second self was that of absolute freedom, which broke the bond to the community – the community became a mere object.  The first lacked particularity, the second lacked universality.  The self of conscience has the universal within its particular self.

The big step forward is that it overcomes the separation between pure duty and moral action.  The self consults itself, not a transcendental standard which then has to be applied to a particular situation.  Conscience sees the circumstance in all its complexity, and acts from its (apparently) infallible conviction.

Universality does have a function under conscience.  However, universal moral principles are no longer standards to which the individual must conform; rather, they conform to the convictions of the individual self.  Universal principles are simply the expressions of individual conviction; “duty is for conscience no longer something in itself, as it if were an object outside to which it must conform, but it is also now something for itself, appropriated and internalized by the individual.” (Beiser, 220)  Conscience is thus the mediating term between universality and particularity.  It is the source of specific duties.

Inevitably enough, the synthesis of the universal and particular soon falls apart, and they return to opposing one another.  Conscience claims to treat each particular case on its own merits – but insofar as it makes a claim to universality, it cannot treat each case as strictly unique, for universality requires finding aspects of each case which are similar to one another.  The price of universality is abstraction, which removes us from the unique determinacy of circumstance.  So conscience has to admit there is never a perfect fit.

Its problems multiple from there.  The more individual cases are examined, the more complexity appears.  As Hegel says, “this reality is a plurality of circumstances, which infinitely extends and divides itself in all directions, backwards into its conditions, sidewards in its connections, and forwards in its consequences.”  The more complicated circumstances become, the more difficult it is to derive a single moral duty from them.  It finds a plurality of duties, each as intuitively plausible as the other.  For example: if one is in imminent danger, one could follow the virtue of courage and fight – but then we endanger ourselves and our responsibilities to others.  If we run away, we are cowards, which is bad, but then we can tend to our other responsibilities, which is good.  Conscience could declare either action correct, so it cannot be a means to choose between them.  It turns out that “This pure conviction is as such as empty as pure duty; it is pure in the sense that nothing is in it; there is no determinate content that is duty.”  So we have fallen back to the moral standpoint – a purely abstract morality, and tends toward anarchy.

The Beautiful Soul, evil and its forgiveness

The development of conscience leads to a new shape of moral consciousness, a kind of moral genius, the beautiful soul.  This is the attempt to make a virtue out of moral consciousness’ greatest weakness – its inability to come up with specific duties.  Conscience still sees itself as the source of the law, but its strength is that it is not bound to any one law.  Something is the law only if conscience decides it is the law, and believes its powers to be divine.  This is not just an unconscious thing; it is actively celebrated.  “In short, moral genius is the narcissism of the moral standpoint.” (Beiser, 222)

Though self-centred, the moral genius does enter into a community with others – a community that separates itself from the corruption of the ordinary political world.  It is a community devoted to the cultivation of virtue, where everyone can be honest with each other, and where everyone is sensitive to the needs of others.  Each person is a moral genius, if only they shed ordinary corruptions, and a spirit of equality prevails.  A secular monastery, though the object of devotion is not God but the inner self.

Before developing the inner contradictions of the moral genius, Hegel describes its endpoint: it lacks all power to externalize itself in the world.  It paralyzes itself.  It is the inverse of the unhappy consciousness back in Self-Consciousness; whereas the unhappy consciousness was paralyzed because it placed all the meaning outside itself in a distant God, the moral genius is powerless for the opposite reason – it places all moral purpose inside itself.

The beautiful soul tries to retreat into a pure community where everyone is free from society and therefore open with each other, but cannot actually do this, because one must change one’s behaviour in order to live with others.

The morality chapter ends with a comparison of common sense and the beautiful soul.  The common moral consciousness stresses the necessity of acting in everyday life and the need to do one’s duty.  The beautiful soul thinks common moral consciousness is evil because it surrenders to the demands of everyday life and abandons moral integrity.

Hegel thinks there is truth on both sides.  Common consciousness is correct that we must act in the world, but fails to see that our motives are often selfish.  The beautiful soul is right to think our motives are often selfish, but cannot recognize the need to act in the world.  “The solution to the dispute comes when each side admits its failings, pardons the other, and recognizes that it is no better than the other.” (Beiser, 224)  The common consciousness admits its complicity in evil, but insists that great deeds can be done even from selfish motives.  The beautiful soul recognizes the necessity of acting, and admits its insistence on purity is only a kind of vanity.

After forgiving one another, both sides re-enter life based on mutual self-respect.  Even while recognizing the self-interest behind actions, a life of mutual respect based on the equal rights of others is still possible.  This is a rebirth of Spirit, the I that is We and the We that is I.  “The act of mutual reconciliation and recognition among moral judges is, Hegel claims, the advent of absolute Spirit.  Since there is reconciliation and forgiveness, all wounds have been cured.  And, just as Hegel promised, a little miracle has happened: there are no scars.” (Beiser, 224)


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