Rice University

Events at Rice

Thesis Defense

Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies

Speaker: Jesse Slavens
Doctoral Candidate

Tracking Kant's Bête Noire: The Significance of Hegel's Emptiness Critique for Contemporary Kantianism

Wednesday, April 19, 2017
4:00 PM  to 6:00 PM

119  Humanities Building

Purity is essential to Kant’s moral philosophy and remains so for many Kantian moral philosophers. For Kant, a pure morality is one ultimately and exclusively grounded in reason, or the elimination of everything empirical and contingent as a moral foundation. The objective of a pure, or a priori, foundation is both practical and theoretical: first, the purity of morality unifies all ancillary laws and moral concepts, giving them a common framework for application; second, the a prioricity of morality establishes its supremacy. These practical and theoretical properties justify Kant’s and Kantianism’s claim of objectivity and universality. Central to the purity of morality is the Moral Law or, for empirical beings subject to pathological interest and inclination, the Categorical Imperative. The Categorical Imperative is literally the legislation of reason and commands with absolute authority. The Categorical Imperative in its various formulations ensures that our principles of action, or maxims, conform to the pure dictates of reason and that our actions respect and promote reason as an end-in-itself. The Categorical Imperative guides our actions by both establishing right-making conditions and setting an end for rational action of incomparable worth: our own humanity. The purity of Kantian morality provokes the question: “What can be accomplished from a foundation purged of all contingent content?” That is, one may wonder whether a moral theory whose foundation is purged of all particular historical and cultural content can fully answer the specific, complex, and contextually embedded moral questions that confront a moral agent. This is a challenge that has problematized Kant’s moral philosophy and Kantianism from the beginning. G. W. F. Hegel developed a comprehensive critique of Kant’s moral philosophy in answer to this question. Hegel argued that Kant’s moral philosophy – what he terms Moralität – is empty and cannot provide an immanent doctrine of duty. Kant’s moral philosophy, Hegel argues, is internally inconsistent: the category of Moralität includes the concept of universal and objective duty and welfare; the concept of duty includes the concept of right action; however, from the standpoint of Moralität alone a moral agent cannot determine what his actual duty is. Hegel concludes that Moralität is an incomplete category, and that our practical philosophy must transition dialectically to the more complete category of Ethical Life. Hegel’s positive position – the transition to Ethical Life – crucially depends on the success of his emptiness critique. The emptiness of Moralität is the problem to which Ethical Life is the answer. The success and even relevance of Hegel’s critique, however, is a matter of continued debate. Kantians reject Hegel’s critique on two fronts: first, that Hegel’s critique amounts to an objection to the Formula of Universal Law only, and this objection that the Formula of Universal Law is an “empty formalism” depends on a misunderstanding of the purpose and function of Kant’s primary formulation; second, Kantians argue that this empty formalism objection – or the “emptiness objection” – is limited to the Formula of Universal Law and that the other formulations of the Categorical Imperative, most notably the Formula of Humanity, are not empty but sufficiently content-full to derive or determine actual duties. I argue in this dissertation that these rebuttals to Hegel’s emptiness critique are in error: Hegel both understood the proper function of the Formula of Universal Law, and considered all of Moralität to be empty. The failure to recognize the full consequence and extent of Hegel’s critique is, first, a product of focusing too narrowly on Hegel’s contention that the Formula of Universal Law is empty because it is an empty formalism, and not attending to the constellation of supporting arguments in which this objection is situated. By attending to Hegel’s supporting and related arguments I contend, second, that Hegel’s critique is not limited to the Formula of Universal Law, but can be extended to the Formula of Humanity. The success of my contention will, of course, depend on the separate arguments of each chapter. Nonetheless, these arguments all have in common Hegel’s general contention that Moralität cannot furnish an immanent doctrine of duties unless contingent content is imported: when a determination of derivation or duty works, it works by importing contingent content; when contingent content is not imported, the determination or derivation of duty fails. If this essential contention is tenable, then Moralität alone is empty, and an immanent doctrine of duty requires content which a pure Kantianism cannot provide.

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