Human beings have moral inclinations that affect our actions. Few would deny as a fact of human life a perpe-tual strive to do right and good concordant with one’s particular moral beliefs (while concomitantly judging others by them). For most, this strive is accompanied by a questioning of the very nature of the moral: Is there an impartial criterion that enables us to know objectively what one ought to do, or do our moral intuitions rest solely on subjective, arbitrary grounds? With the lure of divine command theory fading from the Enlightenment and onwards, modern moral philosophy can be seen as an attempt to uncover either the criterion or its nonexistence. An endeavor in which few can be said to have been as influential as Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and his most trenchant critic, G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831).
Kant’s deontological attempt to unearth this criterion rests on one of the most metaphysical and abstract explanations ever given for the common intuitions of morality (Scruton 2001, 73). With the metaphysical dual-ism claimed by his Transcendental Idealism as his cornerstone, Kant argued that Reason – to him a defining and immutable trait of human nature – allows for the derivation of formal and universally valid moral princip-les. His famous derivation of these, the Categorical Imperative, tantalizing promises an Archimedean point to morality: The moral standpoint from which one can always judge apodictically what is right independent of one’s vested empirical interests. Opposite the classical eudemonistic theories, Kant importantly rejected the feasibility of defining happiness in non-subjective terms, thereby denying the question of the good life its constitutive role in morality – then only a matter of “[…] justifiable normative judgments” (Habermas 1990, 196).
Hegel formulated much of his philosophy in contradistinction to Kant’s looming legacy and infamously charged that the Categorical Imperative is tantamount to Empty Formalism. As both he and Kant were purveyors of grand theories, his multifaceted argument cannot be pared down to disparate elements without simplification. Yet if so permitted, it can be presented to mainly occur on the following four deeply entangled fronts. One, Hegel objected to the ahistoricity presumed by Kant concerning human nature, freedom, and the reach of human knowledge. Kant had held that the universality of human nature was ascertainable on purely philosophical grounds, whereas Hegel believed that “[…] the very foundations of the human condition could change from one historical era to another.” (Singer 1983, 13). Two, due to the Categorical Imperative’s abstract universalism he deemed it oblivious to concrete application. Three, he questioned Kant’s account of autonomy and moral motivation qua the dichotomy that Kant posit between duty and inclinations. Four, qua the formalism of the Categorical Imperative, he found it capable only of tautological judgments.
Tied up with Hegel’s...