History of Modern Ethics
Stephen Darwall
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Fichte Lecture 1

I. We saw that Kant's argument for the Fundamental Law of Pure Practical Reason (the Categorical Imperative) may depend upon an assumption of freedom. Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762--1814), an important figure in post-Kantian German idealism, argued that this is a concept that rational agents can get only by interaction with other rational agents that involves reciprocal recognition (Anerkennung).

Fichte's thought proceeds along roughly the following lines. How, can a free agent be aware of itself ``as object''? Only by finding itself ``self-active'', since otherwise it will not be aware of itself as free. But how can it be aware of its own free activity? Only insofar as an agent sees itself as a being ``to which a requirement is addressed to be active or not, but which may also not follow that requirement.'' (54) The agent must take herself to be addressed as a free agent by a ``summons'' (Aufforderung) from some other free agent. The summons seeks to ``influence'' the agent, but not in a way that is reducible to causation. Rather, it seeks to give the agent reasons.

It seeks rational influence, to engage the agent as free and rational. But this is only possible through a reciprocal recognition of addresser and addressee as rational and free. Each must give the other a kind of rational authority. The addresser must regard the addressee as competent to entertain and be freely guided by reasons. And the addressee must regard the addresser as competent freely to give reasons. ``The requirement (Aufforderung) to act, is the content of the influence'', but as ``its ultimate end is a free causality of the rational being, to which that requirement is addressed'', the agent who is addressed ``is not determined or necessitated to act by this requirement---as in the conception of causality the effect is necessitated by the cause.'' Rather, the agent ``seizes this requirement as the occasion to determine itself to act.'' (56--7) In finding herself thus addressed, consequently, the agent finds herself ``self-active''. In positing this purported rational influence, and herself as freely active, the agent must posit at the same time ``something outside of itself as the determining ground of that influence''. (56) She must see the summons as coming from another free rational person who seeks to influence her rationally by giving her reasons. And this recognition must be reciprocal, it must be Anerkennung. If, consequently, ``man is to be at all, there must be men.'' (60) ``Only free, reciprocal [rational] causality upon each other through conceptions and after conceptions, only this giving and receiving of knowledge, is the distinguishing characteristic of mankind, through which alone every person shows himself to be a man.'' (61)

II. Partly, Fichte's idea seems to be that I can become aware of myself as a form of subjectivity only to the extent that I can see my subjective activity as appropriately ``checked'' by something external. For example, on the theoretical side, I see my own experiences and beliefs as embodying a subjective point of view only when I see them as ``checked'' by something objective. Only if I see my experiences and beliefs as corrigible by some independent reality, or by other perspectives on that reality, can I see them as embodying a subjective perspective---the way things seem to me. Similarly, I can be aware of my own free agency and will only to the extent that I see my will as checked by something external, and, Fichte apparently believes, only another will can check a will.

Why, however, should this be? After all, it would seem that correction of the will is possible without mediation by another will. Thirsty after a long run, I want something to drink. But the only stuff around is a syrupy soft drink I know won't quench my thirst even as I am strongly attracted to it. If I can just hold off for a few minutes, Rosemarie will be back from the store with some Gatorade. Here my initial desire for the syrupy stuff gets corrected from within, as it were, my own point of view, as I modulate my desires to reflect what I know about their objects and the available means of satisfaction.

If the will is subject only to checks of this sort, however, an agent cannot yet gain a conception of herself as free in the sense in which both Fichte and Kant are interested, namely, as having the capacity to be freely guided by moral reasons, since, as they conceive it, morality's demands are categorical rather than hypothetical. Unlike reasons or claims that can be generated within an agent's practical standpoint, through her desires, moral imperatives purport to give us reasons whose claim is in no way conditional on our own peculiar practical perspectives. To be aware of myself as free to act on demands that transcend my own practical point of view, however, it is not sufficient that I am aware of correction within my own standpoint. Consequently, no such ``intra-perspectival'' correction can provide me with an awareness of free agency rich enough to include the freedom to be guided by moral reasons. According to Fichte, it is only when I am addressed by someone who occupies some other practical standpoint that I am aware both that I occupy a particular (subjective) practical point of view and that I am free to guide myself by reasons that transcend my own perspective.

This point depends on an important difference between the theoretical and practical realms. When it comes to experience and empirical belief, subjective perspectives must all be integrated within an overarching objectivity. We take our beliefs and experiences to be of a single world, one which includes our subjective perspectives on it and against which the correctness of these perspectives must all be tested. My own standpoint is simply the way that world seems to me, no more, no less.

In the practical realm, however, there is nothing to play the role the world plays in the theoretical realm. From a practical point of view I consider, not the way things are, but what I am to do. That does not mean that our individual wills are not regulated by something objective. We stand under the rational and the moral law. But the moral law is not objective in the way we ordinarily take the world to be. As Kant and Fichte conceive it, it is intersubjective. It is constituted through the practical thought of free rational agents. Neither are the practical standpoints of different persons simply different appearances of an independent reality by which their wills are respectively corrigible. These two points are interconnected. First, practical thinking differs from theoretical thinking in being responsible to an intersubjective perspective, rather than to some perspective- independent reality. Even if what a person has reason to do is what anyone would have reason to do in his place, this does not make normative reasons for acting reflective of some perspective- independent order of facts concerning ``what is to be done'' as if from no perspective whatsoever. Rather individual wills are subject to regulation by intersubjectively shareable norms. Second, because they can never be discounted as mere appearance, individuals' perspectives have a practical standing that differs from the epistemic authority of subjective experience and belief. Putting these two points together in a Kantian idiom, we get a conception of the moral law as a ``common law'' for a genuine plurality of equally worthy free agents who occupy equally valid practical points of view.

Fichte's claim is that an awareness of oneself as occupying such a point of view is interconnected with an awareness of other free persons to whom one is related through reciprocal recognition. In accepting another person's second-personal address, I am brought to an awareness, perhaps yet inarticulate, of us both as persons, which awareness I reflect back to him. Whether or not I am guided by the reasons he gives me, I accord him the authority of a ``reasoner'', someone with the status to enter into rational relations with other persons. And he and I implicitly give me that status also.

What about Kant's view that an awareness of oneself as a free person comes through an awareness of the moral law? It is only by awareness of standing under categorical moral imperatives---most fundamentally, the Categorical Imperative---that we come to an awareness of ourselves as free. In seeing that I ought not betray an honest patriot, I see that I can not betray him. But what is the source of our awareness of the Categorical Imperative? There may be no incompatibility between Fichte's claim that we become aware of our own freedom only through second-personal reciprocal recognition and Kant's that the awareness of our freedom comes through seeing ourselves to be bound by the moral law, since it is possible that awareness of the moral law also derives from reciprocal recognition. The idea is not that recognition of persons is somehow prior to awareness of the moral law, but that the former involves the latter. Recognizing someone as a person just is recognizing them as having the status that the moral law codifies.

But how can an awareness of the moral law come through actual personal interaction if the moral law is a priori? Wouldn't moral knowledge be a posteriori if it relied on personal interaction? Ordinary empirical knowledge is a posteriori, however, not just because we wouldn't have it but for sensory experience, but because experience is what gives us the necessary evidence. Something can be a priori even if one couldn't have known it but for some utterly contingent empirical interaction. I wouldn't have known that any two lines drawn tangent to a circle from an external point are of equal length without the empirically rich interactions of a geometry class.

Similarly, Fichte may be interpreted as claiming that second-personal, recognitional interaction involves us in ways of thinking about and reasoning with others without which we could have no awareness either of the moral law or of the normative status and freedom of persons, ourselves included. But that doesn't make our awareness any less a priori. When you and I reciprocally recognize and reason with each other as persons, we implicit commit ourselves to these things a priori.

Fichte's view, again, is that what gives rise to the awareness and normative appreciation of oneself and others as free rational persons is an Aufforderung or ``summons''. Whether the summons is an order or a request, it purports to direct the addressee's will rationally by giving him reasons that are rooted in the addresser's will. If I ask you to go to the store for me, I summon you in this sense. The reason for going to the store that I purport to give you is that I want, or have asked, you to. Or, if I am a sergeant and you a private, and I order you to do ten pushups, I attempt to influence you rationally by my order. In either case, I attempt, not simply to cause certain behavior, but to give you a reason to guide your free decision, a reason which has its source in me.

Of course, you may reject these reasons. You may even reject my authority to give them to you. Who am I to ask this of you? Who am I to order you in this way? But this is not all I am asking when I summon you. For in making a specific summons, I also summon you to hear and consider my summons, and I claim, on my own behalf, the authority to presume on your rational thought in this way. Furthermore, I make this more general claim, not on the basis of a framework of command that might ground some specific order, or some presumption of neighborliness or humanity that might ground some specific request, but just as one rational person to another. Moreover, if you hear me, you will already be implicitly recognizing my authority to do this. You will be treating me as someone to be listened to, someone whose words to you are to be considered because (for the reason that) I want you to consider them. Hearing my specific summons is sufficient ``uptake'' to ensure that my more general summons is already successful. I will already have succeeded in giving you reasons to do something, namely, to listen to what I am saying.

Transparently listening to a summons second-personally is therefore already a form of recognition. The addressee manifests to the summoner a recognition of the summoner's claim to give him (the addressee) reasons that have their source in the summoner. But a summons also presents the addressee with the addresser's recognition of his (the addressee's) rational authority. By aiming to engage him rationally a summons implicitly recognizes his freedom as a rational agent either to make this reason his own or to not do so. Its ``ultimate end is a free causality of the rational being'' in which the addressee ``seizes this requirement as the occasion to determine itself to act.'' (56--7) This makes the addressee into a source of reasons for the addresser also, since the summoner can only succeed if he summons the addressee in terms by which the latter can be rationally moved.

When an agent acts solely on concerns represented within his own practical perspective, he treats himself as, in effect, the only source of reasons. But only ``in effect'', if Fichte is right, since it is only when he has engaged second-personally that he is aware of a source of rational authority either in himself or in others. Until that point, he simply takes the reasons his desires present him with for granted, that is, as reasons grounded, not in his desires, but in the desirable features of his desires' objects, as he views them under his desires' influence. A man who wants desperately to escape from a burning building sees the door before him as a route to safety not as a way of satisfying his desire to be safe.

It is only when an agent is addressed in a way that makes him aware of another as a source of reasons, and, simultaneously of himself as a source of reasons for her, that he can become aware of the rational authority of a person, himself or others, and hence, aware of the authority of his own will. Thus, what enables the agent to authorize the reasons generated within his own practical standpoint---to say that what he cares about gives him reasons because he cares about it---also de-centers his practical view. It makes him aware that he is one person, occupying one practical standpoint, among others and commits him to reasons that transcend his practical perspective and to his freedom to act on them.

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