This month, we talk to Sally Sedgwick Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and Affiliated Professor of Germanic Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago) about Hegel’s critique of Kantian ethics. Click here to listen to our conversation.
Over 200 years after Immanuel Kant published his work on ethics, it still represents one of the most influential perspectives in the field. Kant thought that ethics was based on a fundamental, universal principle that held necessarily for all people, regardless of time or circumstance: respect the dignity of all rational nature. What does that mean, exactly? Something like: in deciding how to act, always do the thing which will allow you and everyone else to most fully express your freedom. For example, don’t lie. If you lie, you’ll be spreading misinformation around, and if misinformation is allowed to spread around, then you won’t know the things you have to know in order to act freely. There’s something inherently self-undermining about the act of lying.
So at the core of this notion of what it means to do the right thing is the idea of freedom. Behaving ethically is nothing more than expressing your freedom. And as we mentioned, since Kant thought this principle had to apply universally to absolutely everyone, expressing your freedom also means expressing everyone else’s freedom.
But G. W. F. Hegel was uncomfortable with the idea that we could arrive at ethical principles like these just by reasoning in our armchairs. He thought that every historical epoch had its own conception of freedom, and that it was naive to think that our conception of freedom didn’t evolve historically out of all the different conceptions that came before. This idea of integrating insights from the history of ideas into one’s own philosophical views was later taken up by philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche and Michel Foucault, and persists to this day in the form of a debate between Kantians and more scientifically-minded ethicists.
Tune in to hear Sally Sedgwick explain Hegel’s idea of historicized philosophy!