Back to overview

Autonomy and Immorality. Hegel, Metaethical Constitutivism, and the Doctrine of Radical Evil

English title Autonomy and Immorality. Hegel, Metaethical Constitutivism, and the Doctrine of Radical Evil
Applicant Halbig Christoph
Number 197912
Funding scheme Project funding (Div. I-III)
Research institution Arbeits- und Forschungsstelle für Ethik Ethik-Zentrum Universität Zürich
Institution of higher education University of Zurich - ZH
Main discipline Philosophy
Start/End 01.10.2020 - 30.09.2023
Approved amount 376'250.00
Show all

Keywords (10)

radical evil; constitutivism; Hegel; immorality; metaethics; autonomy; paradox of autonomy; Kant; imputability; alienation

Lay Summary (German)

Der metaethische Konstitutivismus will Zweifel an der Autorität moralischer Normen ausräumen, indem er sie aus den Bedingungen des absichtlichen Handelns ableitet und dessen Unentrinnbarkeit beweist. Einer wachsenden Zahl von InterpretInnen zufolge vertritt auch Hegel diese Theorie. Viel spricht für diese Lesart. Aber sie steht in Spannung zu Hegels Bekenntnis zur Kantischen Lehre vom radikal Bösen, der zufolge Immoralität, in Gestalt von schuldhaft egoistisch motivierten Taten, zu den Bedingungen unseres Handelns gehört. Diese Spannung, eine Herausforderung nicht allein für jene Lesart, sondern womöglich auch für den Konstitutivismus selbst, wurde bislang weitestgehend ignoriert. Das Projekt wird dies ändern, zum Nutzen sowohl der Metaethik wie der Hegelforschung.
Lay summary

Dem konventionellen Konstitutivismus zufolge besteht Autonomie in Bezug auf moralische Normen unmöglich in Akten der Selbstgesetzgebung im wörtlichen Sinne, sondern in einem im Handeln selbst enthaltenen Wissen um dessen Bedingungen. Diese Auffassung von Autonomie wurde jüngst mit einer Reihe schwerwiegender Einwände konfrontiert. Hegels Autonomiebegriff hingegen, so die erste Hypothese des Projekts, ist insofern unkonventionell, als er vom Gedanken des radikal Bösen informiert ist. Genau deshalb jedoch, so die zweite Hypothese, kann der hegelsche Konstitutivismus jenen Einwänden begegnen.

Das Projekt wird die metaethische Debatte beleben. Und es wird neue Perspektiven auf das Verhältnis der Hegelschen zur Kantischen Ethik eröffnen. Durch die Wiedereinführung der Lehre vom radikal Bösen, eines Kernelements des geistigen Erbes des Westens, in die zeitgenössische Metaethik verspricht es neue Einsichten zu den philosophischen Schlüsselbegriffen Immoralität, Autonomie und Zurechenbarkeit.

Direct link to Lay Summary Last update: 21.10.2020

Responsible applicant and co-applicants



Metaethical constitutivism claims to answer doubts about the authority of moral norms over our conduct by deriving them from the conditions of intentional agency, which it explains to be inescapable for us. According to a growing number of readers, Hegel’s practical philosophy, too, is best interpreted as constitutivist. And indeed, Hegel shares constitutivism’s aim of making intelligible, in one move, the unconditioned, objective authority of moral norms as well as their practical significance and our autonomy with respect to them, and he appears to be in agreement with the general constitutivist strategy for achieving this aim, - which is particularly salient in his criticism of Kant. But Hegel also praises, adopts, and deepens the Kantian doctrine of radical evil, according to which immorality, conceived as culpable motivational egoism, belongs to our very nature as intentional agents. And prima facie, this doctrine contradicts the constitutivist program, which looks to entail that, while the violation of moral norms is certainly possible and manifestly actual, immorality cannot belong to our nature as intentional agents. This discrepancy, which poses a challenge to the constitutivist reading of Hegel - and perhaps even to moral constitutivism itself -, has not been properly discussed in the philosophical literature. The proposed research project aims to fill this lacuna by addressing the following four central and interconnected questions. On what grounds does Hegel adopt and deepen the doctrine of radical evil? Is his argument convincing, and could a contemporary metaethicist appreciate it as such? Does the discrepancy outlined above pose a threat to the constitutivist reading of Hegel? And does the discrepancy pose a threat to metaethical constitutivism itself? In addressing these questions, the project aims to utilize said discrepancy between the constitutivist aspects of Hegel’s ethics and his adherence to the doctrine of radical evil as a lens to bring into focus this important intersection of Hegel scholarship and contemporary metaethics, for the benefit of both. According to conventional metaethical constitutivism, the autonomous character of our being subject to moral norms cannot reside in acts of self-legislation in a literal sense, it is, instead, to be conceived as consisting in a type of self-knowledge: knowledge of our nature as intentional agents. Otherwise, conventional constitutivists argue, the “paradox of autonomy” would be unavoidable: the unconditional authority of moral norms and our autonomy with respect to them would be irreconcilable. However, this conception of autonomy has recently come under pressure in a series of objections concerning the prima facie implausibility of the constitutivist account of immorality and the sense of alienation that seems to accompany the constitutivist explanation of the inescapability of intentional agency. With a view to the current state of this debate, the proposed project will specifically pursue the following hypotheses. Hegel’s conception of autonomy is unconventional in that it is informed by the doctrine of radical evil: autonomy in the Hegelian sense requires a kind of rebellion, namely culpable acts of motivational egoism, and the return from it. And it is precisely this conception of autonomy that makes it possible to evade the objections conventional constituitivism is faced with - without committing the “paradox of autonomy”. Thus, despite its substantial diversion from conventionality, Hegelian constitutivism may serve as a model for contemporary constitutivists. We expect that developing these hypotheses will invigorate the metaethical debates concerning the constitutivist program by presenting, in one, a novel challenge to its conventional variety and an innovative strategy for meeting the challenges currently facing this program. And we expect that doing so will provide a fresh perspective on the complex relationship of Hegel’s ethics to Kant’s. By re-introducing the doctrine of radical evil, a core element of the cultural heritage of Western civilization, into one of the most vibrant debates in contemporary metaethics, the project promises to open new perspectives on some of the key topics of practical philosophy: immorality, autonomy, and the imputability of action.