- Fichte’s Ethics by Michelle Kosch
Michelle Kosch notes at the end of this fine book that Fichte’s writings on ethics can seem daunting to those not already well versed in his thought. Her goal, then, is to explain her novel interpretation of Fichte in a way that both makes Fichte’s thought more accessible and indicates the philosophical advantages of his approach to ethics. This is no small task, but she succeeds on both accounts.
The early chapters of the book introduce her interpretation of Fichte’s account of agency and autonomy, which builds on but also departs in important ways from Kant. Like Kant, Fichte understands agency as a spontaneous and free causality of the will upon itself. However, Kosch argues, Fichte also proposes that all agents, as such, are rationally required to pursue certain ends. More specifically, he focuses on freedom (alternatively described as independence, self-determination, or self-sufficiency). Fichte holds, like Kant, that freedom involves the ability to look beyond inclination in order to deliberate about how to act. However, [End Page 604] Fichte’s distinctive thesis, on Kosch’s reading, is that freedom is a rationally required and overarching end for all agents as such. This means that, insofar as we are rationally reflective, we take freedom to be the ultimate and constitutive end of our agency.
Fichte’s argument for this thesis, Kosch contends, turns on the claim that practical reason is always concerned with fulfilling given ends. Deliberation proceeds from a determinate starting point toward a determinate goal. So, whereas Kant draws a fundamental distinction between moral and prudential deliberation, Fichte holds that the only difference between them is the end to which each is directed. Moral deliberation focuses on determining what would amount to greater freedom in a given area, whereas prudential deliberation is concerned with well-being. Kosch thus argues, not uncontroversially, that Fichte’s ethics is teleological and consequentialist in form, since it enjoins us to strive toward an overarching end, namely, that of maximal freedom, and judges actions as moral when they lie on the path toward achieving that end.
On Kosch’s reading, Fichte locates the source of this end in our drives. Underlying the natural drives is a more fundamental drive to freedom or self-sufficiency. Consciousness of this underlying drive is unique to rational beings, but possession of it is not. Nonrational as well as rational organisms engage in metabolism, growth, and self-repair, and these are all, Kosch suggests, expressions of an underlying drive to self-sufficiency. Rational beings are, however, capable of actively taking up the end of freedom in a way that nonrational beings are not. Our basic state is one of following the natural drives, that is, seeking pleasure and enjoyment. While rational beings can remain in this state for their entire lives, their freedom then remains limited because they are tied to their inclinations. A crucial development occurs when an agent reflectively asks a normative question: What ought to happen? What should I do? At this moment, the agent gains a new choice, a new freedom, to act deliberatively. The final stage of this development occurs when one takes up freedom as an imperative. At this point, one becomes truly moral in that one’s actions aim at freedom for the sake of freedom.
The later chapters of the book are devoted to detailing Fichte’s criteria for determining which actions are moral. First, according to Kosch, an action must be part of a series of actions at whose limit one would arrive at a state of absolute freedom. It must, in other words, contribute to the greater realization of freedom in the world. This requirement generates a broad range of duties, including duties of self-preservation and self-cultivation, duties to promote conscientious deliberation, duties to preserve and augment truth and knowledge, duties of aesthetic experience, and even duties regarding the institution of property. The second requirement of moral actions is that they must be undertaken not just in accordance with duty, but also from duty, that...