Intersubjective Norms and the Claims of Conscience: A Hegelian Ethics

Dissertation, Boston University (2002)

This dissertation argues that an agent's particular commitments are an integral and necessary part of his autonomy. I refer to Hegel's Philosophy of Right to argue that the autonomous self is in fact a committed self. According to Hegel, freedom is only possible when the agent inhabits roles within a family, civil society, and the greater community of the state. These roles make up the agent's practical identity, or the set of commitments and characteristics around which he orients his actions. His practical identity provides him with norms: he has specific obligations as, for instance, a parent, police officer, or judge. ;Chapter One critiques Christine Korsgaard's Kantian account of practical identity, arguing that it is inadequate because of its insistence on an ontologically divided self. Chapter Two argues that practical identity according to Hegel must include consideration of an agent's contingent circumstances. Chapter Three claims that Hegel's agent knows himself and other humans to possess universal rights and to be sources of moral certainty. Chapter Four discusses social institutions and the norms they generate. When the agent freely embraces roles in these institutions, he embraces the obligations that accompany those roles. He gives himself these obligations and is autonomous through them. ;Chapter Five argues that Hegel's definition of conscience crucially depends on his theory of practical identity. Hegel's conscience is not a source of arbitrary, unimpeachable conclusions but refers to the norms of rational institutions. It does not neglect an agent's particular commitments within those institutions such as commitments to particular causes, family members, or political organizations. It rather explains the freedom of his actions through those commitments. So defined, conscience allows for both inner certainty and external sanction. Chapter Six argues that a wide range of professions describe their ethical experience in terms of conscience, and that Hegel's definition of conscience makes sense of this experience. By referring to roles, Hegel's conscience also requires the agent to be involved in the evaluation and reformation of institutions. As such, his theory is of great relevance to contemporary ethical life
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