Beyond Kantian Constructivism: Hegelian Ethics, Political Normativity, and Contemporary Politics

The contributions to this volume fit broadly under three headings:

Section 1: Hegelian Ethics Between Constructivism and Realism discusses Hegel’s approach in the context of the aforementioned debate between constructivism and realism. Is Hegel a constructivist or does he seek to unite aspects of constructivism and realism? Indeed, can Hegel’s position be adequately captured with reference to the categories of constructivism and realism at all? Whichever way Hegel’s position is understood, how does it build upon and seek to move beyond Kant’s practical philosophy?

Section 2: Hegelian Political Normativity Between Reason and History focuses on the role that history plays in Hegel’s approach. If the content of sociopolitical normativity (Geist) is provided by history, does this render Geist contingent and relativistic as, by definition, history could be otherwise? Or does Hegel assume a notion of necessary historical development according to which the increase of freedom and normative content in human affairs is inevitable? If so, on what grounds does he make this claim?

Section 3: Hegelian Perspectives on Contemporary Politics asks what, if anything, we as contemporary thinkers who live in rather different historical circumstances than Hegel did can learn from his thought. Hegel holds seemingly antiquated views on a wide range of topics, including monarchy, democracy, public opinion, gender relations, parliamentarianism, the constitutional separation and coordination of powers, the form and function of economic interest groups and political parties, the problems of economic overproduction, abject poverty and extreme wealth, war, and multilateralism. Despite this, are there useful conceptual resources to be found in Hegel’s account of sociopolitical normativity that might help us deal with contemporary challenges such as those arising in debates about multiculturalism, democracy, and human rights?

In the remainder of this introduction, we will expand upon the context of these three areas of debate and the questions they raise and situate the contributions that follow with reference to them.

Section 1: Hegelian Ethics Between Constructivism and Realism

Constructivism is presented by the early Rawls and by O’Neill as seeking to forge a third way between realism and relativism. For Rawls, Kantian constructivism is to take its place as an approach to moral theory that is superior not only to utilitarianism but also to the realist approach of rational intuitionism. The focus of ethics in the Kantian constructivist sense is thus the practical task of vindicating the authority of practical reason rather than the theoretical task of identifying universal moral truths.

As such, constructivism can be difficult to place within the landscape of analytic moral philosophy. Early reactions to constructivism struggled to pin down how the view should be understood, specifically whether it was a position in metaethics or a substantive position in normative ethics (see, e.g., Darwall, Gibbard and Railton 1992). While some proponents consider Kantian constructivism as defining a unique meta-ethical commitment, two prominent Kantian constructivists disagree. Korsgaard, for one, argues that given its practical focus, Kantian constructivism is not a metaethical view (Korsgaard 2008; but cf. Hussain and Shah 2013). And indeed, for the later Rawls (1996) in particular, who develops a form of political constructivism within the framework of his political liberalism, constructivism must remain agnostic about its metaethical implications lest it overstep the bounds of the common fund of ideas that can be drawn from the domain of the political. In a different vein, Westphal (2016) has argued that constructivism provides a way of justifying the objectivity of practical reason without debating moral realism.

It remains open for discussion, then, how the practical philosophies of Kant and Hegel - and forms of Kantian and Hegelian constructivism - stand with reference to the distinction between ethical theory and metaethics. Regardless of such classificatory issues, though, it is widely understood that Kantian constructivism unites some highly attractive features: (a) self-determining individual subjects are defined as the authors of sociopolitical norms, with subjects’ normative authorship and ownership preventing alienation from or dependency on extra-subjective sources of normativity, such as nature or God; and (b) it is nonrelativistic because all rational subjects are shown to agree on a single set of norms.

While feature (a) is often accepted as a necessary part of any convincing account of normativity, constructivism’s fundamental reliance on the notion of individual choosing subjects can be argued to undermine feature (b): if individual subjects are the fundamental choosers, how can any determined content be identified as necessary? The notion of choosing individual subjects seems to imply that any determined thing can be chosen. Since their choice is undetermined by definition, any deter-minacy has to be externally introduced, is contingent, and lacks necessity, universality, and objectivity. If choice is first and content second, the objectivity of content is undermined by choice’s contingency.

This is pointed out by realists who are happy to assume an objective order of moral facts, either given by nature, God, or rationality itself. While rational individual subjects have choice, this choice is determined by its place in the real order of value. The real order that also defines moral facts is first and subjects’ choices are second: the best subjects can do is to choose what they must choose, given the order of nature, the cosmos, God’s will, or rationality. While such approaches are able to account for the necessity, objectivity, and universality of moral and sociopolitical norms, they seem to undermine the notion of subjective authorship and ownership of the norms. This may result in subjects’ alienation from and dependence on external norms. And in a final consequence, this might even undermine the notion of individual agency altogether: if it is ultimately nature, substance, or God who orientates, causes, and defines the course of action, individual agents as such do not exist. It thus seems that if objective content is first and choice is second, the freedom and existence of individual choosing subjects is undermined by the content’s given character.

Several strategies to deal with constructivism’s alleged relativism have been developed in response to the realist challenge. For example, O’Neill (1996) has argued that certain determined moral norms follow from the notion of universal noncontradictory practical reason and practical willing. However, if it can be shown that her notion of practical reason relies on the irreducible and grounding concept of individual subjects, her argument might turn out to be a tautology: individuals will what is good for individuals (O’Neill 1996). The determinacy of this good does not seem to inhere in the notion of individual subjects. Meanwhile, Korsgaard (2009) and Jurgen Habermas (1993) have been read as altogether rejecting attempts at deducing determined rational norms from the notion of choosing individual subjects. Instead, the content of sociopolitical normativity is to be determined by practical reasoning, reflective endorsement of the categorical imperative, or dialectical processes of uncoerced reasonable exchange among individuals. On this view, if alienation and dependence are to be avoided, it cannot be the task of the moral philosopher to theoretically deduce the content of norms that individual subjects are to practically define and endorse. However, this might amount to giving up on the project of philosophically deducing and thus justifying the content of rational norms altogether. Leaving it to individual subjects to decide the content of norms might amount to relativistically avoiding the philosopher’s responsibility to think through the contingencies of the empirical world and to failing to define universally valid conceptual content. Furthermore, it raises the question of how individual subjects themselves are grounded. In the absence of a universal individuality-explaining principle, the existence of individual agents seems inexplicable, uncaused, or simply assumed. Once more, constructivism seems incapable of defining necessary normative content and of justifying its individualist premises.

While realist approaches that appeal to a divine will have little contemporary currency, naturalist approaches fare better. On such views, human individuals and societies are seen as part of a natural order and as such should follow certain naturally given patterns of normative behavior (McDowell 1996; Pinkard 2012). Aristotle and Hume might be subsumed in this category: where Aristotle (1980) talks about naturally given, happiness-ensuring virtues, Hume (1978) proposes the notion of naturally given human dispositions and drives. However, such accounts seem to make subjects depend on determining nature’s universality (Aristotle) and on their determining drives (Hume). Both seem to undermine the notion that individual agents are truly independent, that is, self-determining and thus free. It seems that unless agents are the true authors of actions and are able to effectively will otherwise than nature or their drives demand, they lack proper choice, self-determination, meaningful conscience, and responsibility.

In an attempt to avoid perceived constructivist relativity about content and realist/naturalist undermining of freedom, Hegel has been read as proposing an alternative approach to sociopolitical normativity. The jury is still out on what Hegel’s proposal exactly looks like and whether he succeeds in his attempt to avoid the Scylla of relative, contingent, and thus non-normative content, and the Charybdis of a freedom-undermining real normative order. What is clear to some, though, is that Hegelian ethics might just supply the concepts required to overcome Kantian constructivism’s alleged relativity and formality. The first set of chapters examines how Hegel’s approach seeks to supply normativity with content and how it can be related to the notions of realism and constructivism in general and to Kantian constructivism in particular.

In the collection’s first chapter, “Hegel’s ‘Actualist’ Idealism and the Modality' of Practical Reason,” Paul Redding argues there is much merit in John N. Findlay’s argument that Hegel is committed to a position that is best described as “modal actualism” and that rejects the “modal possibilism” of Leibniz and Kant and more recent possibilist varieties.

To the actualist Hegel, judgments about Sittlichkeitand its actions depart from and are contextualized by actual practices and convictions. In contrast, possibilist Kantian moral judgments are rooted in judgments about intention and moral possibility - they are about how agents ought to act. Still, Hegel preserves Kant-style reflection as referring to and occasioned by actual epistemic and practical conflicts. Such reflection is collectively undertaken by concrete subjects that belong to and are conditioned by natural and cultural realms. While Kant’s possibilist commitments and their concern with absolute unconditionality can be argued to entail a lack of determined conceptual content, Redding suggests that it is Hegel’s fundamental commitment to actuality identified by Findlay that enables him to avoid Kantian formalism.

In contrast to Redding’s focus on actuality, Sebastian Stein argues in “Choosing to Do the Right Thing: Aristotle, Kant, and Hegel on Practical Normativity and the Realism-Constructivism Debate” that the ultimate metaphysical principle that grounds Hegel’s practical philosophy is the “concept of the will.” This combines an Aristotelian realist concern with the irreducible objectivity of sociopolitical norms with a Kantian constructivist concern with unconditioned, self-determining subjectivity. Due to their ontological participation in the concept, Hegel’s individual subjects are as autonomous and free to choose as Kant’s, while the concept-based, universal objectivity of the sociopolitical norms that they should choose is as real as it is for Aristotle. Within the concept, subjectivity (individual freedom) and objectivity (reality of norms) are irreducible and thus different while they are compatible and thus identical. This speculative notion of an “identity within difference” is not available to Aristotle’s substance metaphysics that self-contradictorily turns subjectivity objective, thereby depriving subjectivity of its own means of contrast. Nor is it within reach of Kant’s subjective idealism, which turns objectivity subjective and thus deprives subjectivity of a means of contrast. According to Stein, a systematic-metaphysical reading of Hegel is thus able to accommodate the constructivist concern with individual self-determination and the realist concern with normative facticity.

With a similar focus on unity, Joshua I. Wretzel argues in “Constraint and the Ethical Agent: Hegel Between Constructivism and Realism” that Hegel combines a constructivist concern with human praxis with a realist notion of normatively robust universality. Wretzel’s reading contrasts with the “constructivism” of Pippin and the “second-naturalism” or “naturalized platonism” of McDowell. According to Wretzel, while Hegel allows for the notion of nature in the form of motivating drives to constrain reflective moral reasoning, this does not undermine the notion of rational self-determination. For Hegel, the natural drives are part of the individual’s spirituality (Geist), such that his account of ethical motivation does not “leave nature behind,” as argued by Pippin, yet it cannot be explained in terms of nature either. Instead, it perfects nature in a manner that is compatible with the autonomous self-determination of the human being that is essentially geistig.

Questioning traditional metaethical categories, in “Hegel’s Metaethi-cal Non-Constructivism,” Sebastian Ostritsch argues that Hegel occupies a metaethical position that defies categorization in terms of realism and constructivism. Hegel rejects moral antirealism and moral realism alike: he is not a social constructivist or a constructivist in a broader sense because he rejects the idea that the normative realm is the result of a preexisting human agency or the result of concrete individual or collective human actions. At the same time, he is not a strong realist because for him there is no moral reality independent from the historically situated social order of Sittlichkeit. Instead, Ostritsch argues that Hegel is best described as a weak moral realist because the normative order of Sittlichkeit predates any particular action.

Discussing Hegel through his impact on Rawls, in “Rawls’s Post-Kantian Constructivism,” James Gledhill focuses on the significance of Hegel for understanding the nature and development of Rawls’s Kantian constructivism. Rawls’s Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy are shown to be an indispensable aid for understanding his constructivism, for they testify to the fact that Rawls’s approach to normative justification develops out of a dialogue not only with Kant but also with Hume and Hegel. According to Gledhill, Rawls’s lectures follow a Hegelian approach in seeking to reconcile Hume’s naturalistic idea of justice as an evolved social practice with Kant’s metaphysical conception of moral autonomy. This interpretation reveals clear but largely unnoticed similarities between Rawls’s Hegelian reading of Kant and recent post-Kantian interpretations of Hegel. Such an approach to constructivism is taken to offer the best prospects for reconciling the competing demands of reflective endorsement and objectivity within constructivism, the former desideratum being emphasized in Korsgaard’s constructivism and the latter in O’Neill’s. This notwithstanding, Gledhill concludes that the Hegelian nature of Rawls’s constructivism raises questions about the very' ambitions of the constructivist enterprise.

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