Monthly Archives: February 2015

What does it mean to have faith in freedom?

  • “If one nevertheless decides not to explain this appearance [of the will’s absoluteness] any further and decides to consider it to be absolutely inexplicable, i.e., to be the truth, and indeed our sole truth, according to which all other truth has to be measured and judged—and our entire philosophy is based on precisely this decision—this is not because of any theoretical insight, but because of a practical interest. I will to be self-sufficient, and I therefore take myself to be so. Such a taking-to-be-true, however, is faith [Glaube]. Our philosophy therefore begins with an item of faith, and it knows that it does this” (p. 31). – FIchte, The System of Ethics

    Here, Fichte is doing two things: first, he is calling our attention to an assumption he has made, a hidden premise he has been relying on, in his deduction of the will’s absolute self-sufficiency in the chapter so far. For Fichte has moved from the allegedly necessary structure of first-personal deliberative self-consciousness — in which the will is posited as absolute — to a reflective perspective on this structure itself whereby it is imbued with ultimate normative authority. Secondly, Fichte is addressing those of us who, in recognizing this hidden premise at work in his argument, may raise a skeptical eye to the legitimacy of such a move in the face of alternative premises.

    For it is entirely possible that the appearance of the will’s absoluteness is nothing but an illusion and that the will’s apparent self-sufficiency could be the result of an external causality to which we can have no epistemic access. Fichte concedes this. But where the skeptic goes wrong is not in her pointing out that there is a gap between the will’s apparent absoluteness and our belief in its ‘real’ (normative) absoluteness but in her claim that such a gap can only be filled with a further theoretical proof. For not only is there no theoretical proof available to ground belief in the will’s self-sufficiency but neither is there any theoretical claim available to the dogmatist to explain how the will appears (and appears absolutely) as an effect of the thing-in-itself. And whereof we cannot (theoretically) speak, thereof we must remain (theoretically) silent.

    In speculative terms then, the dogmatist fairs no better than the Fichtean. And if speculative reason were the only source of philosophical justification then the debate would end in a stalemate of agnosticism. But of course, the debate does not stop there. Both the Fichtean and the dogmatist (and the skeptical agnostic, for that matter) are driven to express the rational superiority of their belief over the alternatives. And insofar as they address their claims to their interlocutors, they are holding the latter accountable under a normative order that is represented as intersubjectively valid for all rational agents capable of forming beliefs about the world. And this normative order is nothing other than practical reason itself, the capacity or power of an intellect to be determined (in thought and in action) by nothing but rational principles that it gives itself freely. Thus, in arguing against the freedom of the will the dogmatist and skeptic must invoke the very normative order they wish to deny.

    This is what Fichte means when he says that dogmatism, too, starts with faith but it does not know that it does. Fichte is now entitled to claim the upper hand in the dialectical stalemate because he has forced his opponents into a pragmatic contradiction. Either the skeptic and dogmatist concede the self-sufficiency of practical reason (which just is the will used in its rational capacity) or they must exit from the debate all together. As soon as they take a stand in the game of giving and asking for reasons, whether they know it or not, they posit themselves as free.

    Note carefully, that in no way is Fichte claiming that we know for certain that we are free. He is arguing only that it is incoherent to claim that one is not free since it is a condition of the possibility of making any claim whatsoever that one posits oneself as free.

    Interestingly, if it were true from a theoretical standpoint that we were indeed free, wouldn’t things appear exactly as they in fact do, where the question of our freedom must be decided for ourselves?


More notes on Fichte on Suicide

Fichte’s System of Ethics

Suicide and the moral law (p.250-57)

What is suicide?

  • Self-destruction; taking one’s own life; making one’s death one’s end.
  • “[T]he supremacy of the concept over nature.” – p.256
  • Mind over matter.

Is suicide permissible?

  • If freedom is supposed to be absolute self-sufficiency, and life is determination by natural drive, then isn’t suicide a victory for freedom?
  • Freedom – properly conceived – is neither a state, nor a thing but an infinite self-grounding activity (i.e. “absolute self-activity” – p.53).

So, are there any cases in which committing suicide would not deprive me of my tendency towards absolute self-activity, i.e. freedom?

Freedom through finitude

  • Freedom (self-activity) +
    • Life (organic nature) +
      • Sensible world (mechanical nature
        •     = Realization of the Idea of freedom as an infinite task or goal.(The appearance of ought.)

Conditions of Freedom

  • Since I must will freedom as an end, I must also will the necessary means to this end.
  • Reciprocal interaction between myself and the world.
  • Life: – soul + body in reciprocal determination
  • “If I am to be a tool of the moral law, then the necessary condition for my being such a tool must pertain; and if I think of myself as subject to the moral law, then I am commanded to realize to the best of my ability the condition necessary for the continued interaction between me and the world (both the sensible world and the rational world).” – p.248
  • This condition is my own preservation, i.e., my life.
  • Note: The will to self-preservation is not a will to live for the sake of living nor for the sake of enjoyment but for the sake of satisfying the conditions required to do my duty.
  • “I ought not to will simply for the sake of living, but rather for the sake of some action for which I need to be alive.” – p.253
  • Thus, we have duties of self-preservation.
  • Negative duties (prohibitions) – ‘Do not do X’
  • Positive duties (commandments) – ‘You must do X’
  • “The prohibition of the moral law is as follows: do not expose yourself needlessly to dangers to your health, your body, and your life. And such exposure to danger is always needless unless demanded by duty.” – p.251
  • “Act only on that maxim you can at the same time will to be a universal law.” (Universal Duties)
  • “I am a tool of the moral law in the sensible world.” (Universal Conditioned Duties)
  • Prohibitions (Negative Duties) and Commands (Positive Duties)
  • Suicide: Despair |   Disgrace  |  Fanatical Enthusiasm
    • each of these has the same motive: escape from life’s sufferings. I.e. unwillingness to will the conditions of freedom.


  • Suicide is based on a conceptual confusion: either the suicide misconstrues the concept of freedom itself or she is confused about the proper conditions of freedom.
    • Strictly speaking, for the moral law to demand that we take our own life would be self-contradictory.
    • Thus, insofar as we are rational agents suicide is impossible. (Self-sacrifice, on the other hand, is possible and it is permitted if and when duty demands it). – p.258
    • “[T]he…[decision to endure a life of suffering] reveals the supremacy of the concept over the concept.” – p.256

Suicide and the moral law in Fichte’s System of Ethics

When I am animated by the moral disposition, I consider myself simply to be a tool of the moral law; and therefore I will to continue to exist, and the only reason I will to continue to exist is so that I can continue to act. This is why self-preservation is a duty.” (Fichte, The System of Ethics, p.250)
This section occurs within the division of the text entitled “Systematic application of the principle of morality”

Section 20: Universal Conditioned Duties: ‘universal’ insofar as these duties apply to all rational beings; ‘conditioned’ insofar as they apply to all (sensibly) finite rational beings.

“I am a tool of the moral law in the sensible world.”(p.248) All actions, if they are to be morally justified, must be consistent with the truth of this statement. Note that this statement does not contradict my being, at the same time, an end in myself insofar as I am a rational being. In fact, the merely instrumental value to which I grant my sensible existence is a condition of my respecting my unconditional value as an intellect.

The proximate end of all moral action in the sensible realm must be my own continuous capacity to act morally, since my duty is never complete; there is always work to be done to bring the sensible world in closer harmony with the ideal of reason. The most basic condition of my continued capacity to act morally is my continued existence, that is to say, my life.

Hence, we have a duty toward self-preservation: both positively and negatively construed.

For Fichte, the duty of self-preservation is determined negatively, in terms of prohibition, and positively, in terms of commandment.

“[T]he prohibition of the moral law is this: do not expose yourself needlessly to dangers to your health, your body, and your life.” (Fichte, p. 251)

Prohibition: internal endangerment and external endangerment.
Internal endangerment occurs whenever our natural course of development is hindered both with respect to the body and the mind. E.g. fasting, intemperance, sexual depravity (i.e. non-reproductive sex), one-sided cultivation (i.e. specialization).
External endangerment occurs whenever our self-preservation is jeopardized by some external force or threat. In addition to having a duty to avoid putting ourselves in harm’s way, we also have a duty to refrain from harming ourselves, unless duty requires us to perform some action whose only means of accomplishment involves risking our own self-harm.

Duty can demand that we expose ourselves to danger; but it does not follow that duty can demand that we take our own lives.

If we want to ask if an action is sanctioned by the moral law, we must ask if that action promotes or hinders our capacity to act as tools of the moral law. Insofar as a self-harming action is morally sanctioned, it must meet two criteria: i) the self-harm involved must be “indirect”, that is to say, it must be the means and never the end of the action (e.g. ambulance driver vs. joy-rider) ii) the self-harm sustained must not be so great as to prevent the agent from continuing to act as a tool of the moral law. (E.g. Brain surgery to cure epilepsy vs. lobotomy)

With these criteria in mind, we are now in a position to ask: can the moral law ever command us to take our own lives?

Fichte considers what he takes to be an exhaustive list of the possible motives one might have for committing suicide and judges, in every case, that the above criteria are not met and thus, that suicide, no matter the reason, is never permitted.

Species of Suicide:
“Despair” – Dereliction of Duty, ‘cop-out’, shirking responsibility, avoiding the demands of virtue: fear of guilt  this person says “I can’t do this anymore!” E.g. A sinner who would rather die than atone for his sins.

“Disgrace” – “Saving face”; protestation of vicious treatment; preservation of pride: fear of shame this person says “I won’t put up with this anymore!” E.g. A soldier who takes his own life rather than being taking prisoner by the enemy.

“Fanatical Enthusiasm” – “Reset-button”, reincarnation, duty in the after-life trumps my earthly duties, unwillingness to work today for the future state: fear of meaninglessness  this person says “I am destined for something much nobler than this.” E.g. Suicide bomber, religious mystic

All of these motives, Fichte says, stem from the same principle, which is the desire to avoid suffering. Put another way, all suicide is action for the sake of one’s happiness and enjoyment (which just is, in certain unfortunate circumstances merely the cessation of pain).

If I commit suicide, I am no longer the tool of the moral law in the sensible world. Therefore, if I commit suicide, I fail to do my duty.

The suicide gives the intellect merely instrumental status.

The suicide can exemplify courage (when compared to an agent who forfeits his duty in order to extend his own life) or he can exemplify cowardice (when compared to an agent who, faced with the same degree of suffering, endures the unendurable in order to do his duty).

Self-preservation as an end in itself is only a principle of nature. Self-preservation as a means to an end (namely, that of duty) is a principle of morality.

Suicide for a rational agent is self-contradictory.