Hegel’s Dialectic of Morality – Part 1 “Conscience to Beautiful Soul”

Note: This is “Conscience to Beautiful Soul”, part 1 of a multi-part series. The Second part will arrive shortly, and be called “Beautiful Soul to God Manifest in the midst”. The Third part will come some time later, and it will contain an attempt to answer, or at least ask the right questions, about what relevance this section of Hegel might have today.

The emergence of the Beautiful Soul. Acting and judging consciousness. The breaking of the hard heart. God manifested in the midst of those who know themselves. Are these utterances mere Hegelian ramblings, or moments in the deepest thinking through of moral activity and reactivity yet accomplished by the western mind? Or some third thing – perhaps a great leap forward in moral thinking, for the most part still not comprehended but even so superseded by the transformation of history, the death of God, and the spectre of apocalypse? If we take Hegel’s chapter on “Conscience” seriously these are questions which confront us, questions which I’ve spent the last 6 years of my life working through in one way or another, and yet I’ve never written about it. This week I re-read the Conscience section from Phenomenology of Spirit, and I’m going to have a try here at explaining it, and why I believe it to be so central to moral thinking, and why I’m so uncertain of its contemporary status.

Hegel’s chapter named “Conscience. The ‘beautiful soul’, evil and its forgiveness” is the third part of a three part section named “Morality”, which is the first of the three sections that complete the Phenomenology of Spirit. It is one of the final moments, although not the final moment. The following two final moments occur in the sections named “Religion” and “Absolute Knowing”. Since Religion and Absolute Knowing radically transcend individuated experience, it might be said that “Conscience” is the completion of the Phenomenology at the level of personal experience. I don’t think Hegel would say this, because of course Religion, although inherently social, is still active at the level of experience – and even Absolute Knowing is an activity participated in by subjects (by the way, it doesn’t mean you “know everything”, ‘absolute knowing’ is more like the recognition that there is no knowledge which is structurally beyond the possible apprehension of subjects who properly recognize their own relationship to knowledge). But, we can probably safely say that “Conscience” is the resolution that can most straightforwardly be observed and felt at the level of individual inter-subjective consciousness and sociality. Moreover, it is the most emotional of the 3 final sections, both in the relations it describes and in the feelings it wells up in the reader when he or she comes to understand the dynamics at play – this is some of the first philosophy I ever read which immediately changed the way I understood my relations with other people, and even transformed the inter-personal problems I was dealing with at the time of reading and studying this text.

I’ll begin at paragraph 635, where Hegel shows that for conscience to act in the world, it can’t split up the complex circumstances of action into a variety of duties, but must act purely on duty itself such that the conversion from how the world is to how the world should be according to conscience is pure and smooth, and the action itself does not alter the meaning of the action for conscience. For, if duty were split into a variety either no action would take place because every concrete case involves an antithesis, and thus require acting on two contradictory duties, or if the action did take place it would not be moral because it would violate one of the contradictory duties. This means something like, when you act you have to frame your context of action such that you act on one particular duty rather than calculate based on the relevance of a plurality of duties. Of course, you might consider more than one duty before you choose to act – but when you chose to act on one you exclude the others from possible validity. And if you don’t exclude the others, or at least the ones that contradict your actual action, you will not recognize your action as moral, but as morally problematic and contradictory.

However, when consciousness rejects conflicting duties so it can see duty and reality as harmonius, it finds itself with the view that it acts morally when it is conscious of performing pure duty, which means when it doesn’t act at all. Whenever consciousness acts it finds itself aware of something other to itself, a reality which is specific, and in which I have a specific purpose, specific needs, and a specific duty to fulfill. Consciousness finds itself split between a pure internal moral consciousness, unrecognized by others, whose pure duty is known absolutely by consciousness itself but does not act or actualize anything, and an existent reality of consciousness  which acts, and in action translates its individual content into something objective and recognizable by others. In the external recognition of deeds it is made real, because reality is linked with universal recognition. This means something like: consciousness finds its own recognition of its own acts as duty-bound as lacking, its duty is only made real when recognized externally by others, because reality is that which is shared in common with others. (637,640)

This is already pretty interesting, because it means that there can be “no more talk of good intentions coming to nothing”(640). What it means to have a good intention, to have a right duty, is for that duty to be actualized in public where it is recognized by others – private intentions are unreal unless made manifest by existent consciousness. The entire debate between Utilitarian/”Kantian” ethics is dispelled by this notion of duty: if duty must be recognized to be real, if others must see the intention in the action in order for the intention to really be there, then the idea that we can even distinguish between whether intentions or consequences matter becomes a wrong question: intentions are a consequence, because we see the intention of an action right there in the action! Of course we can still debate about what makes an action right if we insist on a particularly narrow understanding of consequence, which only looks at welfare and denies the possibility or importance of seeing intentions in actions, but we can just as easily retain the view that private intentions exist even when not manifest. What’s interesting here is the idea that we can simply “hold” these views is challenged: we actually have to defend our narrow interpretations of “intention” and “consequence”, and, if we want to remain in the standard debate, actively deny that intentions are perceptible element in actions and their consequences.

However, when we start talking about duty being recognized by others, all manner of problems emerge. First being that move back at 635 where conscience excluded categorically all but a single duty – how can we be sure that other an other consciousness will recognize the same situation in the same way, especially since they can see you in all your specificity, having individual desires and needs etc… Hegel recognizes that insofar as the knowing and acting conscience has the moment of universality which it needs to recognize duty in the world it must view the actual case of action “unrestrictedly in all its bearings”(642). And that’s a problem because the universality of conscience is only a “moment”, it doesn’t actually have time to know all the circumstances, so it can’t act conscientiously. The reality of action is a situation made up of “a plurality of circumstances which breaks up and spreads out endlessly in all directions, backwards into their conditions, sideways into their connections, forwards in their consequences”(642). And this is a real problem because it means that not only can’t you know what you should do, but you can’t even know what you are doing – because your actions are too endlessly complex. But, it’s ok, because it would be “vain” to hold the pretence of this conscientious weighing of all circumstances – in reality the kind of knowledge held by the conscientious mind is inherently incomplete, because action is happens in the moment, and incomplete knowledge can be sufficient if that is the kind of knowledge appropriate to the kind of mind which has it. This means something like, you think you can’t know what you’re doing because you’re in an existential situation where you can’t possibly know the connections and repercussions of your actions, and since intentions really exist in the consequences, and you can’t predict the consequences, there can be no link between action and intention, and therefore no morality. But, you can only think this so long as you hold an irresponsible and vain understanding of knowledge in a moment – in a moment we can only have momentous knowledge, which means the kind of knowledge which can crystalize in a direct understanding of a situation. Moreover, when we make decisions one of the decisions we make is how long should we take to make the decision. Therefore, the idea of total comprehension is a false and misleading plenum which carries us away from a proper understanding of what conscientious action really is.

Since the moment of conscientious action is limited, it breaks up particular case into various separate parts and chooses between them to make a decision. And it is really conscience making the decision, because none of the parts in its own specificity is absolute – it gains the appearance of absolute only when acted upon by the pure duty of a subject (643). But at the same time the content must express the pure duty of the subject if the pure duty in action (intention) is to be expressed in the consequence, as specified above in paragraph 640. This creates a problem: two subjects might take the same situation and act on contradictory duties. For instance, one concrete case might be taken up by an individual to “increase his property in a certain way; it is everyone’s duty to provide for the support of himself and his family”(644). But that same case might be taken up differently by other individuals, and they might find “this specific way of behaving to be humbug”. Thus,

what others call violence and wrongdoing, is the fulfilment of the individual’s duty to maintain his independence in the face of others; what they call cowardice, is the duty of supporting life and the possibility of being useful to others…

This is a real problem – if intentions are only real when recognized by others, and if I might not even agree on what is the right intention to act on in a particular circumstance alongside others with different values, how can I ever be say to be acting morally? Hegel suggests that this isn’t a real problem because the conviction of duty is the essence of moral obligation, others will recognize moral obligation in an action regardless of whether the action is described as duty or cowardice. The fact that content contains the “blemish of determinateness” is no charge against conscience because duty could never have been filled with a content which did not contain this blemish. Duty bound action is therefore nothing to do with the weighing and comparing of duties, but entirely an enacting of pure duty into a contingent content and thereby expressing something universal. My supervisor’s example of this is still best: take for instance the person who jumped down in front of the subway to save the person who had accidentally tripped and fallen down into the tracks. When one is in a situation like this, the reasons don’t matter at all, they don’t even exist – you just act.  The action itself isn’t mediated by reasons or calculations – it is immediacy.

However, immediacy isn’t really good enough – because no matter how much you say that duty is immediate, other people still have to look at you, and just because both the consciousness that acts, and the universal consciousness that judges are both free from the specificity of the particular content, their relation has no common medium and is thus a relationship of complete uncertainty (648). Others therefore never know whether some conscience is good or evil, or rather they not only cannot know but must assume that it is evil – because they are just as free as the conscience they judge, and they must “nullify it by judging and explaining it in order to preserve their own self”(649). In other words, conscientious people can’t help but impugn and disbelieve the self-declared conscientious actions of others as self-serving. This is one moment in the chapter where I’m less than perfectly in agreement with Hegel; although it’s certainly often true that we are suspicious of the motivations of others, I think it’s going a bit far to say we always categorically distrust others when we consider ourselves to be acting conscientiously – I think this is a particular way of being-with others, which expresses something true about inter-personal trust and emotion, in certain kinds of social situations, but I think it’s just as possible to judge the self declared conscientious actions of another as always good as it is to judge them as always evil. This has to do with our emotional disposition towards the other, which Kant described as “Respect”, and Kierkegaard later talked about using the figure of the “Knight of Faith”. This is a particular aspect of this dialectic I could continue to work on phenomenologically.

The pure duty in the intention of a deed ought be there in the deed, but it isn’t. The intention can’t be seen in the action because we explain it away as self-serving, and the duty can’t be seen in the effect because the effects of actions are transient and acquire no permanence. We supplement the transience of effects, however, with Language, which is the manner in which our self-consciousness can be immediately present for others, and in a lasting way. Language is the self that separates from the self and coalesces directly with other selves (652). This is just to say that when we say something, we construct an assemblage of our consciousness which be transferred to another, and who can experience the same assemblage – the other can perceive just what you perceived when you said that. Conscience declares its duty, and the truth of the declaration is not up for question for conscience – for that would presuppose that the inner intention is different from the one put forward (654). In this declaration conscience is no longer concerned that its actions might not be moral – by finding an immediate way in which its intention is externally manifested it both supersedes the distinction between internal and external consciousness, and rids the form of the expression of its particularity. This means that when we find our own ability to tell ourselves stories about why what we did was right, we no longer require the approval of others to recognize our own actions as duty bound, and as existent – the universality of the duty and actuality of the action is recognized in the language we use to talk about it, which although is us, after we say it is other than us, because language is objective which means it is a subsisting external manifestation of consciousness. That’s why you can write a book and it just sits there enduring until someone picks it up. And since the content of the action was never absolute itself, but required the judgement of conscience in order to become pure duty, now that you can express the duty-boundedness of the action yourself, without the need for mutual recognition, you can do anything and tell yourself a story about why it was duty bound. Language becomes an inner divine voice which justifies everything on universal grounds which anyone (universal consciousness) would recognize as right. We’ve all seen people act like this, and felt it in ourselves. To go back to the Subway tracks example, after the person was saved, the hero was recognized and interviewed, asked “why did you do it”. Now we know they did it immediately, but they gave some reason like “I know they would have done the same for me”. Now it may be very Kantian of him to try to come up with a maxim that could let him believe his will might have been guided by a force other than that of natural causality, but in reality he didn’t have time to check his maxim against a universal law. What the interview expresses is anyone’s ability to come up with some reason why their actions were moral, and in coming up with it, in saying it to oneself, one counts ones own actions as moral and sees ones own conscience as good.

However, being rid of the need for the recognition of another in order to recognize its own actions as duty and as existent, conscience can now put “whatever content it pleases into its knowing and willing” – it has become the “moral genius” (655). The fact that the content of action was never determinate of duty on its own means that the subject, once able to wield language for his or her moral purposes, can do anything. And, because they do not need others, they retreat into their “innermost being, for which all externality as such has vanished”(657). Consciousness is only knowledge of itself, and its moments are extreme abstractions (658). While it has “created a world in its speech”, that speech is only immediately heard and dies away – and while it is objective it does not become a corresponding self against which consciousness can attain actual existence (658). Having attained a feeling of purity of its heart, and in dread of spoiling that splendour, “it flees from contact with the actual world”(658). However, without contact in the world it loses actuality and becomes an unhappy “beautiful soul”, its light dies away and it disappears into thin air.

The idea of a “beautiful soul” expresses something deeply true about the way people put themselves together. We can assemble ourselves and recognize ourselves as conscientious actors through narratives we give to ourselves. We’re always giving ourselves narratives about ourselves; that is largely what we do when we “think”. And, for the most part we try to create consistent narratives about ourselves that justifies our actions in terms of some idea of ourselves, and we probably think of ourselves as moral and therefore have an interest in explaining all of our actions as undertaken under good motives. But there is a danger in this – because we have an interest in self-unity over and above truth we might lie to ourselves about our own intentions, and worse than this we can lie to ourselves about our own intentions because there is nothing in the content of our actions which, independent of intention, is itself absolutely right or wrong. If we engage with other people, however, there is always the danger that the frame we construct around our own interpretation of our own actions might be challenged. Therefore, we have an interest in not engaging with others and simply telling ourselves our own story about ourselves, where we can transparently recognize the purity of our heart. However, if we don’t engage with others we aren’t properly human, since humans are social animals, and can’t develop their capacities without various forms of proximity to other human beings. The human who withdraws to protect himself, therefore, literally withers away and dies. To use Nietzschean language: he or she who chooses preservation over enhancement gets neither.

Up until now the dialectic has been entirely subjective, which is to say, expressing the dynamics of a single consciousness as it itself feels and experiences itself.  The Beautiful Soul, however, marks the point of transition in the chapter where a second consciousness is introduced and a conflict between them ensues. That will be the topic of a second post on Hegel’s Morality entitled “Beautiful Soul to God Manifest in the midst”.


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