|"Fichte's Philosophy of Right and Ethics," forthcoming in Günter Zöller (ed). The Cambridge Companion to Fichte. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Fichte's Philosophy of Right and Ethics
Allen W. Wood
The importance of Fichte's ethical thought
Fichte's entire philosophy was animated by moral and political concerns, and his views on these matters, which are often innovative and sometimes extreme, were held passionately – one is sometimes tempted to say, fanatically. Fichte's conversion to Kant's critical philosophy around 1790 was above all a conversion to the Kantian moral outlook, its conception of human dignity as rooted in freedom and the moral vocation of human beings as rational agents.
The decisive period in Fichte's development, moreover, the Jena years of 1795-1800, were dominated by the production of his chief ethical writings. As his conception of a fundamental principle of a Wissenschaftslehre developed beyond that of the Foundations of the entire Wissenschaftslehre of 1794, they found some of their most determinate expressions in these publications on right and ethics. Fichte's chief works in this area are two extensive treatises he produced during his Jena period: Foundations of Natural Right (1796) (GA I/3:311-460, I/4:5-165) and System of Ethics (1798) (GA I/5:19-317).1 The exposition of these two important works, which are at present unavailable to English readers,2 will be our chief business in this essay. Toward the end of his life, however, after recasting the foundations of his Wissenschaftslehre, Fichte gave two series of lectures in 1812, which appeared among his Nachlass: The System of the Doctrine of Right (SW 10:493-652) and The System of Ethics (SW 11:1-144). They display a basic change in the foundations of Fichte's moral theory, and a few significant revisions in the contents of the theories.
It is customary to think of Fichte's ethical thought as an example of Kantian ethics. This is no doubt correct as a first approximation, but it may lull us into an underappreciation of Fichte's distinctiveness and originality. As an ethical thinker, Fichte is related to Kant, even in the most straightforward chronological sense, not as a follower but as an immediate and independent contemporary. Fichte's Foundations of Natural Right was published before Kant's Doctrine of Right (which appeared January, 1797), and Fichte's System of Ethics was written slightly later than (but certainly quite independently of) Kant's Doctrine of Virtue (which did not appear until 1798). Thus if the ethical theories of the two philosophers arose in a broad sense from a common idea or inspiration, they differ significantly in almost every particular as regards the way this idea is worked out. Whereas Kantian ethics represents a strikingly original resolution of eighteenth century issues about duty, reason, interest, virtue and moral feeling, Fichte's ethical theory focuses attention more strongly on the relation of moral personality to its embodiment and individual identity, and on the place of the individual moral agent in a living community with others -- that is, on just those issues which were to determine ethics and social thought in the nineteenth century and beyond. The underappreciation of Fichte's moral and political thought thus has serious consequences for our understanding of where our own ideas and problems originated.3
2. Fichte's first principle
Fichte's Wissenschaftslehre is a "science of science as such" (GA I/2:117-118, EW 105-106). It is grounded on a principle which is claimed to be absolutely certain, and to convey the same certainty to the propositions grounded on it (GA I/2:116, EW 104). The absolutely first principle of the Wissenschaftslehre is the 'I'. It is chosen for its simplicity as well as its certainty, but it turns out to be more complex than it seems.
Every act of awareness, Fichte maintains, involves an awareness of the I. "No object comes to consciousness except under the condition that I am aware of myself, the conscious subject" (GA I/4:274-275). Fichte seems to have in mind here what Sartre was later to call the "pre-reflective" or "non-positional" self-consciousness we have even when our attention is focused on objects entirely distinct from the self.4 If I am reading a novel, for example, my attention is not on myself (or my reading activity) but on the characters in the story, and what they are doing. But if my reading is interrupted by someone asking me what I am doing, I reply immediately that I am (and have for some time been) reading; and the self-awareness on the basis of which I answer the question is not something acquired at just that moment but a consciousness of myself which has been present to me all along.
For Fichte what is crucial about this awareness is not only its ubiquity and certainty, but equally the fact that it is an awareness of activity, which is present in our most passive states of perception. In every thought "you directly note activity and freedom in this thinking, in this transition from thinking the I to thinking the table, the walls, etc. Your thinking is for you an acting" (GA I/4:271-272). What Fichte means by 'I', regarded as the absolute principle of all philosophy, is nothing but this awareness of our own activity, which is an inevitable ingredient in any awareness and provides us with an ineluctable consciousness of our freedom. The 'I', then, is for Fichte the absolute foundation of philosophy because it is simultaneously the transcendental unity of apperception on which Kant based the possibility of theoretical cognition and the postulate of freedom which was the foundation of practical philosophy.
If Fichte derives the ubiquitous certainty of the I from pre-reflective self-awareness, that does not mean that he intends to exclude reflective self-awareness from the first principle. For one of the most characteristic activities of a free I is that of reflecting on itself, and we will see that Fichte uses this feature of self-awareness to derive some of his most ambitious conclusions. In pre-reflective activity the I "posits itself absolutely"; but in reflection it "reiterates this positing" or "reverts into itself" (GA I/2:408, SK 243; GA I/4:212-213). Reflection is not a feature of the I at all times, but the I's free activity essentially involves a "capacity for reflection" (GA I/2:423, SK 258), and it is essential to being an I that the I should (sometimes) exercise this capacity: "If it is to be an I, it must also posit itself as self-posited" (GA I/2:408, SK 241).
In reflecting on itself, the I forms a concept of itself (GA I/4:213, I/3:329). Every act of conceptualization involves distinguishing the item brought under a given concept from those excluded from it. Therefore, reflective self-awareness involves the I's self-limitation: the I must distinguish itself from what it is not. From this Fichte infers that the very possibility of the I requires its limitation by a "not-I": "The following is implicit in our principle: The I posits itself as limited by the not-I" (GA I/2:285, SK 122). To posit the I is at the same time to "counterposit" a not I (GA I/2:268, SK 105; I/3:330). This means that the activity of the I must be twofold: that of the I, directed toward a not-I and that of a not-I, directed back against the I as a "collision" or "check" (Anstoss) of the I's activity (GA I/2:354-362, SK 189-196). Since both are conditions of the I's existence, Fichte regards both as activities of the I: the former is "ideal" activity, the latter "real" activity (GA I/2:402-404. SK 236-238).
As the fundamental science, the Wissenschaftslehre is supposed to ground all other particular sciences, including both theoretical and practical sciences (GA I/2:150-152, EW 133-135). Fichte intends this not in the sense that other sciences are each grounded on some particular principle or principles belonging to the Wissenschaftslehre, but rather in the sense that they are each grounded on the fundamental principle itself.5 The boundary between the Wissenschaftslehre and particular sciences is marked by the way the first principle is taken. "As soon as an action which is in itself entirely free has been given a specific direction, we have moved from the domain of the general Wissenschaftslehre into that of some particular science" (GA I/2:134-135, EW 120). The division of theoretical from practical science, Fichte says, is based on considering the two ways in which the I can relate to the not-I. If the I adopts a dependent relation to the not-I, then it is determined as "intelligence" and the science is theoretical. If we consider the I as independent in relation to the not-I, then its relation is one of striving and we are dealing with the practical part of the Wissenschaftslehre. This is the way Fichte presents things in practical part of the Wissenschaftslehre of 1794 (especially § 5, GA I/2:385-416, SK 218-251).
There are some indications, however, that Fichte changed his mind about this relation between 1794 and 1797. In 1794, Fichte began with a general grounding of the entire Wissenschaftslehre (Part I: §§ 1-3, GA I/2:251-282, SK 93-119), then proceeded to the theoretical part of the Wissenschaftslehre (Part II: § 4, GA I/2:283-384, SK 120-217) and finally to the practical part (Part III: §§ 5-11, GA I/2:385-451, SK 218-287). In the System of Ethics, however, theoretical and practical sciences are presented as simply two equal parts of a single unified Wissenschaftslehre, neither taking systematic precedence over the other (GA I/5:21-22). That this is an intentional change is documented in a transcript of Fichte's lectures of 1797:
"[These lectures will] follow a method of presentation that is just the opposite of that followed by the author in his compendium of 1794, where he proceeded from the theoretical portion of philosophy (i.e. from what had to be explained) to the practical part (i.e. to what was meant to serve as the basis for explaining the former). In the present lectures, however, the hitherto familiar division between theoretical and practical philosophy is not to be found. Instead, these lectures present philosophy as a whole, in the exposition of which theoretical and practical philosophy are united. This presentation follows a much more natural path, beginning with the practical sphere, or whenever it would contribute to the clarity of the exposition to do so, inserting the practical into the theoretical, in order to explain the latter in terms of the former: a liberty for which the author was not yet sufficiently self-confident at the time he published his Wissenschaftslehre" (GA 4/2:17, WLnm 85).
Fichte apparently always regarded the practical as the foundation of the theoretical, so that his earlier procedure is not to be understood as founding the practical on the theoretical but, on the contrary, as a regressive method, moving from what is grounded back toward the ground. The I, therefore, is always regarded as fundamentally a practical rather than a theoretical principle. The System of Ethics of 1798, therefore, where this principle is explicitly given fundamental status, stands entirely on its own.
The same cannot be said, however, for the Foundations of Natural Right (1796), not only because it apparently predates the transformation in Fichte's thinking on this point, but also because for Fichte the science of right is a theoretical rather than a practical science. This is because the science of right (or law) tells us merely what conditions must be satisfied if free beings are to co-exist as free beings in a community; it does not enjoin us to create such a community (GA I/3:320). For Fichte the theory of right (or law), which deals with rights, property and political legitimacy, was constructed first because is entirely independent of ethics or morality. Right deals solely with external actions, not at all with inner motivations, and it concerns only the conditions under which people might live together while retaining their freedom. The theory of right can be presented without appealing to moral considerations: to the inner aims of freedom, and the actualization by free beings of the final ends of their existence.
3. Recognition and the relation of right
The condition for reflective self-awareness, or forming a conception of oneself as an I is that the I as activity is opposed and limited by the not-I. In part this means: opposed and limited by a material world, but it also means: opposed and limited by other I's. An I cannot conceive itself at all unless it conceives itself as one of a plurality: "The consciousness of individuality is necessarily accompanied by another consciousness, that of a thou, and is possible only on this condition" (GA I/4:229, SK 49). "No thou, no I" (GA I/2:337, SK 172).
Fichte's argument for this in the Foundations of Natural Right is based on the idea that the I must act on a not-I and be checked by that same not-I in one and the same moment. From this he derives the conclusion that the I must itself limit its own action based on a concept of limitation from outside: this concept he calls a "demand" (Aufforderung). But the external source of a concept of action can be thought only as another I, who makes the demand. Therefore, the I is possible only on the condition that it conceives of another I, which demands that it limit its action in certain ways (GA I/3:342-347).
To understand another as a rational being making such a demand, and to display such understanding in action is to "recognize" (anerkennen) the other (GA I/3:353). Since every free being necessarily wills to make use of its freedom, the basic demand I necessarily make on every other free being is that it should limit its action in such a way that I am allowed a sphere for the exercise of my freedom (GA I/3:357-358). Fichte argues that for this reason I must assume that others will recognize me, but since I cannot expect others to do so unless I treat them as rational beings, I am bound by mere logical consistency (and prior to any moral requirement) to recognize all others and treat them accordingly (GA I/3:349-356). Recognition must be presupposed as the condition of all interactions between free beings, and it must be presupposed as a reciprocal relation, which Fichte calls the "relation of right". It grounds the "principle of right": "I must in all cases recognize the free being outside me as such, i.e. limit my freedom through the concept of the possibility of its freedom" (GA I/3:358). By the principle of right each free being is to have an external sphere for the exercise of its freedom, and others are to limit their freedom accordingly. This external sphere begins at the point of origin of one's action on the external world itself. We have seen that the I must be limited by a not-I. Fichte interprets as saying that the I and an external, material world must exercise a mutual causal influence on one another. But since only matter can act on matter, the I too must be matter – or at least it must have a material vehicle for its relations of activity and passivity to the not-I. To be an I therefore, one must be embodied, and the starting point of the external sphere recognized by others must be its body (GA I/3:361-365). But because human beings are free, their modes of activity are endlessly perfectible and adaptable (GA I/3:377-379). Hence the sphere of a rational being's activity may be extended indefinitely, which is the eventual foundation of all rights of property (GA I/3:415-423). More immediately, it is the foundation of "original rights" (Urrechte), that is, those not based on any positive laws, but serve as the basis of any conceivable community of free beings (GA I/3:390, 403-410). Original rights are fundamentally only two: the inviolability of the body, and the right to act freely on the external world (GA I/3:409).
Regarding property rights, Fichte insists that they are entirely derivative from and analyzable into rights one has over against others to non-interference with one's actions. Thus he says that properly speaking, persons stand in relations of right only to other persons, never to non-rational things (GA I/3:360). Fichte even goes so far as to deny that there is any right of property, literally speaking, to the substance of things, or to land.
Strictly speaking, there can be a right never to things, only to actions, and what we call rights of property must be explicated entirely in terms of the external sphere of action to which a person is entitled by right (GA I/3:428-429, SW 3:401).
Fichte maintains that the recognition of others, including treatment of them in accordance with their original rights, does not require any moral principle as its rational basis, but only logically consistent or consequent thinking. But he realizes that this does not necessarily provide us with a reason for respecting the rights of others in practice or for expecting others to respect ours, since where it is advantageous to violate another's right it will also be advantageous to contradict oneself (GA I/3:384-385). The actualization of a community of rational beings must therefore depend on an external force capable of coercing rational beings to observe its laws. Each of us, he argues, has a "right of coercion," that is, it is not contrary to right to coerce others to the extent that they have violated the principle of right. But Fichte argues that no satisfactory community can come about in this way, since that community requires that each have a guarantee in advance that others will subject themselves to the principle of right (GA I/3:395). This, in turn, is possible only if all equally subject themselves unconditionally to the judgment of another party, transferring to it their power as well (GA I/3:396). Using this power, it must establish laws protecting rights and erect what Fichte calls a "law of coercion" bringing it about whenever someone attempts to violate these laws, the opposite of what it intends should happen, so that such intentions annihilate themselves (GA I/3:426). This right, subject (as we will see below) to a mutually advantageous contractual arrangement, is the basis of penal law.
4. The form of government
Fichte follows Rousseau in distinguishing the government from the law it administers. But unlike Rousseau he does not understand this as a separation of the legislative power from the governing power. On the contrary, law is understood merely as the application of a fundamental law or constitution, which as the foundation of a state is unchangeable (though it may be added to by amendment). Since the constitution must be a law freely accepted by everyone bound by it, its adoption must be unanimous, not merely by a majority vote (GA 1/3:443). Those who cannot agree to it must emigrate, and find a place on earth where they can consent to enter into relations of right with others (GA I/4:163).
All particular acts of the community, including acts of legislation (applying or amending the constitution) are to be performed by a single governmental power, which (Fichte argues) cannot be coherently conceived as divided. He therefore rejects the conception of the separation of powers into legislative, executive and judicial. All legitimate governments, however, must be representative in the sense that their powers are conceived of as delegated to them by the whole people according to the constitution. Representation in this, however, sense excludes only two forms of government: "despotism", in which the ruler is not subject to the law, as in contemporary absolute monarchies, and "democracy" in which the people as a whole directly administers the law instead of delegating its power to representatives (GA I/3:436-440).
Fichte distinguishes "democracy" in this (proper but pejorative) sense from "democracy in a narrower sense of the term", which involves the popular election of representatives (GA I/3:441-442). Democracy in this sense is a legitimate form of government, perhaps even the form which Fichte most approves. He nevertheless insists on the legitimacy of other forms, including mixed and hereditary forms of aristocracy, as long as the people consents to them. It is unclear, however, whether Fichte recognizes the legitimacy of hereditary monarchy, even in a constitutional form, though he allows for a "president of the government in perpetuity," as in an "elective commonwealth" (Wahlreich) (GA I/3:442).
Although Fichte believes in an undivided governmental power, he equally insists that the government (especially in its executive function) must be accountable to the law. And unlike Kant, he was not content to regard the rights of the people against the government as real but in principle unenforceable. Instead, he proposes what is his most innovative political idea: that of the "ephorate". This term, meaning "overseers" (in Greek, + ) was applied to a Spartan political institution, but Fichte insists that what he means is entirely different and that the closest ancient analogue to what he has in mind were the Roman tribunes of the people (GA I/3:449n). The ephors, as Fichte imagines them, are a group of highly respected citizens elected by the people for fixed terms (GA I/3:455-456). They are to remain entirely independent of the government and their persons are inviolable (GA I/3:451-453). The ephors are to exercise no governmental function, but they are to possess an absolute negative power: the power to suspend the power of the existing government and to call for a convention of the people for the purpose of trying the government on its indictment (GA I/3:449-450).
But what if the government and the ephorate together collude to oppress the people? Fichte insists that despite the precautions taken in his proposals to prevent this, it may happen. In that case, there is no recourse except that the people as a whole should rise up against the government and stand in judgment of it. In response to the charge that he is advocating the legitimacy of popular rebellion, Fichte has this to say:
"But -- and this should be noted well -- the people is never a rebel, and the expression Rebellion used of it is the highest absurdity that can ever be said; for the people is in fact and in right the highest power, to which none is superior, the source of all other power, responsible only to God... Only against a higher power can there be rebellion. But what on earth is higher than the people? It could rebel only against itself, which is absurd. Only God is superior to the people; hence if it should be said that a people has rebelled against its prince, then it has to be assumed that the prince is a god, which might be hard to establish" (GA I/3:456-457).
From such remarks it is not hard to understand why Fichte was notorious for his Jacobin political views.
But Fichte's conception of an ephorate should not be seen as an institutional lever for popular uprisings against the government, but instead as a way of guaranteeing that such uprisings would never be necessary to protect the people against a despotic government. "These arrangements are introduced not in order to be invoked, but rather only to make impossible the cases in which they would have to be invoked. Just where they are introduced will they be superfluous, and only where they are not present would they be necessary" (GA I/3:460).
Like Kant, Fichte was clearly aware that his anti-absolutist, republican and -- to a far greater extent than Kant's -- egalitarian conception of individual right and political legitimacy left the regimes he saw around him quite beyond any hope of justification; and yet at the same time, despite his reputation, Fichte agreed with Kant that the most effective and lasting political improvement would come not from popular uprisings but through gradual, principled reforms from above -- in effect, from a process in which illegitimate regimes might gradually legitimate themselves through enlightened self-transformation from within. The very legitimacy of a political order was therefore contingent on its tendency to fundamental self-change: "Any constitution of the state is in accord with right which does not make it impossible to progress toward something better... Only that constitution is completely contrary to right which has the end of preserving everything as it presently is" (GA I/5:313-314).
5. Fichte's contract theory
The common governmental power which is to make possible a relation of right between people can be consistent with their freedom only if it is the result of their mutual consent. Consequently, Fichte argues, the state must be founded on an express declaration establishing a will common to all members of a state, that is, a "civil-political contract" (Staatsbürgervertrag) (GA I/3:432-434). Fichte argues for the necessity of a series of such contracts as transcendental conditions for the possibility of a relation of right -- which, in turn, as we have seen, is regarded as a condition for the possibility of a relation of community or mutual recognition between free beings. But because they are established as part of the dialectical development of Fichte's theory, the precise status of these contractual relations, like the concepts of recognition and original right themselves, remains unclear. Are these contracts intended to be genuine and actual agreements, whose bindingness is the ground of political obligation; or are they merely theoretical devices, employed as part of a transcendental argument for a conception of political right which is not really contractarian at all?
The relation of right assigns each individual an external sphere for free activity. This sphere begins with the individual's body, but extends to all the individual's property. The first condition of a relation of right between persons is therefore an agreed determination of the limits of their respective external spheres of action. Each lays claim to a determinate sphere of action, while relinquishing the rest to determinate others, with the limits of these spheres mutually agreed upon by all. This agreement Fichte calls the "property contract" (GA I/4:8-9). But this agreement confers no right unless each has reason to believe that everyone's property right will be coercively enforced by all. Hence the property contract presupposes an agreement of that all will unite their strength in protecting the property of each. This second agreement is the "protection contract" (GA I/4:9-11).
The protection contract differs from the property contract in that the former requires only refraining from interference in the external sphere of others, whereas the property contract requires a positive action, and indeed a continued disposition to act positively in the protection of others' rights. For Fichte this raises a serious problem about the possible validity of the protection contract (hence of the property contract, hence of the relation of right in general) because he maintains that the bindingness of a contract on me is conditional on the fulfillment by the other parties of their obligation, and in the case of the protection contract, as long as we must rely solely on the individual dispositions of the contractors, there can be no assurance for the future that this condition will be met (GA I/4:10-11).
It can be met, Fichte claims, only if each person enters into an agreement not with another, or even with all the others, taken severally, but with a real whole made up of all united together;6 for only such a whole can provide the guarantee required to make the protection contract valid (GA I/413-14). This whole must, he says, be thought of by analogy with a natural product, an organism, each of whose parts is determined in its nature, and even made possible, only through the whole. An injury to any part of a living body is felt by all organs as an injury to the whole, and each reacts as if the injury were to itself. In the same way, the social whole is one in which each one is disposed to protect the right of any other as if it were one's own right (GA I/4:14-15). The agreement through which such an organic whole is established Fichte names the "unification contract" (GA I/4:15); and the civil-political contract is concluded between each individual and this whole (GA I/4:18). Only under these conditions, therefore, are any of the contracts valid, and hence these alone are conditions for the actualization of right.
Fichte does not describe the terms on which individuals could contractually agree to unite into a whole analogous to an organism, or explain how such a "unification contract" between individuals can even be conceived. Earlier in the Foundations, Fichte admitted that the "original right" of individuals is a "pure fiction", though one which "is made necessary for the sake of science" (GA I/3:404). It is difficult not to get the impression that the various social contracts are similar fictions, required in order to provide a systematic deduction of the political community as an organic whole, regarded as a transcendental condition for the possibility in general of the relation of right between persons -- even if it is impossible to conceive of such a whole actually arising as the result of a contract between self-oriented individuals concerned with each with the protection of their own rights. If that interpretation is correct, then Fichte's political theory is not really contractarian at all, despite the critical role of contracts (not ideal contracts, after the manner of Kant, Rawls, or Scanlon, but actual express contractual agreements) between individuals in the theory's dialectical construction.
But it often appears that Fichte's scientific intention is to develop through transcendental deductions a system of concepts a priori, to which various realities can then be shown to correspond, thereby raising them above the level of mere empirical contingency and revealing them as indispensable conditions of the possibility of I-hood in general. In this case, these realities would be the tacit or explicit agreements between individuals spoken of by social contract theorists (such as Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau), and on which their theories found sovereignty, political obligation and the rule of law. In this case, Fichte would be a social contract theorist in this same literal sense, but would be claiming in addition that the contractual agreements are not merely contingent arrangements individuals have happened to make with one another, but (like the not-I, intersubjectivity, and other aspects of the world of which the Wissenschaftslehre attempts a transcendental deduction) exist by a priori necessity. Here, however, we cannot hope to resolve such large scale interpretive questions, but must be content only to suggest the main exegetical options.
6. Personal rights and criminal law
It is sometimes wondered about Fichte, as it is about Rousseau, whether he is a "liberal". This question is not very clear (nor is it very interesting, especially if what it really means to ask is whether we should regard Fichte's political philosophy as "good" or "evil"). But we may give an answer which is at least as clear as the question itself: Fichte is liberal regarding individual rights to personal freedom and privacy, but extremely anti-liberal regarding conduct that affects others, especially in the economic sphere. The entire aim of the state is to protect the original rights of free persons in accord with the civil-political contract. This means that the external sphere of freedom, beginning with the person's body, must be inviolable, and that the state's right of interference with individual freedom extends only as far as is necessary to protect the rights of others.
The proper extension or "surrogate" of a person's body is that person's domicile (GA I/4:45-46). "Domestic right" for Fichte is therefore sacrosanct. In a person's dwelling the individual is sovereign, and beyond the power of the state. My house, says Fichte, is beyond the jurisdiction of the state, which may enter it only upon my explicit request (GA I/4:47). Consequent upon this is that Fichte insists on very strong rights of privacy: "The state does not know what goes on in my domicile, it has no right to know this publicly or to act as if it knew it" (GA I/4:49).
In the same spirit of protecting individual liberty from state encroachment, Fichte's theory has no place at all for "victimless crimes". There are a number of actions and practices which Fichte's rigoristic ethical theory regards as utterly immoral but which, according to his theory of right, the state is absolutely forbidden to criminalize or punish: suicide (GA I/4:118-119), fornication, adultery, concubinage and prostitution (GA I/4:120-121), even infanticide (when committed by the child's mother while it is still young enough to be helpless and wholly dependent on her) (GA I/4:143-144).
There is an ominous side, however, to Fichte's theory of domestic right when it is taken in conjunction with his extremely patriarchal conception of the family. From Fichte's principle that free activity is the final end of every I, together with the passive role of the woman in the act of intercourse Fichte deduces (by a tortuous if subtle chain of argument) that sex cannot be an end in itself for a woman, hence that she must conceive it only as a means to expressing love. Love, in fact, for Fichte, enters the world only through women -- men learn to love only through responding to the love of a woman. Marriage is possible, therefore, only as a consequence of a woman's love for a man, and no marriage can be valid at all without love on the woman's part.7 Fichte then argues that a woman who loves purely and completely cannot rationally will otherwise than to surrender her entire personality and all her rights to her husband (GA I/4:100-104). She cannot want to have any will other than his, and wants no public existence except one that is mediated by him.
Yet in contrast to this view, which was extreme even by the standards of the time, some of what Fichte says about the rights of women was equally radical in the other direction. In Fichte's view, the state must always grant a divorce whenever both parties request it, and also whenever the wife does not love the husband; when divorced, a woman receives back her full rights as a person and a citizen (GA I/4:121-128). Accordingly, Fichte holds that not only divorcees, but also all unmarried adult women and widows ought to have the right to vote. Husbands ought not to cast their vote without consulting their wives, and a wife is entitled to exercise her husband's franchise if he chooses not to. And because families represent several citizens, the votes of married men ought to be weighted more heavily than those of unmarried men (GA I/4:127-132). Parting company with virtually all his contemporaries, but remaining strictly consistent with his social egalitarianism, Fichte appears to recognize no property or occupational qualifications for the voting franchise.
Every crime, Fichte argues, whatever its nature or magnitude, is a direct violation of the social contract, which therefore becomes void regarding criminals, permitting anyone else with right to do any act whatever to them; or rather, this would occur were it not for the fact that in order to secure their continued membership in the community in case they should violate the right of another, rational beings necessarily agree to an "expiation contract": All citizens agree that should they commit a crime, they may deprived of rights in proportion to the wrong they have committed, and on this condition they promise to extend to criminals the opportunity to rejoin society again (GA I/4:59-61, 67-72).
Despite his use of the term "expiation" (Abbüssung), Fichte's theory of punishment decisively breaks with Kantian retributivism, in that the only purposes Fichte recognizes for punishment are deterrence and civil amelioration of the criminal (which he distinguishes from moral improvement) (GA I/4:61-62, 70-71). The idea that punishment is an "end in itself" required by justice he regards as an unprovable assertion, based on an "inscrutable categorical imperative"; the attempt to implement it in the state involves claiming prerogatives for human institutions which could belong only to God (GA I/4:76-78).
The only crime not subject to the expiation contract is murder, which always condemns its perpetrator to a condition of "rightlessness" (Rechtlosigkeit) (GA I/4:71-72). (Fichte appears to regard rape as a crime equal in gravity to murder (GA I/4:107-108).) But he is cool the death penalty, since he holds that intentional killing except in cases of self-defense against immediate threat of bodily harm is always morally wrong. Because it occurs outside the expiation contract, death can never be a legitimate punishment even for murder. If the state kills a murderer, it may not do so by its judicial power but only by its police power, treating the murderer as a being without rights, from whom it is protecting its citizens, as it would protect them from a wild animal (GA I/4:74-75). His preferred way of treating murderers seems to be exile; but states are permitted to attempt to reform murderers on the condition that the public can be guaranteed to be safe from them (GA I/4:72-73).
7. The political requirements of social justice
Through his exceptional talents and tireless application, Fichte achieved a position of academic and cultural prominence which was at least the equal of any of his contemporaries. But the circumstances into which he had been born were those of poverty and degradation; Fichte never forgot these origins, and he never became reconciled to such conditions of existence for any human being. He regarded it as an elementary question of justice that no human being should ever be vulnerable to the oppression of another, and hence that no human being should ever be subject to the condition of poverty, from which, he realized, such vulnerability is inseparable. With the same ruthless consistency Fichte brings to every philosophical question, his political theory is animated throughout by the conviction that it is the first responsibility of the political state to secure the well-being of each individual as the most elementary demand of right.
All property, according to Fichte, depends on the property contract, through which people apportion their respective external spheres for free action. The purpose of entering into this contract is to acquire a sufficient external sphere to perpetuate one's free activity in the future, that is, to satisfy one's external needs (GA I/4:21). Fichte infers that only those are parties to the property contract who thereby acquire some property, and enough property that they can live by what they acquire (GA I/4:8-9, 20-22). The state's fundamental responsibility for protecting the private property of every citizen therefore charges the state with the duty of distributing property in such a way that no individual falls into destitution. Conversely, every citizen must have an occupation, which is known to the state and which the state can guarantee as a sufficient means of livelihood (GA I/4:23).8
"Every one possesses his civil property only insofar and on the condition that all citizens of the state can live from what is theirs; and insofar as someone cannot live from it, it ceases to be theirs and becomes his; of course according to the determinate judgment of the state authority. The executive power is responsible for this as for all other branches of state administration, and it is self-evident that the poor who have concluded the civil contract have an absolute coercive right on its support" (GA I/4:22).
"First all must be well-fed and securely housed before any dwelling is decorated; first all must be comfortably and warmly clothed before any can be dressed finely... It counts for nothing that someone may say: 'But I can pay for it.' For it is an injustice that anyone can pay for luxuries while there are some of his fellow citizens who cannot acquire necessities or cannot pay for them; that with which the former pays is not rightful property; in a rational state, it would not be his" (SW 3:409).}This implies, for example, that if a farmer does not have enough land to make a decent living, the state is required to redistribute land to rectify the situation (GA I/4:26). Fichte provides the state with redistributive rights, responsibilities and resources in other ways as well. He maintains that since the dead are no longer parties to the social contract, there is no natural right of inheritance. The property of those who die reverts to the state and wills or testamentary dispositions are valid only if the state should choose to recognize them as ways in which it chooses to distribute its property among citizens (GA I/4:55-56). Further, Fichte holds that the state has the right and even the duty to regulate strictly all trade and commerce. It is to fix prices on all necessities of life so that all may afford them and it must guarantee that there are sufficient but never excessive numbers of people in each economic branch of society, so that every citizen is required to work and guaranteed a decent living from that work (GA I/4:37-41).
Fichte proposes a market economy, but one very strictly controlled by the state; external trade is to be carried out by the state itself, never by private citizens. This is the meaning of the title of Fichte's treatise of 1800: The Closed Commercial State (SW 3:387-513). It is tempting to compare Fichte's recommendations with the system which prevailed most of this century in Eastern Europe. That system certainly bears a closer resemblance to Fichte's economic proposals than it does to anything one could find in the writings of Karl Marx or Friedrich Engels. It is noteworthy, however, that Fichte's proposals of a state-run economy are advanced solely on the ground that the state's task is to secure all citizens their rightful property.
8. The I as practical principle
In Fichte's transcendental use of the term, 'I' refers not to a thing but to an activity which, from the standpoint of transcendental idealism, is the foundation of all philosophy. The very concept of a thing is founded on the not-I, which must be counterposited in order that the I may reflect on itself and form a concept of itself. But to say that the I is an activity means not only that it is a doing we observe, but also that it is a doing we are engaged in, in other words, it is not only an action which is done, but an action which is to be done, or which should be done. 'I' is therefore not only a conception of what I am but even more of what I ought to be.
In every awareness of the 'I', I find myself active in the objective world counterposited to the I (GA I/2:393-395, SK 227-230; I/5:22). In other words, the I "finds itself" only as "willing" (GA I/5:37). If reflecting is a "centripetal" activity, in which the I "returns into itself," willing by contrast is a "centrifugal" activity, which seeks to posit the I, to expand its domain in the not-I. Taken by itself, it would abolish the not-I (GA I/2:301). But since this would be to abolish the condition for the possibility of the I itself, this activity must be regarded as a "causality which is not a causality," or in other words an infinite "striving" with no determinate end or point of satisfaction, which is, however, the condition of the possibility of any object or any determinate desire (GA I/2:397, SK 231).
Fichte locates this insatiable striving in the organic body which, in reciprocal interaction with the external world, is a condition of the I's possibility. Consciousness of this indeterminate striving is "longing" (Sehnen), but any determinate form it assumes is called "desire" and the immediate sensuous experience of such a desire is called a "drive" (GA I/5:118-123). Desire in general is directed outward at objects, seeking to abolish their independence, yet not by destroying them but rather by making them conform to the I, or to its "practical concepts" of what they ought to be, assigning to each object its "final end" (GA I/2:396, SK 230; I/3:31-32, EW 150-151; I/5:158-160).
Desire for Fichte takes two forms: one of them particular, involving feelings produced by sensuous encounter with specific objects and aiming at determinate ends, the other ideal, aiming at the absolute freedom or self-sufficiency of the I: this is a "tendency to self-activity for the sake of self-activity," or "an absolute tendency to the absolute" (GA I/5:45). The former sort of desire might be compared to the Kantian conception of inclination or empirical desire, the latter to Kantian autonomy or moral agency. But this comparison itself, if we pursue it a step further, will enable us to see some fundamental differences between Kant and Fichte. For if self-legislation is for Kant an essential capacity of the free and rational self, for the striving for absolute self-activity for Fichte is the condition for there to be an I at all. I can regard myself as an I only to the extent that I understand myself in terms of the task of absolute self-activity.
Inclinations for Kant are a contingent addition (or encumbrance) to the freedom of a rational being, falling outside its self-legislation and constituting a whole of satisfaction independently of the moral law under the name of "happiness". For Fichte, however, empirical desires are only limited manifestations of the I's fundamental tendency to freedom. In their partiality and objective passivity they may constitute a resistance to the moral impulse, but at bottom they are manifestations of it and hence in their totality they cannot be opposed to it. For this reason, Fichte rejects the Kantian position that morality and happiness are ultimately opposed, and adheres to the more stoic position that although morality may be opposed to particular sensuous desires, it cannot be opposed to happiness as a whole: "Only what his good makes us happy. No happiness is possible apart from morality" (GA I/3:32).
The I's most fundamental drive is to make itself into what it is, to be what it is solely through its own activity: "Who am I, then, authentically? That is, what sort of individual? And what is the ground of my being this? In answer: From the moment I become self-conscious I am the one I make myself to be through freedom, and I am this one because I make myself into this one" (GA I/5:202). The I is a drive which seeks both to limit or determine itself (to be a particular individual) and also to be this through its complete freedom. Fichte sometimes anticipates Sartre here: the I exists before it has an essence: "the free is to be before it is determinate," and what it is, is the task of giving itself determinacy, or positing its own essence (GA I/5:51). The principle of morality is: "Always fulfill your Bestimmung" (GA I/5:141). But this could mean either: "Fulfill your vocation or calling" or "Fulfill your determinacy," i.e. "Be a determinate individual I, the one you really are."
9. The social unity of reason
What this means is that a concept of myself as a free being is essentially a normative conception of myself: For me to be a determinate entity and at the same time free, I must conceive of myself as subject to demands, so that certain free activities are conceived as proper to me, and others excluded as not truly mine -- not in the sense that I can't perform them, but rather in the sense that I ought not, because if I do so I am not living up to what I am. Or as Fichte also puts it: the I which is formally free in always having the ability to do otherwise than it does, achieves freedom in a different sense, material freedom, by actions that bring its empirical I into harmony with what I truly am, the pure or ideal or absolute I (GA I/5:132, 140; I/3:30, EW 149; I/2:399, SK 233). But "what I am" here does not mean some "nature" I was born with, some metaphysical essence which, as a natural given, it is my task to "actualize". On the contrary, the self which is normative for me is an 'I', that is, an activity of freedom; the ideal with which I ought to harmonize must be my own free creation.9
These reflections led some of Fichte's first followers, the Romantics, as well as some of his twentieth century descendants, the existentialists, in what might be called an "antinomian" direction: away from determinate moral laws or any objectively sharable moral standards, and to a purely subjectivist conception of morality, which emphasizes individual idiosyncrasy and likens moral action to artistic creativity, as Foucault has also done.10 Fichte avoids this path, and for good reasons.
Fichte insists that the freedom of the I requires determinacy: it must be something that can be grasped as a whole in a determinate concept. Thus the I's fundamental drive is the "drive for the whole I" (GA I/5:54). It is a "drive toward absolute unity, completeness of the I within itself" (GA I/2:449, SK 284). "The ultimate characteristic of all rational beings is, accordingly, absolute unity, constant self-identity, complete agreement with oneself. This absolute identity is the form of the pure I" (GA I/3:30, EW 149). The I must not think (like Kierkegaard's Romantic aesthete) that it actualizes its freedom by dispersing itself among fantastic possibilities or detaching itself ironically from what it actually is. On the contrary, the I's material freedom, even its reality as an I, depends on achieving unity with itself, above all unity with the determinate ideal it makes for itself.
Here too, however, as in the theory of right, Fichte's reasoning turns on the I's intersubjectivity: its need for others in order to determine itself, even its demand to be in unity with others in order to acquire its own unity as a condition for its own determinacy. The argument Fichte most often presents is genetic in character, based on the conditions under which there can come to be an I with a determinate practical or normative concept of itself.11 I can learn to apply a normative conception to myself, in other words, to make demands on myself, only through "the imitation of an activity present at hand" (GA I/5:200).This original relation to the demands of others Fichte calls "education" (Bildung) (GA I/3:348). As Wildt has suggested, Fichte's theory of intersubjectivity anticipates the insight of developmental psychologists that people acquire the capacity to subject their conduct to norms only by internalizing the demands that others (such as their parents) have made on them.12
But it is not only genetically that Fichte regards intersubjectivity as essential to the determinacy of each individual's identity. Fichte also argues that as a rational being, the I necessarily wills that its practical concepts be actualized outside itself. This is done partially when objects conform to the I's practical concepts of them, but it can be done adequately only when there are other rational beings in whom material freedom is actualized: Thus a human being "necessarily wills not merely to actualize these concepts within himself but to see them actualized outside himself as well. One of the things that the human being requires is that rational beings like himself should exist outside him" (GA I/3:35-36, EW 155).
The I is rational, or rather, it is reason itself. But reason is one, that is, all rational beings necessarily have the same final end and will freely according to the same principles (GA I/3:40, EW 159; I/5:208-210). Only on this condition can we reconcile the freedom of every I with the impulse of every I to make the external world conform to itself. That is, however individuals may differ, each I must fulfill its vocation or determinacy in a way that is in fundamental harmony with others (GA I/3:38, EW 156). Thus "the final and highest end of society is the complete unity and unanimity of all its members" (GA I/3:40, EW 159).
The quest for individual identity is a quest for rational norms by which to live, and these, Fichte holds, are knowable only through communication with others, which consists in mutual activity and passivity, affecting others and being affected by them (GA I/3:38-39, EW 156-157; I/5:209-212). The true vocation.(Bestimmung) of human beings within society is therefore "unification", or the endless approximation to unanimity and equality (GA I/3:40, EW 159-160). The process of attaining to this vocation is free communication. The unity of reason itself is social, constituted by the free and co-operative search for truth by rational beings.
Accordingly, Fichte holds that the true human society will be attained only when people freely act on the same principles because through a process of communication they have reached rational agreement on these principles. A society based on authority or coercion is therefore imperfect, in fact, less than truly human (GA I/3:37, EW 157). The state, which is founded on coercion, is thus "a means for establishing the perfect society," but "like all human institutions which are mere means, the state aims at abolishing itself. The goal of all government is to make government superfluous" (GA I/3:36, EW 156). In the end, therefore, "the state will be abolished, as a legislative and coercive power" (GA I/5:226-227).
10. Moral systematics and moral epistemology
In Chapter Three, Section Two of the System of Ethics, Fichte develops a transcendental theory of duties, analogous to Kant's Doctrine of Virtue. He divides duties into "conditioned" (to oneself) and "unconditioned" (to others), and into "general" (applying equally to everyone) and "particular" (applying to people in virtue of their social estate or profession). In developing a theory of "particular" duties, Fichte anticipates Hegel's conception of "ethical life", in which duties are seen as a function of one's "particularity" and one's role in a rational social structure. He anatomizes the economy of the state, and considers also such estates as that of clergy, scholars and artists, emphasizing the morally uplifting and socially progressive function of all these social roles.
Duties are considered from this transcendental standpoint, however, solely for philosophical purposes. Fichte does not suppose that the moral agent decides what to do on any such basis. Nor does Fichte think that moral reasoning begins with a general moral principle, such as Kant's formula of universal law. Here again Fichte anticipates Hegel, arguing that this principle is "merely heuristic"; the principle is practically empty and no determinate duties are derivable from it (GA I/5:212).
The principle from which ordinary moral agents should act is rather another one, which in its own way is equally formal: "Always act according to the best conviction of your duty, or Act according to your conscience" (GA I/5:146). The content of conscience or moral conviction is to be the result of a process of theoretical inquiry, which we are always duty-bound to carry out (GA I/5:152-164). The most general criterion for this conviction is coherence with the system of an individual's convictions, but individual convictions attain to certainty when we feel a harmony between the empirical I and the absolute or ideal I which is its criterion (GA I/5:155-161). Because it is wrong ever to leave the morality of our actions to chance, we are bound to engage in moral inquiry until we attain to the feeling of certainty about our moral convictions, and this feeling, Fichte says, is what we call conscience (GA I/5:160-161). The feeling of certainty, Fichte insists, must be unmistakable, and conscience must in every case be infallible. For if conscience could err, or if there could be a mistake concerning the feeling of certainty, then to that extent it would have to be a matter of chance whether we were able to do what morality requires of us -- which once again is impossible (GA I/5:161-162).
The ideal I must be determinate. That is, it must project a determinate series of actions as those which ought to be done, or as duties. This means that Fichte rejects Kant's position that there are imperfect duties, and a latitude or "play-room" (Spielraum) allowing for merely permissible actions or morally meritorious actions whose omission is not morally wrong: "The moral law, according to the above proofs, leaves no play-room: under its dominion there are no indifferent actions; in every situation of my life I either ought or ought not" (GA I/5:237). "Hence for every determinate human being in every situation only something determinate accords with duty, and one can say that the moral law demands this in its application to the temporal being" (GA I/5:155). At any given time, in the temporal manifold of possible acts, "absolutely only one (a determinate part of the manifold) accords with duty; everything else is contrary to duty" (GA I/5:190). "Hence from each one's standpoint, there must be a constant and uninterrupted series of actions, through which one approximates to oneself. Conscience can approve only what lies in this series" (GA I/5:191). In this way, "duty lays claim to all my strength and all my time" (GA I/5:283).13
Equally strict are the motivational demands of morality. Since the unity of the I depends above all on acting from the drive to wholeness, to free determinacy, the very identity of the I is threatened when action proceeds from isolated feelings or empirical desires. Thus contrary to Kant, who holds that an act which accords with duty but is done from a benevolent inclination may be "beautiful and amiable, worthy of praise and encouragement,"14 Fichte maintains that even benevolent deeds, when done from motives other than pure respect for the moral law, are, insofar as their motivation is concerned, wrong and blameworthy. "Every action done from hope of reward or fear of punishment is absolutely immoral" (GA I/5:278). Even the person who acts from sympathy, compassion or love of humanity acts "legally, but absolutely not morally, on the contrary, to that extent against morality" (GA I/5:144-145).
Modern day critics of "the system morality" frequently saddle traditional moral philosophers (chiefly the utilitarians and Kant) with a number of extravagant views they never held. If the critics are looking for someone who agrees with them about the extreme demands morality makes on us, then they ought to read Fichte.15
11. The origins of evil: falsity, cowardice, inertia, despair
Fichte is a merciless critic of ordinary ways of thinking and acting, which he regards as fundamentally false and immoral. He is also an acute moral psychologist, whose insights anticipate much that is found in more recent philosophy, especially in the existentialist tradition. At the same time, Fichte often traces moral evil to the social conditions of its existence, which lie in habits, ways of life and social institutions that put
their own self-perpetuation ahead of the aspirations of human freedom and the values of human dignity. His stern moralism is deeply allied with his social radicalism.
Because we have a duty to reach certainty on every moral question, and because conscience always speaks unmistakably and infallibly, Fichte holds that in order to violate duty we must always hide from ourselves either what conscience tells us or the fact that we have not achieved the required end of moral inquiry. Thus no immoral action can occur without self-deception or the "darkening of moral consciousness." Like Sartre, Fichte thus thinks that people have a profound and tenacious propensity to flee the burdens their freedom imposes upon them, and he describes with acuteness and sensitivity the various subtle forms of false consciousness -- such as "floating," "hesitation," "thoughtlessness", "distraction," "indistinct consciousness" -- that moral self-deception can take (GA I/5:176-179).
Falseness, however, is a vice which Fichte traces to the vice of cowardice, which makes people afraid to tell the truth, or even to face up to it: People lie because they are "afraid to exert the power it takes to assert their self-sufficiency. -- Only in this way is slavery among human beings, physical as well as moral, to be explained: submissiveness and mechanical imitation (Nachbeterei)" (GA I/5:185). The real origin of falseness, however, is social and political: "All falsehood, all lying, all treachery and cunning arise because there are oppressors; everyone who subjects others holds fast to it" (GA I/5:186).
But cowardice itself is rooted in a still deeper vice, which Fichte calls "laziness" or "inertia". People are free, but resist exercising their freedom. Instead of asserting their freedom and achieving their authentic selfhood, they prefer a life of everyday habit, of the customary track, of the Gleisner and the Schlendrian (GA I/5:183-184).16 It is not difficult to see here the origins of Heidegger's conception of "inauthenticity" and our everyday subjection to das Man. But Fichte's conception of habit and inertia as the origin of evil is once again connected with a definite social message: Evil is rooted in the complacency with which people accept existing social arrangements. Idealism for Fichte is a revolutionary philosophy because it bases everything on the I's consciousness of its freedom, its ability and vocation of thinking for itself and of being content with nothing as it is but striving ceaselessly and tirelessly to make it what it ought to be. For this reason, Fichte regards all forms of materialism, particularly those stressing determinism and reducing human beings to cogs in a universal mechanism, as allied with the old regime, with social and political oppression.
The spiritual force through which each human being may be lifted out of the inertia of complacency is the experience of respect. To feel respect for anything, according to Fichte, awakens respect for oneself, and respect for myself calls me to fulfill my Bestimmung as a free individual. By the same token, the deepest form of evil is that attitude through which self-respect is suppressed, an attitude to which (writing nearly half a century before Kierkegaard) Fichte gives the name "despair". In despair the human being "seeks to flee from himself" in order to avoid the torture of self-despising", falling into self-deceptions, "deafening his conscience" and finally finding comfort in the thoughts that all goodness is an illusion, the will is unfree, everyone acts solely from self-interest, everything is as it is and nothing can ever get any better. The despairer is thus "divided (entzweit) from all good because he is divided from himself" (GA I/5:280-281). Like Kierkegaard, Fichte regards despair as the opposite of faith, though for Fichte this is a faith in God and immortality held on moral grounds (GA I/5:306, 429).
The remedy for despair, as for all moral evil, is as always free social interaction. No one has a right to compel another to be virtuous, or to make another good (or wise, or happy) against the other's will (GA I/3:39). But the despairer can be brought out of despair if others show that they do not despair of him, and provide him with a good example, so that having something he can respect will awaken his respect for himself (GA I/5: 280). The moral improvement of the human race will occur only insofar as all come to regard themselves as members of a single great community, all drawing strength from the whole and influencing one another for good through free and mutual give and take (I/3:40-41; cf. I/2:88-89). Thus if Fichte's conception of the sources of moral evil anticipates existentialism, his conception of its cure anticipates Habermas's theory of dominion-free rational communication.
Right and ethics in the system of 1812
In the dozen or so years after Fichte was dismissed from his professorship at Jena on grounds of "atheism", his philosophy underwent a number of radical developments.17 His changing conceptions of fundamental philosophy, the Wissenschaftslehre, under the influence of his erstwhile follower and then critic Schelling, became more speculative. Fichte's thought also more religious in its orientation, and like the later philosophy of Schelling, making greater accommodations for divine revelation. In Fundamental Characteristics of the Present Age (1805) and Theory of the State (1812), he developed a philosophy of history and society, in which reflections on language and culture assumed an ever greater role; Addresses to the German Nation (1808) display a cultural nationalism not present in the Enlightenment cosmopolitanism of his earlier social and political writings.18
These facts make it all the more remarkable that in his final system-cycle, Fichte's 1812 lectures on right and morality make relatively little modification in the substantive ethical and political views present in Fichte's treatises of the Jena period. To be sure, the basis of ethical theory has been changed fundamentally, in accordance with Fichte's new conception of a Wissenschaftslehre. The world, according to Fichte, is the image (Bild) of God (SW 11:117). It is not the I which has the concept, Fichte says, but the "concept" which "has" the I – in which it becomes "a seeing, a seeing of seeing, a self-seeing" and becomes "the absolute eye, the faculty of seeing, understanding" (SW 11:64-65). The concept, however, is also God's image, not in the sense of a copy or imitation, but in the sense of a necessary manifestation. The "concept" in this sense is the ground of the world, or of being (SW 1O:5), but also the ground of an independent world of images, which, like the practical concepts of things in Fichte's earlier philosophy, provide ethical theory with its ends and principles. Ethical theory is taken to be a science distinct from the Wissenschaftslehre, presupposing it and grounded on it, taking as its point of departure a fact of consciousness, namely the grounding of being on the concept, which Fichte interprets as equivalent to the thesis that reason is practical (SW 11:7).
Yet despite the new terminology and the religious substance with which the Wissenschaftslehre has now been invested, it is not difficult to recognize in the system of 1812 the same fundamental theory presented in the Jena period. Just as the I as practical activity was opposed to objectivity and made its foundation, so now the concept, which takes the I as its conscious form, is likewise contrasted with being or the existing world, and regarded as its foundation. In practical philosophy, this is once again taken to mean that the real is grounded on a spiritual activity which proposes ideals and demands according to which it is to be transformed. Much of the Ethics of 1812 focuses on the subjective side of the ethical disposition, which rests on the principles of "selflessness" (SW 11:86), "universal philanthropy" (SW 11:92), "truthfulness and openness" (SW 11:96), and "simplicity" (SW 11:99). But it would be a mistake to think that Fichte's ethical theory has lost its earlier social orientation.19 Although his language now has religious overtones, Fichte continues to hold that ethics requires us to represent all rational beings as a community, or as he now puts it, a "communion" or "congregation of I's" (Gemeinde von Ichen) (SW 11:65).
The 1812 System of the Theory of Right is strikingly close to the Jena system. It is grounded on the same sharp distinction between right and morality, employs the same deduction of the civil contract from original right and the property contract, and includes the same denial of property in land (SW 10:546) and the same emphasis on the right of each citizen to be guaranteed against poverty in exchange for labor (SW 10:533), while incorporating the economic modifications Fichte had proposed in The Closed Commercial State of 1800 (SW 10:587-590).20 The theory begins with the relation of right rather than the concept of recognition, but the theory of recognition is not repudiated, and if not thematized, it is still alluded to (SW 10:514). Fichte still maintains that the state is a temporary institution in human affairs, that "the law of right has application only insofar as the moral law does not reign universally, and as a preparation for the dominion of the latter" (SW 10:502).
The most conspicuous modification of the earlier political theory is Fichte's withdrawal of his proposal of an "ephorate" as a way of preventing governmental abuse of power. Fichte continues to believe in the correctness of the principles which motivated the suggestion, but "on riper reflection" has come to doubt its workability (SW 10:632). First he objects that there is nothing to prevent the ephorate itself from abusing its authority; second, he fears that it will suffer oppression from the government, as the Roman tribunes were by the patrician class. Finally, though Fichte still accepts the view that in trying the government the judgment of the people must be formally just, he fears that in such a case it might do material injustices (SW 10:632-633). The revolutionary assembly of the people, he thinks, is apt to result merely in replacing one bad state of affairs with another (SW 10:634). In sum, Fichte thinks that the constitutional provision for an ephorate is unworkable as long as people are as bad as they presently are, and if they improve enough to make it workable, they will no longer need it (SW 10:633). As things are, the only real protection we can have against abuses of power by the government is an educated and thinking public (SW 10:633-634).
On the whole, then, whatever alterations Fichte's views went through in his later life, he seems to have retained to the end both his terrifying moral rigorism and his uncompromising vision of social justice. This vision is founded on a conception of the state as absolute protector -- never invader! -- of individual liberty. As strict guarantor of individual well-being and personal independence, among the state’s most basic functions is to guarantee the fundamental economic equality of all citizens.
Few modern social thinkers have been as radical in their starting point or their conclusions, few have been so seminal in their influence. No social thinker of comparable power or historical importance is now so seldom read or discussed.