The Method Required in Ethics

  • Hans Reiner
Part of the Phaenomenologica book series (PHAE, volume 93)


As we began our critique of Kant’s system of ethics with a look at his method, so a discussion of the method of the new system we intend to set forth must be the first step in the system’s construction. Our previous reflections on method, especially the critique of Kant’s method, have given some idea of the method we shall require. As we have seen, Kant is right to attach a great value to a priori principles, on which, he insists, ethics must rest; and so he is right that ethics must be a “metaphysics” (of morals). But we have also seen that whether there are any such ethical principles can be found out only by experience, not a priori. And of the two sides an ethics must therefore have, one empirical and the other rational, the empirical side is in a sense the more fundamental. For proving that moral demands have an ideal, and hence an a priori, validity, cannot produce a genuine moral obligation when an insight into their validity is lacking. To someone who does not see (or “feel”) a moral obligation at all the obligation does not exist, though it may exist in itself. To find out who is capable of such seeing (or “feeling”) is the business of experience. Moreover, experience alone can show us what data of human moral consciousness there are for justifying moral obligations, and it alone can tell us whether the contents of consciousness on which our own obligations rest are the same as underlie the moral obligations of others, or whether there are other obligations and other contents of consciousness to justify them.


Moral Obligation Moral Character Moral Consciousness Socialist Race Moral Demand 
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  1. 1.
    On this cf. above § 8 and the remarks on experienced and metaphysical freedom at the end of § 13.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    This is in accordance with our view of ethics’ task. For the opposing, positivistic view cf. § 1 above.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Cf. the remarks on this point in my lecture “Das Prinzip von Gut und Böse”. (Freiburg, 1949), especially pp. 18 f., and pp. 231–235 below.Google Scholar
  4. 1.
    That our starting-point, though our choice was influenced by Descartes, is not solipsistic in the Cartesian sense follows from the relation, already mentioned, between it and the moral consciousness of others.Google Scholar
  5. 2.
    That races are changeable rather than “eternal” follows from the fact alone that they came into being at some time. And that changes have occurred in historical times is attested, for example, by the marked decrease in dolichocephalicity both in the population of Europe at large and, especially, in particular population groups in Europe. Cf. Lester and Millot, pp. 151 ff. H.F.K. Günther and even Gobineau affirm this.Google Scholar
  6. 3.
    On the very limited framework of the empirical investigation in this book cf. the end of § 1 and § 16 below.Google Scholar
  7. 1.
    Cf. L. Klages Grundlagen der Charakterkunde, Chapter Two (already mentioned above), and also the sections covering methodology in textbooks on psychology, such as § 3 in that by Elsenhans, Giese, Gruhle, and Dorsch (Tübingen, 1939). Scheler’s view that the mental lives of others can be perceived immediately seems to be untenable.Google Scholar
  8. 2.
    In some smaller tasks it may be expedient for ethics to combine its presentation of the rational construction of a constituent of morality and the empirical evidence of data of consciousness corresponding to it. I followed this method in my essay on “the Golden Rule”. The advantage of the method is that it supplies the reader at once with empirical verification of the constituent brought out.Google Scholar
  9. 3.
    As Kant shows, the moral consciousness of a purely intellectual being, that is, of a being who is not endowed with “a sensuous nature”, is very likely to have a different structure.Google Scholar
  10. 4.
    Th. Litt points out the principal virtue of this method, that it unites empirical and rational researches, in his Die Philosophie der Gegenwart und ihr Einfluß auf das Bildungsideal (Leipzig, 1925), pp. 54 f.Google Scholar
  11. 5.
    With this in mind, Husserl occasionally remarked (in a Freiburg colloquium) that he would have no objections if his philosophy were called a kind of Platonism.Google Scholar
  12. 6.
    The title Metaphysics was not given to the writing of that name by Aristotle - as the popular scholarly legend (and legend is the word) will have it - because someone was at a loss for a better one, nor did the title originally regard a fact of “book production”.Google Scholar
  13. 6a.
    Rather, like proté philosophia (the first philosophy), it names the science treated by the book, according to the position it has through its nature, method, and object; unlike proté philosophia, which gives the science’s position in the order from the object (“according to nature”), metaphysics names its position in “the order for us” (pros hemas). This is unanimously affirmed by all the ancient commentators from Alexander of Aphrodisias to Philoponus, Simplicius, and Asclepius. Thus Alexander writes of this science in his commentary on the Metaphysics (ed. Hayduck, p. 171): “that he [sc. Aristotle] also titled it “meta ta physika” [after physics], because it comes after this in the order for us”. And Asclepius writes at the beginning of his commentary on the Metaphysics: “Aristotle treated first of physical matters; for, though they are later in nature, they are earlier for us. The present writing, on the other hand, is earlier in nature, since it contains the culmination, so to speak, but later for us…Therefore one must read it after the writings on physics, as the title [sc. Metaphysics] clearly tells us”. Appended note, 1979: This matter is discussed more fully in my essay “Die Entstehung und ursprüngliche Bedeutung des Namens Metaphysik”, first published in the Zeitschrift für philosophische Forschung (1954), VIII, 210–237, and reprinted in Metaphysik und Theologie des Aristoteles, ed. J.P. Hager (Darmstadt, 1969), pp. 139–174.Google Scholar
  14. 6b.
    Nevertheless the terms “metaphysics” and “first philosophy” can be taken in more than one way. This is so because Aristotle qualifies the object of metaphysics, that which is “first in nature”, in a number of steps. To begin with, this “first thing” is described very generally as “the first causes and principles” (ta prota aitia kai hai archai), it being at first highly uncertain what is meant by this since the science of first causes and principles is said to be one that has still to be sought (zetoumene episteme t B.1). Not until book four is this “first thing” defined to the effect that it must be the first cause of “Being as Being”, with the result that the latter becomes the essential object of this science. In the course of the subsequent inquiry (from Book E on) this definition shades into another: that the eternal and unmoved entity (which is the cause of everything else) is properly that which is first, and so the object of metaphysics.Google Scholar
  15. 6c.
    The term “metaphysics” is at present used indiscriminately in all three senses. In the Middle Ages, on the other hand, the third predominated, and in the last century, under the influence of very diverse efforts at attaining knowledge of that which is “first” or “last”, usage swung back to the first (indefinite) concept. Heidegger uses the term in its second sense, and lately he has insisted that to comprehend Being (Sein) is more than to comprehend beings as beings.Google Scholar
  16. 6d.
    This is the reason why to Heidegger’s mind metaphysics, as distinct from his “thinking the truth of Being” (which one might call a “pro-physics”), does not differ in kind from man’s everyday preoccupation with beings - from which the paradoxical inference follows that the latter is a kind of metaphysics. As a result the term, which was ambiguous enough before, is now still more confusing, and it is all the more confusing seeing that, as Heidegger himself notices, his “thinking the truth of Being” is foreshadowed by some earlier metaphysical theories (especially by Kant), and that Heidegger calls the truth of Being the ground of metaphysics, which therefore stands in the closest possible relation to the former. Lastly, since metaphysics and ‘thinking the truth of Being’, besides their close kinship in subject matter, also belong together because of their common aim and earnest and the dignity of their pursuit - characteristics that set them apart from a concern with everyday beings - it seems to me more correct to fix the term ‘metaphysics’, in accordance with current usage, to the first and most general sense we meet in Aristotle. Then Western philosophy does not appear to have so far been simply metaphysics (from which Heidegger was the first to depart), but a course (a wrong course according to Heidegger) metaphysics has followed, and Heidegger’s philosophy appears to be a different (better) course that metaphysics has taken. The (especially confusing) inclusion of the point of view of everydayness (Alltäglichkeit) in the concept of metaphysics is thus avoided. I use the term in this way. - After the previous lines were written, I received from Max Müller a copy of his Existenzphilosophie im geistigen Leben der Gegenwart (Heidelberg, 1949), where he too declares himself in favor of retaining the term “metaphysics” as a name for Heidegger’s “descent back into the ground of Being” (p. 108). I am pleased to be able to express my agreement with Müller on this point.Google Scholar
  17. 7.
    The similarity to phenomenology is not altered by the fact that Goethe combines the principle in question with different methods (some of them peculiar to him), some of which are likewise linked to the concept of phenomenon. Incidentally Goethe’s method failed in the case in which he most passionately upheld it - namely in his opposition to Newton’s theory of light and color, not on account of the principle in question as such, but because of Goethe’s elaboration and application of it. On Goethe’s epistemology cf. H. Leisegang, Goethes Denken (Leipzig, 1932) and F. Weinhandl, Die Metaphysik Goethes (Berlin, 1932), especially pp. 136–217. As to the relation between Goethe’s method and that of phenomenology, Weinhandl notes (p. 36) that they are different. However, the similarity noted above follows from the substance of his account. On the similarities and differences between Husserl and Goethe, cf. L. Binswanger, Grundformen und Erkenntnis menschlichen Daseins (Zürich, 1942), pp. 631 ff.Google Scholar
  18. 8.
    This assertion is proved by the total result of the investigations in the next chapter. Cf. especially § 17 for Heidegger’s doctrine of conscience and § 21 for his views on the phenomenon of value. Cf. also the criticism of Max Müller’s dissertation in the present §.Google Scholar
  19. 9.
    Über den Humanismus (Frankfort, 1949), pp. 38 ff. An English translation by F. Capuzzi and J. Glenn Gray is available in M. Heidegger, Basic Writings (New York, 1977). The passage referred to is on pp. 234 ff. in the translation.Google Scholar
  20. 10.
    Cf. the argument in § 17 below.Google Scholar
  21. 11.
    On pp. 43 f. in the German impression named; on pp. 237 f. in the English translation. Cf. the sentence “To healing Being first grants ascent into grace; to raging its compulsion to malignancy”. The words “healing” and “raging” are not explained at all, and, though an explanation of “grace” can be got from Was ist Metaphysik, this is not mentioned in the passage cited.Google Scholar
  22. 12.
    The preceding lines may serve as an explanation of the sentences at the bottom of page four of my lecture “Das Prinzip von Gut und Böse”, which, because of their conciseness, are perhaps open to misinterpretation.Google Scholar
  23. 13.
    Müller admittedly declares in the foreword to this work (a Freiburg dissertation) that his studies “were for the most part completed” when he read Heidegger’s Being and Time. Nevertheless Müller’s method, which is to eliminate the subject - object dichotomy and to disregard such phenomena as can be disclosed only by a study of objects (Objektbetrachtung), is consonant with that of Heidegger (some of whose lectures Müller had heard).Google Scholar
  24. 13a.
    Müller calls his investigations “logical” rather than investigations in transcendental philosophy. His concern however is principally that which has been associated with transcendental philosophy since Kant.Google Scholar
  25. 14.
    That the results and method of this science are highly useful to ethics follows in part from remarks made a short while ago, and is proved in the next chapter. And psychology has reproved, especially by the results of its researches in the last decades, that (despite its “un- philosophical” empirical methods) it is important to philosophy in general.Google Scholar
  26. 15.
    Heidegger, Über den Humanismus, pp. 23/4; p. 216 in the English translation.Google Scholar

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© Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, The Hague 1983

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  • Hans Reiner

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