The Normative Function of the Right of Objectivity in Hegel’s Theory of Imputation

In: Concepts of Normativity: Kant or Hegel?
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1 Introductory Remarks: from Kant’s Deontological Theory of Action to Hegel’s Right of Objectivity23

As is well known, Kant’s moral philosophy stresses the autonomy of the individual, namely her capability of self-determination according to the faculty of reason, which lays the groundwork for the moral law, i.e. the categorical imperative for human beings: therefore, it is the principle of the action that plays the crucial role in this kind of morality, which is nowadays identified as “deontological.” On the one hand, Hegel praises this point of view and gives Kant credit for having identified the unconditional capability of the will to self-determination, the practical notion of freedom, as a basis of duty and morality (cf. Menegoni 1993, 83); on the other hand, he shows in the Morality chapter of his Elements of the Philosophy of Right (PR) that a mere deontological perspective may not be sufficient to evaluate an action and to ascribe responsibility. This brings him to claim that:

However essential it may be to emphasize the pure and unconditional self-determination of the will as the root of duty—for knowledge [Erkenntnis] of the will first gained a firm foundation and point of departure in the philosophy of Kant, through the thought of its infinite autonomy (see § 133)—to cling on to a merely moral point of view without making the transition to the concept of ethics reduces this gain to an empty formalism, and moral science to an empty rhetoric of duty for duty’s sake.

PR, § 135 A1

Hegel thinks that one cannot derive particular and concrete duties from the determination of duty as formal correspondence with itself (ibid.), which makes it an abstract principle. For this reason, he argues that the consequences of actions must be considered too (see PR, § 118). Moreover, the social context must be taken into account in the evaluation of an action, which implies a mutual recognition among the members of a society, who share common social and normative standards. The Morality chapter represents, therefore, not only Hegel’s acknowledgement of the value and the limits of Kant’s morality, but it also develops Hegel’s own theory of action, as it was already recognized by critics in the last decades:2 human action is characterized, in Hegel’s view, by a dialectical contrast between subjectivity and objectivity, each of which have their own rights. The right of objectivity seems to be a correction: with its normative function it manages to balance the rights of the subjective will in the evaluation of an action.

Now, Hegel’s understanding of the concept of imputation (Zurechnung) finds its place in his theory of action, which he develops through his Philosophy of Right. “Right,” in Hegel’s understanding of the term, refers to his practical philosophy and it is not limited to the field of pure law, which represents on the contrary only one section of his Philosophy of Right, namely Abstract Right. This section develops the concept of person and personality in a juridical sense with her rights and duties as owner of property that can be sold or changed through a contract, and damaged through illicit behaviour. The second section of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, i.e. the Morality chapter, develops the concept of “moral subject” with her subjective rights towards her acts. This is the section in which important parts of Hegel’s theory of action are developed: i.e. the elements of intentional action (in German Handlung) like purpose and intention, followed by the rights of the subjective will, as well as the “right of objectivity” towards the individual herself. Finally, in Ethical Life the agent realizes herself as a free person, who is recognized in a social context, where her actions can be imputed to her on the basis of common social standards.

I think that the so called “right of objectivity,” developed in the Morality chapter, plays an essential role in Hegel’s theory of imputation and, in a certain sense, anticipates Ethical Life. Given the rights of the subjective will to accept responsibility only for what was its purpose, its intention (in Hegel’s understanding of the terms), according to the subject’s knowledge of the value of the action (PR, §§ 117, 120, 132), objectivity itself has its own rights according to Hegel. Up to now critics have acknowledged the presence of a theory of imputation in Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, because each element of the action, as it is developed in the Morality, actually corresponds to a form of imputation;3 they also have understood Morality as an exposition of the fundamental rights of the subjective will, underlining the importance of the intentional action. However, little attention has been devoted to the correction of those rights, a correction that is represented by the right of objectivity and that shows that Morality is not a one-sided section, isolated and not integrated in the whole project of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.

The aim of the paper is to highlight the normative function of the right of objectivity in Hegel’s theory of imputation. To fulfill this aim, I will firstly show to what extent Kant’s formalism is according to Hegel problematic when it comes to evaluating an action, which brings us to understanding the significant role of the right of objectivity in Hegel’s theory of imputation; I will secondly consider the concept of “objectivity” and its different meanings in Hegel’s Philosophy of Right and I will lastly analyze the right of objectivity in order to show its normative function as “correction” in Hegel’s theory of imputation.

2 “Verabsolutierung” of the Moral Subjectivity: Hegel Against the Kantian Formalism

In the context of Morality the good is defined by Hegel as “subjective” and “formal” (GW 14,2: 637), as “objektiv seyn sollende,” that realizes itself only in the Ethical Life. The “Sollen” characterizes the moral standpoint, indeed, and plays an important role in the question of imputation too: “It [the subjective will] thus stands in a relationship to the good, a relationship whereby the good ought to be its substantial character, whereby it ought to make the good its end and fulfil it …” (PR, § 131).

As a consequence, the limit of the moral standpoint is that it still lacks the true content of the good. This one remains abstract and can therefore be determined by the moral subject through her particularity (see GW 14,2: 637) in a way that is accidental: the moral subject can recognize as “good” both the true good and a mere opinion, thus committing a mistake. If there were not objective and normative demands, if the objectivity could not reclaim its own value towards the individual, the moral subjectivity could declare itself absolute, as Hegel explains in PR, § 140, which deals with the shapes of the subjectivity making itself absolute. These passages show that if the value of an action only depends on the intention and the conviction of the agent, if the intention is the only thing that can be imputed to the agent as her responsibility, then every criminal act might turn into a good one, because everybody might provide as reason for her action an assumed good intention. Therefore, it happens that “this subjectivity, as abstract self-determination and pure certainty of itself alone, evaporates into itself all determinate aspects of right, duty and existence [Dasein] …” (PR, § 138).

This happens because the moral subjectivity represents the possibility to comply with the universal in and for itself as well as the possibility to put its particularity above the universal and, in so doing, to become the principle for judging agency (see PR, § 139). However, the will is responsible for choosing evil too (PR, § 139 A).

In the first shapes of the moral subjectivity, which declares itself absolute, a trace of objectivity is preserved (as in probabilism). But we are witnesses to the total loss of objectivity when every content and criterion of right and duty is entrusted to the moral subjectivity, namely to subjective opinion, “the conviction which holds something to be right” (PR, § 140 A). This makes Hegel claim that “under these circumstances, any semblance of ethical objectivity has completely disappeared” (ibid.). The subjectivity turns out to be what determines what is valid as “objective.” In this way thefts and murders might even be considered good actions as means to satisfy the subjective will, justified by a seemingly good intention which the individual claims as the essential aspect of her action.4 The last shape of the subjectivity, i.e. irony, paradoxically contains the seed of its own sublation: subjectivity knows itself as the one who can determine what has value and what has not, and this makes it fall into the vanity of everything and of itself: “A longing may therefore arise for an objective condition …” (PR, § 141 Z).

Hegel is not critizing the role of the conscience or the moral standpoint in itself: on the contrary, he thinks they are an important achievement and progress of the modernity. What he rejects is taking the formal conscience as basis for evaluating an action, as if the moral standpoint could be self-sufficient: for this reason he shows the negative consequences that develop if moral subjectivity becomes the only judge over human action.5 This leads not only to the transition to Ethical Life, but this also demonstrates the necessity of a correction, which is in my opinion already introduced in the Morality chapter and is given by the right of objectivity and its normative claim towards the agent.

3 Objectivity as First and Second Nature

In order to understand the role of the right of objectivity in Hegel’s theory of imputation an analysis of the notion of “objectivity” in the context of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right is now due. I will focus, in particular, on the meaning of objectivity understood as first nature and as second nature, because I think that the right of objectivity, as it is introduced and discussed in the Morality chapter, is connected with these two meanings of objectivity, which play a significant role in the judgement of imputation.

3.1 Objectivity as First Nature: the Immediate Externality Opposite to the Free Will

One of the meanings of the concept of objectivity in the context of the Philosophy of Right is its one-sided determination referred to the external world, which is opposed to the will: it is the “immediacy of existence [Dasein] as external existence [Existenz]” (PR, § 26). The free will, which represents the point of departure and the ground of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, finds a pre-existing external and natural world, indeed, which seems opposed to it and in which it tries to realize its ends. The objectivity of the external and outer world stands in front of the agent with her inner moral intentions and free will in action and can modify her action, as I will show. Therefore, it seems to me that first nature still plays a role in Hegel’s Philosophy of Objective Spirit. In the Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences (Enc 1830), Nature is described as the “Idea in the form of otherness” (Enc 1830, § 247) and its major determination is that of externality.

Now, Hegel’s Elements of the Philosophy of Right show the explication and actualization in the world of the idea of the free will, which is the result of the process of the subjective spirit: this leads to the realm of the objective spirit.6 In this context, too, nature represents externality, but in relation to the Idea of the free will: the free will realizes itself in the external world, which must be presupposed. As Quante puts it: “objectivity denotes the »immediacy of existence [die Unmittelbarkeit des Daseins]«, that is, one’s external existence in space and time as a natural being. The world in which I need to realize my will as well as my natural aspects as a human being are the complementary material aspects of the will that complete the conceptual nature which … is the will’s essence ….”.7

The practical behaviour of the human being towards nature is described by Hegel as follows: “In the practical relationship which man establishes between himself and nature, he treats it as something immediate and external; he is himself an immediately external, and therefore sensuous individual, who is nevertheless also justified in acting as purpose in the face of natural situations” (Enc 1830, § 245).

This could be translated into the context of Hegel’s theory of action as follows: the human being, i.e. the agent, and the natural world seem to be external and alien to one another. Although the sensible part is constitutive of the individual, the human being regards himself as a purpose over against the things of nature. In the same way, in Abstract Right, a person, as the bearer of a free will, can possess a thing (Sache), which is characterized by the fact that it does not have a free will. In fact, freedom is what characterizes Geist, while “nature in its determinate being displays necessity and contingency, not freedom” (Enc 1830, § 248). Only man can rise to the universality of thought and is conscious of himself. For this reason, the same action committed by an animal and committed by a human being is subject to different moral and juridical evaluations: this has obvious consequences when it comes to the question of responsibility and imputation.

As I already mentioned, at first the subjective will and the external world seem to be in contrast with each other. But the will becomes “objective” when it externalizes its subjective ends. In this way, subjectivity and objectivity pass over to their opposite and reveal their dialectical nature: “The activity of the will consists in cancelling [aufzuheben] the contradiction between subjectivity and objectivity and in translating its ends from their subjective determination into an objective one, while at the same time remaining with itself in this objectivity” (PR, § 28). Objectivity and subjectivity8 are two concepts that are repeatedly in contrast with each other in Hegel’s theory of action. However, the actualization of the free will in the external world is meant to overcome this opposition: action leads to a first solution to the contrast, indeed, because what is wanted and realized by the agent is at the same time not only subjective and interior but also objective, in so far as it is transposed in the external world.9

In Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, first nature still preserves its role as immediate external world, as the immediate “otherness” of the free will, thus playing a significant role in Hegel’s theory of imputation, as I will show. In making this claim, I do not want to negate the meaning of the “objectivity” as second nature: this second meaning will in turn allow me to claim the normative function of the right of objectivity in Hegel’s theory of imputation.

3.2 Objectivity as Second Nature

“Objective spirit” realizes itself as “right.” As I already said, with the word “right” Hegel does not refer to the common legal meaning of the term: “right” rather covers three spheres, i.e. Abstract Right, Morality and Ethical Life: “the system of right is the realm of actualized freedom, the world of spirit produced from within itself as a second nature” (PR, § 4). Therefore, “right,” as Hegel understands it, covers every manifestation of the objective spirit at the level of juridical, moral and ethical agency, in which the concept of the free will is realized. But what does second nature mean? Second nature refers to all elements of the social world, as the actualization of the free will itself. It seems that this expression still preserves some elements of “nature”: in fact, the elements of the social world are “at once natural determinations which follow from the essence of the will and yet can also take the form of natural conditions which are not brought about by the explicit decisions of individuals,” as Quante puts it (Quante 2018, 20). Note that the concept of the free will, as the basis of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, is not limited to an individual and subjectivistic perspective of the will. In Hegel’s Elements of the Philosophy of Right we can clearly recognize what Testa calls the external second nature, understood as “an ensemble of the forms of objectified interactions together with the institutions of the social space in which individuals find themselves operating, presenting an immediacy analogous to that of the first-nature environment” (Testa 2009, 349).10 Second nature is there predicated of Ethical Life “in so far as ethical life to be such has to objectify itself in social habits of recognitive interaction stabilized through habit and internalized by individuals” (Testa 2009, 354). This brings to the important function of habit in Ethical Life:

the ethical [das Sittliche] … appears as custom [Sitte]; and the habit of the ethical appears as a second nature which takes the place of the original and purely natural will and is the all pervading soul, significance, and actuality of individual existence [Dasein]. It is spirit living and present as a world, and only thus does the substance of spirit begin to exist as spirit.

PR, § 151

Habituation is not only a process of liberation from our immediate inclinations, but it also lets us acquire ethical disposition, thus overcoming the formalism of the moral reflection. As Andreja Novakovic puts it: “in an objectively rational social order the basic tension between social expectations and particular commitment is (for the most part) overcome, since I form my commitments within the context of institutional roles” (Novakovic 2017, 42). Habit develops ethical disposition by internalizing and incorporating ethical commitments. This does not mean that we are unfree: habitualization is, on the contrary, a process that requires thinking and attention, although it is true that once we have developed a specific habit we do not need to “think” about the rules, the duties we have to follow in order to realize an action, exactly because we have internalized them (see ibid., 52): “So becoming virtuous must for Hegel involve a transformative process in which I go from merely receiving the laws of the social world to grasping them internally.” (Ibid., 53). In this way “we internalize what is initially outer to us” in a “process of appropriation, of giving myself determinations that I can consequently regard as posited by my will …” (ibid., 54).11

Starting from these two meanings of objectivity, I will now show that the right of objectivity, which I understand as a “correction” in the judgement of imputation, refers at a first level to the objectivity understood as first nature, while in its highest expression it refers to the social normative standards, to an objectivity which is rather understood as second nature.

4 The Right of Objectivity

After presenting the meanings of the concept of objectivity as first and second nature, it is now possible to analyze what Hegel calls the “right of objectivity.” I will try to demonstrate that the right of objectivity develops on two levels, that correspond to the two meanings of objectivity I showed: 1. one naturalistic-descriptive level, which is connected with the objectivity and externality undestood as first nature, as external natural world; 2. a social and normative level, linked to the concept of objectivity as social world, as second nature. Moreover, I will show that the right of objectivity can be understood as correction against the rights of the subjective will.

The oppositing concepts subjectivity-objectivity will be considered at first in their defective and one-sided meanings: subjectivity as the particularity of the moral will; objectivity as externality, which the will finds in front of itself. Each of them has its own rights that are opposite to one another (the righs of the subjective will towards the right of objectivity):12 I will show that, however, they do not negate each other, but they preserve themselves and contribute to define the judgement of imputation, thus balancing both the demands of the moral subject and those of the objectivity.

On the one hand, the rights of the subjective will tend to limit responsibility and imputation of the agent to consciously intended actions; on the other hand, the right of objectivity serves as correction and allow imputation of unintentional actions. To support this thesis, I will show in the following parts of the paper that the three sections in which Morality is divided (1. Purpose and Responsibility; 2. Intention and Welfare; 3. The Good and the Conscience) not only entail the exposition of Hegel’s theory of action, but they also stage the dialectical tension between the rights of the subjective will and those of objectivity in the determination of the judgement of imputation and, therefore, of the guilt of the individual.

4.1 A Right of Objectivity at the Level of Purpose?

As I already mentioned, the individual is faced with the external world. She can have a representation of the external circumstances, but something else can happen that the individual did not represent to herself:

It is, however, the right of the will to recognize as its action [Handlung], and to accept responsibility [Schuld] for, only those aspects of its deed [That] which it knew to be presupposed within its end, and which were present in its purpose [Vorsatze].—I can be made accountable for a deed only if my will was responsible for it—the right of knowledge.

PR, § 11713

Therefore, the right of the will and the right of knowledge serve to limit moral responsibility and imputation to the intentional action (Handlung). This one is identified, at a first level, by the purpose (Vorsatz), that corresponds to the representation an individual has of the external, immediate existence (see GW 14,2: 575). The individual can acknowledge only the part of the realized deed (Tat) that corresponds to his purpose: on the contrary, if an event is not recognized by the individual as her own realized purpose, it means that the deed cannot be considered as action of the individual at all and it would bring to a categorical exemption, as Michael Quante puts it (Quante 2018, 159).

As the above quotation shows, at the level of purpose the subjective right of the will and the right of knowledge emerge clearly. What about the right of objectivity? At this level Hegel does not make it explicit. However, it seems that Quante identifies it in the possibility of contingency to attach to the action (cf. Quante 2018, 165): “Action in terms of individuality [Einzelheit] has a nature as such—external, immediate universality—possibility that lies thereinprecisely the possibility that contingencies are connected with it” (GW 14,2: 603). However, identifying these fragments with a supposed right of objectivity at the level of the purpose is misleading, in my view, for two reasons: 1. from a philological point of view these notes refer to PR § 120, which deals with the universal “nature” of the action, i.e. with the intention, that differs from the purpose, as I will show; 2. it does not seem to me that with this claim Hegel wants to support the thesis that “Zufälligkeiten” in general have a right against the agent. On the contrary, the right of the will claims its full value towards the “remote and alien consequences,” which cannot be imputed to the agent.14 On the other hand, it is true, Hegel admits: “The development in the realm of existence of the contradiction which is contained in the necessity of the finite is simply the transformation of necessity into contingency and vice versa. From this point of view, to act therefore means to submit oneself to this law” (PR, § 118 A). So in this sense, one might actually claim that contingency has a right towards the agent. But Hegel still argues that the will has the right to accept responsibility only for those consequences which are an integral part of the action, thus excluding the “remote and alien consequences” from the action itself and its imputation. I take the “remote and alien consequences” to be the ones which do not depend on the agent’s will and which only depend on the “external forces” like the natural ones: in this sense, I think that contingency does not have a right towards the agent in Hegel’s view.

In fact, the right of objectivity is the “counterparty” of the rights of the subjective will in the definition of the judgement of imputation, thus defining what can be imputed to the agent in the objectivity: but in no case can the coincidental consequences, in the sense I mentioned above, represent a right of objectivity, because they are alien to the substance and nature of the action itself and are excluded from the realm of both moral and legal imputation. I think, therefore, that the first form of right of objectivity emerges at the level of intention, as I will show in the following section.

4.2 The Right of Intention and the Right of Objectivity: a Naturalistic-Descriptive Perspective

The consideration of the consequences of the action allows the transition to the intention.15 By reflecting on the immediate content of the action, i.e. the purpose, which is the punctual aspect that the individual aims to realize, we understand that action stands in multiple connection with natural events and that inevitably many consequences are produced: the action has to be considered in its universality. This universality is exactly what is linked to the intention: this one refers to the capability of the agent to plan her action on large-scale, thus reducing the purpose to a means to achieve a broader aim. An individual realizes an action, according to Hegel, when she translates her internal end in the external existence, that “by virtue of its context in external necessity, develops in all directions” (PR, § 118) and produces multiple consequences: this seems to refer to the causal laws characterizing the external world, which the agent is always faced with. The objectivity that is opposed to the agent seems to preserve, at this level, the meaning of first nature: this externality, however, is then included in the action itself. It follows that “man muß wissen, was man thut,” one has to know what she is doing (GW 14,2: 583): not only the rights of the subjective will claim their value towards the action, but also objectivity itself claims its value towards the agent.

As a consequence, at the level of intention the explicit contrast between the rights of subjectivity and the right of objectivity emerges, because the individual can carry out the so called “Zersplitterung der Folgen,” she can analyze the consequences minutely, thus recognizing as her own only those concequences that she intended to produce. In fact, the agent has the right “that the universal quality of the action shall have being not only in itself, but shall be known by the agent and thus have been present all along in his subjective will …” (PR, § 120). For an action to be imputed to an agent from the moral standpoint she must not only be able to recognize her purpose in acting, but she must also be able to recognize that the universality of the action corresponded to her own intention: that, for instance, she set fire to a branch of wood in order to committ arson.

But at the same time the action has the right “to assert itself as known and willed by the subject as a thinking agent” (ibid.): this is the right of objectivity. If an action is brought about by an adult and mentally sane person, the action itself claims to be known and wished for by her as a thinking being: the universality of the action, its nature, must be known by the agent. As I mentioned before, I think that the right of objectivity at the level of intention is understood by Hegel mostly in a naturalistic-descriptive way and not yet as a normative and social demand. My interpretation differs therefore from that of Mark Alznauer who thinks that action, as it is analyzed by Hegel in the Elements of the Philosophy of Right, is intrinsically social and always judged in a social and legal sphere. The social standards play a significant role in my view, but at a next level. As we can read in § 119 A: “To judge an action as an external deed without first determining whether it is right or wrong is to apply a universal predicate to it, classifying it as arson, murder, or the like.”

This passage represents a focal point in Hegel’s argumentation, in my view. However, the English translation of the sentence can be deceiving and this can lead to a partial interpretation of the passage. For this reason, I think that it is helpful to look at the original text in German: “Das Urtheil über eine Handlung als äußerliche That noch ohne die Bestimmung ihrer rechtlichen oder unrechtlichen Seite, ertheilt derselben ein allgemeines Prädicat, daß sie Brandstiftung, Tödtung u.s.f. ist.”

The notion of Tat refers to the description of an event produced by an agent, but from an external-descriptive perspective (äußerlich), without taking the agent’s intentions into account; the concept of Handlung, on the contrary, refers to the intentional action, evaluated from the moral point of view, taking the intentions of the agent into account. In the above passage Hegel claims that when an action is evaluated as external deed, i.e. from an external-descriptive perspective, it receives a universal predicate, namely that it is arson, murder and so on: it seems to me that this universal predicate is independent from the juridical or non-juridical feature of the action, or at least it seems to precede the consideration of its juridical feature. Rechtlich and unrechtlich, besides indicating what is right and what is wrong, explicitly refer to the legal sphere of law (Recht). Alznauer rightly recognizes that the question of whether the deed counts as arson, for example, is a question about the objectivity of the deed, but then he assimilates this to the question of whether the action is right or wrong in the legal sense, in the framework of Abstract Right, supporting the thesis that there is no way to determine whether an act counts as arson, etc., except from the point of view of a given social world (second nature).16 The universal predicates of “arson” and “murder” acquire a particular legal value, for sure, but it seems to me that it is possible in Hegel’s view to ascribe an event to an agent with these predicates before any legal judgement, without determining the juridical or non-juridical value of the action (“noch ohne die Bestimmung ihrer rechtlichen oder unrechtlichen Seite”). Oedipus killed his father, although he did not intend to do this: but the fact remains that, from a merely naturalistic-descriptive point of view, he killed a man. The fact that “murder” has also got a specific legal value in a social context, implicating punishment, is undeniable but its legal value adds up something to the naturalistic-descriptive perspective, so to say.

In this respect it seems that it is possible to ascribe the murder of his father to Oedipus from an external and descriptive point of view, even if the heroic self-consciousness lives in a pre-statal context. The following passage seems to support the interpretation that the right of objectivity does not refer to the social dimension, at a first level, but it rather implies a naturalistic-descriptive meaning of objectivity:

Actuality is touched in the first instance only at one individual point (just as in arson, the flame is applied directly only to a small portion of the wood …), but the universal nature of this point implies its expansion. In living organisms, the individual [component] exists immediately not as a part, but as an organ in which the universal as such has its present existence. Hence in murder, it is not a piece of flesh as an individual entity which is injured, but the life itself within it.

PR, § 119 A

This example clearly refers to the causal relations that occur between the objects of nature: if one sets fire to a branch of wood, fire can spread. The example of the living organism and the notion of life is even more evident. The organism consists of parts that are not isolated, but are in essential connection with each other, so that they support the life of the organism. In the same way, the action consists of many particularities that do not remain isolated but are connected. If one hurts one single part of an organism, she is hurting the whole, with the possibility of causing its death. The right of objectivity of the action allows therefore for the ascription to the agent of responsibility not only for the immediate consequences but also for the universal quality of the action. Fortunate or unfortunate circumstances may occur but the agent must cope with that, as Gans underlines:

It is certainly the case that a greater or lesser number of circumstances may intervene in the course of an action. In a case of arson, for example, the fire may not take hold, or conversely, it may spread further than the culprit intended. Nevertheless, no distinction should be made here between good and ill fortune, for in their actions, human beings are necessarily involved in externality. An old proverb rightly says, ‘The stone belongs to the devil when it leaves the hand that threw it.’ By acting, I expose myself to misfortune, which accordingly has a right over me and is an existence of my own volition.

PR, § 119 Z

This does not mean that the agent must be a prophet and foresee all the consequences of her action: but she has the faculty of rational thinking and for this reason the objectivity demands that the agent knows the nature of her action itself, i.e. that it has the possibility (Möglichkeit) to show itself in a way that the agent did not directly intend:

But right of intention towards the thinking human being, is to know the nature of the action, to know [wissen] that it is a possibility [Möglichkeit] of manslaughter [Tödtung]. Although this particular action—murder [Mord]—in that moment was not present in a conscious [bewußt] way in the purpose—he knows as thinking being that this is present in this behaviour.

GW 14,2: 609, my translation

The “right of the intention towards the thinking being” seems to refer to the right of objectivity “towards the thinking being” at the level of intention: in the example of the living organism, the agent must know that by hurting a part, she might cause the death of the whole. Although committing murder was not the goal of the individual, who might have only wanted to hurt a single part of the body of another man, she must know that her behaviour contains this possibility in itself.

It seems to me that the right of objectivity is not understood as a right that negates the right of intention: it rather allows for a better determination of the content of the judgement of imputation. On the one hand, the contingent consequences cannot be imputed to the agent, either in a moral or in a legal sense, as I already mentioned: they are alien consequences of the action because they do not depend on the agent at all but on the so-called “external forces.” On the other hand, the so called “necessary consequences” can be imputed to the agent, because they belong to the nature of the action:17 the agent should have known them. The universal nature of the action matches its external existence too, the external connections which are inherent in the essence of the action. As a consequence, human beings cannot avoid being involved in externality, which has its own right over the agent.

This grounds the imputation of dolus indirectus, which is understood as an event which is imputable to an agent although she did not directly intend it, because it is considered as belonging to its universal nature: “Hence in murder, it is not a piece of flesh as an individual entity which is injured, but the life itself within it” (PR, § 119 A). As a consequence, the right of objectivity allows for an imputation of consequences that were not intended by the agent and that however should have been known by her.

4.3 The Right of Objectivity at the Level of Insight into the Good: a Normative and Social Perspective

In the judgement of imputation the following element is in the end necessary: the agent must know the value of her action. By externalizing her intention in the actual world, the action is judged and evaluated by other people according to the standards which are in force in a society. At § 132 Hegel introduces the further right of the subjective will that:

whatever it is to recognize as valid should be perceived by it as good, and that it should be held responsible for an action—as its aim translated into external objectivity—as right or wrong, good or evil, legal or illegal, according to its cognizance [Kenntnis] of the value which that action has in this objectivity.

PR, § 132

For an action to be imputed to an individual, both at a moral level (as good or evil) and from a legal standpoint (as legal or illegal) the agent must be able to know the value of her action in the “objectivity” and for this reason it is necessary that the laws of the ethical community are made public. The individual has the right to have insight into the legal and ethical duties on the basis of her conviction, on the basis of reasons that she acknowledges as valid and on the basis of the nature of these duties and obligations. In history, the self-consciousness of the individual as a free being has developed: so, for example, it is clear that slavery contradicts the concept of human being as a free rational being and that we have the right not to recognize slavery as legitimate, although it is still practised nowadays.18

The limit of the moral standpoint, as I said, is that the true content of the good is here still missing and the moral subject can determine it in a way that remains accidental. For this reason, also at this level Hegel introduces a correction, represented by the right of objectivity: “whatever I may require in order to satisfy my conviction that an action is good, permissible, or impermissible—and hence that the agent is in this respect responsible for it—in no way detracts from the right of objectivity” (PR, § 132 A).

The right of objectivity introduced at this level differs from the right of objectivity at the level of intention and acquires a normative and social function:

This right of insight into the good is distinct from the right of insight with regard to action as such (see § 117). As far as the latter is concerned, the right of objectivity takes the following shape: since action is an alteration which must exist in an actual world and thus seeks recognition in it, it must in general conform to what is recognized as valid in that world. Whoever wills an action in the actual world has, in so doing, submitted himself to its laws and recognized the right of objectivity.—Similarly, in the state, as the objectivity of the concept of reason, legal responsibility [die gerichtliche Zurechnung] must not stop at what the individual considers to be in conformity with his reason or otherwise, or at his subjective insight into rightness or wrongness, good or evil, or at what he may require in order to satisfy his conviction. In this objective field, the right of insight applies to insight into legality or illegality, i.e. into what is recognized as right, and is confined to its primary meaning, namely cognizance [Kenntnis] in the sense of familiarity with what is legal and to that extent obligatory.

PR, § 132 An

Hegel claims that the right of objectivity, at a first level, regards the “action as such”: it refers to what is “in general” recognized as valid in the actual world, in the external objectivity in which the individual produces a modification. This might lead us to think, again, about the causal nexus that characterizes the events from a naturalistic-descriptive point of view and the fact that the will submits, in a certain sense, to these laws.

At the level of the insight into the good, the normative and social character of the objectivity, understood as second nature, is clear: Hegel mentions the state as highest expression of the Ethical, as the “objectivity of the concept of reason.” In this context, a merely moral imputation, an ascription of responsibility that merely depends on the value that the action has for the agent, is not sufficient. As a consequence, in Ethical Life legal imputation is not limited to what the agent thinks is right or wrong according to her reason. The right of objectivity implies that the agent has insight into what is legal or illegal in the social context, as existing law, and expresses in these ways a normative claim towards the agent.19 This does not mean, again, that the right of objectivity negates the rights of the subjective will: in Ethical Life both sides are respected.20

However, it seems to me that by discussing the rights of the subjective will Hegel also shows the limits of the moral standpoint: the “right of the subjective will, that it knows, it has known—it could know, that something is good or is not good—legal [gesetzlich] or not legal [rechtlich] and so on” (GW 14,2: 647, my translation). The imputation of an action does not merely depend either on what the subject “knows” at the moment of her action or on what she “has known” about the value of her action, but it depends on the possible knowledge of the agent, on what she could know.21

And again: “right of duty, of the good, against the conscience you should have known this [du hættest diss wissen sollen]” (GW 14,2: 653, my translation). The “right of duty, of the good, against the conscience” is explicated by the claim “you should have known this.” Therefore, the agent must cope with two claims: “you could know” the value of your action, and “you should have known” it.

5 Concluding Remarks

The concept of objectivity is normally understood in Hegel’s practical philosophy as second nature: I think that this traditional interpretation is correct and supported by Hegel’s text. However, I tried to show that in Hegel’s account of imputation the objectivity as first external nature still plays a role, at least at a first level. The immediate “externality” in front of the will must be taken into account when it comes to the question of imputation. On the one hand, the external natural forces can produce contingent consequences, for which the agent cannot be held responsible. On the other hand, agents must know that their actions also belong to the external world: although Handlung means the intentional action which can be imputed to the agent, one must bear in mind that imputation is not limited to what the individual wanted and directly wished for, but it also includes what belongs to the nature of the action, including its external and objective existence, and what the individual could and should have known as a possible consequence of her action. For these consequences she is held responsible. The right of objectivity should be understood, at a first level, as connected with a naturalistic description of action, as modification which occurs in the external natural world. At a second level, the right of objectivity acquires a significant normative function by referring to the social standards that are in force in a state.

As I showed, Hegel underlines the significant role of the moral standpoint and of the rights of the subjective will, but at the same time he shows their limits. Thus, Morality points to its highest expression in the Ethical Life. Finally, I do not think that the rights of the subjective will and the right of objectivity negate each other. They are not isolated and independent rights but they are rather in a dialectical tension, allowing for a mutual correction that is meant to maintain a balance in the evaluation and imputation of actions:

The subjective right of self-consciousness to know an action in its determination as either good or evil in and for itself must not be thought of as colliding with the absolute right of the objectivity of this determination in such a way that the two are represented as separable, and indifferent and contingent towards one another ….

PR, § 140 A

As Quante puts it, Hegel shows that our practice of attributing responsibility appears as a weave of different demands—which I take to be the rights of the subjective will on the one side and the rights of objectivity on the other side—but it cannot be reduced to oppositional couples that cannot be reconciled.22 They are rather complementary couples and rights. If no objective and normative demands were in force, if objectivity could not claim its value towards the agent, then the moral subjectivity could make itself absolute, as I showed at the beginning of the paper. Thus the circle is complete.


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The idea of this article was developed through the fruitful discussions I had with Prof. Mark Alznauer and with Prof. Sally Sedgwick whom I thank. Moreover, I would like to thank Prof. Sally Sedgwick and Nicolás García Mills for organizing the Workshop "Hegel’s Philosophy of Finite Spirit: Mediating Nature and Spirit" at the University of Illinois at Chicago in January 2018 and for inviting me as speaker: this gave me the opportunity to discuss important parts of this article. I would also like to thank Maria Mejia for the linguistic revision of this text. Finally, I am grateful to the Istituto Italiano per gli Studi Filosofici of Naples, by which I was awarded a research fellowship for the year 2019, for giving me the opportunity to continue my research in the field of Hegel’s action theory.


The abbreviation A refers to Hegel’s own Anmerkungen, i.e. to his comments and remarks about the paragraphs of his Elements of the Philosophy of Right. The abbreviation Z refers, on the contrary, to the Zusätze, i.e. to Gans’ additions. I quote Hegel’s Randbemerkungen (his own margin notes) from the volume 14,2 of the Gesammelte Werke (GW).


See Stepelevich and Lamb (1983), Derbolav (1965), Menegoni (1993), and Quante (1993) as the first studies giving momentum to a new interest in Hegel’s theory of action and the related concepts of responsibility and imputation. This question is anything but solved and it has still been discussed in recent books: Laitinen and Sandis (2010), Vieweg (2012), Caspers (2012), Alznauer (2015), Quante (2018).


See Schild (1981) and Seelmann (1989) as well as the the systematic studies of Caspers (2012), Vieweg (2012), and Quante (2018).


I will not analyze in detail all the shapes of moral subjectivity that declares itself absolute, because it has already been done in a noteworthy way (cf. Chiereghin 1980; Menegoni 1982, 264–268; Vieweg 2012, 210 et seq.; Caspers 2012, 158–166) and is not the primary aim of this paper. What is interesting here is that these shapes represent the risk that the moral subjectivity with its rights might run, in order to show the necessity of a correction. In fact, the “making itself absolute” of the moral subjectivity leads to the conversion of good into bad (cf. Menegoni 2004).


The target of Hegel’s criticism of the formal conscience is the Kantian-Fichtean conception of morality (cf. Menegoni 1993, 82).


In my view, the English translation of the German concept of “Geist” with “mind” threatens to reduce it to something subjective. Hegel’s talk about “Geist” is not reduced to what nowadays is generally intended with the term “mind,” which is normally used in the field of the philosophy of embodiment with regard to an ancient problem: the mind-body problem. Translating it with “spirit” does not help very much but I decided to choose this translation.


Quante 2018, 231. Note that for the aim of the paper I focus here on this meaning of “objective,” which is only one of the meanings that Hegel analyzes in PR, § 26. For a deepened analysis of the different meanings of “subjective” and “objective,” see Quante (2018, 229–232).


Subjectivity refers on the one hand to the pure form of self-consciousness (PR, § 25). But it also refers to the particularity of the will as arbitrariness, connected with contingent contents. Subjectivity is one-sided and unaccomplished, when it abstracts from the objective side: its content remains unrealized.


Menegoni writes: “The activity of the will consists in eliminating the separation between subjectivity and objectivity and is aimed at this end; but in order to achieve this aim it [the will] must go beyond the formalism of consciousness, for which objectivity is always given externally and is immediately opposed to it.” (Menegoni 1982, 248, my translation)


Testa identifies, on the contrary, a sort of “internal second nature” in Hegel’s discussion of habit in the Encyclopedia. He claims, moreover, that Hegel manages to bring the two spheres (internal and external) of second nature together. See Testa (2009).


For a deepened analysis of the concept of “second nature” in Hegel see the recent systematic studies on this topic of Ranchio (2016) and Novakovic (2017). See also the essay of Magrì (2018).


It is interesting that Hegel here opposes rights against rights and not rights against duties.


The German words in brackets have been added by me.


Hegel recognizes that: “action has multiple consequences in so far as it is translated into external existence [Dasein]; for the latter, by virtue of its context in external necessity, develops in all directions. These consequences, as the [outward] shape whose soul is the end to which the action is directed, belong to the action as an integral part of it. But the action, as the end translated into the external world, is at the same time exposed to external forces which attach to it things quite different from what it is for itself, and impel it on into remote and alien consequences. The will thus has the right to accept responsibility only for the first set of consequences, since they alone were part of its purpose.” (PR, § 118)


Gans writes: “necessary consequences attach themselves to every action—even if what I initiate is purely individual and immediate—and they are to that extent the universal element contained within it. It is true that I cannot foresee those consequences which might be prevented, but I must be familiar with the universal nature of the individual deed. What is at issue here is not the individual aspect but the whole, which concerns not the determinate character of the particular action but its universal nature. The transition from purpose to intention consists, then, in the fact that I ought to be aware not only of my individual action, but also of the universal which is associated with it.” (PR, § 118 Z).


See Alznauer (2015, 136 et seq).


Here nature means “essence,” “substance.”


But think about ancient Rome: there, slavery was a legitimate institution and was permitted by the legal system. The human being is in herself a free being: however, the one who has consciousness of herself as a free being perceives the world differently, uses a different language and acts in a different way from the one who is not conscious of being a free individual (cf. Waldegge 2017).


Caspers understands the right of objectivity at the level of the intention already as expressing a social claim. See Caspers (2012, 201 et seq). I hope to have shown that this is true at the level of the insight into the good, while at the level of the intention, objectivity and its right could be understood in a different way.


Amengual goes against the reading of Hegel made by Tugendhat, according to which the laws are the absolute authority, in front of which the conscience of the individual disappears. Subjectivity is preserved in Ethical Life. What is cancelled (aufgehoben) is the formality of subjectivity. See Amengual (2004).


“dieses Recht bezieht sich demnach auch auf das dem Handelnden mögliche Wissen …” Caspers 2012, 212.


See Quante (2018, 158).

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