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Hegel's Ethical Naturalism

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posted on 01.12.2019, 00:00 authored by Nicolas Garcia Mills
Several commentators, most notably Terry Pinkard and Robert Stern, have recently suggested that Hegel’s “Philosophy of Spirit” is best read as some form of “Aristotelian naturalism.” However, these commentators’ contributions have for the most part either remained at a programmatic level or have attributed to Hegel views that are only questionably naturalistic. There has thus not yet been a sustained and detailed attempt to interpret Hegel as an ethical naturalist. My dissertation aims to help fill this gap in the literature by building on the work of these other scholars. I argue that Hegel is an ethical naturalist in that he subscribes to the following two theses: First, moral requirements are grounded or have their source in human nature. More specifically, our nature, essence or in Hegelian jargon our “concept,” which Hegel identifies with freedom, supplies the standard for the moral evaluation of human features and behavior. Second, human nature is built for Hegel out of more basic natural (biological) building blocks. In particular, distinctively human capacities, like objective consciousness or most importantly our capacity for practical freedom, emerge, on Hegel’s account, from the exercise of capacities that we share with lower animals. I refer to these theses as the essentialist thesis and the emergence thesis, respectively. I make the case for the emergence thesis in Chapters Two and Three. I do so in two steps: In Chapter Two I show how human rationality, in particular, objective consciousness, emerges for Hegel from our animal nature. In Chapter Three, I claim that the same goes for the will or our capacity for practical freedom. That capacity, too, is a natural capacity inter alia in the sense that it emerges from the exercise of capacities that we share with other animals. I then turn to the essentialist thesis. I make the case for this thesis, again, in two steps: In Chapter Four, I present Hegel’s account of the normative evaluation of animal organisms generally, human or otherwise. In Chapter Five, I expand Hegel’s theory of normativity from the non-moral evaluation of merely animal features and behavior to the moral evaluation of specifically human features and behavior. Chapter One argues that Hegel’s position must be naturalistic in some sense or other in an indirect way, by reviewing Hegel’s criticisms of Kant’s moral philosophy and extracting some clues from those criticisms as to what Hegel’s positive account might precisely look like.



Sedgwick, Sally


Laden, Anthony



Degree Grantor

University of Illinois at Chicago

Degree Level


Degree name

PhD, Doctor of Philosophy

Committee Member

Alznauer, Mark Fleischacker, Samuel Neuhouser, Frederick Small, Will

Submitted date

December 2019

Thesis type




Issue date


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