The founding act of ethical life: Hegel's critique of Kant's moral and political philosophy
According to the received view, Kant and Hegel espouse diametrically opposed views of moral motivation. Kant holds that to act morally is to act out of reflective recognition that a proposed intention ought to be made into a universal law. Action of true moral worth can never be motivated by an immediate inclination. Hegel, in contrast, holds that the natural inclination of an agent, who has been successfully acculturated within a just society, is moral action. The received interpretation is right, but it misses a critical part of Hegel's view and it is to this idea that the entire dissertation is devoted. Hegel does not reject Kant's claim that a necessary condition of morality is autonomous action, which is not determined immediately by natural inclinations or acquired habits. He thinks that precisely such action is the origin of any actual, shared form of ethical life. It is in his idea of a founding act of ethical life that Hegel claims Kant's inheritance.
The founding act of ethical life does not, however, meet Kant's criterion of moral action. Modeled, in the Phenomenology of Spirit, on Antigone's tragedy, the founding agent acts without being conscious of the universal ethical significance of the act; nor does the community the act transforms acknowledge its significance. The lawmaker and the community are necessarily blind to each other. This tragic, mutual blindness is a condition of the most extreme violence.
Are there, in reality, any such acts? Modern political life has its founding moment, according to Hegel, in the French Revolution, the Reign of Terror and the Napoleonic Wars. The old world and its political structures and institutions has collapsed, leaving action doomed to go unacknowledged. The violence of the Revolution and its aftermath is the condition of the foundation of a new shape of life. Though to be condemned absolutely, it is the necessary condition of the foundation of modern states. The concluding claim of the Philosophy of Right is that war, more generally, is the collapse of the actual life of states and the call to found a new shape of ethical life.