from The Science of Ethics as Based on the Science of Knowledge


The philosopher of subjective idealism, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, was born into poverty at Rammenau, Saxony, the son of a peasant. It is said that as a child, he attracted the attention of a nobleman by reciting verbatim a church sermon that the latter had missed. The nobleman, Freiherr von Militz, thereafter provided for Fichte’s education: he was schooled at Pforta and later began as a student of theology at the University of Jena in 1780, leaving without a degree due to the death of his benefactor.

After some years as a tutor for a wealthy family in Zurich, Fichte studied the philosophy of Kant and wrote the Critique of All Revelation (1792), which earned Kant’s praise and was Fichte’s first success. Fichte’s name did not appear on the title page, and it was for a time believed to be the work of Kant. In this work, he applied Kant’s ethical principle of duty to religion, and asserted that revealed religions are based on moral principles that are independent of the perceptible world.

Through the help of Goethe, in 1794 Fichte became a professor at the University of Jena. He published two works that dealt with basic problems in epistemology and metaphysics, The Foundations of the Entire Science of Knowledge (1794), and then the incomplete Attempt at a New Presentation of the Science of Knowledge (1797–98), on which his influence largely rests, followed by the System of Ethics According to the Principles of the Science of Knowledge (1798). In these works, Fichte continued to draw upon Kant for his ethics, but argued against Kant’s notion of a thing-in-itself. Fichte’s transcendental idealism accounted for freedom of action by situating it within the realm of the subject, or what appears to come from one’s own mind. His publications in moral philosophy developed the idea that freedom is the object of moral action. One’s experience of duty and moral law is the experience of the divine; only through moral striving can the individual ego be united with the “infinite ego,” the spiritual activity that is the ground of self and world. At the height of his popularity, in 1798–99, Fichte published an article for which he was charged with atheism and, in a storm of controversy, was forced to leave Jena; he refused to accede to censure. Relocating to Berlin, he spent the rest of his life teaching and writing on topics in education, religion, and philosophy, and in the winter of 1807–08, during the Napoleon’s siege of Berlin, delivered the patriotic lectures Addresses to the German Nation, the work for which he is most famous. Though his reign as Germany’s preeminent philosopher was short-lived—his influence was quickly surpassed by Schelling and Hegel—he had a tremendous impact on German philosophy, providing a bridge from Kant’s Transcendental Idealism to Hegel’s Absolute Idealism. In 1814, after his wife Johanna had contracted typhus from nursing the wounded during Napoleon’s siege, he contracted the disease from her and died.

In these selections from The Science of Ethics as Based on the Science of Knowledge (1798), Fichte pursues an idealist account of the duty of self-preservation. The legacy of Kant is evident in his account of the individual as the “tool of the Moral Law,” arguing that the continuation of one’s own life is the exclusive condition, the sine qua non, of the “realization of the law through me.” One has a duty to live, not for oneself or because it would bring oneself or others benefit, but because oneself is the kind of being only through which the moral law can be realized. Indeed, this is true of all persons; thus, I also have a duty to try to save others for the same reason. Exposing one’s own life to danger may be one’s duty in some cases, but one must never imagine death as a desired objective, and one must not voluntarily permit one’s own death if it can be prevented.

Johann Gottlieb Fichte, The Science of Ethics as Based on the Science of Knowledge, Part 2, Book 5. Tr. A. E. Kroeger, ed. Dr. W. T. Harris. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., Ltd., 1907, pp. 275-286.


The Theory of Duties: Concerning the General Conditioned Duties

I am tool of the Moral Law in the sensuous world. But I am tool in the sensuous world solely on condition of a continuous reciprocal causality between me and the world, the way and manner of which is to be determined through my will; and since we speak here chiefly of a causality upon the world of rational beings, on condition of a continuous reciprocal causality between me and them. (This proposition has been proven in my Science of Rights, and as I would have merely to repeat that proof here, I refer to it as the proof of what is averred here. Nor will this mere reference infringe upon the clearness and completeness of our present science, for what this postulated reciprocal causality may signify, will appear clearly enough.) If I am to be this tool of the Moral Law, then the condition under which alone I can be it, must take place; and if I think myself as under the rule of the Moral Law, I find myself commanded to realize this its condition; namely, the continued reciprocal causality between myself and the world of both rational and sensuous beings, so far as it is in my power to do so; for the Moral Law can never require the impossible. Hence all we have to do is to analyse this conception, and to relate the Moral Law to its several parts, in order to arrive at the general duty, whereof we ourselves are the immediate object, or at the general conditioned duties.

This reciprocal relation is to be continuous; the Moral Law commands our preservation as members of a sensuous world. In the Science of Rights, which knows nothing of a Moral Law and its commands, but establishes only the will of a free being as determined through natural necessity, we furnished the proof of the necessity to will our continuance in the following manner: I will something (X) signifies: the existence of this object shall be given to me in experience. But as sure as I will it, it is not so given in present experience, and is possible only in future. Hence, as sure as I will this experience, I also will, that I, the experiencing I, shall exist as the same identical I in a future moment. From this point of view respecting my will, I will my continuance only for the sake of a satisfaction, which I expect in the future.

The will of a free being, as determined through the Moral Law, has not this ground to will the continuance of the individual. Under the direction of this law, I do not care at all that something may be given to me in a future experience. Under it, X is to be absolutely without any reference to myself; it is to be utterly indifferent to me, whether I experience something or not, provided it only becomes actual in general, and provided I may presuppose that it will thus sometime become actual. The above demand of the natural man, that the object be given to him, is always the demand of an enjoyment. But from the standpoint of morality, enjoyment, as such, is never end. If I were told with more absolute certainty, that which you intend is certainly going to be realized, but you will never participate in it; annihilation is awaiting you before it will be realized; I would, nevertheless, be forced to work with the same exertion for its realization. The attainment of my true end would be assured to me; and the enjoyment thereof ought never to be my end. Hence the continuance of my life, and its consequent preservation, is not a duty to me for the sake of experiencing the realization of my end and aim. How then may it become my duty?

Whatsoever I may realize in the sensuous world is never the final end of morality, for that lies in the Infinitude, but only a means to draw nearer to this end. Hence the first end of all my actions is a new acting in the future; but whoever is to act in the future must live in it; and if he is to act in pursuance of a plan traced out now already, he must be and remain the same as he now is: his future existence must regularly develop itself from the present. Inspired by moral sentiment, I consider myself solely as a tool of the Moral Law. Hence I have the will to continue, and to continue to exist solely for the sake of acting. It is for this reason that self-preservation is a duty. This duty of self-preservation we now have to determine more closely. The preservation and regularly progressive development of the empirical self, which is regarded both as intelligence, or soul, and as body, is required. Hence both the health and regularly progressive development of soul and body considered in themselves, and the continuation of their unchecked mutual influence upon each other, is object of the Moral Law.

The requirement of the Moral Law in this respect is to be regarded, firstly, negatively, as a prohibition: Undertake nothing which, in your own consciousness, might endanger the preservation of yourself in the stated meaning of the word; and secondly, positively, as a command: Do whatever according to your best conviction promotes this preservation of yourself.

I. The preservation and the well-being of out empirical self may be endangered, both internally, by checking the progress of natural development, and externally, through external force. So far as the former is concerned, our body is an organized product of nature, and its preservation is endangered, if checks are opposed to the regular progress of the organization. This would occur if the body were denied proper food through fasting, or, if the body were overfed through intemperance, or if an opposite direction were given to the whole tendency of nature to preserve the machine, through unchastity. All these dissipations are in violation of the duty of self-preservation, more specially in regard to the body. They disturb the development of the mind, the welfare whereof depends upon the well-being of the body. Fasting weakens and makes drowsy the body, intemperance, gluttony, and, above all, unchastity, sinks the body deep into matter, and takes away from it the ability to elevate itself.

The development of the mind is directly disturbed through its inactivity; for the mind is a power, which can be developed only through practice. It is likewise disturbed through too much exertion, with neglect of the body, since it is the body which must support the mind. Likewise through an irregular occupation of the mind; as a blind indulging in irregular fancies, a mere memorizing of the thoughts of others without my own judgment; or a dry puzzling of the brain without living contemplation. The whole mind must be cultured in all directions, but on no account one-sidedly. One-sided culture is no culture, but rather suppression of the mind. All that we have here mentioned is not merely imprudent and unwise (i.e., opposed to some arbitrary end), but is opposed to the absolute final end and aim of reason. It is absolutely immoral, for all who attain an insight into the end of their empirical existence, and this insight all ought to acquire. So far as the latter is concerned, namely, danger from external causes, the prohibition of the moral law is as follows: do not unnecessarily endanger your health, body, and life. Exposition to such danger is unnecessary whenever the moral law does not require it. When that law does require it, I am absolutely obliged to do so, no matter how great the danger and risk may be; for it is my absolute end to do what duty requires, and my self-preservation is only a means for this end. How such a command of duty to risk one’s self-preservation may arise, this is not the proper place to explain. We shall take up the subject on this point in the doctrine concerning absolute duties. The investigation concerning the morality of suicide, belongs, however, to the subject in the present place; and we shall settle it now.

I am not unnecessarily, i.e., not without the command of duty, to endanger my life; it must, therefore, be still more prohibited to destroy my life with my own power, and intentionally. Somebody might add, however: “Unless, indeed, duty requires such self-destruction of one’s own life; as it certainly does require, according to your own presupposition, the exposure of one’s life to danger!” Hence the thorough solution of our problem rests on the answering of the following question: Is it possible that duty can ever require me to kill myself?

Let us first observe the great difference between a requirement of duty to endanger one’s life, and one to take away that life. The first command only requires me to forget myself, not to esteem my self-preservation as anything to counterbalance duty. Moreover, the absolutely commanded action, in which I am to forget myself, is directed upon something outside of me. Hence there is no immediate command: endanger thyself! but only a mediated and conditioned command: do that which might endanger thyself! But an act of suicide would immediately touch myself, and hence must be based upon an immediate and unconditioned command. We shall see at once whether such is possible.

The decision rests upon the following: My life is the exclusive condition of the realization of the law through me. Now the command is addressed to me absolutely: to realize the law. Hence I am absolutely commanded to live, so far as this depends upon me. To destroy my life by my own hands is directly contradictory of this; and hence is immoral. I cannot destroy my own life at all without withdrawing myself, so far as I am concerned, from the rule of the moral law; but this that law can never command, because it would in doing so contradict itself. If I am influenced by the moral law―and this I ought to be and must be considered as being, when my actions are judged of―then I will to live solely to do my duty. I will not live any longer, would, therefore signify: I will no longer do my duty.

An objection could only be raised against the major of this syllogism. It might be said: But this present earthly life of ours, of which alone we are speaking, is for me not the only exclusive condition of my duty. I believe in a life after death, and hence, by killing myself, do not end my life in general, and thus do not withdraw myself from the rule of the moral law; I only change the manner of my life; proceed only from one place to another, as I often do, and am allowed to do, in this earthly life. In replying to this objection, I shall adopt the simile, and ask: Does then the moral law permit you arbitrarily to change your position or place on earth, as if it were the same whether you did or did not do so; or is such a step not rather always either your duty or against your duty? Clearly the latter, for according to all our previous proofs the moral law leaves no playground for arbitrariness. Under its rule there are no indifferent actions at all; in each position of your life each act is either moral or immoral. Hence you will have to show up not merely a permission of that law to leave this life and pass into another one, but an explicit command. That this is impossible can, however, be strictly proven. For the moral law does never immediately command me to live for the sake of life, neither in this life, which alone I know, nor in any other possible life; but the immediate object of its command is always a determined action; and since I cannot act without living, it always commands me to live. (Considered as a natural agent I will to live not for the sake of life but for the sake of some determination of life; considered as moral agent, I shall will to live not for the sake of life. But of an action for which I need life.) Hence the transition to another life could not be commanded of me in an immediate, but only in a mediate manner, through the command of a determined act, which would transpire in another life. In other words: I could only be permitted to leave this life―and since there are no actions merely permitted, it can never be my duty to leave this life―unless I had a determined action to undertake in the life hereafter. This, however, no rational being will be willing to assert. For we are forced by the laws of thinking to determine our duties through what is already known to us; and the state of life beyond the present is utterly unknown to us, and all our cognisable duties transpire in the present life. The moral law, therefore, far from referring me to another life, demands always, and in every hour of my present life, that I continue it, for in every such hour there is something for me to do, and the sphere, wherein I am to do it, is the present world. Hence it is not only actual suicide, but even the desire to live no longer, which is immoral, for such a desire is a wish to work no longer in the manner in which alone we can think our work; it is an inclination utterly opposed to a moral mode of thinking, it is a tiredness and a weary disgustedness, which a moral man should never allow to move him.

If the wish to leave this world signifies the mere readiness to leave life as soon as the ruler of the world, in whom we believe on this standpoint, shall so order, it is altogether a just wish, inseparable from a moral character, for life has no value in itself to such a character. But if it signifies an inclination to die, and to come into connection with beings of another world, then such a desire becomes an unwholesome indulgence, which paints and determines the future world in advance. But such a determining has no basis, and the data for it can only be imaginary. Moreover, it is immoral, for how can a truly moral character have time left for visionary meditations? True virtue does every hour wholly what it has to do in that hour, and leaves all the rest to the care of him, whose care it is.

To convince himself of the correctness of these views, let the reader examine all possible grounds of an act of suicide. The first motive, of which instances are said to have occurred, is a despair to get rid of and conquer certain vices, which have become a habit, and almost our own second nature. But this very despair is an immoral feeling. If you only have the true will, there is no difficulty about the canning. What, indeed, could have compulsory power over our will? Or what could put the power wherewith we sin, in motion, except our will? Hence in this case the confession is clear that the suicide does not will his duty. He cannot tolerate life without vice, and rather would compromise with virtue by the easier means of death, than conform to its requirement of a guiltless life.

Another possible motive is that a person should kill himself to escape suffering something infamous and vicious, becoming thus the object of another’s vices, but in this case he does not kill himself to escape vice, for if he only suffers in the matter, i.e., if he cannot resist with the exertion of all his physical forces, that which he is made to undergo, then it is not any crime of his. He only escapes through death the injustice, violence, or disgrace, inflicted upon him, but not sin, since he does not commit any sin himself. He kills himself, because an enjoyment is taken away from him, without which he cannot tolerate life. But in that case he has not denied himself, and has not, as he ought to have done, sacrificed all other considerations to virtue.

Some men have accused suicides of cowardice, others have celebrated their courage. Both parties are in the right, as is usually the case in disputes of rational men. The matter has two sides, and both parties have only looked each at one. It is necessary to consider it from both sides, for injustice must not be done even to what is most horrible, since thereby only contradiction is excited.

The resolve to die is the purest representation of the superiority of thought over nature. In nature lies the impulse to preserve itself, and the resolve to die is the exact opposite of this impulse. Each suicide, committed with cool considerateness―the most of suicides are committed in a fit of senselessness, and concerning such a condition nothing can rationally be said―is an illustration of this superiority, a proof of great strength of soul, and necessarily excites esteem, when reviewed from this side. It proceeds from the above-described blind impulse to be absolutely self-determined, and is only met with in an energetic character. Courage is resoluteness to meet an unknown future. Now, since the suicide annihilates all future for himself, we cannot ascribe true courage to him, unless indeed he assumes a life after death, and goes to meet this life with the firm resolve to fight or bear whatsoever that life shall have in store for him.

But whatever strength of soul it may require to resolve to die, it requires far more courage to bear a life which can only have sorrow in store for us hereafter, which we esteem as worth nothing in itself, even though it could be made the most joyous life, and to bear it nevertheless merely so as not to do anything unworthy of ourself. If in the first instance we have superiority of the conception over nature, we have here superiority of the conception itself over the conception: autonomy and absolute independence of thought. Whatsoever lies outside of the thought lies outside of myself, and is indifferent to me. If the former is the triumph of thought, this is the triumph of its law, the purest representation of morality; for nothing higher can be asked of man than that he should continue to bear a life which has grown to be insupportable to him. This courage the suicide lacks, and in so far he can be called cowardly. In comparison with the virtuous man he is a coward; but in comparison with the wicked, who submits to disgrace and slavery merely so as to continue for a few more years the wretched feeling of his existence, he is a hero.

2. The requirement of the moral law, which relates to our self, has also, as we have seen, a positive character. In so far it requires of us that we should nourish our body, and promote its health and well-being in all possible manner―of course for no other purpose than to live and make it an able tool for the promotion of the great final end of reason. Moreover, if I am to nourish my body and promote its welfare, I must be in possession of the means to do so. Hence I must take care of my possessions, be economical, and regulate my monetary affairs with prudence and order. It is not merely advisable and prudent to do so, but duty. He who, from a fault of his own, cannot provide his own means of living, is guilty. But the requirement is also addressed to the well-being of our mind, and in so far it is positive duty to occupy the mind continually but regularly, of course so far as the particular duties of each permit him to do so. To this belong æsthetical enjoyments and the fine arts, the moderate and proper use whereof cheers body and soul, and strengthens them for new exertions. In regard to the uninterrupted mutual influence of body and soul upon each other, we can do nothing directly. If each is only properly taken care of by itself, this mutual influence will result of itself.


All the above duties are only, as we have said, conditioned duties. My empirical self is only a means for the attainment of the end and aim of reason, and is to be preserved and cultivated only as such means, and in so far as it can be such means. Hence, if its preservation conflicts with this end, it must be abandoned.

For me, for the forum of my conscience, nothing is opposed to the end of reason except my acting adverse to an unconditioned duty. Hence, the only case wherein I can give up self-preservation, is when I can retain life only through the violation of such a duty. I must not do anything immoral for the sake of life, since life is an end only for the sake of duty, and since the accomplishment of duty is the final end of reason. It might be, and sometimes is, objected: “But how if, by making just this once an exception from the severity of the law, I can save my life, and thus preserve myself for the future achievement of much good which otherwise would be left undone?” This is the same pretext which is made use of to defend the evil, for the good which is to result from it. But those who urge this objection forget that the choice of the good works which we would like to do, and of others which we would like to leave undone, is not left to our discretion. Each person is absolutely bound to do that, and nothing else, which his position, heart, and insight command him to do; and must leave undone what they forbid him to do. Now, if the moral law takes away from me its permission for me to live before I can achieve certain future good actions, then those actions are assuredly not for me to achieve, for I shall no longer exist, at least under the conditions of this sensuous world. Nay, it is in itself clear enough, that to him who commits immoral acts for the sake of preserving his life, does not hold duty in general, nor the particular duties which he desires to do hereafter, to be the absolute final end of reason; for, if duty alone were his end, if only the moral law ruled him, it would be impossible for him to act in violation of it, just as it is impossible for the moral law to contradict itself. It was life which was his final end and aim, and the pretext that he desired yet to accomplish good works hereafter, he has only invented afterwards, to excuse himself. But on the other hand, I must also not consider and permit my death as a means for a good end. It is my life, and not my death, which is means. I am tool of the law as active principle, not means thereof as a thing. We have already shown, in this respect, that I must not kill myself―as, for instance, the suicide of Lucretia might be considered as a means to liberate Rome―but neither must I voluntarily permit my death if I can prevent it. Still less must I seek the opportunity to die, or excite others to kill me, as is told of Codrus, though I might believe that the salvation of the world would result therefrom. Such conduct is always a kind of suicide. Let the distinction be well observed. I am not only permitted, but commanded, to expose my life to danger whenever duty requires it; that is to say, I must forget the care for my self-preservation. But I must absolutely never think my death as an end and aim.

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