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Idealistic Studies

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published on May 23, 2017

David J. Zoller

Moral Theory and Moral Motivation in Dilthey’s Critique of Historical Reason

Dilthey’s moral writings have received scant attention over the years, perhaps due to his apparent tendency toward relativism. This essay offers a unified look at Dilthey’s moral writings in the context of his Kantian-styled “Critique of Historical Reason.” I present the Dilthey of the moral writings as an observer of reason in the spirit of Kant, watching practical reason devolve into error when it applies itself beyond the bounds of possible experience. Drawing on moral writings from across Dilthey’s corpus, I retrace Dilthey’s argument that moral theories from Kantianism and utilitarianism to natural law theory suffer significant motivational problems because of the way they transcend the “synthesis” of moral perception. Dilthey’s argument suggests that abstract moral theory is always bound to seem unmotivating and unreal from the standpoint of lived experience, and perhaps that, to avoid this, moral philosophy should confine itself to more situated, case-specific judgments.

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