Martin Heidegger: Freedom, Ethics, Ontology

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There are three obstacles to any discussion of the relationship between Heidegger’s philosophy and ethics. First, Heidegger’s views and preoccupations alter considerably over the course of his work. There is no consensus over the exact degree of change or continuity, but it is clear that a number of these shifts, for example over the status of human agency, have considerable ethical implications. Second, Heidegger rarely engages directly with the familiar ethical or moral debates of the philosophical canon. For example, both Sein und Zeit (SZ) and the works that would have completed its missing third Division, works such as his monograph on Kant (Ga3), and the 1927 lecture course The Basic Problems of Phenomenology (Ga24), place enormous emphasis on the flaws present in earlier metaphysics or philosophies of language or of the self. But there is no discussion of what one might think of as staple ethical questions: for example, the choice between rationalist or empiricist meta-ethics, or between consequentialist or deontological theories. The fundamental reason for this is Heidegger’s belief that his own concerns are explanatorily prior to such debates (Ga26:236–7). By extension, he regards the key works of ethical and moral philosophy as either of secondary importance, or as not really about ethics or morals at all: for example, Ga24, when discussing Kant, states bluntly that “‘Metaphysics of Morals’ means the ontology of human existence” (Ga24:195). Essentially his view is that, before one can address ethics, construed as the question of how we ought to live, one needs to get clear on ontology, on the question of what we are. However, as I will show, the relationship between Heideggerian ontology and ethics is more complex than that simple gloss suggests. Third, the very phrase “Heidegger’s ethics” raises a twofold problem in a way that does not similarly occur with any other figure in this volume. The reason for this is his links, personal and institutional, to both National Socialism and to anti-Semitism. The recent publication of the Schwarze Hefte exemplifies this issue: these notebooks interweave rambling metaphysical ruminations with a clearly anti-Semitic rhetoric no less repulsive for the fact that it avoids the biological racism of the Nazis (see, for example, Ga95:299-300, 381-2; Ga96:243). In this short chapter, I will take what will doubtless be a controversial approach to this third issue. It seems to me unsurprising, although no less disgusting for that, that Heidegger himself was anti-Semitic, or that he shared many of the anti-modernist prejudices often found with such anti-Semitism among his demographic group. The interesting question is rather: what are the connections between his philosophy and such views? To what degree do aspects of his work support them or perhaps, most extremely, even follow from them? Yet to answer this question, one needs to begin by understanding what exactly his philosophical commitments were, specifically his ‘ethical’ commitments. The purpose of this chapter is address that question.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge History of Moral Philosophy
EditorsSacha Golob, Jens Timmermann
PublisherCambridge University Press
ISBN (Print)9781107033054
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2017


  • Heidegger
  • Ethics
  • Freedom
  • History of Philosophy


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