Ever since Georg Wilhelm Hegel’s death in 1831, the concepts and ideas that he had articulated in his political philosophy has continuously remained the crux of modern philosophical, moral, and ethical discussion. Hegelian schools – both ‘Old’ and ‘Young’ – emerged as propagators of the philosopher’s Hegelian system, and imbued it with controversy and a distinctive dichotomy. With the emergence of socialism in the early 1900s, thinkers such as Moses Hess, Karl Marx, and Ferdinand Lasalle began relating their works with that of Hegel, as did a significant number of liberal and conservative philosophers. Much of the impact that Hegel’s philosophy enjoys may be credited to his monumental work, Philosophy of Right, so much so that it has eclipsed most of his earlier works in terms of academic and scholarly focus. Hegel’s Philosophy of Right is also his most comprehensive argument for the three versions of ‘right’, from the abstract right, morality, and finally, the largest sphere of the ethical life. His main argument in the latter is that the family, with its patriarchal structure, and civil society, with its capitalist economy, are important moments of ethical life.
The Philosophy of Right may essentially viewed as a system of “objective freedom”, presenting the hierarchy of different kinds of objects in which spirit or the self or reason is “with itself”. This system is introduced by the “abstract right”, wherein a spiritual self is with itself in external things, which are its property. Hegel’s discussion in this regard is structured by his explanation why we accept the institution of private property in the first place (assuming that this institution is judged unacceptable, as Proudhon and Marx did much later). From this explanation stems Hegel’s other explanations on contract, in section 2, and on wrongs, in section 3. Hegel, in this preliminary section, argues that something important arises when we take possession of an object and our possession is recognized by another – that is, individuals form a common will with another person. When this happens, Hegel argues, we begin to overcome pure subjectivity, thus making objectivity a possibility. The second system that Hegel discusses is that of “morality”, wherein the self is with itself in its own subjective willing and with the external consequences of that willing. Hegel’s transition from abstract right to morality is primarily involved with the philosophical justification of punishment to be employed against criminals. Thus, from an external common will, Hegel argues that morality is formed through an internal movement of the common will that is external, to a commonality that is internal. In morality, we eliminate arbitrariness in our common will by clarifying the role of our intentions and purposes when forming agreements with one another. In this regard, Hegel also brings forth criticisms against Kantian ethics, in that it is formalistic, erroneously believing that one can derive specific moral principles from reflecting on the formal properties that such moral principles must exhibit. In contrast, he proposes that when all formal characteristics of moral principles have been specified, questions still linger with regards to duty.
The preceding claims that Hegel makes in relation to “abstract right” and “morality” are, however, more in tune with discussions on metaphysics that political philosophy. It is in relation to “ethical life” that Hegel’s discussions really endeavor into the political. Moreover, the notion of ethical life is often considered Hegel’s distinctive and original contribution to moral philosophy, devoid of precursors in the length of literature since Aristotle. Ethical life, or Sittlichkeit, is defined by Hegel as the identification of the individual with the totality of his social life. His account of ethical life charts three significant domains of value: family, civil society, and state. These domains govern domestic, legal, political, and economic forms of modern life. Thus, “ethical life” analyzes a wide range of social practices that form the basis of valid normative principles.
Ethical life is, for Hegel, itself divided into three moments:
- Family – ethical life in its natural phase
- Civil society – ethical life in its division and appearance
- The state – freedom universal and objective even in the free self-subsistence of the particular will
First on Hegel’s agenda in arguing for the significance of social practices in the formation of ethical life is the family. Among other things, familial bonds and relationships provide social and institutional context for rationalizing and explaining social desire. Moreover, this mode or moment of ethical life is where altruism is natural, and where the individual is ready to make sacrifices in order to provide for or contribute to the family. Furthermore, Hegel argues that it is only in the offspring that the unity [of marriage] exists objectively, because the parents love the children as their love, as the embodiment of their substance’. As Shlomo Avineri notes:
“Within the family, I am ready to make sacrifices for the other - to work so that the children can go to school, to care for the welfare of the old and infirm, and so on. All these activities are other-oriented, 'altruistic' in this analytical (not moralistic) sense; all of them are performed not for the actor's own benefit but for the benefit of someone else with whom the actor is connected through ties which are called 'family ties'”.
Civil society, on the other hand, is the sphere of universal egoism, as it is accepted to treat everybody as a means to a personal end. The commercial and economic system of the modern society is indicative of this, as businessmen trade goods not in order to satisfy the needs of the other, but where the individual uses the felt need of the other as a means to fulfill his own ends. Within this sphere, Hegel argues, everyone acts in accordance to his own enlightened self-interest. This “system of needs” transforms natural impulses by providing socially specific goods that meet those needs and wants, by altering and multiplying those needs and wants.
Finally, the state is the largest of Hegel’s moments within ethical life. For Hegel, the state is universal altruism, where human beings act not out of self-interest, but out of solidarity, a desire to build, with other human beings, a community. In some ways, thus, the state is much like the family, where humans are driven by altruism. However, the state, for Hegel, is an intentional structure, a structure of will, ‘the actuality of the substantial will’, whereas the family is constructed through biology. Individuals, moreover, do not relate with the state in mere self-interest. For example, a citizen of the United States pays taxes in order to ameliorate the lot of other people, not only of himself or his family. The state, thus, is a mode of universal altruism where the individual is ready to put up sacrifices on behalf of the other, in order to consciously “join” a community. These principles, for Hegel, bind such an individual into what is commonly attributed as the modern state.
In the foregoing discussion of the different elements of the “ethical life”, according to Hegel, it may be observed that it is nested within each other, in that a family is part of the civil society, and the latter is part of the state. In so doing, Hegel also argues that “ethical life” pervades each and every interaction we have with each other. These interlocking systems and moments within the “ethical life” call upon different approaches from the individual, requiring him to act within the bounds and mores of society in living out, ultimately, his ethical life. Doing so enables the individual, according to Hegel, to fit in within society and socialize with his fellow human beings without promoting conflict or invoking unnecessary confrontation. This is the ethical life, according to Hegel, and it is the destiny of each and every human being to live it out through the family, civil society, and the state. Only in so doing is the individual free from moral guilt and ethical compromise.
Immanuel Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. J. Ellington (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1993): entire.
G.W.F. Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, trans. H.B. Nisbet, ed. A. Wood (New York: Cambridge U., 1991): pp. 9-23, 157-379.
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. R. Tucker (New York: Norton, 1978): 16-52, 70-93, 143-200, 302-312, 319-329, 469-500, 734-751.
Friedrich Nietzschi, On the Advantage & Disadvantage of History for Life, trans. Peter Preuss (Indianapolis: Hackett Pub Co (June 1, 1980): entire.