Hegel – Ethical Life

This essay presupposes familiarity with my previous essays on Hegel:

  1. Master/Slave (Phenomenology of Spirit)
  2. Property and Self-consciousness (Philosophy of Right)

I. Right
A. Property

  1. Taking possession
  2. Use
  3. Alienation


II. Morality
C.Good & Conscience

III. Ethical Life
B.Civil Society

  1. System of Needs
  2. Administration of Justice
  3. Police & the Public Authority

C.the State

  1. Constitutional Law
  2. International Law
  3. World History

Hegel’s philosophy describes the maturation processes of several interdependent things including, but not limited to the following:

  • self-consciousness of
  • the individual
  • a society
  • philosophy
  • freedom of
  • the individual
  • a society

The Philosophy of Right is Hegel’s description of the history of political philosophy. The book is broken into three sections: Right, Morality, and the Ethical Life. In the previous reading I argued that Right correlates to ‘the Master’ (from another previous Hegel reading ‘Master/Slave’), Morality correlates to ‘the Slave,’ and the Ethical Life is the modern western liberal society. Under further study I think this is only half true. I’ll try to correct this description.
I also said that in Hegel an idea appears ‘on the scene’ as an abstract philosophical idea, and then is implemented, and then the philosophical idea must adapt for the reality of the actual implementation. I must amend this, though I don’t fully understand what the right understanding of Hegel’s dialectic is. Before analyzing Hegel’s political philosophy I will attempt to explicate what the ‘moments’ of the dialectic are.

Hegel’s book ‘The Philosophy of Right’ is about the three moments of the Idea of Freedom. In the first moment a concept appears on the scene as something that it feels like has always existed. It exists because it is a great step of progress for humanity, though it is experienced as something that was always true. It is something that cannot remain the way that it is because, in spite of its significance, it is internally flawed when worked out to its logical conclusion. The logical conclusion brings about a counter movement, referred to as the second moment.
In order to understand this better let’s look at the example of the Master/Slave again. In the beginning of the story a consciousness exists without constraints in the world. It tries to dominate and consume anything and everything. This is the first moment. The “internal flaw” is the fact that one can only behave like this if one is the only one behaving like this. Once the consciousness runs into another consciousness willing to challenge it, each insists upon dominating the other, but someone must submit in the end, bringing about the second moment.
The second moment occurs when one submits to the other. Now the second moment is the ‘Slave,’ (and the first moment becomes the ‘Master’). The Slave is careful not to offend the Master because he/she fears the Master, and is dependent upon the Master for his/her livelihood. Because of their respective roles in life, each consciousness (moment) holds different axioms about the world, and consequently reasons differently. If asked questions about morality the Master may say it is important to rule well, while the Slave might say that it is important to serve well.

I am unclear what the transition from the second moment to the third moment really looks like. Among Hegel scholars there is debate over whether the third moment is a ‘resolution’ of the conflict between the first and second moments, or just a new conflict, as a rejection of the second moment. If it is a new conflict, I’m not sure how to describe it, though I am tempted to believe that this is the right interpretation. Nonetheless, I will usually interpret the third moment as an easing of tension.

The third moment comes about after the Slave learns a how to become self-sufficient, while the Master remains dependent upon the Slave. The Slave insists upon being treated as an equal. Once they become equals, the axioms both hold about the world change, and both begin to reason differently than before. If asked about morality, both may recognize the importance of treating everyone fairly.

Before going any further, let me make one point clear. Each moment can break down into three “sub” moments. This can be seen above in the outline. I will try to refer to the outline when it is helpful.

Now to our reading, or at least the previous reading: Right, Morality, and the Ethical Life. Previously I said Right is essentially the moment of the Master, and Morality is essentially the moment of the Slave. The reason why this doesn’t work is because Right is not about one person having the right to do whatever they want. It is about creating a society where everyone has the right to do whatever they want (in particular, own whatever they want), within certain limitations. It is a story about the Master and Slave after they recognize each other as equals, having the right own property, consuming property, the trading of goods for other goods, and the formation of contracts, like in Locke.

Our readings skip over the part where Hegel explains why Right, due to an internal conflict, brought about the second moment, Morality. It also skips over the entire section on Morality. This months reading starts at Ethical Life (142), the third moment of the Philosophy of Right. In order to understand the Ethical Life I will take a moment to describe what I know of the missing pieces.

The third moment of Right is Wrong (no pun intended), and is about punishment of theft, etc…
The moment of Morality is about creating a society in which people can act morally based on their conscience, rather than acting on their natural desires, merely self-interestedly fulfilling a social contract. When used as a force in government Morality appears to come in conflict with freedom, but the goal is to make it possible for individuals to be truly free. One cannot be said to be free until one can control oneself.

The second moment (Intention) of Morality makes a direct reference to Kant. Kant describes a theoretical, perfect society of duty, where everyone fulfilled their obligation to do the right thing by acting out of pure intentions, out of pure duty. As a member of society one ought to fulfill his/her duty to society.

The third moment of Morality is essentially captured by the French Revolution, when the pure intentions of Robespierre were given too much arbitrary power, resulting in the killing of 16,000 people in the name of “the people.” Personal morality cannot be trusted to respect the good of the whole. Hegel argues that we need an Ethical society, not a Moral one. Morality is about making the world align with one person’s (or one group’s) vision of the good.
Our reading only goes halfway through the Ethical Life, only describes at a high level the first moment (Family), and only pieces of the second moment (Civil Society), specifically the first (System of Needs) and the second (Administration of Justice) moments of Civil Society. It does not going into the State, which is Hegel’s very questionable ideal of what a political system should look like. In spite of Hegel’s sympathy with Kant, his State is surprisingly conservative (monarchist/aristocratic). Scholars have argued over it. Some use his conservatism as a justification for dismissing him. Others have defended it, ignored it as inconsistent with the rest of his theory, or modernized it to fit into today’s democratic liberal worldview.

Recognizing the gaps in the reading, here is my summary of the reading (finally!):
The Ethical Life is the final moment of the Idea of Freedom. Human history can be told as a story of the gradual development of freedom. With Locke (I. Right) freedom was treated as an ideal in which the people were no longer subservient to the monarch, and Right is based on what you can get away with, and what you have a right to, by way of natural consequences under the social contract. In Kant (II. Morality) freedom is found by becoming self aware enough to identify your natural desires, and to self-consciously overcome them in order to act out of duty. In Hegel (III. Ethical Life) freedom is found when one recognizes that one cannot escape one’s natural desires, but one can habituate their behavior such that their actions are not purely causal.

The Ethical Life takes place in a culture that recognizes the importance of moderating one’s natural drives, but is self-aware enough to admit that one can never escape them. This should sound reminiscent of Aristotle. One must be fortunate enough to grow up in a healthy, self-aware, stable society, and a healthy, stable, loving family that educates their children to behave ethically.

To behave Ethically is to find one’s sense of “the good” from outside of oneself. This does not mean that one should not think for oneself. One should. But to think for oneself only, without consideration of what those around you think, is to let one’s morality become tyrannical, and potentially very harmful. The Ethical Life recognizes our interdependence as natural/human beings. We can only be truly free when we help each other. This does not mean that we will all get along, or that we will all want the same things, but we have to recognize that we cannot find happiness or success without each other. We have to find a way to make it work.

Civil Society, the second moment of the Ethical Life, is a step in that direction. Each of us has natural needs and desires, including the need to feel productive. In Civil Society we have the System of Needs (the first moment) that looks similar to Adam Smith’s Division of Labor, albeit with some government intervention and social pressure to make sure that the private interests of the individuals actually benefit the whole. Hegel recognizes that the reality of this system is that some people are better positioned to make a lot more money than others do, due to birth, education, wealth, health, or intelligence, resulting in a new, but inevitably stable class structure.
The second moment of Civil Society is the Administration of Justice. In the Ethical Life of the Civil Society it is generally accepted that everyone should be treated equally and fairly, even if they are from a despised religious or racial minority. Of course, in reality it doesn’t always work that way, but as the culture’s customs become formalized into actual legal laws individuals have recourse to them, giving them a better chance of being treated in accordance with the ideal of freedom.

Hegel also points out an interesting point: no legal code is complete. The justice system is always in effect writing new laws when they judge in grey area cases. Their judgments are based on the unwritten law (i.e. custom). Nonetheless, the goal is to elevate the decisions of the courts above private interest.

Hegel continues, but our reading ends here, so I will too.


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