In this I refer to my previous summary of the Master/Slave. I recommend reading it first if you are not already familiar with it.
The concepts of “Rights,” “Ethics,” and “the state” have existed for as long as they have been manifest in the world through laws, morality, and religion, but they have not been understood by philosophy. It must be put into theory before philosophy will accept it. Once philosophy gets its hands on them the concepts will evolve.
Unlike Plato’s or Kant’s utopianianism, philosophy should focus on the actual. Yet, in spite of this “should,” the genius of Plato and his Republic is that he started the revolution, the philosophy of “the state.” He did philosophy wrong, but he did it right in order to get the conversation started.
What is rational is actual and what is actual is rational. (Implicit in Hegel is the idea that there is a mind/body dualism that needs to be overcome before we can find the truth. The mind represents philosophy and the world of ideas, while the body represents the physical actual world. Typically we think of philosophy as rational, but Hegel contrasts philosophy with the actual, and, while counter-intuitive, presupposes that the actual world is rational, rather than philosophy. In order for philosophy to find the truth it must understand (become in unity with) the rationality implicit within nature and culture, within the actual world.
Hegel also recognizes that philosophy cannot leap ahead of its time. Philosophy cannot find the eternal truth. The best philosophy can do it understand and articulate the reality of its time.
Philosophy cannot predict the future, and it cannot develop a philosophy that meets the needs of the future. The most it can do is understand the current situation.
Philosophy learns about the philosophy of the state (i.e. the Philosophy of Right) through actual states, which includes the character of a people derived from the historical development of those people, the ways in which actual laws manifest the conceptual ideas behind the laws, and the ways that judgments in the courts manifest the conceptual ideas.
The state, and the philosophy of state, come out of the will’s search for freedom in the actual world.
Overlapping with the Master/Slave narrative from the Phenomenology of Spirit, in the Philosophy of Right Hegel describes the path that human history struggles in the dark, inarticulately, for freedom. The powerful seek to prove to themselves and the world their importance by overcoming the natural world through property ownership and consumption. The weak seek to escape the world and their lack of property ownership through philosophies that endorse an ascetic lifestyle. Freedom begins to be realized when the weak are no longer slaves, and they begin to be treated as equals. As equals they are enabled to sell their labor for limited amounts of time, rather than forced to work their entire lives for their master.
The freedom found in the state is actually found first in the family, eventually in civil society, where people are not obligated to each other through familial love, and thus have more autonomy, and then eventually in the state, which expands to be a state or states covering the entire world, with the actual manifestation of true freedom. For Hegel just because a country is a “state,” such as the United Sates or Germany, doesn’t mean it has reached the mature freedom captured in the idea of the absolutely free will. In fact, I can’t tell if this is a contradiction in Hegel. He claims you can never predict the future, and yet he argues that the concept of “absolutely free will” is fulfilled in a world yet non-existent where all nations respect the contract and treat everyone as equals as human beings.
In the conversation of the absolutely free will Hegel recognizes that there is an advantage in articulating the difference between morality and ethics. The moral life is the life focused entirely on the things the slave is concerned with, the things that prevent them from admitting the real world, while ethics try to implement the concerns of the actual world.
Hegel then goes into detail about the steps the will goes through searching for freedom. The wealthy Master expresses his or her freedom by his or her fingerprint on the world. We can call this their personality. The Master has personhood, and treats the slave as an object, an external “thing,” things that can be owned and used to express the Master’s personality, the Master’s “mental aptitude, erudition, artistic skill,” or ingenuity. This externalization of the internal is known as “alienation.”
Objects are things that can be owned because the objects do not have ends in and of themselves. (When it comes to slaves this is obviously not the case… to us now, but not to the slave holders. One may say that slave holders in the American South knew quite well that their slaves were human beings with their own goals and desires, but I don’t think Hegel is talking about American slaveholders. I think he is talking about the Ancient world. I think Hegel would say that the American slaveholders were at the end of an era, trying to hold on to an outdated way of thinking.)
I begin to think of myself as an autonomous person when I accumulate private property. I express my personality by physically possessing property, using property, or giving it away of my own free will. By taking something into my possession it becomes something that defines me, while the use of a thing actually serves as an opportunity for self-discovery when it does not easily submit to my will. (This is how, in the Master/Slave the Slave begins to become a person. It is the Slave who gains self-discovery by learning independence through physical labor. The Master is entirely dependent upon the slave.)
A thing can earn a quantifiable value comparable to the value of other things through use. As owner I own the value. I cannot value my religion or freedom in this way, but I can alienate my labor, and give it such a value. I can write a book or create an invention, and these externalized things can be given value.
The contract becomes relevant when two wills, two equals, transfer the ownership of an object. This happens with the inception of civil society, where people are not obligated to each other through familial love.