On Hegel’s Ethics

by Paul Ashton

I shall produce a few short comments on Hegel’s Ethics in two parts which hopefully provide a different angle to the question. Firstly, and most importantly, I shall outline why Hegel’s ethical theory has value and why it is superior to all other theories and secondly I shall briefly outline what it is that is so good.

The fundamental problem with all socio-political theories is that they lack foundation and ultimately rational justification . To be sure, in modern liberal society people make and deny universal claims at the drop of a hat. Our society is based on the very ability of the autonomous individual to choose his or her own beliefs and furthermore to reject any other belief framework they wish. One can say what they like and I can equally reject it. The only position that is rendered absurd in modern liberal society is the belief that suppresses the others right to hold their own differing view. It should be noted here that, contrary to many Marxists, ‘I’ (!) believe that Hegel thinks that capitalism is the result of this situation and not the exception to peoples ability to universalise their own beliefs (the implications for this position are enormous). Hence, we have relativism; anything goes (or should I say ‘nothing’ goes).

In this context what is the point of me saying that Hegel believes x, y, z about people and hence comes up with a, b, c ethical theories when somebody else can just as easily refute these positions and formulate an alternate set of beliefs with only themselves as the judge of validity? Furthermore, what is the point in the face of the lack of the possibility of any real change? For instance I may well say that the individual is born out of society whereas Thatcher may deny society even exists. Whatever arguments that I show to disprove the Iron Lady it does not change the fact that she can refute my view merely on the basis of her liberal perspective. I am not saying that liberalism is not ideological, rather I am saying that those who hold this ideology have the backing of an ontological reality.

The first thing that an ethical theory must do to overcome this situation is develop a theory that takes account of the present age, in our case modern liberalism, and builds this in to their theory. I believe that Hegel does this. However, what is more important is that the theory be premised on a meta-theory that explains or accounts for all of existence. Only when one does this can they apply necessity to their ethical theory and only then does it have any meaning in the present climate. Hence, why is the present age necessarily as it is, and why must it change if we are to be free?

For Hegel’s metaphysical ethics to be necessary it must be self-grounding and unconditional. Hegel achieves his self-grounding metaphysics firstly and abstractly in the logic and then concretely and existentially in the philosophies of nature and spirit. Although it is not the time to articulate Hegel’s entire system, a few things should be kept in mind. Firstly, Hegel strongly believed that the logical categories order the philosophy of spirit. This basically means that the content of Hegel’s philosophy of human culture (which is broken down into anthropology, phenomenology, psychology, law, morality, social ethics-which includes the family, civil society and the state-art, religion and philosophy) is structured and ordered by the logical categories which represent the truth of the world. How this is achieved and or comprehended is the hardest aspect to understanding Hegel’s philosophy.

I shall mention just one more thing about Hegel’s method before I outline some of his content. I give this special mention as it is crucial to the whole left project. That is, I believe that in Hegel’s logical, or what we may call metaphysical, investigations he discovers that the central and most fundamental aspect of the Absolute, or what non-Hegelians may refer to as the entire universe, is the concept of recognition. And when humans are ultimately free and dwell in the truth of their own existence they will dwell in a state of pure self recognition in absolute otherness, that is, they will see themselves as themselves and equally through the eyes of others (an I that is we and a we that is I). I believe that this position is justified in the phenomenology and in the syllogistic structure of the logic.

Now that I have outlined the fact there is little point in outlining the specific ideas of any ethical theory, I shall only outline the logical implications of Hegel’s theory so as to show how they do in fact form that basis of any reasonable left perspective. To be sure, there is an unending mass of left theories that describe better ways to organize socially. Common themes one might hear are; the need to overcome dualism (whether it be subject/object, female/male, human/nature, culture/nature etc.), the ontological priority of solidarity over the individual, mutual recognition, development of creativity, removal of greed oppression and corruption etc. etc.. However, what is just mere desire in other left philosophy becomes metaphysical necessity in Hegel’s thought.

As mentioned earlier the central principle of Hegel’s ethics is recognition, this leads to the most fundamental aspect of the philosophy of spirit which is freedom in solidarity. Recognition also highlights Hegel’s demand of overcoming dualism and the move toward a more integrated holism. This type of outlook also covers any race or gender issues that are a necessary part of any contemporary ethical theory. The rest of the details I shall leave up to others to fill in and direct people to Richard Schacht, ‘Hegel on Freedom’ in Alasdair MacIntyre (ed.), Hegel: a collection of essays, Notre Dame, Notre Dame Press 1976; Williams, Robert R., Hegel’s Ethics of Recognition, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1997. and of coarse Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.