Nascent Inequality in Hegel’s Civil Society

Whether enthusiastically placed on a pedestal or shoved in a dark corner, Georg Friedrich Hegel remains one of the most controversial and influential figures in modern philosophy. In perhaps his most famous work, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, Hegel develops a comprehensive vision of the good society, one rightful in its structure, and motivated by the driving force of existence. This force, known as geist or the Spirit of the Age, propels the course of history toward the ever-increasing actualization of its ultimate end: freedom. Spirit is the activity of history and it develops in stages that build successively upon each other in pursuit of freedom’s coming-to-presence. In light of the orientation of human existence towards the relentless pursuit of freedom, Hegel develops three spheres of right in this work: Abstract Right, Morality, and Ethical Life. These spheres form the three-part dialectical movement that traces the stages of the will, and constitutes a unified vision of existence. Only in the final stage, Ethical Life, is freedom realized to be both in-and-for-itself: when willing, right-bearing individuals achieve determinacy in light of a place they find for themselves in a larger social, and ultimately historical, process. Although the first two stages of the dialectic are rejected in turn, they nonetheless remain a necessary part of the ultimate end of Ethical Life. To Hegel, “the true is the whole,” and thus part of the truth of the final stage is the particular process that led to it being so. In Philosophy of Right, the dialectical movement begins with Abstract Right as the realm of particulars, an abstracted sphere of arbitrary freedom that each individual possesses. This sphere fails to fulfill Hegel’s conception of humans as inherently social beings, whereby individuals can only be “with-themselves” by finding some purpose that gives each an identity in relation to the other individuals, and which arises from an individual freedom of choice. Abstract Right is then opposed to Morality, a universal moral law or set of principles that stands higher than positive law. This, too, Hegel rejects. He views Morality as insufficiently concrete or relevant, and therefore too abstract to give meaning to the type of existence we ought to lead. Finally, we arrive at Ethical Life, the realm of unity between individual subjective will and universal morality formalized as institutions and universal maxims. This is the final stage of the dialectic because it successfully liberates the individual from dependence on mere natural impulse (Abstract Right) and indeterminate subjectivity that is incapable of producing a clear view of felicitous action (Morality). The Ethical Life is “freedom as ‘being with oneself in another,’ that is, actively relating to something other than oneself in such a way that this other becomes integrated into one’s projects, completing and fulfilling them so that it counts as belonging to one’s own action rather than standing over against it,” (PR, xii). Only when we freely and rationally choose ends that affirm the interdependence of our particular and universal ends does Hegel believe that we are truly free.Within the Ethical Life – the sphere of right action brought down from arbitrary morality to form particular obligations and freedoms – are Family, Civil Society, and the State. Ethical Life is the system of institutions, norms, and cultural practices that is, and which guides social behavior whether we know it or not. It is a higher form of the abstract good of Morality because it is livable, attainable, and achievable in the within a social human order. What makes the State the end in itself of Ethical Life is its apparent ability to harmonize personal right, subjective freedom, and happiness of its individual members by universalizing the particular interests of individuals. This occurs as individuals become conscious of the way in which their own interests “pass over of their own accord into the interest of the universal,” and thus individuals “knowingly and willingly acknowledge this universal interest even as their own substantial spirit, and actively pursue it as their ultimate end,” (PR, 260). In this way, particular interests are transformed as the individual becomes conscious of his place in a universal social order.Hegel’s analysis of the three stages of Ethical Life follows the path of his three-part dialectical movement. The individual is first and foremost the member of a Family that is immediately given, and held together by love and mutual obligation. This is the realm of particularity, limited by its isolation from the larger social context. Departing from this particular protected realm, the individual encounters a universal system of contingent needs and wants. In the Family, he is “a concrete person who, as a particular person, as a totality of needs and a mixture of natural necessity and arbitrariness, is his own end,” (PR, 182, bold added). But this individual is only “one principle” of Civil Society. Thus Civil Society transforms individuals by causing them to recognize their contingent needs and wants; that ‘my freedom ends where yours begins.’ It is in Civil Society that the individual stands “essentially in relation to other similar [particular people], and their relation is such that each asserts itself and gains satisfaction through the others,” (PR, 182). This relationship between contingent people manifests as a market economy, where, for any individual, getting what he wants depends on his ability to produce something that someone else wants. This brings to presence the inherently social quality of human existence, (PR, 192, Addition (H)). Clearly, getting what one wants depends on the particular skills, resources, and opportunities available. Thus, education is meant to be an equalizing institution of Civil Society that “irons out particularity,” rendering individuals essentially equally capable of satisfying their ends, (PR, 187). There are two main defects present in the sphere of Civil Society. First, it has a predisposition towards producing extremely polarized economic circumstances. As a result of contingent circumstances that produce “inequalities in the resources and skills,” individuals are unequally capable of achieving their ends, (PR, 200). Second, as Hegel admits, Civil Society lacks the tools to address and rectify its polarized, alienated tendencies: “deprivation and want are likewise boundless, and this confused situation can be restored to harmony only through the forcible intervention of the state,” (PR, 185). Still, the sphere of Civil Society remains a part of Ethical Life because it integrates the particular subjective desires and wants of individuals with a universal context. As the second phase of the three-part dialectic, Civil Society is still the alienated, polarized condition that precedes the unity and interpenetration of universal and subjective wills, which occurs only in the final stage of Hegel’s dialectic. According to its place in the dialectical movement towards freedom, the State resolves any and all defects of Civil Society precisely because it is the natural, necessary conclusion of Ethical Life, where the universal and particular wills are help together in synthesized unity. It remains to be seen, however, exactly how the state is supposed to overcome the inequality woven into the very fabric of Civil Society.The State is considered to be the absolute end of Ethical Life because it seems to be the rational consequence of an awareness of our contingent nature as human beings. Hegel asserts that what is rational is the “unity and interpenetration of universality and individuality,” (PR 258). The State is thus a synthesis of the particular needs and wants of individuals with the universal contingent quality of existence. It is a set of formal institutions (which form a constitutional monarchy) that propel human beings towards their ultimate end of freedom by causing them to recognize that, as social beings, their ends are inherently tied up with the ends of others, and therefore with the ends of the State. Still, there is no indication that the State possesses the ability to erase the power structure brought forth in Civil Society, whereby there are ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ simply by virtue of the market economy. Perhaps Hegel envisions a sphere of interaction between individuals where, cognizant of the contingency of their ends, each individual wants only what he needs, and alienation and polarization disappear. Enlightened individuals would feel compelled not out of a sense of duty but through a rationally achieved understanding that “my substantial and particular interest is preserved and contained in the interest and end of another (in this case, the state),” (PR 268). If this is what Hegel intends for the State, it seems both unreasonable and unlikely that people would act accordingly. The polarizing results of a competitive market economy are so precisely because that competition is predicated upon finite, limited resources. In this sense, Hegel entirely misses the point by claiming to have reconciled the contingent needs and wants of individuals with the institution of the State, having provided no method for differentiating between those who must suffer and those who will prosper. Thus while Hegel claims that the State is uniquely capable of resolving the polarizing tendencies of Civil Society, he provides insufficient insight as to how the State is capable of causing its members to see the larger system of needs and wants, and place its demands before their own. Perhaps this obscurity results from an error Hegel makes with the logic of his dialectical movement when he applies it to the realm of Ethical Life. Admittedly, the existence of Hegel’s Civil Society is predicated on the prior existence of the State. At the end of his section on Civil Society, Hegel writes: “In actuality, therefore, the state in general is in fact the primary factor; only within the state does the family first develop into civil society…” (PR, 256). Although the State, as the final dialectical stage, represents the unity between universal and particular wills it is somehow necessary in order for Civil Society (its preceding stage) to be realized. The reciprocal relationship between State and Civil Society render the two stages incapable of standing logically independent from one another. This particular dialectical logic does not follow the usual path whereby each successive stage of the will cancels, elevates, and moves beyond a previous one by incorporating it into itself.There is yet another error in Hegel’s reasoning that is more fundamental to his vision. He portrays the polarized nature of Civil Society as resulting from the contingent, conflicting wants and needs of individuals. But more concretely, there are not enough resources for each to have whatever and however much he wants, and the market economy is thus born as a system of regulating diverse and conflicting desires. Thus while Hegel rests the foundation of his dialectic on ideas about contingency, he isn’t able to address the empirical reality of scarcity. Another view might point towards the inherently limited nature of resources as the primary source of conflict. After all, if it were possible to satisfy everyone’s material desires in tandem, there would be no source of conflict. But in light of scarcity, the success of the strong and the failure of the weak in a market economy is a phenomenon that seems unlikely to disappear within Hegel’s vision of the State.