G.W.F. Hegel: Civil Society and the State

I. Introduction

In this chapter we discuss G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831), whose Philosophy of Right presents an important statement on civil society. The starting point for this discussion is Hegel’s critique of Immanuel Kant. Hegel believes that Kant’s approach to morality represented a kind of “empty formalism.” What this claim means is that Kant's depiction of his basic moral principles merely said that individuals were to act in keeping with what constitutes necessary moral duties, but, at the same time, Kant's approach to defining these duties did not clearly specify their actual content.1 Kant's moral philosophy was an empty formalism for Hegel, then, because although Kant said that individuals were always obligated to do their duties, they were never told what precisely those duties were. Kant, of course, would have objected to Hegel's characterization of his views, and Kant would have argued that he did in fact demonstrate the concrete character of people's duties when he developed his views of civil society. The latter represents those institutions that can best realize equal liberty and by doing so carry into practice the requirement to treat each other as ends and not as means. In our view, Kant would seem to have had a good case against Hegel. However, Hegel thinks otherwise.

Thus, Hegel, in his discussion of what he calls the ethical life, seeks to demonstrate the precise content of the modes of conduct and required obligations that individuals are to uphold. His chief concern is to argue not only that individuals have an obligation to respect the rights of others but that, in addition, there must be institutions in place that describe the nature of the conduct that individuals must uphold to meet this objective. For Hegel, then, each person possesses a “capacity for rights,” and it is the obligation of each person to respect these rights and thus to live by the imperative that says we are to “be a person and respect others as persons.”2

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