Singer/Hegel

The third chapter of Hegel by Peter Singer, OUP 1983


3 Freedom and community

A puzzle

We have seen that Hegel believes all the events of the past to have been leading up to the goal of freedom. At the conclusion of the Philosophy of History there was an indication that this goal might have been reached; but Hegel provided few indications why Prussia (or any of the other German States existing at that time) should be regarded as the glorious result for which three thousand years of world history had been striving. When Hegel gave his lectures on the philosophy of history, Prussia’s period of liberal reform under von Stein and von Hardenberg was over. Prussia was dominated by the King and a few other powerful families. It lacked a parliament of any importance, denied the overwhelming majority of its citizens any say in the running of the State, and imposed a strict censorship. How could Hegel have regarded such a society as the pinnacle of human freedom? Is it any wonder that the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer should have said, with Hegel in mind: ‘Governments make of philosophy a means of serving their State interests, and scholars make of it a trade’? Or that Karl Popper should believe that Hegel had one aim, ‘to fight against the open society, and thus to serve his employer, Frederick William of Prussia’?

In this chapter I shall try to explain Hegel’s concept of freedom. If I succeed, I will have shown that whatever his motivation, Hegel’s thinking on this subject has to be taken seriously because it cuts deeply into assumptions we frequently make when we say that one society is free and another is not.

We have seen that in the introduction to the Philosophy of History Hegel says that world history is nothing but the progress of consciousness of freedom. He adds, a few lines further on, that this term ‘freedom’ is ‘an indefinite, and incalculably ambiguous term . . . liable to an infinity of misunderstandings, confusions and errors’. Unfortunately he declines to give a further definition, saying that instead the essential nature of freedom ‘is to be displayed’ in the process of interpreting the history of the world. This is not entirely satisfactory. Our examination of the Philosophy of History may have given us a glimmering of what Hegel takes freedom to be; but if so, it is a glimmering that urgently requires the further illumination of Hegel’s more explicit comments in the Philosophy of Right.

First, a word about the title. To an English-speaking reader, ‘Philosophy of Right’ suggests a work about right and wrong, in other words a study of ethics. Ethics does figure prominently in Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, but its subject is closer to political philosophy. The German word in Hegel’s title which is translated as ‘Right’ is Recht. This can mean ‘right’, but has wider associations, including that of ‘law’, in the sense in which we refer to ‘the Law’ as a whole rather than to one particular law. So the Philosophy of Right expresses Hegel’s philosophical ideas about ethics, jurisprudence, society and the state. Since freedom is always central to Hegel’s concerns, the Philosophy of Right contains Hegel’s most detailed discussion of freedom in the social and political sphere. Naturally, it contains discussions of other topics as well, but I shall pass over them in the interest of pursuing the crucial concept of freedom.

Abstract freedom

It will be best to begin with something familiar. Consider what might be called the classical liberal conception of freedom. Liberals generally see freedom as the absence of restrictions. I am free if others do not interfere with me and do not force me to do what I do not want to do. I am free when I can do as I please. I am free when I am left alone. This is the concept of freedom that Isaiah Berlin, in his celebrated essay ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’, called ‘negative freedom’.

Hegel was familiar with this concept of freedom but, unlike Berlin and many other contemporary liberals and libertarians who regard it as the most desirable form of freedom, he refers to it as formal or abstract freedom, meaning that it has the form of freedom, but not the substance. He writes; ‘If we hear it said that the definition of freedom is ability to do what we please, such an idea can only be taken to reveal an utter immaturity of thought, for it contains not even an inkling of the absolutely free will, of right, ethical life, and so forth.’ Hegel’s objection to this notion of freedom is that it takes the choices of the individual as the basis from which freedom must begin — how and why these choices are made is a question that those who hold this conception of freedom do not ask. Hegel does ask it, and his answer is that the individual choice, considered in isolation from everything else, is the outcome of arbitrary circumstances. Hence it is not genuinely free.

This seems high-handed. How dare Hegel tell us that our choices are arbitrary — while his, presumably, are genuinely free? Is this anything more than a blatant attempt to impose his values on us?

Maybe. But we may become a little more sympathetic to what Hegel is trying to say if we consider an analogous contemporary debate. Some economists believe that the proper test of how well an economic system works is the extent to which it enables people to satisfy their preferences. These economists take individual preferences as the basis from which assessment must begin. They do not ask how these preferences come about. To select among preferences and give some preferences more weight than others (apart from the differing weights given to their preferences by the individuals who hold them) would be, these economists say, a blatant attempt to impose one’s own values on others by denying them the capacity to decide what they really want out of life.

I shall call these economists ‘liberal economists’. The liberal economists have their critics, whom I shall call ‘radical economists’. The radical economists ask some questions about how individual preferences are formed before they agree to take such preferences as the sole basis for judging how well an economic system works. They bring up examples of the following kind: suppose that at a certain time people in our society take the normal human body odours for granted. That humans sweat and that it is possible to smell a sweaty person are things they barely notice, and in so far as they do notice them, they do not consider them unpleasant. Then someone discovers a product which has the effect of inhibiting sweat and the odour it gives off. That is an interesting discovery, but, in the society described, interest in the product will be very limited. Our inventor, however, does not give up easily. He launches a clever advertising campaign designed to make people anxious about whether they sweat more than other people, and whether their friends might find their body odour offensive. His advertising is successful. People develop a preference for using the new product; and because the product is widely available at a price within their means, they can satisfy this preference. From the standpoint of the liberal economists, all this is fine. That the economy works in this way provides them with no basis for rating it less favourably than they otherwise would have. The radical economists think this is manifestly absurd. To avoid such absurdities, they say, economists must face the difficult task of enquiring into the basis of preferences, and must judge economic systems by their ability to satisfy not just any preferences, but those preferences that are based on genuine human needs or contribute to genuine human welfare. The radical economists concede that if we adopt their method, we cannot claim that our assessment is value-free; but they add that no method of assessing an economic system can be value-free. The method of assessment used by the liberal economists simply took the satisfaction of existing preferences as its sole value. A value-judgement is therefore implicit in the use of this method, though disguised under a cloak of objectivity. The liberal economists effectively give their blessing to whatever circumstances happen to influence what people prefer.

There is a clear parallel between this debate and Hegel’s debate with those who define freedom as the ability to do what we please. This negative concept of freedom is like the liberal economist’s conception of a good economic system: it refuses to ask what influences form the ‘pleasings’ that we act upon when we are free to do as we please. Those who hold this conception of freedom assert that to ask such a question, and to use the answers as a basis for sorting out genuinely free choices from those that are free only in form and not in substance, would be to write one’s own values into the conception of freedom. Hegel’s retort, like that of the radical economists, would be that the negative conception of freedom is already based on a value, the value of action based on choice, no matter how that choice is reached or how arbitrary it may be. The negative conception of freedom, in other words, gives its blessing to whatever circumstances happen to be influencing the way people choose.

If you agree that it is absurd to see no objection to an economic system that artificially creates new preferences so that some may profit by satisfying them, you must agree that the radical economists have a point. Admittedly it will be difficult to sort out the preferences which contribute to genuine human welfare from those that do not. It may prove impossible to reach agreement on this. Nevertheless, the difficulty of the task is no reason for taking all preferences at face value.

If you agree that the radical economists have a point, it is only a small step to agreeing that Hegel has a point. Indeed, it is really no step at all; for Hegel anticipated the central point of the radical economists’ position, a point that has been popularised in the twentieth century by J. K. Galbraith, Vance Packard and a host of other critics of the modern industrial economy. Here is Hegel, writing at the very infancy of the consumer society, but perceptive enough to pick up the way it was going:

What the English call ‘comfort’ is something inexhaustible and illimitable. Others can reveal to you that what you take to be comfort at any stage is discomfort, and these discoveries never come to an end. Hence the need for greater comfort does not exactly arise within you directly; it is suggested to you by those who hope to make a profit from its creation.

This remark occurs in a section of the Philosophy of Right that examines what Hegel calls ‘The System of Needs’; it follows hard upon a reference to the great figures in classical liberal economic theory, Adam Smith, J. B. Say and David Ricardo. Hegel’s criticism of this ‘system of needs’ shows that the ground of his opposition to the liberal economic view of society was essentially that taken by radical economists today. Behind it lies Hegel’s steady historical perspective. He never loses sight of the fact that our wants and desires are shaped by the society in which we live, and that this society in turn is a stage in a historical process. Hence abstract freedom, the freedom to do as we please, is effectively the freedom to be pushed to and fro by the social and historical forces of our times.

As a criticism of the negative concept of freedom, Hegel’s view should by now seem reasonable enough. What, however, does he intend to put in its place? We all must live in a particular society at a particular period of history. We will all be shaped by the society and times in which we live. How then can freedom be anything more than the freedom to act as we are led to act by social and historical forces?

Freedom and duty

Some of our desires are the product of our nature — like the desire for food, we were born with them, or like sexual desires, we were born with the potential to develop them. Many of our other desires were formed by our upbringing, our education, the society in which we live, our environment generally. Biological or social as the origins of these desires might be, it is true in either case that we did not choose them. Since we did not choose our desires, we are not free when we act from desire.

This argument is reminiscent of Kant rather than Hegel, but Hegel goes along with it up to a point. Let us follow it a little further. If we are not free when we act from desire, it seems that the only possible path to freedom is to purge oneself of all desires. But what would then be left? Kant’s answer is: reason. Motivation to action can come from desires, or from reason. Do away with the desires, and we are left with pure practical reason.

Action based on reason alone — the idea is not easy to grasp. We can talk readily enough of a person’s actions being rational or irrational, but we normally do so in relation to the ultimate ends or goals that person has, and these ends will be based on desires. For example, knowing that Mohammed Ali desires to retain his reputation as a great boxer, I may say that it is irrational for him to attempt yet another come-back at the age of thirty-seven; but if I am asked whether I consider it rational of Ali to desire to retain his reputation, what can I say? Only that this kind of desire is too basic to be either rational or irrational: it is just a brute fact about the man. Can there be judgements of rationality or irrationality which are not based on basic desires of this kind?

Kant says there can be. When we take away all particular desires, even the most basic ones, we are left with the bare, formal element of rationality, and this bare formal element is the universal form of the moral law itself. This is Kant’s famous ‘categorical imperative’, which he puts thus: ‘Act only so that the maxim of your action can be willed as a universal law.’

The most puzzling step in this is the move from bare formal rationality to the idea of something universal. Kant holds — and Hegel obviously agrees — that reason is implicitly universal. If we know that all men are mortal and that Socrates was a man, then a law of reasoning tells us that Socrates was mortal. The law of reasoning that tells us this is a universal law — it holds not just for Greeks or for philosophers or even for Earthlings, but for all rational beings. In practical reasoning — that is, reasoning about what to do — this universal element is often concealed by the fact that we start from particular desires which are anything but universal. Consider this piece of practical reasoning: ‘I want to be rich; I can defraud my employer of a million dollars without being detected; therefore I should defraud my employer.’ Here the reasoning starts from my desire to be rich. There is nothing universal about this desire. (Don’t be misled by the fact that many people desire to be rich; the desire from which I begin this reasoning is the desire that I, Peter Singer, should be rich. Very, very few people share this desire.) Because there is nothing universal about the starting-point of this piece of reasoning, there is nothing universal about its conclusion, which certainly does not hold for all rational beings. If we were to reason about what to do without starting from any particular desire, however, there would be nothing to prevent our reasoning from holding for all rational beings. Pure practical reasoning, independently of particular desires, could only embody the universal element in reasoning. It would therefore, Kant contends, take the form prescribed by the categorical imperative.

If Kant is right, the only kind of action that is not the result of our innate or socially conditioned desires is action in accordance with the categorical imperative. Only action in accordance with the categorical imperative, therefore, can be free. Since only free action can have genuine moral worth, the categorical imperative must be not only the supreme imperative of reason, but also the supreme law of morality.

One final point is needed to complete the picture. If my action is free, my motivation for acting in accordance with the categorical imperative cannot be any particular desire I might happen to have. It cannot, therefore, be my desire to go to heaven, or to win the esteem of my friends; nor can it be my benevolent desire to do good to others. My motivation must simply be to act in accord with the universal law of reason and morality, for its own sake. I must do my duty because it is my duty — the Kantian ethic is sometimes summed up in the slogan: ‘Duty for duty’s sake.’ It does indeed follow from what Kant said that we are free when we do our duty for its own sake, and not otherwise.

So we have arrived at the conclusion that freedom consists in doing one’s duty. To the modern reader this conclusion is paradoxical. The term ‘duty’ has come to be associated with obedience to the conventional rules of institutions like the army and the family. When we speak of doing our duty we often mean that we are doing what we would much rather not be doing, but feel ourselves constrained to do by customary rules we are reluctant to defy. ‘Duty’ in this sense is the very opposite of freedom.

If this is the basis of the paradoxical air of the conclusion that freedom consists in doing our duty, we should put it aside. Kant’s conclusion was that freedom consists in doing what we really see as our duty in the broadest sense of the term. To put his point in a way that modern readers might be readier to accept: freedom consists in following one’s conscience. This accurately captures Kant’s meaning, as long as we remember that ‘conscience’ here does not mean whatever socially conditioned ‘inner voice’ I may happen to have; it means a conscience based on a rational acceptance of the categorical imperative as the supreme moral law. Put this way, the conclusion we have reached so far may still stretch credulity, but it should no longer appear paradoxical. Freedom of conscience is, after all, widely recognised as an essential part of what we take freedom to be, even if it is not the whole of it.

It is time to return to Hegel. Much of what I have been describing as a Kantian position is also Hegelian. That we are not free when we act from particular innate or socially conditioned desires; that reason is essentially universal; that freedom is to be found in what is universal — all of this Hegel takes from Kant and makes his own. Moreover in the Philosophy of History, as we have seen, Hegel takes the Reformation as the dawning of the new age of freedom, because it proclaims the rights of the individual conscience. Thus Hegel, like Kant, sees a connection between freedom and the development of the individual conscience. Nor does Hegel dissent from the idea that freedom consists in doing one’s duty. Duty, he says, appears as a restriction on our natural or arbitrary desires, but the truth is that ‘in duty the individual finds his liberation . . . from mere natural impulse . . . In duty the individual acquires his substantive freedom.’ Commenting directly on Kant, Hegel said: ‘In doing my duty I am by myself and free. To have emphasised this meaning of duty has constituted the merit of Kant’s philosophy and its loftiness of outlook.’

For Hegel, then, doing our duty for its own sake is a notable advance on the negative idea of freedom as doing what we please. Yet Hegel is not satisfied with Kant’s position. He sees its positive elements, but he is at the same time one of its most trenchant critics. Part II of the Philosophy of Right, entitled ‘Morality’, is in large part an attack on Kant’s ethical theory.

Hegel has two main objections. The first is that Kant’s theory never gets down to specifics about what we ought to do. This is not because Kant himself lacked interest in such practical questions, but because his entire theory insists that morality must be based on pure practical reasoning, free from any particular motives. As a result, the theory can yield only the bare, universal form of the moral law; it cannot tell us what our specific duties are. This universal form is, Hegel says, simply a principle of consistency or non-contradiction. If we have no point to start from, it cannot get us anywhere. For example, if we accept the validity of property, theft is inconsistent; but we can deny that property gives rise to any rights and be perfectly consistent thieves. If the directive ‘Act so as not to contradict yourself!’ is the only thing we have to move us to act, we may find ourselves doing nothing at all.

This objection to Kant’s categorical imperative will be familiar not only to students of Kant, but also to those who have an interest in contemporary moral philosophy. The importance of the requirement that moral principles be universal in form is still widely insisted upon — for example, by R. M. Hare, author of Freedom and Reason and Moral Thinking — and the objection that this requirement is an empty formalism that tells us nothing is still frequently made. In defence of Kant it has been suggested that we should interpret him as allowing us to start from our desires, but requiring that we act upon them only if we are able to put them into a universal form, that is, to accept them as a suitable basis of action for anyone in a similar situation. Hegel anticipates this interpretation, claiming that any desire can be put into a universal form, and hence, once the introduction of particular desires is allowed, the requirement of universal form is powerless to prevent us justifying whatever immoral conduct takes our fancy.

Hegel’s second major objection to Kant is that the Kantian position divides man against himself, locks reason into an eternal conflict with desire, and denies the natural side of man any right to satisfaction. Our natural desires are merely something to be suppressed, and Kant gives to reason the arduous, if not impossible, task of suppressing them. In this objection, as we have seen, Hegel was following the lead given by Schiller in his Lectures on the Aesthetic Education of Man; but Hegel made his own use of Schiller’s criticism.

We can put the point in terms of another familiar problem of modern ethics. For Hegel the second major objection to Kant’s ethics is that it offers no solution to the opposition between morality and self-interest. Kant leaves unanswered, and for ever unanswerable, the question: ‘Why should I be moral?’ We are told that we should do our duty for its own sake, and that to ask for any other reason is to depart from the pure and free motivation morality demands; but this is no answer at all, just a refusal to allow the question to be raised.

In his Aesthetic Education of Man, Schiller had pointed back to a time when the question had simply not arisen, when morality had not been split off into something separate from customary ideals of the good life, when there was no Kantian conception of duty. Hegel saw that once the question had been asked, a return to customary morality was impossible. In any case, Hegel regarded the Kantian conception of duty as an advance that is not to be regretted, for it helps to make modern man free in a way the Greeks, embedded in their narrow customary horizons, never could be. What Hegel sought to do was to answer the question in a way that united the natural satisfaction of the Greek form of life with the free conscience of the Kantian idea of morality. His answer would at the same time provide a remedy for the other chief defect of the Kantian theory, its total lack of content.

The organic community

Hegel finds the unity of individual satisfaction and freedom in conformity to the social ethos of an organic community. What sort of community did he have in mind?

Towards the end of the nineteenth century Hegel’s idea of an organic community was adopted by the British philosopher F. H. Bradley, who may not have equalled Hegel as an original thinker, but definitely surpassed him as a prose stylist. I shall therefore let Bradley’s presentation of the basis of the harmony between private interest and communal values speak for Hegel. Bradley is describing the development of the child growing up in a community:

The child . . . is born . . . into a living world . . . He does not even think of his separate self; he grows with his world, his mind fills and orders itself; and when he can separate himself from that world, and know himself apart from it, then by that time his self, the object of his self-consciousness, is penetrated, infected, characterized by the existence of others. Its content implies in every fibre relations of community. He learns, or already perhaps has learnt, to speak, and here he appropriates the common heritage of his race, the tongue that he makes his own is his country’s language, it is . . . the same that others speak, and it carries into his mind the ideas and sentiments of the race . . . and stamps them in indelibly. He grows up in an atmosphere of example and general custom . . . The soul within him is saturated, is filled, is qualified by, it has assimilated, has got its substance, has built itself up from, it is one and the same life with the universal life, and if he turns against this he turns against himself.

Bradley’s point — and Hegel’s — is that because our needs and desires are shaped by society, an organic community fosters those desires that most benefit the community. Moreover it so imbues its members with the sense that their own identity consists in being a part of the community that they will no more think of going off in pursuit of their own private interests than one part of the organism that is my body — say, my left arm —would think of hiving off from my shoulder to find something better to do than stuff my mouth with food. Nor should we forget that the relationship between an organism and its parts is reciprocal. I need my left arm and my left arm needs me. The organic community will no more disregard the interests of its members than I would disregard an injury to my left arm.

If we can accept this organic model of a community, we shall grant that it would end the ancient conflict between the interests of the individual and the interests of the community; but how does it preserve freedom? Does it not display mere small-minded conformity to custom? Where does it differ from the Greek communities which Hegel regarded as lacking the essential principle of human freedom brought forward in the Reformation and captured, if one-sidedly, in Kant’s notion of duty?

The citizens of Hegel’s community differ from those of the Greek city-states precisely because they belong to a different historical era and have the achievements of Rome, Christianity and the Reformation as part of their intellectual heritage. They are aware of their capacity for freedom and their ability to make their own decisions in accordance with their conscience. A customary morality, which demands conformity to its rules simply because it is the custom to conform to them, cannot command the obedience of free thinking beings. (We saw how the questioning of Socrates was a mortal threat to the basis of the Athenian community.) Free thinking beings can only give their allegiance to institutions that they recognise as conforming to rational principles. Therefore the modern organic community, unlike the ancient ones, must be based on principles of reason.

In the Philosophy of History we saw what happened when people first ventured to strike down irrational institutions and build a new State based on purely rational principles. The leaders of the French Revolution understood reason in a purely abstract and universal sense which would not tolerate the natural dispositions of the community. The Revolution was the political embodiment of the mistake Kant made in his purely abstract and universal conception of duty, which would not tolerate the natural side of human beings. In keeping with this pure rationalism the monarchy was abolished, and all other degrees of nobility as well. Christianity was replaced by the cult of Reason, and the old system of weights and measures abolished to make way for the more rational metric system. Even the calendar was reformed. The result was the Terror, in which the bare universal comes into conflict with the individual and negates him — or, to put it in less Hegelian terms, the State sees individuals as its enemies and puts them to death.

Disastrous as the failure of the French Revolution was for those who suffered by it, there is a crucial lesson to be learnt from it, namely that to build a State on a truly rational basis we must not raze everything to the ground and attempt to start again completely from scratch. We must search for what is rational in the existing world and allow that rational element to have its fullest expression. In this manner we can build on the reason and virtue that already exists in a community.

Here is a modern parable that may illustrate why Hegel regards the French Revolution as a glorious failure, and what he would have us learn from it. When people first began to live in towns, no one thought of town planning. They just put up their houses, shops and factories wherever seemed most convenient, and the cities grew higgledy-piggledy. Then along came someone who said: ‘This is no good! We are not thinking about how we want our towns to look. Our lives are being ruled by chance! We need someone to plan our towns, to make them conform to our ideals of beauty and good living.’ So along came the town planners, who bulldozed the old neighbourhoods and erected streamlined high-rise apartment buildings, surrounded by swathes of green lawns. Roads were widened and straightened, shopping centres were put up in the midst of generous parking areas, and factories were carefully isolated from residential zones. Then the town planners sat back and waited for the people to thank them. But the people complained that from their high-rise apartments they could not watch their children as they played on the lawns ten floors below. They complained that they missed the local corner shops, and that it was too far to walk across all those green lawns and parking spaces to the shopping centres. They complained that since everyone now had to drive to work, even those new wide straight roads were choked with traffic. Worst of all, they complained that, now no one was walking, the streets had become unsafe and those lovely green lawns were dangerous to cross after dark. So the old town planners were fired, and a new generation of town planners grew up, who had learnt from the mistakes of their predecessors. The first thing the new town planners did was to put a stop to the demolition of old neighbourhoods. Instead they began to notice the positive features of the old, unplanned towns. They admired the varied vistas of the narrow, crooked streets, and noticed how convenient it was to have shops and residences and even small factories mixed up together. They remarked on how these streets kept traffic to a minimum, encouraged people to walk, and made the town centre both lively and safe. Not that their admiration for the old unplanned towns was totally unreserved; there were a few things that needed to be tidied up, some particularly offensive industries were moved away from where people lived, and many old buildings had to be restored or else replaced with buildings in keeping with the surroundings. What the new town planners had discovered, however, was that the old cities worked; and it was this that had to be preserved, whatever tinkering might still be desirable.

The old, unplanned cities are like the ancient communities that grew up with custom as their basis; the first town planners resemble the French revolutionaries in their fervour to impose rationality on reality; while the second generation of planners are the true Hegelians, made wiser by the past and ready to find rationality in a world that is the result of practical adaptation rather than deliberate planning.

Now we can see why the free citizens of the modern era give their allegiance to a community which, at first glance, does not differ greatly from the custom-based communities of the ancient world. These free citizens understand the rational principles on which their community is based, and so they freely choose to serve it.

There are, of course, some differences between the modern rational community and the communities of ancient Greece. Because the modern era knows that all human beings are free, slavery has been abolished. Without slavery, Hegel believes, the time-consuming form of democracy practised in Athens is unworkable. Nor does Hegel think much of representative democracy with universal suffrage, partly because he thinks individuals cannot be represented (he says only ‘the essential spheres of society and its large-scale interests’ are suitable for representation) and partly because with universal suffrage each individual vote has so little significance that there is widespread apathy, and power falls into the hands of a small caucus of particular interests.

The rational community is, Hegel says, a constitutional monarchy. A monarchy is required because somewhere there must be the power of ultimate decision, and in a free community this power should be expressed by the free decision of a person. (Compare the Greek communities, which often consulted an oracle — a force external to the community — for the final resolution of difficult issues.) On the other hand, Hegel says, if the constitution is stable the monarch often has nothing to do but sign his name. Hence his personal make-up is unimportant, and his sovereignty is not the capricious rule of an oriental despot. The other elements of the constitutional monarchy are the executive and the legislature. The executive consists of civil servants. The only objective qualification for office is proof of ability; but where there are several eligible candidates and their relative abilities cannot be determined with precision, a subjective condition enters which it is the task of the monarch to decide. Hence the monarch retains the right to appoint the executive. The legislature, in keeping with Hegel’s ideas of representation, has two houses of parliament, the upper consisting of the landed class and the lower of the business class. It is, however, ‘large-scale interests’ such as corporations and professional guilds that are represented in the lower house, not individual citizens as such.

I have dealt swiftly with these details of Hegel’s rational community because to readers living in the twentieth century his preferences can only seem quaint, and his arguments for them have often — though not always — been shown by subsequent experience to be erroneous. So far as Hegel’s conception of freedom is concerned, the particular institutional arrangements he prefers are not crucial. It should by now be clear that Hegel is not talking about freedom in the political sense in which popular sovereignty is an essential element of a free society. He is interested in freedom in a deeper, more metaphysical sense. Hegel’s concern is with freedom in the sense in which we are free when we are able to choose without being coerced either by other human beings or by our natural desires, or by social circumstances. As we have seen, Hegel believes such freedom can exist only when we choose rationally, and we choose rationally only when we choose in accordance with universal principles. If these choices are to bring us the satisfaction which is our due, the universal principles must be embodied in an organic community organised along rational lines. In such a community individual interests and the interests of the whole are in harmony. In choosing to do my duty I choose freely because I choose rationally, and I achieve my own fulfilment in serving the objective form of the universal, namely the State. Moreover — and here is the remedy for the second great defect in Kantian ethics — because the universal law is embodied in the concrete institutions of the State, it ceases to be abstract and empty. It prescribes to me the specific duties of my station and role in the community.

We may well reject Hegel’s description of a rationally organised community. Our rejection will not affect the validity of his conception of freedom. Hegel was seeking to describe a community in which individual interests and the interests of the whole are in harmony. If he failed, others can continue the search. If none succeeds, if we finally accept that no one ever will succeed, we will have to acknowledge that freedom, in Hegel’s sense, cannot exist. Even that would not invalidate Hegel’s claim to have described the only genuine form of freedom, and this form of freedom could still serve as an ideal.

Liberal? Conservative? Totalitarian?

We began this chapter with a puzzle. How could Hegel, who stresses freedom to the point of making it the goal of history, suggest that freedom had been achieved in the autocratic German society of his own time? Was he a servile toady who wished to endear himself to his rulers by twisting the meaning of the term into its very opposite? Worse still, was he the intellectual grandfather of the type of totalitarian State that emerged in Germany a hundred years after his death?

The first step to clearing up this puzzle is to ask a question of fact: Is the ideally rational State that Hegel describes merely a description of the Prussian State at the time he was writing? It is not. There are strong similarities, but there are also significant differences. I shall mention four. Probably the most important is that Hegel’s constitutional monarch ideally had little to do except sign his name, whereas Frederick William III of Prussia was much more of an absolute monarch than that. A second difference is that there was no functioning parliament at all in Prussia; Hegel’s legislature, though relatively powerless, did provide an outlet for the expression of public opinion. Thirdly, Hegel was, if within very definite limits, a supporter of freedom of expression. Admittedly, by today’s standards he appears most illiberal on this issue, for he excluded from this freedom anything that amounted to slander, abuse or ‘contemptuous caricature’ of the government and its ministers. We are not now seeking to judge him by today’s standards, however, but to compare his proposals with the state of affairs in Prussia at the time he was writing; and since the Philosophy of Right appeared only eighteen months after the strict censorship imposed by the Carlsbad decrees of 1819, Hegel was certainly arguing for greater freedom of speech than was allowed at the time. Fourthly, Hegel advocated trial by jury as a way of involving citizens in the legal process; but there was no right to trial by jury in Prussia at the time.

These differences are sufficient to acquit Hegel of the charge of having drawn up his philosophy entirely in order to please the Prussian monarchy. They do not, however, make Hegel any kind of liberal in the modern sense. His rejection of the right to vote and his restrictions on freedom of speech are enough to show this. His dislike of anything smacking of popular representation went so far that he wrote an essay opposing the English Reform Bill, which when finally passed in 1832 ended notorious inequalities and abuses in the election of members of the House of Commons (while still excluding the majority of adult males — let alone females — from the electoral roll).

After what we have seen of Hegel’s ideas of freedom, however, this should come as no surprise. Hegel would have thought that popular suffrage would amount to people voting in accordance with their material interests or with the capricious and even whimsical likes and dislikes they may form for one candidate rather than another. Had he been able to witness an election in a modern democracy, he would not have had to change his mind. Those who defend democracy today could scarcely disagree with Hegel over the manner in which most voters decide whom to favour with their votes; they would differ with Hegel in regarding the elections as an essential element in a free society, no matter how impulsive or arbitrary the majority of the electors may be. Hegel would have emphatically rejected this, on the grounds that an impulsive or arbitrary choice is not a free act. We are free only when our choice is based on reason. To make the entire direction of the State dependent on such arbitrary choices would, in his view, amount to handing over the destiny of the community to chance.

Does this mean that Hegel is indeed a defender of the totalitarian State? This is Karl Popper’s view, in his widely read The Open Society and Its Enemies, and he backs up the claim with quotations bound to raise the hackles of any modern liberal reader. Here are some examples: ‘The State is the Divine Idea as it exists on earth . . . We must therefore worship the State as the manifestation of the Divine on earth . . . The State is the march of God through the world . . . The State . . . exists for its own sake.’ These quotations are, Popper thinks, enough to show Hegel’s insistence upon ‘the absolute moral authority of the state, which overrules all personal morality, all conscience’, and to give Hegel an important role in the development of modern totalitarianism.

Hegel’s emphasis on rationality as the essential element in freedom lends further credence to this reading. For who is to decide what is rational? Armed with the doctrine that only rational choices are free, any ruler can justify the suppression of all opposed to his own rational plans for the future of the State. For if his plans are rational, those who oppose them must be motivated not by reason but by selfish desires or irrational whims. Their choices, not being rationally based, cannot be free. To suppress their newspapers and leaflets is thus not to restrict free speech, to arrest their leaders is not to interfere with their freedom of action, and to close down their churches and set up new, more rational forms of worship does not interfere with their freedom of religion. Only when these poor misguided people are led by these methods to appreciate the rationality of their leader’s plans will they be truly free! If this is Hegel’s concept of freedom, did ever a philosopher provide a better example of the Orwellian double-speak that Hitler and Stalin used so effectively to implement their totalitarian designs?

Popper’s case is not as strong as it seems. First, his quotations nearly all come not from Hegel’s own writings, but from notes of his lectures taken by students and published only after his death, by an editor who explained in his preface that he had done a certain amount of rewriting. Second, at least one of these resonant utterances is a mistranslation. Where Popper quotes ‘The State is the march of God through the world’, a more accurate translation would be: ‘It is the way of God with the world, that the State exists.’ This amounts to no more than the claim that the existence of States is in some sense part of a divine plan. Third, for Hegel ‘State’ does not mean simply ‘the government’ but refers to all social life. Thus he is not glorifying the government against the people, but referring to the community as a whole. Fourth, these quotations need to be balanced by others, for Hegel frequently presents one aspect of a subject in an extreme form before balancing it against another. Thus Hegel’s remarks on the State follow upon earlier passages in which he says: ‘the right of subjective freedom is the pivot and centre of the difference between antiquity and modern times’ and goes on to say that this right ‘in its infinity’ has become ‘the universal effective principle’ of the new form of civilisation. Later, we find him saying: ‘What is of the utmost importance is that the law of reason should be shot through and through by the law of particular freedom . . . ’. Moreover Hegel insists that, ‘in view of the right of self-consciousness’, laws can have no binding force unless they are universally known. To hang the laws so high that no citizen can read them, as Dionysius the Tyrant is said to have done, or to bury them in learned tomes no ordinary citizen can read, is injustice. Along similar lines is Hegel’s searing attack on the reactionary writer von Haller, who defended a doctrine of ‘might makes right’ that would have suited Hitler well. Of this author Hegel says: ‘The hatred of law, of right made determinate in law, is the shibboleth whereby fanaticism, flabby-mindedness and the hypocrisy of good intentions are clearly and infallibly recognised for what they are, disguise themselves as they may.’ So strong a defence of the rule of law is an awkward base from which to construct a totalitarian State, with its secret police and dictatorial power.

That the extravagant language Hegel used to describe the State, and his idea that true freedom is to be found in rational choices, are both wide open to misuse and distortion in the service of totalitarianism is undeniable; but that it is a misuse is equally undeniable. We have seen enough of his views about constitutional monarchy, freedom of expression, the rule of law, and trial by jury to make this plain. The problem is that Hegel was serious about reason, to an extent that few of us are now. When someone tells us how the affairs of the State can most rationally be conducted, we take him to be expressing his personal preferences. Others, we assume, will have different preferences and as for what is most ‘rational’, well, since none of us can really tell, we may as well forget about it and settle for what we like best. So when Hegel writes of ‘worshipping’ the State, or of freedom being realised in a rational State, we are inclined to apply these remarks to whatever type of State takes our fancy — a reading utterly contrary to Hegel’s intentions. By a ‘rational State’ Hegel himself meant something quite objective and quite specific. It had to be a State that individuals really did choose to obey and support, because they genuinely agreed with its principles and truly found their individual satisfaction in being part of it. For Hegel, no rational State could ever deal with its citizens as the Nazi and Stalinist States dealt with theirs. The idea is a contradiction in terms. Similarly, the threat of the interests of the State coming into conflict with and ruthlessly crushing the rights of the individual loses its grip once we realise that in Hegel’s rational State the interests of the individual and of the collective are in harmony.

To all this a modern reader will probably react with a ‘Yes, but . . . ’. ‘Yes’ to indicate that Hegel was not himself advocating totalitarianism; ‘but’ to suggest that on this interpretation Hegel was extraordinarily optimistic about the possibilities of harmony between humans, and even more extraordinarily at odds with reality if he believed that the harmony would exist in the kind of State he described.

The latter criticism I believe to be unanswerable. If Hegel’s remarks about the State are to be defensible, the rational State he has in mind must be very different from any State that existed in his day (or has existed since, for that matter). Yet the State he described, while it may have differed significantly, certainly did not differ radically from States existing in his own day. The most likely explanation is that Hegel was too conservative, or else too cautious, to advocate a radical departure from the political system under which he lived and taught. To say that Hegel’s ‘one aim’ was to please the King of Prussia is clearly wrong; but it may be fair to say that in order to avoid the wrath of the King of Prussia (and of all the other German rulers) Hegel muted the radical thrust of his underlying philosophical theory.

There is, however, one more thing that needs to be said about Hegel’s vision of harmony between humans. His political philosophy is only a part of a much larger philosophical system, in which unity between individual human beings has a metaphysical basis. In the last two chapters we have given the historical and political sides of Hegel’s thought more than their fair allocation of space, considering their place in Hegel’s work as a whole, and so it is in any case time to move on to the larger philosophical system. We shall soon see that to turn to the other side of Hegel’s thought is equally desirable for a deeper understanding of both his philosophy of history and his political philosophy.

2 thoughts on “Singer/Hegel

  1. Pingback: On Hegel’s Idea of Freedom « Philosopher in a Phonebox

  2. Pingback: On Hegel’s Idea of Freedom | Figary

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *