The morality that we see expressed in contracts and exchanges, which reflect a reciprocal respect between individuals for one another’s rights, is only a particular expression of a wider and deeper dimension of moral life that Hegel calls ethical life. Ethical life is a system of norms and mores belonging to a social body, made up of spheres of social interaction and interdependence in which all individuals are embedded. Whereas morality turns people away from what is toward what ought to be, ethical life is merely what is, the set of meanings and practices that guide people in everyday activities whether they are aware of it or not. Ethical life is present in the three important levels of social life. In its most elementary form, it is present in the family and finds expression in basic emotions such as love and altruism. In civil society, a sphere of social interaction corresponds to economic life or the “system of needs.” Civil society engages individuals as bearers of Abstract Rights, as owners of property and bearers of legal rights. In civil society, individuals relate to one another in universal terms.
While private property as the basis of abstract right and morality is a positive force in promoting individual freedom, individualistic material interests, such as the pursuit of economic gain, could potentially destabilize society. When left unchecked, these destabilizing forces tend to polarize humanity into rich and poor. The individualism of private material acquisition also weakens the expression of the basic social bonds and common culture that hold society together. Certain institutions must be in place to prevent the system of private property and the individualist worldview it sustains from undermining society itself. Government authority, in addition to providing basic infrastructure and protection from crime, must both promote and protect society from economic individualism, ensuring that those without property or work are provided for. Corporate institutions, such as guilds or labor unions, must be in place not just to look after the economic needs of workers and tradesmen but to give them a sense of belonging and connection to the social whole of which they are a part.
After the family and civil society, the third and highest moment of ethical life is the institution of the state. The state is the medium through which individuals come to realize their location in the ethical life of society, as parts of a greater whole. The state is an expression of spirit unfolding in history through dialectical development. Whereas earlier forms of the state were imperfect expressions of collective spirit, the modern state has evolved as a rational adaptation to structures of modern life. Given the image of the universal person and the emergence of the autonomous rights-bearing individual, the modern state, as the highest form of collective association, serves to integrate this vision of individual freedom and autonomy into an appreciation of common social bonds, preventing these two opposed tendencies from pulling society apart and allowing freedom and rights to coexist with a full expression of communal spirit.
Philosophy of Right is Hegel’s most controversial work, as many readers have objected to the central role he attributes to the state in realizing a reconciliation of modern individuality and freedom with the need for collective belonging. However, Hegel’s model of the rational state, though by no means purely democratic, does not invest power in authority simply to suppress individuality. Hegel understands the state in terms that are somewhat unfamiliar to modern readers, who, in the wake of the totalitarian states that arose during the twentieth century, tend to be skeptical of theories that give political institutions the task of solving society’s problems. For Hegel, the state is not just a political and authoritarian entity but the broadest arena of social relations corresponding to common culture, or ethical life. It is in the institution of the state, therefore, that the contradictions of ethical life will reveal and fix themselves. In modern society, the role of the state is to reconcile the egoistic and individualizing tendencies of civil society with the need for common belonging.
Hegel largely adopts Kant’s description of the moral, rational individual but believes that Kant’s understanding of individuality is an expression of a particular historical epoch, namely of the modern world. Hegel is thus regarded as one of the first philosophers of modernity and of a particularly modern understanding of history. If there is a unifying ambition throughout his vast writings, this ambition lies in his attempt to describe the origins and implications of this image of the individual and how it relates to the religious, economic, and political aspects of modern life. Here he shows how this notion of individuality is rooted in practical life but also that it has a fundamental tension with the expression of ethical life.