Ethical life is a given cultural expression of Spirit, the collective entity that transcends all individuals and determines their beliefs and actions whether they are aware of it or not. Ethical life reflects the fundamental interdependence among individuals in a society and finds articulation in their shared customs and morals. Hegel argues that the tendency in modern life characterized by economic individualism and the Enlightenment idea of the individual as a subject possessing various rights represents a movement away from the recognition of essential social bonds.
Before the Enlightenment, human beings were generally considered in terms of how they fit into social hierarchies and communal institutions, but following Enlightenment thinkers such as Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau, and Kant, the individual on his own came to be considered sacred. In Philosophy of Right, Hegel explains that the modern state is the institution that will correct this imbalance in modern culture. Although economic and legal individualism play a positive role in modern society, Hegel foresees the need for institutions that will affirm common bonds and ethical life while preserving individual freedom. He believes, for example, that the state must regulate the economy and provide for the poor in society and that there should be “corporative” institutions, somewhat like modern trade unions, in which different occupational groups affirm a sense of social belonging and a feeling of being connected to larger society.