Liberalism and the Philosophy of Right

ARGUABLY there are two distinct problems with liberalism – the first is to do with sloppy definition, the second is to do with its actual definition.

In the first instance, there is a tendency to take a rather fuzzy view of liberalism – that it is something to do with tolerance and freedom of the individual. Now, while these elements may be necessary conditions of liberalism, they are not sufficient because there are other political traditions that privilege them including, but not exclusively, anarchism. In order to qualify as a political liberal one has to accept tolerance and freedom of the individual combined with the claim that the individual is the fundamental political unit. Although this sounds like anarchism, the latter can be distinguished from liberalism in so far as, unlike liberalism, it calls for the government of no-one and, also unlike liberalism, it can accommodate collectivism, particularly in its anarcho-syndicalist manifestation.

It is precisely its insistence on the individual as the basic political unit that has led to the constant problem of how the individual becomes a social being. Indeed, from Thomas Hobbes through Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill right up to John Rawls this has been a constant refrain of liberal philosophy. All, in their own ways, have attempted to halt the slide into the kind of extreme individualism of libertarians like Robert Nozick and the attenuated individual epitomized by Homo Economicus at the heart of neoliberalism in which the only relationship between individuals is transactional and there is no such thing as society.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

One philosopher who has received little attention in the Anglophone tradition is Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770 – 1831).There are many reasons why he has been ignored, one of which is undoubtedly the density of his writing. But Hegel is also seen through the prism of the Young Hegelians, particularly Karl Marx. It is thought that Marx’s dialectical materialism set Hegel, with his dialectical idealism, back on his feet. The particular logical device referred to here is the dialectic model of thesis/antithesis/synthesis. But according to Terry Pinkard in his biography of Hegel, the latter never used this dialectic device, although in a wider sense he did think that his thinking was a synthesis of all thought that had come before him. Nevertheless, he has often been compared unfavourably to Marx. And he came under sustained attack after World War Two in Karl Popper’s influential The Open Society and its Enemies, which laid the blame for the German catastrophe on the baleful influence of Hegelianism.

As with so many great thinkers, therefore, it is useful to go back to the source and in this instance Hegel is interesting for our purposes because of his attempt to reconcile the needs of the individual and the universal. This sense of the universal can be misleading because it sounds as though it should belong to communism, but in fact it is another attempt to move beyond the individual while not losing it as the fundamental unit.

So, in his Philosophy of Right Hegel attempts to redefine the role of the individual as the exercise of duty to society so that the individual is ‘freed, also, from the indefinite subjectivity, which does not issue in the objective realization implied in action, but remains wrapped up in his own unreality’. Further: “Hence, as to the ethical, there are only two possible views. Either we start from the substantive social system, or we proceed atomically and work up from a basis of individuality. This latter method, because it leads to mere juxtaposition, is void of spirit, since mind or spirit is not something individual, but the unity of individual and universal.”

Unlike classical liberalism Hegel’s most fundamental political unit is the family in which we are not ‘independent persons but members’. The next level in his society is the Civic Community which contains three elements:

A. The recasting of want, and the satisfaction of the individual through his work, through the work of all others, and through the satisfaction of there wants.

B. Actualization of the general freedom required for this, ie, the protection of property by the administration of justice.

C. Provision against possible mischance, and care for the particular interest as the common interest, by means of police and the corporation.

Although Hegel was an advocate of the ‘free market’, drawing on the ideas of Adam Smith, he was acutely aware of the problem of extreme inequality it created. For him the main problem was that the poor had no stake in such a society and the rich thought they could buy themselves out of its obligations – and it was problem for which, he admitted, his philosophy had no answer.

All this should be seen in the context of his controversial theory of world history, which for him was the equivalent to the development of human freedom which started, and stalled, in the East and found its ‘absolute end’ in Europe and the ‘absolute right’ of rulers. It was probably this position, and its apparent valorisation of Prussian rulers, which led to him to being associated with aggressive German nationalism and Nazism by thinkers like Popper. His image as a proto-Nazi has stuck just as unfairly as Marx’s image as a proto-Stalinist.

Edmund Burke

So what are we to make of Hegel? Well, the most obvious one is that his Philosophy of Right actually has more in common with Edmund Burke’s conservatism and his ‘little platoons’ than it has with Mill’s liberalism. In contrast to classical liberalism he is effectively asking how the social being becomes an individual. This owes more to communitarianism, although of course it is a deeply conservative form and would not satisfy radical communitarians like Noam Chomsky with his libertarian socialism or the mutual aid of the Russian anarchist Pyotr Kropotkin.

Roger Scruton

Another conservative philosopher he resembles is our own Roger Scruton who, like Thomas Hobbes, lived near Malmesbury and sadly died recently.

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  1. Interesting Dickie. When I read Hegel what I took from it was his use of the dialectic and his notion of thesis/antithesis leading to a synthesis at a higher order. Thus, he talked of the tension between body and mind being synthesised in the creation of the spiritual. He then gave a hierarchy of the Spirit with Art as the lowest form, then Religion and, surprise surprise, Philosophy at the pinnacle of spirituality. It was fascinating stuff.
    On liberalism and the response of China to the Covid 19 outbreak this is a very interesting article from the Global Policy Journal.
    It begs the question whether China’s highly interventionist approach to contain the virus has been legitimised by being in the public interest.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Mark, thanks for the comment. I have to say that I’m a little surprised by Pinkard’s claim regarding the dialectic because that is what I have always believed that Hegel is all about. But, having just read the Philosophy of Right I can confirm that there is no reference to that specific logical device. That said Hegel isn’t a philosopher I have read much of mainly because of the negative press to which I refer in the blog. Maybe what Pinkard means is that he doesn’t formally use the dialectic as a narrow logical device but does in a much wider broad-brush sense.
      Yes, it is an interesting question about the West’s approach and to what extent government, and indeed private, surveillance can be justified for the common good. A similar question always arises in the balance between the right to privacy versus security in the wake of some atrocity. Crikey, we’re going to have a lot to talk about when the democracy cafĂ©s are up and running again!
      Cheers, Dickie.


  2. On further enquiry it seems that the assertion that Hegel argued that all development followed a dialectical law was a crude attempt by his followers to make sense of his famously, or infamously, dense writing style and the extraordinary depth and breadth of his thinking that defeats all attempts at generalization. According to Pinkard: “Within a few years (of his death), his system had been debased, infamously, by crude commentators into the banal assertion that all development followed a so-called dialectical law of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis (an adulteration of his thought that continues to be taught even today).”


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