Publication: The Review of Metaphysics
Date published:
Language: English
PMID: 28386
ISSN: 00346632
Journal code: PRMP

(ProQuest: ... denotes non-USASCII text omitted.)

ONE OF HEGEL'S most controversial contributions to practical philosophy is his attempt to situate ethics within a progressive philosophy of history. This implies that historically given practices and institutions can be assessed in two ways: they can be viewed from the perspective of the citizen who finds himself embedded within a specific ethical horizon, or they can be viewed from the perspective of the philosopher who surveys nations within the universal horizon of world history. A natural question that arises, given such a picture, is whether the world-historical perspective can ever be practically relevant, can ever override the situated perspective characteristic of the ordinary citizen. That Hegel's practical philosophy seems to offer the possibility of transcending customary morality and positive law has been seen as something of great promise in that it opens the door to revolutionary praxis, but also as something of great danger in that it potentially exempts individuals from their ordinary ethical obligations.1

To see why this particular possibility first emerges with Hegel, it is useful to notice that his philosophy of history integrates two strands of thought about history that preexisted his work but were normally taken to be opposed to each other. First, he is clearly committed to some kind of ethical contextualism or holism. He thinks the basic question of ethics - "what ought I to do?" - cannot be answered in universal, perennial terms; the right answer to this question changes in important respects over time and in ways that cannot be explained as the gradual discovery of some immutable moral truths, like the natural law or a universal charter of human rights. As he memorably puts it:

For the everyday contingencies of private Ufe, definitions of what is good and bad or right and wrong are suppUed by the laws and customs of each state, and there is no great difficulty in recognizing them.2

This commitment to situating ethical claims within the sociohistorical context of each particular state is not unique to Hegel; it was shared to some degree or another by romantics (like Herder), conservatives (like Burke), and historicists (Tike Savigny).

Hegel is also committed to a second important thesis about the relation of ethics to history, one that significantly qualifies his commitment to ethical contextualism. He claims that modern norms, practices, and forms of social organization are more rational than premodern ones in that they are more adequate realizations of human freedom. This can be seen both in his Philosophy of Right, which is intended to provide a philosophic justification for specificaUy modern institutions fike the nuclear famUy and civfi society, and in his Philosophy of History, which shows how less rational premodern forms of social life have been replaced by the more rational forms characteristic of contemporary European civilization. The idea that the philosophy of history provides access to a universal horizon by which the rational progress of any individual society can be judged was also not unique to Hegel; versions of this beUef were shared by erdightenment figures (like Condorcet), Uberals (like Kant), and even radicals (like Proudhon).

Hegel's achievement is to put these two commitments together, viewing ethical life as both historically situated and yet rationally assessable from the point of world history. By doing so, however, he seems to make room for a novel predicament: the possibility of finding yourself ethically bound to norms or practices of a society per ethical contextualism that you know to be irrational and unjust from the perspective of world history. Many have interpreted Hegel's doctrine of "world-historical agent" in light of this dilemma: such an agent is characterized by his willingness to violate the ethical obhgations he is under in order to make a more rational society. The actions of worldhistorical individuals may be immoral or unethical, on this common interpretation, but they have a putatively higher, supramoral justification: one stemming from what Hegel calls the "absolute right" of world spirit.3

For Hegel's critics, this is a clear sign that something has gone terribly wrong. They worry that any appeal to the extraethical considerations to justify individual action is a category mistake as it improperly displaces the relevant ethical considerations with irrelevant matters. Kierkegaard, who was perhaps the pioneer of this line of attack, insisted that world-historical knowledge was a "demoralizing aesthetic diversion" because the task of the individual is only to will the ethical; whether the individual achieves anything with respect to world spirit or whether he is in step with "what the times demand" are unrelated accidents.4 He concluded that any inference from the external questions of world spirit to internal questions of ethical responsibility involves a ... an illicit change from one genus to another.5 In his early neoMarxist writings, the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski makes a similar case for the independence of political responsibility from Hegelian questions of world spirit, insisting that individuals are not reUeved of their ordinary moral obhgations just because they are on the right side of history. He says: "We are against that form of moral relativism which assumes that the criteria for a moral assessment of human behavior can be derived from knowledge of the secrets of the Weltgeist."6 A last and more contemporary example of this kind of critique can be found in the writing of French philosopher Vincent Descombes. For Descombes, Hegel's philosophy of history involves an unprecedented attempt to combine the incompatible roles of metaphysician and café intellectual. The result of this attempt is disastrous: it grants philosophers permission to address themselves to political topics without acknowledging the ordinary moral constraints on political action. Instead of weighing the consequences of various policies, Descombes says, "philosophers pretend to judge events as if they were seated in an auditorium rather than on stage with everyone else."7 What these accusations share is a belief that the world-historical perspective on human action opened up by Hegel's philosophy of history threatens to illegitimately compromise or override the authority of ordinary ethical judgment in determining what we ought to do, whether in our individual lives or in the political sphere.

It is not just Hegel's critics who have attributed this view of the relationship between moral justifications and world-historical justifications to Hegel. Allen Wood has provided the most extensive and well defended treatment of the relationship between ethics and history in Hegel, and he fully endorses the central claim Hegel's critics have taken issue with: that the absolute right of world spirit trumps ethical considerations for Hegel, providing a potential rational justification for otherwise immoral action. Far from thinking this a category mistake, Wood thinks it represents one of Hegel's great insights: the thought that "moral justifications should not bind us when they stand in the way of human liberation."8

In the following, I will develop an alternative reading of the relationship between the situated perspective and the world-historical perspective in Hegel's practical philosophy. I will begin, in section I, by laying out Wood's case for understanding the absolute right of world spirit as overriding ethical obligations. In the next section, I will argue, against such a reading, that "absolute rights" can only be invoked for Hegel when there are no countervailing ethical obligations; they are rights to enter into an ethical condition, not to exit it. In the third and fourth sections, I will turn to two crucial instances where it might appear that Hegel allows historical considerations to override ethical ones, the case of the world-historical individual and the case of a dissolving form of ethical life, and I will show that they in fact do not involve any transcendence of the situated ethical point of view. Finally, in the fifth section, I will provide a positive account of the relationship between the situated standpoint of the citizen and the more universal standpoint taken by the philosophy of history. On the view I defend, Hegel's practical philosophy maintains a principled division of labor between these two standpoints. The ethical justification of norms is determined by practical wisdom acting from within the context of a given institutional structure. Determining the ultimate rationality of determinations of right is a distinct matter, one that is the exclusive prerogative of philosophy. I conclude with some reflections about what it means to hold these forms of justification to be separate.


We can start with an example of the phenomenon that needs to be explained: a case where the situated perspective seems to be contradicted by the more philosophic or world-historical point of view. The Philosophy of Right claims that:

... a determination of right may be shown to be entirely grounded in and consistent with the prevailing circumstances and existing legal institutions, yet it may be contrary to right (unrechtlich) and irrational [unvernünftig] in and for itself, like numerous determinations of Roman civil law which followed quite consistently from such institutions as Roman paternal authority and Roman matrimony.9

Here we have a case where what is taken to be right in a given historical context (the Roman world) is contrary to what the philosopher recognizes as right and rational. Hegel insists, however, that despite the irrationality of Roman laws and customs, they were valid and authoritative for the Romans; they existed in a world in which "a wrong was still right."10 One might assume that this is because the Romans did not know better, but Hegel also makes it clear that the authority of Roman norms did not depend on ignorance of their irrationality: he explicitly praises those Roman jurists and praetors who finessed the disparity between the letter of the Twelve Tables and the demands of justice, applauding them for "smuggling rationality" into their decisions." So at least with respect to these specific Roman property laws, Hegel insists that they were irrational, valid or binding, and known (by some) to be both.

What follows from Hegel's admission of cases like these, cases where an individual is ethically bound to a law or custom he knows to be irrational? Allen Wood has suggested there are two options, both more or less scandalous. The first is that Hegel subscribes to a harsh form of ethical conventionalism: he thinks we are morally required to honor the claims made by the existing order no matter how evü or irrational we might know them to be. This amounts to a familiar enough caricature of Hegel, and (as we will see in Section V) Wood is right to resist it. Wood thinks, though, that Hegel draws an even more unsettling conclusion than conventionalism. Hegel concludes that "there is a limit to the whole realm of the ethical and its rational authority over us."12 That is, although a given norm might be ethically valid or binding, there are certain extramoral considerations that could rationaUy justify violating it. Though Hegel is not a conventionalist according to Wood, his philosophy of history commits him to positing a radical kind of amoralism.

As Wood himself notes, this position has the air of a paradox: What could it mean to say that an individual is rationaUy justified in violating his ethical duty if not that he did not really have that duty? How can we have a right to do wrong? Considerations like these, of course, are behind the claim that Hegel has committed some kind of category mistake here. Wood attempts to escape the appearance of self-contradiction by d!istinguishing between two senses in which action can be right in Hegel: it can be justified according to the "right of state" or according to the "right of world spirit."

Ethically speaking, Hegel thinks our highest duty is to the state. In other words, our supreme moral obligation, the one that trumps all of the others, is our obligation to participate in and give support to our actual ethical life itself.13 As Hegel puts it in his Philosophy of History: "nothing must be considered higher [Höheres] and more sacred [Heiligeres] than a good disposition [Gesinnung] towards the state; or, if religion be looked upon as higher and more sacred, it must involve nothing really alien or opposed to the constitution."14 Since the highest ethical or moral justification of an act is that it promotes the interests of our state, there is no opposition, according to Hegel, between politics and morality; inasmuch as an action genuinely furthers the chief end of politics, the welfare of the state, it epitomizes morality even if it conflicts with morality in the more narrow, everyday sense.15

For Hegel, however, the right of the state is not itself absolute; it is superseded by the right of world spirit. Though our obligation to the state is superior to our legal and narrowly moral obligations, Hegel claims that it is "subordinate to the supreme absolute truth of world spirit."16 This right of world spirit, as Hegel puts it in another passage, is the only right which is truly "absolute in an unlimited sense."17 It appears, then, that even if the right of state is the highest moral justification for an act for Hegel, the highest rational justification of an act is that it furthers world history.

Wood employs this distinction between the right of the state and the right of world spirit in the following way. He insists that this absolute right of world spirit can be asserted against the right of the state in circumstances when one ethical order is beginning to be seen as limited and inadequate but no replacement for it has yet come into existence. In those cases, and only in those cases, the right of world spirit permits disobethence to the claims of a given ethical order even if this contributes to the demise of that ethical order. Since Hegel insists that our obligations to the existing ethical world are still morally binding in such cases, this absolute right must be understood as superseding ethical obligations entirely. Though such disobethence is ethically unjustified, it is not rationally unjustified; and the latter justification trumps the former. Echoing Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, Wood describes an action with this sort of justification as "beyond the ethical, beyond good and evil."18

One way to soften Wood's point, to remove some of the existential drama from his interpretation, would be to insist that the right of world spirit is only a right to disobey the norms embodied in current institutions insofar as one is in the process of building better ones. If that were all Hegel was saying, the right of world history would simply be the right to discard old moral practices in the process of adopting better ones. No right beyond good and evil would need to be invoked. Wood is right to point out, however, that world history does not progress in such a seamless way for Hegel. It is only in exceptional cases that one valid form of ethical life (like Roman repubUcanism) is transformed into more rational alternative (such as imperial rule). More typically, world history moves in leaps and bounds: from one people hopelessly lost in decadence (like the late Byzantines) we move to another people who contain the seeds of a new, more rational order (the German barbarians, in this case). Wood concludes that when someone acts in the name of world history, that person is typicaUy exercising a right to destroy that is temporally distinguishable from any right to create something better.19

In what cases, then, does the absolute right of world spirit trump the claims of morality? Wood provides two examples. The first is that of the world-historical individual: leaders like Alexander of Macedon, Julius Caesar, and Napoleon Bonaparte. According to Wood, these leaders were justified in violating the only applicable ethical standards their actions could be judged by, those of their respective states, because they served the higher cause of advancing freedom even if that meant destroying the existing ethical order to make way for a new project they only dimly anticipated. Wood explicitly distinguishes this from the commonplace thought that "some of humanity's greatest benefactors have been criminals or evildoers."20 His claim is that these figures were rationally justified in doing what was immoral, not that what they did was unjustified but that good nonetheless came of it. Wood compares this to Kierkegaard's "teleologica! suspension of the ethical," with the qualification that it is world history, not God, that ultimately justifies the ethical crime.21

Against any suggestion of a "teleologica! suspension of the ethical," Joseph McCarney has insisted that, for Hegel, no actual historical agent can know for certain that his actions will indeed further world history and, thus that he is justified in disregarding ethical constraints. McCarney concludes that, for all practical purposes, we must act as if anyone who violates such norms is an "unredeemed villain."22 It would be wrong, though, to think that this is a decisive objection to the kind of account Wood is giving. What Wood insists on is only that in principle moral and ethical obligations may be rightly disregarded. Wood agrees that Hegel himself denies such knowledge to actual historical agents, insisting that they are only vindicated retrospectively. a Such criminals may be considered unredeemed while they live, but they are not unredeemable. What Wood argues is that this admission opens the door to the possibility of fully self-transparent world-historical agency of the kind Marx attributes to the revolutionary class in late capitalism, not that Hegel himself walked through that door.24

Wood's second example of a proper appUcation of the right of world spirit to trump ethical obligations is perhaps even more scandalous, since it has a more general appUcation and there are fewer obstacles to its being self-consciously invoked by actual historical agents. According to Wood's Hegel, in periods of decadence, that is when there is a general perception that existing ethical norms and institutions lack a sufficient rational justification, "people are justified in turning away from their ethical duties. Vanity, selfishness, and the abandonment of ethical virtue constitute a rational mode of conduct."25 In such cases of disillusionment, Wood says, "the ethical loses its right over the individual."26

Wood's interpretation thus represents a full-fledged defense of precisely that feature of Hegel's philosophy of history that most concerns his critics: the overriding of the situated ethical perspective by independent considerations of rationality made from an amoral world-historical point of view. This overriding occurs in cases where given norms or institutions are simultaneously ethicaUy vahd and yet known to be unjustified by reason. When that happens, individuals are rationally justified in acting immorally and unethicaUy. The two key examples of this are world-historical individuals and the disiUusioned citizens of a decadent nation. The unethical actions of such individuals are justified by the absolute right of world spirit, which itself trumps any ethical claims that can be made on them.


But does Hegel actually understand an absolute right as a consideration that overrides ethical considerations? Over the course of the Philosophy of Right, there are three examples Hegel gives of the proper invocation of absolute rights that might appear to justify unethical actions. 1.) The first is that a slave has "an absolute right to free himself."28 2.) The second "absolute right" is that of "heroes to establish states" even if that means committing acts of violence that seem wrong.29 3.) The third is an appUcation of the second: it is the right of civilized nations to treat undeveloped nations as barbarians.30

1.) The case of slavery seems to offer particularly strong support to the claim that Hegel thought considerations of rationaUty could override ethical validity. First, slavery is a perfect example of an institution Hegel beUeved was simultaneously vahd when it occurred and known (by some) to violate reason. Second, only several pages after a statement about the historical vaUdity of slavery, Hegel declares that it is nonetheless "of the nature of the case that the slave has an absolute right to free himself."31 It would be natural to interpret the second statement in Ught of the first, concluding that the slave has a right to free himself despite the fact that slavery is historicaUy vaUd because the institution of slavery contradicts reason and justice.

There is a missing premise in this argument, though. One can see what the premise is by comparing what Hegel says about slavery (Sklaverei) with what he says about feudal serfdom (Feudalherrschaft). According to Hegel, both slavery and serfdom represent an irrational alienation of the personaUty; consequently, they are both unjust in themselves. Feudalism, however, is "a possible form of ethical Ufe" and so for a time it is "necessary and just and ethical."32

It follows that there is no absolute or unconditional right for the serf to free himself from his servitude; under some conditions, a bondsman is obliged to obey his master.

It is easy enough to see that the key difference between slavery and serfdom for Hegel is that the relationship between the slave and his master is not an ethical relationship: in other words, the master and the slave do not share any form of ethical life. So for Hegel, it is not the case that the absolute right to free oneself trumps the obligation to obey your master, for the slave has no moral obligation to obey his master under any circumstances.33 For Hegel, slaves and savages are in a "state of innocence [Stand der Unschuld]" not in the sense of being blameless for their plight but in the sense of being incapable of moral responsibility exactly insofar as they lack consciousness of their intrinsic freedom and so of the impropriety of remaining slaves.34 Quite controversially, Hegel asserts that one becomes a free, responsible subject by refusing to be a slave. That slavery was valid for a time, which Hegel clearly indicates, implies not that slaves had any obligation to remain slaves, but only that there was no moral guilt in being a master. Roman laws of property, as I said before, were legitimate for the Romans. Slaves themselves, however, exist outside of ethical life as Hegel conceives it. The relationship between serf and lord is importantly different since it occurs within a certain form of ethical life, however defective, and so is under certain circumstances morally binding on both parties.35

Two points here are worth underlining. First, the absolute right to free oneself from slavery does not contravene any ethical obligations, for the slave is under no ethical obligations period. Second, when there are possibly contravening moral obligations, as in the case of feudalism, there is no mention of an absolute right to free oneself; just the opposite: in these cases Hegel insists on the possible legitimacy of one's duties.

2.) The second case where Hegel speaks of an absolute right is in the case of the "right of heroes [das Heroenrecht] to establish states," a right that is justified because of the "absolute right of the Idea to make its appearance in legal determinations and institutions."36 This, of course, seems to point directly to the most famous example of world spirit trumping the claims of the ethical: the world-historical individual, to which we will turn in the next section. Hegel, however, clearly differentiates between heroes in the strict sense and worldhistorical individuals. Heroes are not necessarily more virtuous than world-historical figures; sometimes, with heroes like Moses, the founding of a state might appear to be done "as divine legislation of a beneficial kind" but just as easily, as in the case of Romulus, the founding of the state can be a matter of "violence and wrong."37 The important difference between heroes like Moses or Romulus and world-historical individuals like Caesar or Napoleon is that the former exist in a state of nature whereas the latter exist within some state or other.

Since the state of nature is a state of perfect injustice according to Hegel, the right of heroes cannot be construed as a right to contravene any moral or ethical obligations, since no such obligations exist there. What the right of heroes permits is anything that might make it possible to exit the state of nature and enter into ethical relationships. For Hegel, this requires the establishment of a state and its constitutive institutions, like marriage and agriculture. Once such an ethical existence has been created, Hegel is clear that any violence that occurs within the state is something for which the agent can be held morally responsible.38 Consequently, "within the state heroes are no longer possible."39

The same two points can be made about the right of heroes that were made about the right to free oneself from slavery. First, the right of heroes does not contravene any existing ethical obligations. Heroes only exist in the state of nature and, according to Hegel, there are no ethical obligations in the state of nature. Second, there is no mention in the Philosophy of Right of anything analogous to a right of heroes that would pertain to world-historical individuals; in fact, Hegel suggests that any violence within an existing ethical condition is a moral wrong.

3.) The third and final case where Hegel mentions an absolute right to do something refers to the actions of states and not to those of individuals. He says that the same consideration that justifies the right of heroes "entitles civilized nations to regard and treat as barbarians other nations which are less advanced than they are in the substantial moments of state."40 His examples clearly identify "uncivilized nations" as those which lack the most primitive conditions of ethical life, like agriculture. His wording, however, is much more general, seeming to indicate that, say, nineteenth century England could invoke an absolute right to occupy and civilize nineteenth century India, which Hegel considered a significantly less advanced nation.41 Is this, finally, an example of an "absolute right" overriding ethical or moral considerations?

Whatever the ambiguities of the Philosophy of Right, the issue is definitively resolved in the introduction to his lectures on the philosophy of history. Hegel there distinguishes between the principles that govern the relations of independent nations, like treaties and considerations of state, from the "absolute right of world spirit."42 Though independent states can of course appeal to things like treaties to justify their actions against other states, Hegel is emphatic that the absolute right of world spirit is a right to which no such state can appeal against another state. Although such a right is often invoked in wars of religion, the absolute right of world spirit is only rightly invoked when "civilized nations come into contact with barbarian hordes." The absolute right can be asserted here because a stateless people has no ethical standing according to Hegel. Reason itself demands that such a people be brought into civilization and incorporated into ethical life. This is why the right of world spirit follows from the same principle as the right of heroes: both are involved in bringing ethical life into existence in a place where there was none before. The British occupation of India certainly does not qualify for this exemption.

So even in the case of nations, the absolute right of world spirit applies only in cases where there are no existing ethical obligations to be overridden; it never trumps ethical obligations. Once such obligations exist, even in the comparatively weak form of normal relations between independent countries, Hegel says the right can no longer be invoked.

We have now surveyed the three specific cases where Hegel thinks an absolute right can be invoked to justify a course of action that might appear unethical. What all instances have in common is that they take place in the total absence of any countervailing ethical obligations. That is, they all concern the right to enter into the moral space of reasons, not to exit it. None of these cases provides any support for the thesis that the absolute right of world spirit implies a teleologica! suspension of the ethical. Now I want to turn to the careful consideration of the two supposed cases of amoralism that commentators have identified in Hegel. My aim here is to show that, in treating these cases, Hegel carefully distinguishes between the ethical and world-historical evaluation of actions, neither conflating them nor allowing the latter to override the former.


For Hegel's critics, the chief example of amoralism in Hegel's thought is the world-historical individual. This sort of interpretation of the world-historical individual is neither implausible nor rare; it exploits a number of well known passages from the introduction to Hegel's Philosophy of History that, as Joseph McCarney has put it, have an "air of heroic immorality. "** On the one hand, Hegel clearly asserts that world-historical individuals "did indeed treat other intrinsically admirable interests and sacred rights in a carefree, cursory, hasty, and heedless manner, thereby exposing themselves to moral censure."44 On the other hand, Hegel also insists that such agents have absolute right on their side and so should be viewed in another light. He says they "are the most far-sighted among their contemporaries; they know best what issues are involved"; adding that "whatever they do is right [was sie tun, ist das Rechte]."*5

As we have already seen, Wood takes these passages to imply exactly what Hegel's critics are concerned about, that world-historical individuals are "absolutely justified in their unethical conduct."46 This is supposed to be different from the commonplace saying that their conduct was unethical but good nonetheless came of it. What precisely is the difference? Both accounts indicate that what was done was morally wrong, and both admit that this action furthered some valuable cause in world history. What is different is that according to the commonplace view, the historical outcome has no relevance to the question of whether the individual was justified. According to the interpretation we are considering, however, historical considerations are relevant to the assessment of individual actions. If an individual's actions furthered world history, if they made possible greater freedom in the world, the individual himself should be understood as rationally justified in his actions (even if such a justification is only available retrospectively).47

Throughout his works, Hegel makes two quite different defenses of world-historical agents.48 The first and more prominent of these is an obviously moral defense; it pertains to individuals like Caesar or Napoleon. Hegel claims that small minded schoolteachers often attribute base motivations to such world-historical individuals, claiming that they accomplished what they did for the sake of personal ambition. According to Hegel, however, this overlooks the fact that such a subjective motive is entirely justified when it is put in the service of an objectively necessary end. The second and more controversial defense applies not only to individuals like Caesar and Alexander, but also to villains like Tamarlane or Genghis Kahn. According to this defense, the wickedness of great men has no significance from the point of view of world history. At the very least, this implies the commonplace view that whether a given action furthered world history is entirely independent from the question of whether it was ethical. As we have seen, Wood (like Hegel's critics) takes this to have the further and more scandalous implication that "great men have a justification for the crimes they commit which transcends the moral and ethical spheres altogether."49

The primary justification for the stronger interpretation of the second defense is a passage from the Introduction to the Philosophy of History that appears to deny that it would be proper to apply moral categories to the actions of world-historical individuals. There Hegel says:

The deeds of the great men who are the individuals of world history thus appear justified [gerechtfertigt] not only in their inner significance (of which the individuals in question are unconscious), but also in a this-worldly [weltlichen] sense. But from this latter point of view, no representations should be made against worldhistorical deeds and those who perform them from moral circles to which they do not belong. The litany of private virtues [Privattugenden] - modesty, humility, charity, liberality - must not be raised against them.60

Wood, in particular, takes this passage as showing that when dealing with world-historical individuals, philosophic historians should not make moral or ethical judgments at all, since moral blame is voided by historical greatness. Hegel goes beyond the commonplace position here because he appears to insist that the deeds of great men are not only justified in their inner sense - that is, justified in the worldhistorical sense - but also in their this-worldly sense. It looks as if Hegel is saying that the world-historical justification of an action invalidates or crowds out the normal ethical assessment of the action.

However, it is clear that the important contrast in this passage is not between world history and ethics. When Hegel says that great individuals should not be criticized from the point of view of "moral circles to which they do not belong," he is not speaking of morality or ethics per se, but of the "private virtues," and private is not a redundant adjective here. The direct implication is that worldhistorical individuals can and should be assessed according to their public virtues.51 The highest moral obligation such an individual has, as we have seen above, is preserving and supporting his state. Indeed, it is according to this higher moral standard that Hegel himself assesses Caesar. He does not eschew moral judgment, but praises Caesar for recognizing that Roman ethical life was failing, that what was "right and proper" was the overthrow of the Republic in the establishment of empire even if this meant violating existing rights. Hegel's point here is not that world history trumps morality, but that public virtues trump private virtues. This is why Hegel follows these sentences by reiterating his rejection of any "dichotomy between morality and politics."

This interpretation might seem at odds with the claim that precedes it:

Those who, on ethical grounds (and hence with a noble intention), have resisted what the progress of the idea of Spirit required, stand in higher moral worth [moralischem Werte] than those whose crimes have been transformed by a higher order into instruments of realizing its will.52

In passages like these, Hegel seems to indicate that there is a genuine conflict between the requirements of world spirit and those of the ethical, not that political virtues are of higher moral value than private virtues. There are two cases of this sort of conflict, though, that need to be carefully distinguished. These correspond to the two justifications of great men that were mentioned above. The first is evident in the conflict between Caesar and Brutus. This is a tragic conflict for Hegel. Both Caesar and Brutus were exemplars of virtue; both were acting conscientiously or according to their perception of what was in the interests of Rome. It is characteristic of tragic conflict that both sides of the conflict are, ethically speaking, in the right. Conflict like this must be clearly distinguished from conflict between one of world history's unredeemed villains, say Genghis Kahn, and those people who resisted him in the name of preserving the ethical life of their own nations. Only in the latter sort of case is it unambiguously clear that those who resisted world history stand higher in moral worth than the figures who advanced it. In these cases, there is no suggestion in any of Hegel's writings that the worldhistorical individual himself was in any sense individually justified in doing what he did.

So although world history moves on a higher plane than morality, transcending or superseding the ethical, this does not imply that the world-historical perspective offers an alternative supramoral justification for individuals or individual actions. When worldhistorical individuals are justified, like Caesar, they are justified on ethical grounds broadly considered. When they cannot be justified on ethical grounds, like Genghis Kahn, their world-historical importance does not affect their moral responsibility for their crimes. In fact, world history is so far from providing a justification for individuals, that Hegel suggests it might just as well ignore individuals entirely, leaving them completely unmentioned. This makes one aspect of the division of labor between "this-worldly" or contextual justification and world-historical justification quite clear: the former treats the individual as a moment of the state, and the latter treats the state as a moment of world spirit. Despite its reputation, Hegel's discussion of world-historical individuals provides no evidence that Hegel thought world-historical categories could be used in order to justify and excuse individuals.


The second potential source for amoralism in Hegel's philosophy is his teaching concerning civilizational decline. Hegel believes that when a nation begins to reflect on the reasons for its practices, it can develop a consciousness of the limitations of those practices; it can think of reasons why others might be better. This can lead to a loss of confidence in the value of sacrifice for collective aims and a corresponding rise in action motivated by purely private ends. As we saw above, this is sometimes taken to mean that during such a period of disillusionment, ethical duties are no longer rationally binding on individuals despite still being formally valid. Since the individual can no longer see his ethical life as rationally justified, the individual in these circumstances is exempted from the ethical, or so it has been claimed.

Hegel's works in fact single out two possible responses to circumstances where ethical life appears to lack rational justification. The first is mentioned in the Philosophy of Right. There Hegel points to the example of Socrates, who found the actual ethical world "hollow, spiritless, and unsettled" and who was consequently permitted to flee from actuality and "retreat into his inner life."53 Straightforwardly enough, in this case the individual in question is not released from the ethical entirely, but is to be judged according to his own private conscience (Socrates' daimon) as opposed to public standards (the laws of Athens). It is the second response, then, that is crucial for our purposes. This is the option not of conscientious disobethence in the manner of Socrates but of rejecting moral constraints entirely; acting instead on the basis of exclusively private aims.

The key passage concerning this latter response is in the Lectures on the Philosophy of World History where Hegel describes the consequences that follow from the inability to find reasons to justify given laws and customs. He says:

[MJen's ideas of virtue begin to waver, and the absolute is no longer regarded as valid [gilt] in its own right, but only insofar as it has reasons to justify it. At the same time, individuals gradually become isolated from one another and from the whole, selfishness and vanity intervene, and men seek to obtain their own advantage and satisfaction at the expense of the whole.54

Now there are several places in Hegel's writings where he clearly indicates that it is difficult to comply with the ethical amidst general decadence, but Wood takes this particular passage to show something more. Reading the "absolute" as the ethical itself, Wood claims this passage shows that in such circumstances "the ethical loses its rights over the individual will."55 In other words, as a consequence of the loss of any rational justification for the ethical, corrupt behavior itself becomes a rationally permissible course of action.

Against this perhaps ambiguous passage, one can set an unambiguous but less noticed statement that contradicts the thought Wood imputes to Hegel. In the context of a discussion of why we should hesitate to view ethical phenomena from the point of view of world history, Hegel states that from the ethical point of view "the guilt falls [fällt der Schuld] on the individuals themselves for any decline, corruption, or loss of religious and ethical values."56 Not only does the inevitable corruption of ethical life not release individuals from the ethical; Hegel thinks individuals themselves are blamable for allowing that corruption to occur and for participating in it.57

In this case as well, we have seen that there are no textual grounds to attribute any supramoral justification for unethical action to Hegel. Hegel consistently asserts that the "responsibility and value [Schuld und Werte]" of individuals is completely "untouched [angetastet] by the noisy clamour of world history," even those changes caused by "the absolute necessity of the concept of freedom as such."68 In times of disillusionment, the private conscience can break away from the customary morality (as in the case of Socrates), but even in such cases, the terms of evaluation remain strictly ethical, even if the ethical is forced to take the attenuated form of "formal conscience" as in the case of Socrates.69


Up to this point, I have provided a mostly negative argument against the thesis that "absolute right of world history" overrides the perspective of a citizen situated within a given ethical horizon. I have showed that an "absolute right," in Hegel's use of the term, typically involves a right to enter into an ethical condition; it never involves overriding existing ethical obligations. I have also shown the two most commonly identified examples of history trumping morality in Hegel (the world-historical individual and the decadent people) do not actually provide any support for that reading when they are properly analyzed. We started, however, with a worry that if this possibility of a supramoral justification for action was rejected, Hegel would be left with a fairly unpalatable response to the challenge posed by situations where rationality conflicts with what is taken to be right. Without some kind of world-historical escape clause, he would be forced to conclude that the individual must always defer to existing customs and institutions, no matter how irrational or unjust they seem. We have already seen enough to recognize that this way of putting things rests on a false alternative. The situated ethical perspective is not limited to stubborn deference to existing customs and positive law. In cases where a given form of ethical life becomes "hollow, spiritless, and unsettled," it is possible that the right thing to do is to reject customary standards and retreat to your own private sense of right and wrong (as in the case of Socrates and the Stoics) or even, in very exceptional cases, to overthrow an existing regime in the name of a new ethical order (as in the case of Caesar). In both of these instances, I have argued, the justification available for breaking from what is generally taken to be valid at a time is itself ethical and this-worldly (weltlichen) not supramoral and world-historical (welt-historischen).

In this section, I will provide a more constructive account of the relationship between these two perspectives, with particular attention given to the problem of how dissent from customary standards and positive law is possible from within the situated, this-worldly point of view. Many have agreed with Leszek Kolakowski that "Hegel's thought on this fundamental point is beset by ambiguity," that he has no clear account of how an individual could distinguish between those aspects of ethical life that are "hollow, spiritless, and unsettled" and those that are not.60 Kolakowski argues that this explains the unresolved conflict between those who interpret Hegel as a kind of quietisi and those who read him as the father of immanent critique. I will argue, however, that Hegel's ambiguity on this point is principled; it stems from Hegel's belief that the task of determining whether given norms are justified for their time is not a philosophic task at all. If this is right, neither of the interpretive options Kolakowski canvasses is appropriate: Hegel thinks criticism of the existing is possible and valuable (contrary to the quietisi reading) but he denies this is a proper function of philosophic discourse (contrary to those who read him as a critical theorist avant la lettre).

To see how Hegel arrives at this division of labor, it is useful to start by delineating the several senses in which norms, institutions, and so on, are characterized as "right" by Hegel. To simplify a bit, that a norm is right can mean one of three things: that it is valid, that it is appropriate, or that it is rational. These correspond to three forms of judgment: historical explanation, historical justification, and philosophic justification. I hope to show that these three forms of judgment involve distinct issues; that it is the second and third that correspond to the two perspectives we have been investigating; and that only the third form of judgment is properly philosophical.

I will start with the issue of validity (Gültigkeit). What does it mean to say that a determination of right is valid (gelten)? Hegel's account of validity occurs in his various discussions of positive right.61 A determination of right becomes valid (gelten) when it becomes positive law: when it possesses authority and is known publicly. Hegel thinks "what is right in itself only gets binding force by becoming posited in external existence, so this positivity is not opposed to natural right but is a necessary condition for its actualization. The fact that right must become positive in order to be binding, though, does not guarantee that the content of positive laws, and so forth, will not differ from what reason strictly demands.62 In fact, Hegel thinks it is "customarily the case" that what is taken to be valid is:

a blend of rational and contingent, arbitrary provisions; some of these derive from violence and repression or from the ineptitude of legislators, while some have been carried over from a more imperfect society into a more perfect, founded on a higher consciousness of freedom, the changes that have been made having been decreed singly and according to the needs of the moment, regardless of the coherence of the whole.63

Despite its quite imperfect rationality, however, Hegel thinks that positive law should "in general" be respected as an authority.

To determine whether a law is valid in this sense only requires showing either that it was a duly enacted piece of legislation or that it can be deduced from such legislation. Such validity is a matter of historical fact; it requires no evaluation of the appropriateness or rationality of the law. The job of determining whether a given law is valid can thus be handled adequately by the historical sciences, in particular, the positive science of right. Hegel describes the prerogative of that science as involving "the duty to deduce in every detail from its positive data both the historical developments and the applications and ramifications of the given determination of right, and to follow up their consequences."64 This science oversteps its bounds, according to Hegel, only when it mistakes a historical explanation of a law or custom with a justification for it. When it stays within its proper bounds, however, there is no conflict between the historical and philosophic points of view, for the former simply "bears no relation whatsoever to the philosophical approach."65

These comments might lead one to think that the primary division of labor between the historical approaches to right and the philosophic treatment is that the former is Umited to what is factually taken to be valid in a community and the latter has exclusive authority to determine whether norms are justified. That would oversimplify things, however. In the same passages where Hegel is criticizing these overextensions of historical explanation (geschichtliche Erklärung), he indicates that historical considerations also have a proper role in the justification (Rechtfertigung) of norms:

With regard to the historical element in positive right, Montesquieu stated the true historical view, the genuinely philosophical standpoint, namely that legislation both in general and in its particular provisions is to be treated not as isolated and abstract but rather as a subordinate moments of one totality, interconnected with all the other detenninations which make up the character of a nation and a time. It is in being so connected that the various laws acquire their true meaning [wahrhaft Bedeutung] and therefore their justification [Rechtfertigung].66

Here and in the following discussion, Hegel fully endorses what I earlier called "ethical contextualism," crediting Montesquieu with the insight.67 This is the view that the determinations of right should not be evaluated from an abstract standpoint, but need to be viewed within an actual historical and political context. From this point of view, the appropriateness or inappropriateness of a given law will depend entirely on historical factors like the character and development of an individual nation. Whether something is justified from this point of view depends not on its absolute rationality, but only on whether it corresponds to the living ethos of a people.68 Such a judgment goes well beyond simply recognizing that a law is formally valid (in fact, this itself is one of the abstract points of view Hegel praises Montesquieu for having transcended); yet it is clearly circumscribed by the specific historical horizon of the phenomenon being evaluated. If something satisfies this standard, Hegel thinks we can conclude that it is "necessary [notwendige] and just [gerechte] and ethical [sittliche]" - but only for its time.69 Because of this Hegel is willing to concede that even the Indian caste system or the legal dominion of Russian masters over serfs can be given a historical justification. In such cases: "The legality on which the subject relies is to be respected and justified [rechtfertigen] for his time and its spirit and level of civilization, although for us it is through and through positive and without validity and authority."70

It is clearly at this level that we can justify the actions of worldhistorical individuals like Socrates and Caesar. What such figures have in common is that they live in times when valid ethical determinations are losing their historical appropriateness and their authority. Both Socrates and Caesar showed remarkable insight into the hollowness and corruption of the forms of ethical life in which they lived; this is why Hegel identifies them, in a passage quoted earlier, as the most farsighted among their contemporaries. Caesar, for example, recognized that after the Punic wars the republican system had become a sham since all putatively public matters were being decided by eminent citizens acting on private motives. He rightly concluded that there was no longer any security in the Republic, that Rome needed to be ruled by a single will. Hegel is clear that when Casar came into conflict with the defenders of the existing laws of the Republic, he had the higher right on his side; he was only opposed by "merely a formal kind of justice, abandoned by the living spirit and by God."71 In these cases, world-historical figures are justified because of their deeper insight into the needs of their own nation; this, not a world-historical justification, is what permits their disobethence to the one-sided determinations of merely positive law.

Even historical justification can overstep its bounds, though, if it mistakes its verdict that certain determinations of right are appropriate and necessary for the times with a philosophic justification of those determinations. This would be to confuse a relative justification for an "in and for itself valid justification" (an und für sich gültigen Rechtfertigung).72 As we have already seen in the case of Roman property laws, Hegel is emphatic that something may be "entirely grounded in and consistent with the prevailing circumstances and existing legal institutions" and yet "contrary to right and irrational in and for itself."73 This shows that a given practice could be both valid and perfectly appropriate for its time and place without satisfying even the most modest demands of reason. To assess the rationality of a given determination of right, then, one must abandon the situated historical point of view and have recourse to philosophy, which is the only science capable of pronouncing on the rationality of determinations of right.74 This requires abstracting from the particularities of any given historical situation, considering the state only as idea. 75 The difference between merely historical justification of a given determination of right and this kind of philosophic justification is that the former is circumstantial, being contingent on the existence of transitory circumstances, whereas the latter kind of justification is absolute, in that it rests only on the concept of freedom, explicitly abstracting from any specific circumstances which might make it unrealizable or inappropriate in a specific circumstance.76 Given this difference, it is just as fallacious to infer a norm's appropriateness from its rationality as it is to infer its rationality from its appropriateness. These determinations are categorically distinct.

They are not entirely unrelated though. Hegel says that although historical judgment can itself determine the "wisdom [Weisheit] of what legislators and governments have done for the circumstances of their own time and laid down for the conditions under which they lived," its assessment of these matters will be all the more profound if it is "supported by philosophical insights."77 This division of labor can help us understand why Hegel denies philosophy the function of issuing instructions to the world about how it ought to be. Although philosophy is fully capable of recognizing the rational that is at the basis of actuality, the further question of whether our own circumstances ought to be reformed in the fight of the idea requires a different kind of expertise. It requires a kind of practical wisdom or insight into the actual historical and social conditions of a nation. When Hegel criticizes those who would prescribe an ought to reality, his complaint is not that they are wrong to do so (he says they "may very well be in the right") but only that they are wrong to think they are "operating within the concerns of philosophic science."78


Hegel's synthesis of ethical contextualism and rationalist philosophy of history can thus be vindicated from the Kierkegaardian accusation that it involves a category mistake, permitting illegitimate inferences from historical significance to ethical justification. In fact, Hegel's position involves a careful demarcation of the respective authority of context sensitive ethical judgment and universalistic philosophic judgment characteristic of world history. This division of labor is intended to do justice to both the infinite particularity of actual historical existence and to the absolute autonomy of philosophic reason. The cost of this solution, however, is that philosophy must accept that it is not independently capable of determining whether given norms are justified for us here and now.

This might seem to substantiate another of Kierkegaard's well known criticisms of Hegel: that his system lacks an ethics, giving no moral or political guidance to the actually existing individual. We can see that there is some justice to that accusation. Though Hegelian science is clearly capable of pronouncing on which ethical norms and political institutions are required by reason, nothing necessarily follows for our practice. As Raymond Geuss aptly puts it, Hegel's philosophy of history places him not above ethics (as Wood seems to claim) but in a certain sense outside ethics. Geuss is thus right to assert that there is "no direct movement from a speculative, philosophic warrant for the state to any interesting philosophically distinct answer to the question 'What ought I to do?'"79 This is so, we have seen, because the historical justification of given institutions for a given nation is categorically distinct from the question of their absolute rationality. Geuss is wrong, however, to conclude from this that the only way to settle the question of what to do in some situation is to consult your local authorities.80 The question of whether a given conventional determination of right is appropriate for its time is a matter of practical wisdom and historical insight. Accepting that it is not the philosopher's job to make such a determination need not amount to the claim that the question of what we ought to do can be settled by some authoritative fiat or by reference to what is taken as valid in the positive sense.

One way to mitigate the cost of Hegel's concessions to ethical contextualism would be to understand them as primarily motivated by his intellectual historicism. On such an interpretation, slavery was valid for the Greeks because they did not know better, but it is now wrong for everyone because that knowledge has become universal. If this were Hegel's position, it would follow that all existing nonEuropean regimes lost their historical justification as soon as the Bastille was stormed or as soon as the general significance of this event was registered. Joachim Ritter has made exactly this sort of argument on Hegel's behalf, claiming that "[ejvery present and future legal and political order must presuppose and proceed from the [French] Revolution's universal principle of freedom."81 Hegel does not endorse such sweeping conclusions, however; on the contrary, he is content to observe that every nation has the constitution "appropriate and proper to it."82 We can begin to explain this by pointing to the fact that even if someone has the outline of the rational state, that outline cannot be experienced as valid and authoritative by a people unless certain cultural transformations occur. These social and cultural conditions for the legitimacy of the rational state cannot be manufactured; they are a matter of the historical development of a collective consciousness. Hegel clearly thinks that a people needs to have already been formed by the modern world in order for specifically modern considerations of freedom to serve as a compelling grounds for action, otherwise such considerations are abstract, a mere ought to be.83

This implies that in modem states, the gap between historical justification and philosophic justification has effectively been closed. Indeed, Hegel characterizes the last stage of modernity as one in which all merely customary forms of morality are "no longer valid [gilt nicht mehr]"; now, he says, "the various claims insisted on must prove their legitimacy [legitimieren] to be based on rational principles [vernünftigen Grundsätzen]."1" It would appear that an institution or norm is valid or appropriate in modern states only if it is also rational, that there is no longer any acceptable room for self-conscious conflict between two. This is certainly an important facet of Hegel's teaching about modernity, but it is also important to notice what a geographically parochial achievement he thinks it is. Reason is authoritative, for Hegel, only to those peoples who have already accepted it as an authority, that is, to those peoples who have undergone the Reformation and developed a secular conscience, a conscience that accepts no sacred authority in political matters. In his day, Hegel thought this included Prussia, England, and (to some degree) France; it did not include Catholic Spain and certainly not the non-European world. For the former countries, reason is already authoritative. For the latter, Hegel has no advice to give; what they lack is not something that can be politically imposed on them, as Napoleon attempted with the Bayonne Constitution in Spain, but is a certain kind of collective social and religious transformation. This might seem to suggest that even if Hegel's philosophy of history is true in theory, it is of no use in practice. Indeed, something like this charge is behind Habermas's claim that Hegel was trying to somehow legitimate the French Revolution without legitimating revolutionary activity itself.85 The more careful way to put the point, though, is that even if the philosopher of history can fully transcend his or her particular historical context, the authority of what reason determines, its actual claim on us, is still something that requires a nonphilosophic kind of discernment that takes our actual historical context into account. In practical matters like these, even the philosopher with absolute knowledge must defer to the wisdom of the statesman.

Northwestern University

1 Hegel is well known for distinguishing between morality (Moralität) and ethical life (Sittlichkeit), but in this essay I will be using the terms "moral" and "ethical" as synonymous, as Hegel himself often does. When I mean to refer to Moralität in the technical sense in which it can be opposed to ethicality, I will speak of "morality in the narrow sense."

2 G. W. F. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History: Introduction, trans. H. B. Nisbet, (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1975), 80; hereafter, LPWH. Die Vernunft in der Geschichte (Hamburg: FeUx Meiner, 1955), 94; hereafter VG.

3 Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, trans. H. B. Nisbet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), §30 R; hereafter PR. AU italics are Hegel's.

4 S0ren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 134; hereafter Postscript.

5 Kierkegaard, Postscript, 136.

6 Leszek Kolakowski, Toward a Marxist Humanism: Essays on the Left Today, trans. Jane Zielonko Peel (New York: Grove City Press, 1968), 113. Originally published as Kultura i fetysze (Warsaw: Pan'stwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, 1967).

7 Vincent Descombes, The Barometer of Modern Reason: On the Philosophies of Current Events, trans. Stephen Adam Schwartz (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 40. Originally published as Philosophie par gros temps (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1989).

8 Allen W. Wood, Hegel's Ethical Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 236.

9 PR §3 R.

10 PR §57 A "Die Sklaverei fällt in den Übergang von der Natürlichkeit der Menschen zum wahrhaft sittlichen Zustande; sie fällt in eine Welt, wo noch ein Unrecht Recht ist. Hier gilt das Unrecht und befindet sich ebenso notwendig an seinem Platz" (G. W. F. Hegel, Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts: Werke 7 (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag), 126; hereafter GPR).

11 PR §180 R.

12 Wood, Hegel's Ethical Thought, 221. Wood means two things by this. The first is that ethical duties are conditional or can be overridden. The second is that ethical Ufe itself is necessarily ultimately unsatisfying to reason and is an incomplete actualization of freedom. I am only chaUenging the first of these. For a further development of the latter point, see Will Dudley, "A Limited Kind of Freedom: Hegel's Analysis of the Finitude of the Will," The Owl of Minerva, 31, no. 2 (Spring 2000), 173-98.

13 PR, §258.

14 G. W. F. Hegel, The Philosophy of History, trans. J. Sibree (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1991), 449, translation modified; hereafter PH. Vorlesungen über die Philosophie der Geschichte: Werke 12 (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1986), 531; hereafter VPG.

15 PR, §337 R. The classic treatment of this issue is Franz Rosenzweig's Hegel und der Staat (Aaelen: Scientia, 1962). See also the excellent chapter on Hegel in Friedrich Meinecke, Die Idee der Staatsräson in neueren Geschichte (München: R. Oldenburg Verlag, 1957).

16 PR, §33 A.

17 PR, §30 R.

18 Wood, Hegel's Ethical Thought, 223. In asserting this particular connection with the existentialist tradition, Wood is foUowing a suggestion made by George Dennis O'Brien in Hegel on Reason and History (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1975), 119-20.

19 Wood, Hegel's Ethical Thought, 224.

20 Wood, Hegel's Ethical Thought, 228.

21 Wood, Hegel's Ethical Thought, 232

22 Joseph McCarney, Hegel on History (London: Routledge, 2000), 118.

23 On this point, Wood understands the world-historical figure to be in a position similar to the position Bernard Williams assigns Gauguin: such individuals are only justified if they turn out to be successful, and that is beyond their control. Bernard Williams, Moral Luck (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 23.

22 Wood, Hegel's Ethical Thought, 234.

23 Wood, Hegel's Ethical Thought, 235. Emphasis is mine.

24 Wood, Hegel's Ethical Thought, 224.

27I am leaving out, for example, the "absolute right of appropriation which human beings have over aU things" (PR, §44) and Hegel's claim that "the good" has an "absolute right as distinct from the abstract right of property and the particular ends of welfare" (PR, §130) as clearly not germane. Neither of these indicates a supraethical right. In the former, one is appropriating things that no one has any claim to. In the latter, Hegel is speaking specificaUy about our highest moral justification for acting, which is superior to claims of mere legality or private wetfare.

28PR, §66 A

29 PR, §350.


31PR, §66 A

32 G. W. F. Hegel, Natural Law: The Scientific Ways of Teaching Natural Law, Its Place in Mora! Philosophy, and Its Relation to the Positive Sciences of Law, trans. T. M. Knox (Philadelphia University of Pennsylvania, 1975), 481; hereafter NL. The same point is made in Hegel's lectures on aesthetics. There Hegel characterizes the rights of Russian masters over their serfs as "the unrighteous right of barbarism" but insists that "[t]he legality of the which the subject [here: the master] relies is to be respected and justified for his time and its spirit and level of civilization" although "for us" it is "without validity or power." G. W. F. Hegel, Hegel's Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Arts, Volume 1, trans. T. M. Knox (Oxford University Press, 1975), 212; hereafter Aesthetics.

33 To this extent, Hegel agrees with Rousseau and Mill that slavery is in itself self-contradictory.

34 LPWH, 48 and 178; VG, 56 and 218.

36 This naturally raises the question: under what circumstances does a law or norm lose its authority? Hegel's ultimate position is established at a fairly early stage in his development: a given law becomes merely positive when it no longer expresses the ethos of a people. I return to the question of how we make this judgment in section V.

36PR, §350.

87PA, §350.

38 PR, §93 R.

39 PR, §93 A

40 PR, §351.

41 See PA, §281.

42 LPWH, 124; VG, 147.

43 McCarney, Hegel on History, 114.

44 LPWH, 89; VG, 105.

46 LPWH, 84; VG, 98.

46 Wood, Hegel's Ethical Thought, 228.

47 This is clearly how Kierkegaard, for example, reads Hegel's doctrine of the world-historical figure. See especially Postscript, Section II, Chapter 1, which involves an extended critique of the idea that the historical outcome of an action could qualify its ethical value.

48 See Wood, Hegel's Ethical Thought, 229.

49 Wood, Hegel's Ethical Thought, 230.

50 LPWH, 141; VG, 71-2.

51 For a classic treatment of this issue, see Ernst Troeltsch, "Privatmoral und Staatsmoral," in Deutsche Zukunft (Berlin: S. Fischer, 1916), 61-112.

52 LPWH, 141; VG, 171.

53 PR, §138 A.

54 LPWH, 146; VG, 178.

55 Wood, Hegel's Ethical Thought, 224.

56 LPWH, 90; VG, 107.

57 For further evidence, see Hegel's statement on the predicament of great individuals at the end of the Republic: "It is their misfortune that they cannot maintain a pure ethics, for their course of action contravenes things as they are, and is a series of transgressions. Even the noblest - the Gracchi-were not merely the victims of injustice and violence from without, but were themselves involved in the corruption and wrong that universally prevailed." PH, 310, translation modified; VPG, 377.

58 LPWH, 92, translation modified; VG, 109.

59 See the remarks appended to PR, §137-8.

60 Leszek Kolakowski, Main Currents of Marxism: I. The Founders, trans. P. S. Falla (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 79.

61 The most important of these are: NL, 116-33; Lectures on Natural Right and Political Science, trans. J. Michael Stewart and Peter C. Hodgson (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995), 51-3 and 319-23; hereafter LNR; PR, §3, §209-14. The evocative and detailed account of the relation between natural law and positive law in NL (published in 18023) is, of course, problematic as evidence for Hegel's mature opinions. In particular, in the Natural Law essay Hegel appears to think that it is possible that all of the positive sciences actually fall within philosophy. On this matter, I will be deferring to the account given in the Philosophy of Right which instead emphasizes the boundaries (Grenzen) between philosophic and positive approaches to right.

62 See PR, §210-12.

63 LNR §1.

64 PR, §212 R.

65 PR, §3 R.

66 PR, §3 R, translation modified.

67 Hegel makes similar comments about Montesquieu in NL, 128-9 and PR, §261 R. In the former, he specifically identifies Montesquieu's achievement as showing that the "reason and common-sense and experience" from which laws arise are not a priori but are historically conditioned. Montesquieu's limitation was that he did not "rise to the height of the most living idea," that is, he lacked a proper notion of philosophic justification.

68 Frederick Beiser marks the difference between what I am calling historical and philosophic justification by suggesting that Hegel's philosophy of history operates on two levels, a horizontal level which takes into consideration the "the specific circumstances of a nation, its economic, geographic, climactic, and demographic conditions" and a vertical level which judged individual nations according to world history as a whole. "Hegel's Historicism," in The Cambridge Companion to Hegel, ed. Frederick C. Beiser (Cambridge University Press, 1993), 279-80.

69 NR, 128; G. W. F. Hegel, Jenaer Schriften 1801-1807 (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1986), 524.

70 Aesthetics, 212; G. W. F. Hegel, Ästhetik, Band 1, (Berlin und Weimar: Aufbau-Verlag, 1965), 210. Note that in this passage, Hegel is not using validity (Gültigkeit) in the purely positive sense I just identified.

71 LPWH, 141; VG, 171.

72 PR, §3 R.

73 PR, §3 R.

74 Here one can see that effective immanent criticism of a society need not be philosophical; and truly philosophical criticism need not be immanent to the horizon of a society. For a different view, see Andrew Buchwalter, "Hegel, Marx, and the Concept of Immanent Critique," Journal of the History of Philosophy 29, no. 2 (1991): 253-79.

75 PA, §258 A.

76 It is sometimes claimed, on the basis of Hegel's claims about philosophy being a child of its time (PR, 21), that Hegel thinks philosophic judgment is itself relative to a given historical period and hence incapable of transcending its context. Were this true, the contrast I am trying to establish here would be vitiated. Carl Page, however, makes a convincing case that Hegel is not a historicist in this stronger sense in Philosophic Historicism and the Betrayal of First Philosophy (University Park: The Penn State University Press, 1995), ch. 5.

77 PR, §3 R.

78 Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Ecyclopaedia Logic, trans. T. F. Gereats, W. A. Suchting, and H. S. Harris (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1991), §6 R. The same demarcation is made in the Philosophy of Right when Hegel says that the "infinitely varied circumstances" in which the rational comes into historical existence are "not the subject matter of philosophy." PR, 21; GPR, 25. See the related discussion in Robert Pippin, Hegel's Practical Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 267-9.

79 Raymond Geuss, Outside Ethics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 50.

80 Geuss, Outside Ethics, 51.

81 Joachim Ritter, Hegel and the French Revolution, trans. Richard Dien Winfield (Cambridge: MTT Press, 1982), 52.

82 PR, §274 R.

83 1 take this to support Robert Pippin's claim that "[rights] claims can only become practical reasons for individuals within and as a result of a certain form of ethical life." Robert Pippin, Hegel's Practical Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 257.

84 PH, 345; VPG, 417.

85 Jürgen Habermas, Theory and Practice, trans. J. Viertel (Beacon Press, 1973), 121, 128, 138.

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