The word “ethics” is commonly taken to be a synonym for morality. In more formal contexts it serves as the name for codiﬁed conduct that governs individuals by virtue of their voluntary membership in particular institutions or professions. Although both of these signiﬁcances are encompassed within Hegel’s conception of ethics, he intends a yet broader meaning for it. The German word Hegel uses is Sittlichkeit, a word that is sometimes translated into English as morality as well as ethics. The stem of Sittlichkeit is Sitte, meaning customs and suggesting practices that partly form ongoing ways of life.1 In Hegel’s philosophy the sphere of ethics concerns both the actions of the individual moral agent and the normative environment that gives those actions their moral value. Considerations of ethics in its moral philosophical and its political institutional contexts cannot therefore be adequately treated in isolation from each other. It is of crucial importance in understanding Hegel’s ethics that his claim about the inextricability of moral agents from their ethical environment runs much deeper than the notion that the community simply furnishes agents with sets of approved or disapproved options. It says that we are constitutively communal beings whose judgements about the preferability of one choice over another are already inﬂuenced by our communal situation. Although Hegel acknowledges the diverse conﬁgurations of ethical
communities historically, it is not the case that he takes a relativist view of ethics. He explicitly identiﬁes what he perceives as deﬁciencies in past forms of the ethical life (Patten 1999: 59). And equally, he urges his readers not to lose sight of the unique potential of the ethical life of modern society. What is ﬁnally available to modern ethical beings is “reason”, a capacity for the governance of freedom and morality that is without precedent in earlier forms of social life. The ethical life of modern societies can be rational, unlike the apparently organic communities of the ancient Greeks (whose ethical life was vulnerable to
entails motivations for practical action which they can justify to other beings like themselves. It is Hegel’s view that the autonomy of the individual requires rational institutions that will structure that individual’s community. In this respect, as we shall see, his notion of autonomy is a critical departure from that of Kant in that Kantian autonomy appears to be grounded in a universal rationality that requires no reference to any existing social arrangements. In developing his account of what it means to be an ethical agent
within an ethical community, Hegel introduced to moral philosophy a number of signiﬁcant innovations. Central among them is the notion of the intersubjective basis of the moral life, an innovation that culminated in his theory of “recognition”. That theory accommodates many of the elements that had preoccupied Hegel from the beginning of his time as an independent philosopher: namely, his initial eﬀorts to rescue the moral teachings of Jesus from the rigid institutions of religion; the reﬂections on love that mark his early work; an account of ethical experience that would contrast with Kant’s transcendental moral philosophy. This chapter will oﬀer an historical examination of the emergence of Hegel’s conception of ethics by tracing the various forms that that conception would take throughout his career.