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November 10, 2019 / Congau

Hegelian Freedom and Law

Hegel is not a very fashionable philosopher. Some of his main ideas sound very alien to our understanding of basic concepts. He talks about freedom, but his notion of the term seems to indicate something quite opposite to what we usually think it is. Freedom is to identify oneself with the custom of one’s people in the way it is expressed by the law of the state. The state is the highest organism and the obedient citizen who submit his subjective will to its demands, is the freest person. The consequence is (although Hegel doesn’t quite express it like that) that a free man is one who does what he is told.

Spelling out the whole logic of the argument, which would make it sound more palatable, wouldn’t change the conclusion, and clearly this is not what most people mean by freedom.

However, even though people think of freedom in a very un-Hegelian way as a high degree of independence from outside forces, especially the state, they unwittingly go along with his deep respect for law and order. It is very common among ordinary community members to equate law and legality with ethics. When someone is accused of doing something bad, he retorts: “no, it’s legal!” and a moral reproach often takes the form of: “it’s illegal!”. The underlying presumption must be that the laws are always good and the government always right, and that’s in fact what Hegel thought.

At least Hegel was consistent, and if we want to achieve consistency too, we may have to adjust either our notion of freedom or our obedience to the law. If freedom is subjective will (which most people probably think) there would only be pragmatic reasons why we should obey the law; the law would not be worth obeying for its own sake.

Freedom may not be what we think it is – and neither is the law.

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