Dissertation abstract

Subjective Right and Freedom of Conscience in Hegel’s Political Philosophy

It has become a commonplace in recent years that the scheme of institutions which Hegel sketches

in his Philosophy of Right should count as more “liberal” than had been previously thought. However,

significant questions remain as to whether the justification that Hegel offers for the legitimacy of those

institutions is itself liberal in character. In particular, Hegel’s political philosophy has been claimed by

prominent communitarians like Charles Taylor (and criticized by prominent liberals like Charles Larmore)

for the primacy which they claim that Hegel assigns to a specific conception of the human good over and

above the demands of right or justice in his argument for the legitimacy of the political institutions of the

modern world.

In my dissertation, I argue that Hegel’s argument in favor of the political liberty of conscience

should rather count as liberal. I demonstrate that Hegel’s argument for the liberty of conscience does not

ultimately rest on a specific conception of the good which the protection of conscientious liberty is to

promote. Rather, Hegel’s argument for the liberty of conscience makes explicit appeal to a scheme of

individual rights, which Hegel identifies as “subjective right,” a notion which is itself grounded in the

central organizing idea of his political thought, the idea of “right” or justice (Recht).

I begin in Chapter 1 by assessing anti-liberal interpretations of Hegel’s political thought, focusing

in particular on Larmore’s communitarian interpretation, and on Ernst Tugendhat’s argument that Hegel

leaves no room for the demands of individual conscience in the face of the totalizing demands of the

Hegelian state. Having established the central challenges which a liberal interpretation of Hegel’s political

thought must answer, I draw from Rawls’s argument for the liberty of conscience in A Theory of Justice

and Political Liberalism two criteria which a liberal defense of the freedom of conscience must satisfy. The

first is an individual-rights criterion according to which the liberty of conscience is grounded in a scheme

of rights belonging to individual agents protecting them in the pursuit of their reflectively determined moral

aims. The second is a toleration criterion according to which the toleration of others with different or

conflicting conscientious aims is guaranteed on the basis of a recognition of those others as the bearers of

political rights.

I begin to articulate and explain Hegel’s conception of the constitution and ground of subjective

right in Chapters 2 and 3. Drawing most significantly on the “Morality” chapter of the Philosophy of

Right, I demonstrate that subjective rights belong to us as reflective agents, and protect the capacity for

moral self-determination which Hegel identifies as central to a free life. I focus in particular on Hegel’s

claim that individual conscience (Gewissen) counts as the paradigmatic shape of subjective right. I

demonstrate that Hegel’s well-known criticisms of the limitations of individual conscience are best

understood as moral arguments against some of his post-Kantian idealist forebears (notably Fichte and F.

W. Schlegel), and not as political arguments in favor of state control in moral matters. Rather, in Chapter

4, I show that, when Hegel articulates the specific political rights belonging to individuals in modern

“ethical life” (Sittlichkeit), he continues to give pride of place to subjective right and individual moral self-

determination. Likewise, I demonstrate, by way of contrast with the accounts of toleration offered by John

Locke, Rawls, and Michael Walzer, that Hegel’s defense of toleration in the Philosophy of Right should

count as liberal because of the fact that he grounds the demand for toleration in a recognition of others as

the bearers of subjective rights.

However, in spite of his arguments for subjective right and toleration, in the late 1820s Hegel also

argued that a free state is possible only if its citizens share a common religious “disposition,” that of

“Protestantism.” While some liberals have argued that the rise of Protestantism in the 16th century played

an important role in the development of liberal polities, Hegel’s assertion that a Protestant disposition is

necessary for the continued existence of free states appears to be a clear violation of the liberal notions of

state neutrality and toleration in matters of conscience. To address this possible inconsistency between

Hegel’s conception of the liberty of conscience and liberal conceptions, in Chapters 5 and 6 I turn to his

argument in the Jena Phenomenology of Spirit that, for a form of social union to count as a configuration of

“spirit” (Geist), it must be possible for individuals reciprocally to recognize one another conscientious

agents. Since Hegel clearly asserts that the institutions of modern ethical life are supposed to count as

“spiritual,” I argue that the agency-based conception of conscience that we find in Hegel’s early writings

should take priority over the religious account of the mature writings. I conclude by assessing the

significance of Hegel’s arguments for the liberty of conscience for our understanding of the general

standing of Hegel’s political thought in relation to prominent strands in contemporary political philosophy,

most notably the views of Rawls, Walzer, and Habermas.