Published online by Cambridge University Press: 16 March 2017
One of the more complex features of Hegel's Philosophy of Right pertains to the normative status it assigns to civil society. While situated, along with the family and the state, in the work's section on Ethical Life (Sittlichkeit), civil society – which encompasses Hegel's account of modern market societies – is also presented as the very denial of ethicality. Characterized variously as the sphere of division, separation, fragmentation and bifurcation (Entzweiung), civil society for Hegel is gripped by a host of pathologies that undermine individual autonomy and societal well-being – features championed by advocates of market societies. Among other things, civil society promotes alienating work conditions, conspicuous consumption, the emergence of a societal underclass, colonialism and vast disparities in wealth between rich and poor. In this regard, Hegel's treatment of civil society anticipates the views of later social critics like Marx, Horkheimer, Adorno, Arendt, Foucault and Habermas, who in different ways question the rationality and normative possibilities of modern market societies.
On the other hand, Hegel does not claim that market societies are altogether bereft of possibilities for genuine autonomy or broader notions of community. He would not agree, for instance, with Habermas, for whom market economies denote a ‘norm-free’ self-regulating domain governed by the strategic calculations of individual utility-maximizers. Instead, he maintains that considerations of morality and ethicality remain central to an account of modern civil society. He does so, moreover, in a manner arguably more robust than some of the champions of market societies. Not only does civil society realize the ‘right of subjectivity’ and the ‘principle of subjective freedom’, not only is it the domain for the realization of a notion of morality abstractly formulated earlier in the Philosophy of Right, but also it gives expression – especially in the concluding subsection on corporations – to an account of the relationship of individual and community illustrative of a modern account of ethical life. Indeed, the very designation civil society (bürgerliche Gesellschaft) references individuals not just in their capacity as self-interested utility-maximizers – the bourgeois common to the liberal tradition – but also as citizens (citoyens) who, in the tradition of civil republicanism, attend to their mutual well-being and the welfare of the community itself. In these respects, civil society, no less than family and state, comprises an account of ethical life.