Hegel’s Concept of Social Relations and Ethical Life

Social Relations

Hegel agreed with Kant’s notion that being conscious of an object also implies one is being self-conscious (because to be conscious of an object means there is also a consciousness of a subject, which would be oneself perceiving the object). Hegel adds to this theory by stating that self-consciousness not only involves an object and a subject; it also involves other subjects because individuals truly become aware of themselves when someone else is watching. Therefore, according to Hegel, actual self-consciousness is social. It is only when another consciousness is present that one views the world from another’s eyes in order to get a self-image.

Hegel likens this to relationships of inequality and dependence, where the subordinate in the relationship (known as the bondsman) is consciously aware of his status, while the independent partner (known as the lord) is able to enjoy the freedom of not being concerned about the bondsman’s consciousness. However, this creates feelings of guilt for the lord because in order to have this superiority, he must deny the bondsman mutual identification. According to Hegel, this dynamic—where one competes for objectification and mutual identification, and also distances oneself and identifies with another person—is the basis of social life.

Ethical Life

Hegel describes one cultural expression of Spirit as “ethical life.” Ethical life is defined as a reflection of the basic interdependence among people in a society. Hegel lived during the Enlightenment, and as a result, he argued that the tendency of modern life was shifting away from recognizing the essential social bonds. Prior to the Enlightenment, people were regarded by their social hierarchies. However, the Enlightenment, and its key players like Locke, Rousseau, Kant, and Hobbes, placed emphasis on the individual.

Hegel believed the modern state would correct the imbalance set forth by modern culture, and believed institutions were needed that would be able to preserve freedom while affirming ethical life and common bonds. For example, Hegel believed it was the state’s job to provide for the poor, regulate the economy, and create institutions based on different occupations (almost like present-day trade unions) so that people can experience a sense of social belonging and a connectivity to a society at large.