Perils of Utility

Hegel derives the historic Enlightenment notion of Utility from a simple alternation of perspectives (being-in-itself, being-for-another, being-for-self) that is abstracted from all particular content. It is a sort of objective correlate for the “Pure Insight” that results from free use of the Understanding in practical matters.

The correlate of the Understanding’s freedom on the objective side is its abstraction from all content, which makes it “merely formal” in the sense we have seen Hegel criticize before. An alternation without content could go on without end, which makes it an instance of what he called “bad infinity”. Utility is “the awareness of the world as useful, not the comprehension of that world as the real self” (Harris, Hegel’s Ladder II, p. 380). It is the “pure self-estrangement of the Concept” (p. 386).

As with Understanding in general, Utility by no means appears only in a bad light. It is taken to presuppose a community of equal persons, and to imply the absolutely free Rousseauian general will of a sovereign People, which Hegel presents sympathetically. Consciousness is even said to “find its concept” in Utility (p. 384). Harris notes though that in Hegelian terms, the reference to “finding” indicates a less mature attitude than making or development.

A concept that generates a “bad infinity” ultimately cannot serve as a criterion for value judgment, because it leads to an infinite regress. But Hegel is not so much concerned with the theoretical error of the British Utilitarians’ reduction of all values to utility as with the political danger of the harshly “utilitarian” attitude of those who promulgated the Terror in the late stages of the French Revolution. The idea there was effectively that whatever action was deemed “useful” by the new authorities required no further justification. It seems clear to me, as it did to Hegel, that the French Revolution was a good thing on a historical level, but to acknowledge a generality like that is by no means necessarily to endorse every detail of the way it was carried out.

I have to say I think debates about whether or not “the end justifies the means” in general are pretty meaningless and unhelpful. We can meaningfully discuss the appropriateness of particular means to particular ends. The answer will be yes in some cases and no in others. Harsh measures that are unfortunately necessary in some cases are completely unjustifiable in others. Sometimes the tradeoffs can be very difficult. “Utility” as a putative criterion is only helpful in the easy cases. In difficult cases it ends up being tautological or sophistical. What is unequivocally wrong is the notion of arbitrary license, or the claim that no more substantive development of justification for an extreme course of action is even relevant in the first place.

Hegel is indeed concerned with a slippery slope here. The slippery slope concerns not the ends-means cliché but the use of utility as a criterion, which at the shallow end seems innocuous enough. But vague generality shades into arbitrariness, and utility is a vague generality. (My own judgment is that the notions of sovereignty and the general will are also tainted with what Hegel would call “bad infinity”.)

Hegel and the French Revolution

Rebecca Comay’s Mourning Sickness: Hegel and the French Revolution (2011) is a far better book than her recent collaboration with Frank Ruda (see Hopes Dashed). This is in the genre of literature people doing a sort of philosophy, and tends to dwell too much for my taste on broadly “existentialist” themes like sickness, loss, anxiety, etc., but it is a prolonged meditation on its subject matter, ending with a substantial discussion — and ultimately a positive, if somewhat paradoxical assessment — of the role of forgiveness in Hegel’s Phenomenology, as politically liberating.

Around 1800 in Germany, it was something of a commonplace to claim that Germany did not need a political revolution like France did, because Germany had already had the Reformation, as well as Kant’s Copernican revolution as interpreted by Fichte. Kant had expressed sympathy with the French Revolution’s ideals, but horror both at the idea of revolution, and at the execution of the French monarch in particular. (See also Enlightenment.) To oversimplify a bit, the German Romantics tended to feel that the freedom of the Subject claimed by Fichte captured everything good about the Revolution.

Hegel distanced himself from the Romantics, and mixed praise of Fichte with sharp criticism of his one-sidedness. Though Hegel championed what he considered to be true freedom, he also noted there was an uncomfortable relation between one-sided freedom and Terror. This should not be too surprising, since one-sided freedom on Hegel’s analysis is a kind of mastery. (See also Independence, Freedom; Freedom Without Sovereignty.)

In the context of the paranoia that drove the Terror, which Comay associates with Hegel’s allegory of the hard-hearted judge, Comay quotes Hegel saying “the fear of error is itself the error” that “mistrusts everything except [its] own mistrust” (p. 121).

I think every state and every revolution has sometimes followed a kind of Realpolitik, under which ethical goods are sacrificed in the name of what are expediently deemed to be greater goods, e.g., the conformist political “Virtue” promoted by Robespierre. It becomes all too easy to denounce others as counter-revolutionaries or Reds or terrorists or the moral equivalent thereof, while equating one’s own Terror with Virtue. There is a rather desperate need for an Aristotelian mean here. People should not be unconditionally pacifist in the face of oppression or aggression, but we ought to be very selective and conditional about endorsing the legitimacy of violence in the name of a greater good. (See also Stubborn Refusal; Sanctions.)

Hegelian forgiveness, Comay says, “evacuates the substantial plenitude of every community. The opening of the universal is thus neither reconstructive (forgiveness does not presuppose the stable identity of the social context) nor constructive (it does not stipulate a social norm).” (p. 133.) Then “The event is historicized: instead of determining the future, the past is freed to receive a new meaning from the future…. I am freed from the past, freed to act differently, only by exposing myself to the moral claim of others…. If I am no longer the prisoner of my act, this is because I am not its proprietor either.” (p. 133.) And “The reconciling yes… retains its participial, unfinished aspect. It speaks not of reconciliation but of an unfinished and ongoing movement of reconciling” (p. 136).

Rhetorical differences notwithstanding, this much seems to me entirely compatible with Brandom’s reading of Hegelian forgiveness.

Comay says, however, that it “challenges every politics of recognition (especially those formulated in Hegel’s name) constructed on a model of dialogical transparency” (p. 135). I’m not quite sure what is meant to be implied here by “dialogical transparency”, but I don’t think the work of reason in dialogue is “transparent”. Work is not a metaphor here. Dialogue involves actual conceptual/interpretive and communicative work leading to developments that do not come ready-made.

Comay goes on to associate a politics of recognition with identity politics, without saying of whom she is thinking. I’m used to a more positive, universalist Kantian-ethical view of recognition that has nothing to do with identity politics.