Societal mores are a part of life and existence. They determine principles of communication and interaction between individuals in society. Mill and DeToqueville underline that for people to believe (or to pretend to believe) that they could establish “good” institutions to control “bad” men, i.e., men who in the narrow pursuit of their selfish interests would hinder the advancement of the common good–was to ignore (or at least to minimize) the fact that those institutions were themselves conceived and were to be administered by interested and selfish men. Hence, even with the best institutions in the world, the problem would still remain. In contrast to Mill and DeToqueville, Hegel takes into account the spiritual nature of a human being and his religiosity.
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Mill and DeToqueville underline that despite generally pessimistic view of human nature, not all men are governed by considerations of self-interest alone. They thought that some men at least are sufficiently dedicated to rise above the passions and narrow pursuits of the multitude. But unless it can be shown that such men (or reasonable approximations thereof) actually were in control of the writing of the Constitution and of its subsequent amendments (formal and informal alike), and that such men have continued to determine the policies of the state, it is futile to expect good institutions to emerge and to be properly run. To warn, therefore, as Madison did, that enlightened statesmen would not always be at the helm is not necessarily to conclude, as he did, that our best hope lies therefore in good institutions; for in the absence of such enlightened men, the helm may be improperly steered and the institutions corrupted and destroyed. It is rather to emphasize the necessity of procuring and appointing such enlightened men, and of keeping them in power. Such, at any rate, is the contention of those who look neither to withdrawal nor to “good” institutions but appeal instead to wise (i.e., enlightened) and therefore virtuous rulers–men who know what the right principles are and who can therefore be expected to apply them with prudence, or who, though lacking this knowledge, possess other qualities of excellence that set them apart from ordinary men and commend them as “good” rulers. Thus, the appeal to social mores is no more than the quite legitimate demand that men practice what they preach, that they not merely seek to understand what democracy is but that they observe its values in their day-to-day relationships (Birsch 54).
In contrast to Mill and DeToqueville, Hegel believes that social mores unconditional and are based on the philosophy of spirit (or freedom in solidarity). For it overlooks the fact that interests and passions, not principles, are the primary movers of men, and that a charge of logical inconsistency does not bite very deep. This discrepancy between faith and deed can be accounted for, among other things, by the fact that people can grant or espouse a principle without seeing its ramifications in practice; or by the curious fact that men who are aware of the inconsistency remain, all too often, untroubled by it. They seem to have little difficulty in compromising their creeds and in discovering new rationalizations when it is convenient for them to do so. They are not overly disturbed by the intrusion of facts contrary to their prejudices, for there are always some facts to reinforce their prejudices; and since, in any case, the real grounds on which they hold their beliefs are not the grounds alleged–since it is their attitudes rather than their opinions that are at stake–the exposure of false charges, of misinformation, of illogical reasoning, of moral unjust behavior, and the like leaves those attitudes unaffected. This is why the informed are hardly less prone to prejudice and discrimination than are the uninformed, why consistency of thought and action is regarded in many quarters as but a foolish hobgoblin of little minds (Birsch 87).
Mill and DeToqueville suppose that the appeal to democracy is a completely ineffectual one. Always there are some men, even if but a few, who would be guided by the light of reason, who respect principles and seek to act in accordance with them. But even for such men it is not alto ether clear that the appeal to democracy is an effective bar to oppressive action. For one thing, such an appeal remains always but an invocation of general principles, and as such it cannot resolve particular issues. For another, it is less an appeal to a principle than it is an appeal to a procedure. Clearly, men may agree on a general principle and disagree as to its particular applications (Mappes and Zembaty 12). Hegel’s second contribution to a social ethic was his acute recognition of the forces in modern society that were beginning to depersonalize human beings. He saw that culture can harm men with its beneficence as truly as with its cruelty. A century after his death, hundreds of social critics were pointing to the ways in which persuasive manipulation lures men to give up their freedom, pressures them into conformity, and treats them as consumers rather than selves. Kierkegaard was completely ignorant of the clinical and statistical techniques by which psychologists, sociologists, and cultural anthropologists come to their conclusions (Birsch 23). His imagination sketched out most of the lines of contemporary social criticism. The emerging Christian social ethic, alert to biblical faith and the latest news faces the ethical issues peculiar to this age. Hegel alerts it to the injustices of a society that crushes opportunity for migrant workers, slum dwellers, and racial minorities. Hegel alerts it to the blandishments of the same society as it surrounds men with comforts and muffles the unsettling demands of a transcendent God (Mappes and Zembaty 65).
Social mores can be perceived as a principle of government that looks primarily to a method or process through which conflicts in moral and political ideas can be negotiated. It establishes a procedure for the tentative resolution of disagreements; it does not formulate an answer to such disagreements. Consequently, the appeal to democracy is an appeal not to a fixed and final solution but to a method through which a solution–admittedly tentative and experimental in nature–can be obtained. It is true that majorities do not always decide wisely, and that the right method can therefore be said at times to produce a wrong result. But so long as the integrity of the method is respected, that result remains subject to continuing inquiry, to criticism, and to the possibility of change (Mappes and Zembaty 51).
In sum, Hegel makes a constitution to understanding of social mores added the idea of philosophy of spirit and The fact that a real or professed faith in democracy per se is insufficient to prevent departures from the democratic principle has led some theorists to seek the remedy in the inculcation of a more universal and binding principle. From this standpoint, abuses of power can only be controlled by man’s submission to divine truth, to God’s will. From this standpoint, it is the tragic failure of secular democracies–and the explanation of their oppressive acts–that they have reversed this elementary principle and have confounded God’s will with man’s will. They have forgotten that the will of God is a rational will, and that it is, consequently, not what men will but what they rationally will that can alone claim legitimacy. For this reason, men who speak of freedom, who affirm (as theological adherents of democracy affirm) that “democratic forms and institutions find their essential and ultimate meaning in the preservation and enlargement of human freedom,” must understand that what is here meant by freedom is not Hobbes’s absence of restraints.
Birsch, Douglas. Ethical Insights: A Brief Introduction. Mayfield Pub Co; 2 edition, 2003.
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Mappes, Thomas, Zembaty, Jane. (2007). Social Ethics: Morality and Social Policy. McGraw-Hill Humanities/Social Sciences/Languages; 7 edition.