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Philosophy of right

What does Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) have to do with the modern idea of sustainability? A great deal, thinks the environmental ethicist Professor Konrad Ott. In a new research project, he wants to honour the impact of the often-misunderstood philosopher right up to the present – and at the same time put the lines of debate, which in many ways surround the issue of sustainability, on a sound socio-theoretical basis.

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Hegel's complex theories are still relevant today.

"Ethical Life and Sustainability in a Post-Growth Society" is the name of the three-year project, which gradually picked up speed earlier this year, despite the coronavirus pandemic. It is embedded in a trio of scientific projects funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG). Among other topics, philosophy professor Ludger Heidbrink is tackling the religious dimensions of the belief in growth, while the political scientist Professor Tine Stein, who recently moved from Kiel to Göttingen, is tackling the possibilities for an ecological transformation of society.

That Konrad Ott is to some extent the Hegelian in this trio can already be seen in the title of his sub-project, because the concept of “Sittlichkeit” (ethical life) played a central role in the work of Hegel. Whereby for Hegel, this has nothing to do with a heavy-handed code of conduct. To him, it serves as an intellectual link between institutions such as the family or life in society as a whole, but also the economy and the state. "The interesting thing is that the values which underlie this ethical life are not static, but must be discussed and negotiated again and again," explained Konrad Ott. If Hegel is thus concerned with the "philosophy of right", as Ott puts it, with the normative foundations of law, economics and politics, then in the opinion of the environmental ethicist, it is precisely this constant questioning that makes Hegelianism current in this day and age.

What was formerly dismissed as delusional or esoteric, is now on its way to becoming mainstream.

Konrad Ott

"In particular also regarding sustainability, Hegel remains relevant to this day," emphasised Ott, and referred to his concept of “Rechtlichkeit” (rightness/integrity), Moralität (morality) and “Sittlichkeit” (ethical life). Initially, the principle of legality takes centre stage, the anchoring of norms of coexistence in universally valid rules. Ott is convinced that Hegel "never questioned the fact" that these norms must be reviewed again and again in light of the current circumstances, and adjusted where necessary. And so, for example, it can be well justified with Hegel that the concept of sustainability, which already arose in the 18th Century in light of the increasing overexploitation of the forests, is today present in a wide range of environmental protection laws. Ott said that "30 or 40 years ago, it was a peripheral topic, and today it is a pillar of public law."

Morals, or environmental ethics in the narrower sense, are also a pillar of Hegel's philosophy of right. Ott sees a "relatively robust environmental morality" in the making, a consensus which has long outgrown social niches, on necessary realignments in consumption, mobility and the nature of economic activity. "The landscape has changed significantly," believes Ott. "What was formerly dismissed as delusional or esoteric, is now on its way to becoming mainstream."

A further sphere in Hegel's system is community life, the culture of coexistence, which ranges from raising children right through to the organisation of the neighbourhood. And last but not least, explained Konrad Ott, it is about the economy: "This cannot be based entirely on environmental ethics, but green ordoliberalism is conceivable and possible, which sets the framework for investment and product decisions." Thus, the social market economy could be transformed into an eco-social market economy. In Ott's opinion, just like the great example set by the Department of Geography at Kiel University, with the yooweedoo competition for sustainable entrepreneurship launched by Professor Christoph Corves.

Post-growth societies which adapt to the idea of finiteness in a life-affirming sense, must also implement this at the political level, as well as through international rules, added Ott. In his opinion, the best way to achieve this is using Hegel's idea of concretisation, the intertwining of all spheres from private to societal right through to the national and international level. Those who understand concretisation this way may also label it as holism – and surmise that the philosopher was already very modern, even 200 years ago.

Author: Martin Geist

DFG projects on "Politics and Ethics of Finiteness"

The project "Finite world and open future. Finality and growth criticism in contemporary political thought” by Professor Ludger Heidbrink and political scientist Professor Tine Stein of the University of Göttingen is part of a triple package of support provided to Kiel University by the German Research Foundation (DFG) for research on the subject of finality and growth criticism up to autumn 2022. This also includes a project by Kiel-based environmental ethicist Professor Konrad Ott on “Ethical Life and Sustainability in a Post-Growth Society”. Finally, in the third part of the project, Professor Stein is considering the possibilities of an ecological transformation of society. (mag)

See also: “On the essence of the idea of growth" in unizeit 102, 04.04.2020