‘Hegel’s Value: Justice as the Living Good’ by Dean Moyar reviewed by Ana Vieyra

Hegel’s Value: Justice as the Living Good

Oxford University Press, New York, 2021. 384 pp., $99 hb
ISBN 9780197532539

Reviewed by Ana Vieyra

About the reviewer

Ana Vieyra is a Philosophy doctoral student at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. Her doctoral …


It has proven historically difficult to determine the nature of Hegel’s project in the Philosophy of Right. Indeed, the manner of framing Hegel’s work (either as a ‘deduction’, ‘analysis’, ‘derivation’, ‘critique’) would seem to already involve alignment with a determinate reading the Philosophy of Right, a reading which, chances are, has not remained without its opponents. In his masterful new book, Dean Moyar sets to provide an interpretation of Hegel’s practical philosophy which at the same time elucidates a philosophical alternative to more familiar theories of justice by overcoming limitations such theories face: in the case of ‘ideal theories’, those arising from the gap between the rational principles and the translation of such principles into an actual institutional arrangement – the apparent impotence of moral theorizing in the realm of the political. In contrast, ‘non-ideal’ or ‘critical realist’ theories are often criticized for ‘lowering expectations’ on what to demand from the political, ‘settling for perennial conflict rather than aiming to realize a more just society.’ (4) By framing his reading within the context of this debate, Moyar assumes the difficult task of analyzing Hegel’s political project as the systematic account of justice which overcomes the division between ‘ideal’ (morality) and ‘real’ (right) through the concepts of life and value.

The key to Moyar’s interpretation is the necessity to secure expressively valid practical inferences. Following the neo-pragmatist tradition, Moyar interprets Hegel’s philosophy as a variety of inferentialism: the ‘meta-philosophical’ position that ‘denies that any item of sense data can play a role in knowledge if it does not already stand in rational relations to other items.’ (20) Moyar distances his reading of Hegel from Robert Brandom’s pragmatist inferentialism; while for Brandom the process of development of conceptual content is essentially open-ended, Hegel’s version retains a goal or telos. In this teleological inferentialism, the inferences stand at the service of the ultimate systematic conclusion: the Good as the form of final value thoroughly determined in Ethical Life. In this way, Moyar reads Hegel’s Philosophy of Right as a theory of justice where justice is the achievement, by either individuals or institutions, of practical inferences (processes of reasoning which determine action) which are not only valid (there exists an essential relation between the agent’s chosen means and the action’s purpose), but expressively valid – they can be realized in a social context and recognized as an expression of the original purpose. Moyar schematizes this process in the form of a Basic Argument. The schema of the argument (31-2) highlights the overcoming of an immediate abstract formulation of a norm through the confrontation with a reality which produces a ‘counter-normative’ action. The response to the counter-normative action continues to appeal to the original norm’s abstractness, which leads to a comparison between the action and the response. This then shows that the failure to overcome abstractness in the response derives from the original formulation of the norm itself. The comparison thus produces a new normative shape that incorporates the experience of the original version’s limitations when confronted by particularity. As Moyar explains in chapter two, this inferential process of securing right opposes the formalism of Rawlsian ideal theories since it anchors justice in the necessary process of empirical testing and the integration of contingency. (178)

Moyar’s articulation of the normative process of the enrichment of the stages of right relies on the concept of life. Moyar’s interpretation mobilizes the notion of life in at least two manners. As – along with self-consciousness – one of the two components of (final) value, life emphasizes the will’s natural ground; natural needs, desires and drives necessarily influence the determinations of value since we are embodied, living beings. (cf. 84-5; 164-5) The second manner derives from a reading of Hegel’s treatment of life in his Science of Logic, and captures the self-purposive, ‘organic’ relation between individuality and universality. Justice is the ‘living’ good because it displays the logic of self-preserving, inner purposiveness. The State is a ‘living organism’ because it realizes the purpose of its self-preservation when the individual parts work for the harmony of the whole.

The divisions of the Philosophy of Right are Abstract Right, Morality and Ethical Life. Moyar accounts for the transition between Abstract Right and Morality in chapter three. By using the model of the Basic Argument, he shows how the validity of the claims of right arrived at in Abstract Right depend on the experience that establishes the relative comparability between the injury and the punishment (144-5). In Morality (chapter four) we find the emergence of the Good. While the moral element remains throughout the inferential process, the conflict between right and morality shows the necessity of institutional support for the realization of the Good – this forces the transition towards Ethical Life. Moyar reads the remainder of the Philosophy of Right as Hegel’s attempt to specify the conditions of the Good, and dedicates the last four chapters to Ethical Life.

Moyar masterfully addresses important objections to Hegel’s account of justice, such as the apparently anti-modern dissolution of the individual within the State. In Moyar’s reading, Hegel’s institutions remain properly modern because they give prominence to the particularity of the individual and the protection and maintenance of particularity. What fades away is individual conscience as the ultimate authority for the determination of valid practical inferences. Similarly, Moyar defends (in chapter six) that Hegel overcomes the limitations of social contract theory – the will’s incapacity to identify with the overall existence and purpose of the State and its institutions – through his characterization of the State as a functional whole which requires complete mediation through each of its moments. (262ff.) The importance of mediation is likewise visible in how the system of needs incorporates the sociality inherent to the exchange process: the individual interests of the participants become necessarily entangled with and dependent on the work and welfare of others. (cf. 231; 234)

Leaving aside many of Moyar’s important arguments and transitions, one might worry that the author’s reading of Hegel, through its rendering of the incorporation of particularly in norm-validation, significantly loses critical potential: could not any practice be ultimately justified as a necessary mediation in the inferentialist reading of justice? If the telos (the living Good) in teleological inferentialism only comes to be specified and proven valid through such mediation, what prevents every social or institutional practice being justified as a necessary moment in the attainment of right? Could any criteria be applied to not only ‘test’ or enrich a norm’s abstractness, but to reject it? Moyar provides a partial answer in chapter eight by characterizing the evaluative role of philosophy for Hegel as an activity of both liberation and reconciliation. According to Moyar, liberation can only take place by not attempting to bypass particularity in uniting individuality with universality. (348) By understanding the necessary imperfection of the present, liberation simultaneously requires reconciliation with such present. While this double movement manages to preserve critical realism, the necessity of integration of particularity for the ultimate determination of the content of the Good threatens to deflate the universal (Moral) or ideal aspect which gives the Good its normative authority. Indeed, part of Moyar’s reading of Hegel as offering an immanent critique of Rawlsian reflective equilibrium rests not so much in denying the existence of universal moral content, but in attacking the presupposition that such principles are epistemically accessible to individuals, as if individuals were not faced by ‘the absorbent power of one’s own point of view.’ (183) These issues show that the relation between the meta-ethical realism and the critical realism about the production of norms remains unclear.

This review has not dealt with Moyar’s account of value though it plays the mayor role in the book. Yet it is hard to discern the theoretical unity behind Moyar’s account. (Moyar recognizes that Hegel has no unified theory of value, and in the introduction to the book the author lists no less than seven different ‘types of value’ within the Philosophy of Right.) Value serves as the inferential potential for practical inferences. In this way, value seems to have a functional role: valuable is that which drives the progression of practical inferences and indeed this does seem to capture the term’s flexibility. Yet, another crucial aspect relies in value’s connection to the Good: in meta-ethical terms, Moyar proposes a thicker notion of value which captures an objective property of spiritual beings as both self-purposive and self-conscious. In this reviewer’s reading, two main theoretical conceptions of value operate in the book: one economistic or transactional, where value serves as the fuel that entangles the interests of the individual to the interests of the institutional whole (which is best understood as exchange-value) and one which posits a final value grounded on the meta-ethical realism about the inherent worth of self-conscious living beings. The transactional reading of value helps understand Moyar’s interpretation of Ethical Life as the living, organic Good, since the distribution of value among the different institutional spheres guarantees the functionality of the whole, and justice is thus measured by the recognition of fairness as the comparability between what I contribute and what I receive. (cf. 204) Moyar’s template for the evaluation of institutional justice relies partially on the success of the distribution of value. (210-11) Against the intuitive objection that the economistic or quantitative value eliminates the ethical substance necessary for the maintenance of institutions such as the family, Moyar correctly states that, even though discrete quantitative values for duties and entitlements cannot be settled (nor, were it possible, would it be desirable), in practice we do act by measuring the relative adequacy of individuals in the fulfilment of their roles with respect to standards. (209) A stronger objection, in our view, would rely on the incapacity to secure the epistemic transparency of the value that corresponds to justice when the market primarily determines the circulating value.

This connects to Marx’s critique of capitalism, which would have proven fruitful for Moyar’s analysis because it troubles the claim of the compatibility between exchange and final value as the living Good. The Marxist view holds that in capitalism the value-system creates its own internal teleology which directly contradicts the fulfillment of the Good as the institutionally disposed attainment of collective welfare and freedom. By establishing its own internal telos (accumulation) which determines value throughout the social mediations, it creates, as alluded above, (a) the epistemic conditions for the separation between ‘true value’ and exchange value: the possible objectivity of value – the true worth of my activity, or the ‘rational’ component of value – is distorted by a form of measuring over which individuals have little or no control. (b) This also disrupts the condition of active individual identification in the process of right. Moyar consistently emphasizes that a condition for justice is ‘an agent’s active identification of the initial purpose with the means and the resulting world.’ (85) Yet, if the monetary form as exchange value holds primacy, then it is easy to see how this condition is undermined when the monetary incentive serves as a replacement for the moment of self-identification (when individuals remain in institutional activities, such as a marriage or a job, despite not identifying with nor seeing their individuality affirmed within such activities because of the need to secure welfare). Finally (c), given the centrality of morality as a component of right, another problem emerges with the lack of individual agency in the perpetuation of harm or misery involved in everyday self-sustaining activities. By having my activity entangled in a process of circulation which contributes to the degradation of the environment, human and animal exploitation, it does not seem to matter that I determine myself to aim at the Good, since the particularity and contingency involved in the means for the realization of my action will already contradict my universal purpose. If these aspects are not accidental but essential to the value-form in capitalism, and if they truly impede the process of justice as the securing of expressively valid practical inferences in the manners highlighted here, then this would seem to pose a problem for Moyar’s account of Hegel as a theory of justice that harmonizes the necessary ideal component with critical realism. For the particular aspect that in the Basic Argument model provides the material to be integrated into the new enriched norm is essentially hostile to the purposes of the free will, thus necessarily posing a hindrance for the emergence of the new concrete form. The question then would be, accepting the need for the interconnectedness of individual and general interests for the realization of the Good, could there be a form of value employed throughout the spheres of Ethical Life which at the same time did not involve the subordination of the whole to a hostile purpose?

The book opens the path for necessary considerations on the role of value in Hegel’s practical philosophy and it makes a strong case for the reconsideration of the relation between morality and political philosophy. It is an incredibly well-researched, historically informed, and original contribution to the study of Hegel’s practical philosophy and to political philosophy in general.

2 October 2021

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