J.M. Bernstein has an interesting article on NYTimes Online Opinionator. Interesting, because G.W.F. Hegel is rarely discussed in a newspaper. Or with regard to recent legislation.
Bernstein’s contention is a philosophical one, but, he believes, also practical: self-interest is only morally legitimate if it is also directed to common good. Wall Street wants to follow their own self-interest. Ergo, they should submit to regulation that ensures self-interest serves the whole society.
Most importantly, says Bernstein (channeling Hegel), self-interest, in itself, is not enough. “Each self-understanding has two parts: an account of how a particular kind of self understands itself and, then, an account of the world that the self considers its natural counterpart. Hegel narrates how each formation of self and world collapses because of a mismatch between self-conception and how that self conceives of the larger world.” So whatever good may be said of the bankers, they have a faulty self-consciousness.
Hegel here is practical, because the virtuous intentions of the self need to play out in a world that can also be theorized with virtue. The practical step is the action – not the intention.
Hegel’s world-interest, then, is the other lodestar to ground moral actions. Bankers need that lodestar, and the government needs to provide it.
Soren Kierkegaard reacted against some of these aspects of the Hegelian “System.” In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard approaches some of the problems with this systematic approach to morality. Hegel’s morality, grounded in defining self-consciousness and theorizing the whole world, fails to actually connect the two. Kierkegaard believes that if there actually is any kind of duty to God, it would be an absolute duty, and therefore never fully comprehensible in a system, because it must be able at some point to apprehend God, a.k.a. have faith. (Warning – we are moving away from a strictly Wall Street discussion, here)
For Kierkegaard, then, there is a profound and possibly ineffable connection between self and morality, human existence and action, people and culture. The Hegelian impetus to action is exciting because it attempts to explain all the possible modes of action – but it is less satisfactory about its foundations and extremes. A System on the inside, it is shaky around the edges. Kierkegaard correctly predicted the disintegration of the Hegelian approach in his time (however many times it has come back to bite us).
I have little to say about the bankers. But the “world-interest” slogans blare at us every day to correct our action (“Buy local,” “Green is good,” “[fill in the blank] should work for everyone.” My missive is not against these individually. However, they are all attempts to use the Hegelian framework to fix the dissonance between our self-consciousness and our world-consciousness. Kierkegaard shows us that each action-System will have its fanatical devotees, but they will never understand without faith.
Bryan Wandel works in government finance and has studied history, accounting, and religion. He is a member of the editorial board at Humane Pursuits. Bryan’s writing has appeared at Comment Magazine, First Things, and elsewhere.