Molly Farneth’s Hegel’s Social Ethics: Religion, Conflict, and Rituals of Reconciliation doesn’t try to make Hegel into a grassroots democrat. But, that doesn’t mean Hegel isn’t important for our current political times. Indeed, Farneth wonderfully balances clarity and concision when offering Hegelian epistemological and ethical insights in our shared political culture. In the conversations that follow, our panelists will probe into and challenge Farneth’s Hegelian offering for grassroots democrats. We’ll explore questions of power and authority, ritual and practice, Marx’s revolutionary praxis and Hegel’s own critique of private property, and—perhaps surprisingly—what Farneth’s Hegelian social ethics has to say to the bad faith troll.
Farneth’s lucid reading of Hegel is enough to merit attention. Many ethicists, anthropologist, sociologists, and philosophers have recently turned to the topic of “social practices.” Religious historians often approach this topic via lived religion, for example. Some philosophers and religious ethicists, however, are turning to a non-metaphysical, post-Kantian reading of Hegel’s Phenomenology. This Hegel is paradigmatically found in the pragmatic semantics Robert Brandom has been developing over the last three decades culminating in his recently released A Spirit of Trust. Farneth ably navigates this difficult secondary literature on Hegel in chapters 2–5, offering her own social ethical account where Hegel is primarily concerned with evaluation of relationships, practices, and institutions. Readers interested in getting a clear and insightful grasp on what Hegel is doing in Phenomenology should turn to Farneth’s book. In the rest of the book (chs. 6 & 7), and in this symposium, the conversation turns to demonstrate why such a reading of Hegel matters for our shared ethical and political lives.
By social ethics, Farneth does not mean the field of Christian ethical thought first invented in the United States by Francis G. Peabody and other social gospelers at the turn of the twentieth century. Hegelian social ethics and social practices have to do with normativity, authority, accountability, and responsibility implicit in shared activities of an ethical community. If we are to imagine a better political and ethical world, then the constructive work begins with the remains of the decaying one that currently exists. In the conversations that follow (especially in the essays by Joseph Winters, Ali Aslam, and Peter Capretto), it will become clear that Farneth and her respondents are not optimistic about the democratic viability of the current political institutions and structures. Once optimism is disregarded, the question that remains is a practical (and ethical) and epistemological one: what practices need to be cultivated in order to more deeply live into a democratic society where authority is legitimately established and held accountable to the demos. Farneth’s final two chapters attempt to illustrate this, and in doing so she illustrates how religion is nearly always a part of the conversation with Hegel, and so offers us illustrative rituals of reconciliation in confession and forgiveness. But Farneth also points to “relational organizing” exemplified in figures like Septima Clark and Ella Baker, and which I also see in broad-based community organizing affiliates like Faith in Action (previously PICO), IAF, and Gamaliel.
Winters and Aslam approach Farneth’s book with similar yet distinct questions relating to power and hope in practices of reciprocal recognition. Adorno, decolonianity, the dire limits of the liberal capitalist state are part of the conversation here. Then Vanessa Wills gives a rich Marxist critique of what might be a latent conservatism in Hegelian social ethics, and Farneth’s careful response engages material in the Phenomenology not utilized in her book. Capretto’s essay returns to questions of power and the political condition of practices of reciprocal recognition, but in a unique and interesting light: what to do about the bad faith troll? Pearson wraps up the symposium by asking for a finer grain analysis on what exactly Farneth means by “social practices.” Pearson’s question is a welcome one to my mind, because in the social practical literature it seems that just about anything can be a “practice” and what precisely is “shared” or “social” is often unclear. Farneth gives each of these questions their due, while offering avenues for future conversation.