Sittlichkeit is the concept of "ethical life" or "ethical order" furthered by German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. It was first presented in his work Phenomenology of Spirit (1807) to refer to "ethical behavior grounded in custom and tradition and developed through habit and imitation in accordance with the objective laws of the community"[1][2] and it was further developed in his work Elements of the Philosophy of Right (1820).

The three spheres of right

In Elements of the Philosophy of Right, Hegel introduces the sphere of abstract right[3] (Recht),[4] as the first of the three spheres of right. It is marked by the concept of personality[5] and the actions of the individuals.[6] This sphere constitutes what Isaiah Berlin would call negative freedom, which is to say, freedom ascertained through the denial of outside impetus.[7][8] This is the freedom traditionally represented by classical liberalism.[9]

The second sphere constitutes Kantian morality, and is therefore called the sphere of morality (Moralität).[10] This sphere constitutes what Isaiah Berlin would call positive freedom, which is to say, moral autonomy.[7] However, Hegel criticizes the deployment of Kantian morality in society for being insufficient. He explains this deficiency through philosophical critique of pathologies such as loneliness, depression and agony.

The third sphere, the sphere of ethical life[3] (Sittlichkeit),[11][12][13] is marked by family life, civil society, and the authoritarian State.[14][15] This right is traditionally associated with conservatism.[16]

To properly understand the movement from the two first spheres to the last, one must understand that Sittlichkeit's normativity transcends the individual—while Moralität may be rational and reflective,[1] it is also individualistic. The third sphere is an attempt at describing a limited conception of the person through an appeal to the greater institutional context of the community[17] and an attempt at bridging individual subjective feelings and the concept of general rights.


Later German thinkers developed the idea in various directions such as the liberal Carl Theodor Welcker, the conservative Friedrich Julius Stahl, and the socialist Wilhelm Weitling. Welcker connected the idea to constitutional liberties. Stahl related it to a hierarchical godly order. However, Weitling rejected it as oppressive and believed that socialists must work to destroy it.[18] Conservative philosopher Roger Scruton called it a highly original and metaphysically fascinating version of the conservative answer to liberalism.[19]


  1. ^ a b Philip J. Kain, Marx and Modern Political Theory: From Hobbes to Contemporary Feminism, Rowman & Littlefield, 1993, p. 128.
  2. ^ Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1998, p. 266.
  3. ^ a b Mark Alznauer, Hegel's Theory of Responsibility, Cambridge University Press, 2015, p. 6.
  4. ^ PR §37
  5. ^ David James, Hegel: A Guide for the Perplexed, Continuum, 2007, p. 35.
  6. ^ David James, Hegel: A Guide for the Perplexed, Continuum, 2007, p. 37.
  7. ^ a b David James, Hegel: A Guide for the Perplexed, Continuum, 2007, p. 45.
  8. ^ George Klosko, History of Political Theory: An Introduction: Volume II: Modern (2nd ed.), Oxford University Press, 2013, p. 465: "we should note that Hegel's realization of the distance between his own and the traditional liberal conception of freedom, which he calls "abstract freedom," is clear in his embrace of positive freedom [in PR §149A]".
  9. ^ Carter, Ian (January 24, 2023). Zalta, Edward N. (ed.). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University – via Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  10. ^ PR §106
  11. ^ PR §145
  12. ^ PR §150
  13. ^ PR §153
  14. ^ Z. A. Pelczynski (ed.), The State and Civil Society: Studies in Hegel's Political Philosophy, Cambridge University Press, 1984, p. 9.
  15. ^ Alan Patten, Hegel's Idea of Freedom, Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 25.
  16. ^ Hamilton, Andy (2015-08-01). Conservatism. Retrieved 2023-01-24.
  17. ^ Drucilla Cornell and Nick Friedman, The Mandate of Dignity: Ronald Dworkin, Revolutionary Constitutionalism, and the Claims of Justice, Oxford University Press, 2016, p. 119.
  18. ^ Anton Jansson, "Building or destroying community: the concept of Sittlichkeit in the political thought of Vormärz Germany." Global Intellectual History 5.1 (2020): 86–103. online.
  19. ^ E:son Söderbaum, Jakob (2020). Modern konservatism. p. 163. ISBN 978-91-7765-497-1. OCLC 1204173415. Retrieved 2023-01-24.