Abdusalam Guseynov

Morality as the Limit of Rationality

// Rationality and its Limits. Proceedings of the International Scientific Conference “Rationality and its Limits” during the International Institute of Philosophy Meeting in Moscow (15–18 September 2011) / Eds. A.Guseynov, V.Lektorskiy. Moscow, 2012. P. 90–108.

The topic of my paper is the role of morality in identifying the limits of rationality. In discussing this issue the difference and interaction between theoretical and practical reason is essential. So I will start with this.


The metaphor of light is often used to give a vivid image of the cognizing reason. Just like light, spreading from its source, illuminates the space and thus separates itself from darkness, so the cognizing reason, in capturing the world as its subject, simultaneously limits it and separates the known from the unknown. That means that reason itself marks out and determines its limits and these limits are set by the potential of reason alone, only by the knowledge that it generates. If reason were the only human faculty the question of its limits would probably never arise and would certainly not be informed with inner drama. It would remain a strictly epistemological task. For reason itself the question of its limits and opportunities is solved just as easily and naturally as, for example, the sun solves the question of how brightly it shines. The issue becomes very acute and presents a challenge inasmuch as there is no opportunity to remain within the limits of reason itself. That opportunity is lacking not because reason encounters something impenetrable, such as modern astronomers’ dark matter. It is lacking because man is not only a thinking but also a living creature. Moreover, humans are living creatures first and thinking creatures second. Man has reason as a living creature. This, in my opinion, is the main cause that turns the question of the limits of reason into a problem and lends it a dramatic character.

Man’s life  activity takes the form of goal-oriented activity. It is conscious in character. Before acting and in order to act man makes the decision to act. It is due to the decision and through the decision that reason becomes part of the living process. The decision to act becomes the limit of practical reason. If one assumes that knowledge that characterizes theoretical reason is its upper limit then the decision that indicates the inclusion of knowledge in the life process, in practice, is its lower limit. At this point, at the stage of the decision to act and in the process of making that decision, reason encounters irrational forces and separates itself from them. As Jacques Derrida put it, “a decision connects and separates reason and madness in a single gesture” [1]. Reason is not the only source of man’s activity, another source lies in his biology, the latter, unlike reason, acting spontaneously with blind persistence without transcending the framework of the action. Unlike theoretical use, unlike cognition where reason itself sets its limits, the limits for practical reason are set from outside as irrational forces constantly surround reason. The question arises: what is the role of reason in man’s real life process?

This is not only about the proportion and quantitative ratio of the reasonable (conscious) element and irrational (extra-rational) impulses because it is quite obvious that with the exception of the organism’s physiological processes that happen automatically, human activity, including the activity that makes it possible to support physiology itself, has a conscious character and is implemented through decisions sanctioned by reason. Human biology acts through cognitology. In quantitative terms the participation of reason in man’s life process is as complete (hundred per-cent)  as  his extra-rational foundations; there is exactly as much consciousness as there is living matter. The problem lies in the qualitative role of consciousness, of reason. A person whose reason is switched off is incapacitated not only as a social, but also as a natural creature. The question, then, is as follows: does reason perform merely an auxiliary role in that it mediates the life process by putting through the head what in the case of other living creatures is realized directly, through inborn capabilities, or is it designed to direct the life activity in accordance with its judgments, towards goals that reason considers to be the best? The problem is one of the hierarchy of rational and irrational aspects. Is cogito in the service of biology as represented in the individual or does it play its own game seeking to subjugate it?

If reason merely mediated the life activity of man and its role were confined to proactive, anticipatory reflection and mere calculation of the possible consequences it would be just a natural faculty that distinguishes man from other living creatures no more than the latter differ from one another: reason would be an adaptive quality like the turtle’s carapace or the giraffe’s long neck. Basically, as Kant noted, in that case it would be unclear why nature needed reason at all because it could have achieved its goals through the mechanisms of instinct, a more habitual and reliable method. Reason is more than a mechanism of adaptation that ensures man’s self-preservation as a biological species although of course that is one of its functions. It represents or at least claims to be man’s highest faculty called upon to subjugate or transform all the other faculties. Its mission is to render man’s being different – supra-natural – meaning and to transfer the very evolution of nature from a spontaneous into a conscious form. Practical reason is connected with theoretical reason and its role in decision-making is to ensure that the decision is made on the basis of a correct judgment and oriented towards a goal which is the best of all possible goals. The goal must meet epistemological criteria, i.e. must be indisputably true, absolutely true. Reasonable actions are conscious, meaningful actions.

The problem is to make practical reason an extension (continuation) and an expression of theoretical reason and to have decisions implemented on the basis of knowledge in accordance with adequately represented goals thus investing man’s life process with meaning. The role of reason in activity seen in this problematic way evolves into a veritable drama of human existence. The first act of that drama is the conflict between instrumental use of reason as a calculating mechanism designed to cater to the vital needs and interests of the individual and its role in providing the meaning of activity. That conflict is inevitable and it will never go away. As all  the individual’s desires and interests are realized through reason, they seek to use reason for their own ends as if human desires and interests differed from the desires and interests of animals only in that they are conscious. Therefore reason as the supreme instance that lends meaning to human life activity simultaneously acts as a curb on desires and interests, performing the role of the driver to use Plato’s well-known image.

Cognition and activity have different chronotopes and different scales. That is yet another cause for the inevitable and unremovable conflict between the theoretical use of reason that seeks to know the truth and its practical use in making conscious decisions. The cognition of the truth is not limited by anything except success in cognition itself, and it can last endlessly: there are mathematical problems that have been waiting for a solution for centuries and may wait for an indefinite time. The above refers not only to natural sciences, but also to the cognition of man whose nature and mission have been mooted over millennia. As for the practical application of reason, it cannot wait, its activity does not depend on availability of qualitative knowledge, it is determined by the continuous life process of the individual that has rigidly set spatial and temporal coordinates. The judgments of reason are involved in the decision-making process as if they were correct regardless of whether they are actually correct according to epistemological criteria. To put it in another way, one of reason’s judgments on the subject of a decision must be recognized as correct even if none of the decisions can be preferred in terms of probability. The practical application of reason cannot be deferred, and it is oriented not to the truth, but to the goal of activity [2]. The practical application of reason, being relatively autonomous from the degree of its truthfulness, exerts a reciprocal (usually restraining and distorting) impact on its theoretical application because both are two aspects of one and the same living reasonable creature [3]. It is important to stress that determination in pursuing one’s choice does not directly depend on how true the decision is. If there is a dependency, it rather goes in the opposite direction. Experience shows that people who espouse false and simply poorly thought out views, are more persistent in pursuing them as if they wanted to compensate the intellectual fallacy of their position by the firmness of will.

The limit of reason in its practical application is the reasonableness of practice as embodied above all in the goals. In considering the goals of human activity and determining the degree to which they are reasonable, the crucial question is of the highest and ultimate goal that is the reference point, the focus and criterion of all the other goals. That belongs to the realm of ethics which has forever been focused on the question of the supreme good.


To understand how ethics is connected with epistemology, how knowledge of the world is transformed into the decision on activity it is important to look at the principle of the unity of truth and good. That principle is important both for epistemology and for ethics.

The opposition between truth and untruth is not a strictly epistemological fact. It definitely carries an axiological load. The truth does not merely say that what is, is, and what is not – is not. A delusion, on the contrary, claims that what is -  is not and that what is not -  is. The Russian philosopher Lev Shestov [4], stressing the flaws of an ethically neutral epistemology, was indignant that for epistemology there is no difference between the death of Socrates and the death of a mad dog, that both are unquestionable propositions for it.  Shestov believed, that man cannot be trammeled by an anonymous, impersonal truth. Shestov was right in criticizing the ethically neutral epistemology. But was he right in believing that the mainstream European epistemology is ethically neutral? In reality, it has always proceeded on the assumption that the truth is good and delusion is bad. It linked cognition to the search for worthy choices. The axiological foundation of European epistemology is revealed in the fact that it is forever concerned with the question of the truth of truths, of the absolute truth that is absolute not only because it is immutable and identical to itself, but in terms of the human quest of the truth which would provide a solid anchor in orienting oneself in the world. Epistemological quests have always been informed with moral pathos. Suffice it to mention two revealing episodes from the history of philosophy. In Parmenides’ poem the boundary between the eternal kingdom of truth and the changeable world of opinions is marked by the Goddess of Truth who delivers a didactic speech addressed to a youth concerned with the question of how to lead a worthy life. The famous thesis that “thought and being are the same” (B3) is both the truth and God’s way. Descartes’ equally famous cogito ergo sum can also be related to his moral quests; it was the consequence of his decision to study himself in order “to select paths which I should follow” [5]. In short, the programme of epistemology was not simply the truth but, so to speak, the truth of the truths, the true truth, the truth that becomes man’s good if it is chosen as the goal for practical activities. This is the principle of the unity of the truth and good from the epistemological point of view.

Accents change in ethics. While epistemology looks for the truth that is good, ethics looks for good that is true. Human activity is increasingly diverse. Accordingly, the goals pursued by humans  are diverse. Just like in nature nothing happens without a cause, so in human practice nothing happens without a goal. Just like causes interconnect to form cohesive entireties, so goals are linked in ordered chains. The world of goals is organized in such a way that it implies the existence of the ultimate goal. That statement, which opens Aristotle’s  Nicomachean Ethics, is actually the beginning of ethics as a science. Aristotle reasons in the following manner: different goals are interconnected in such a way that less general and important goals are subjugated to more general and important ones. What is a goal subsequently becomes a means with regard to another goal which in turn becomes a means with regard to another goal and so on. The result is a hierarchy of goals that is topped by the ultimate goal because otherwise a bad infinity results and the mechanism of goal-oriented activity cannot work. The ultimate goal is an end in itself and can never be reduced to being a means. One cannot question it. It is not the goal that exists for the sake of something, but on the contrary, all the other goals exist for its sake. It is the goal of goals, the ultimate and general foundation of all the other goals. The ultimate goal is supreme good, that is, the best goal that human activity is ultimately aimed at. The supreme good as the subject of ethics claims to be the true good. It has the same features of being absolute, unconditional, indubitable, clear, and self-evident that describe the truth of truths in epistemology which forms the basis of the cognitive image of the world.

Therefore ethics is considered to be practical philosophy: it performs in the sphere of activity a function analogous to that performed by theoretical philosophy in the field of cognition. While theoretical philosophy seeks the truth that is good, practical philosophy seeks good that is true, meaning good in the absolute, immutable and unconditional meaning of that concept. 

The idea of supreme good as absolute good which looms like the ultimate goal behind all other goals and lends them a cohesion of subject by making them the goals of a given subject is not a philosophers’ invention. It expresses the logic of morality, its place in the consciousness of the individual and society. However varied may be the concrete content of moral concepts (good, conscience, justice, etc.) in various epochs and various cultures, they are similar in that they are seen as the supreme sanction of the legitimacy of human actions. The moral qualification of actions is their final judgment. A final judgment both in the eyes of the actors and the people around them. That is why, incidentally, evil always wears the garb of good and there have never been dictators in the world who did not profess to be champions of justice, dignity and faith. For the same reason there have never been radical critics of morality who, while negating it, did not slip into the moral position themselves. It is this feature of morality with its absolutist claims that is the biggest problem for ethics. For it is not only about transforming knowledge into goals but about obtaining such knowledge and transforming it into such goals that have absolute meaning and serve as foundations for purpose-oriented activity as such. The best pages of European ethics are the results of an endeavor to provide an adequate and direct answer to the challenge of morality, to find a rational explanation of its absolutist claims rather than interpreting them as an illusion, fraud, etc. I will try to dwell on what I think are its most important pages.


The first of these, as has been mentioned, is associated with the name of Aristotle. Aristotle inherited the ethical rationalism of Socrates who maintained that virtue was knowledge. Socrates reasoned in the following way: all people seek virtue because virtue, as is universally recognized, is the best for man. If, however, people are not virtuous, this is only because they do not know what virtue consists in and espouse false concepts. They are unable to make the correct choice because they do not know what choice is correct. Socrates determined the cognition of virtue as the goal of philosophy. Aristotle put forward two objections to Socrates. First, virtue is not exclusively a science, knowledge in a way, it also has an irrational component [6]. Secondly, and still more importantly, even if virtue were independent of the irrational foundations of the soul knowing it in itself would not make people morally virtuous [7]. In ethics, according to Aristotle, we are interested not in what virtue is  in general, but what virtue is in every concrete instance. Ethics has to do not with concepts but with acts. Its main problem is not to define what virtue is, but to define how to become virtuous.

Aristotle of course does not question the task of understanding virtue. Much of his ethical study seeks to answer the question what  moral virtue is. However, available knowledge in this case gives only “a broad outline of the truth” (EN.1094b) and cannot in itself guarantee virtuous acts. Moreover the definitions of virtue reflect their uncertainty. Thus, in characterizing virtue as the mean between two evil extremes, Aristotle stresses that it is different for different virtues and different for different individuals. It is no easy task to find the middle, it is a special art and an individual act [8]. Another important characteristic of virtuous deeds is their intentional character in that the individual is guided by right judgments. That in turn depends on the irrational part of the soul, i.e. whether or not affections oppose the voice of reason [9].

Accordingly, virtue is not a body of knowledge, but a certain disposition, habit, a habitual state of the soul that emerges as a result of and in the process of performing virtuous deeds. As for virtuous deeds all we can say about them is that these are perfect deeds that have an intrinsic value and are performed exclusively because they are virtuous. There are no general and objectively certifiable characteristics whose presence or absence could be used to sort out deeds into virtuous and evil. Acts are always individual because they are performed in concrete circumstances and by concrete individuals. There are no set rules for acts. The virtuous man himself is the measure and the rule. In the end Aristotle comes to the conclusion that those acts are virtuous that are performed by a virtuous man and a virtuous man is he who performs virtuous acts [10].

Aristotle says that the goal of ethics is not knowledge but action (EN 1095a). Actions are the ultimate givenness that reason achieves on its path to the particular. They are the other extreme compared with the first definitions which are attained by reason on the path to the general. The virtuousness of actions is understood by feeling, but not an ordinary feeling that perceives sensual objects, but a sense of the ultimate [11]. Aristotle also describes that sense as reason [12]. This can be interpreted that for Aristotle virtuous actions are the ultimate limit that reason reaches in its practical aspect.

Aristotle does not have a special class of virtuous actions, such as charitable actions of Christian moralists. Virtuousness  is a certain qualitative characteristic of all actions. Virtues and vices have to do with the same environment of objects differing only in the degree and quality of acquiring them: vices are violations of  the measure, a shortage or excess in passions and actions, and virtue is the golden mean. What determines the substance of an action and its success and what determines the virtuousness of an action differ: “The work of man is achieved only in accordance with practical wisdom as well as with moral virtue; for virtue makes us aim at the right mark, and practical wisdom makes us take the right means.” (EN.1144a) [13].

The success of an action, its technical characteristics and moral qualities depend on who performs the action, but in various ways and to varying degrees: the former depends on his knowledge, agility, and luck and the latter on the virtuous disposition of his soul. While the success of an action has an objective basis and can be outwardly certified, the virtuousness of an action is generated and certified by the subject themselves. “The syllogisms which deal with acts to be done are things which involve a starting point, viz. ‘since the end, i.e. what is best, is of such and such nature’, whatever it may be (let it for the sake of argument be what we please); and this is not evident except to the good man” (EN.1144a) [14].


The next page is associated with the name of Kant who proposed a concept of morality that is fundamentally different from that of Aristotle’s. An action as a reasonable act can be described through a syllogism in which the general premise is its main principle and the particular premise is the special circumstances in which it is performed, the conclusion is the decision or act itself in the narrow sense of the word. Aristotle thought that particular circumstances were the most important in an action. His ethics tries to cover actions as concretely as possible. Kant associates morality not with the particular nature of the action but with its overall foundation. He believes that the moral value of an action depends solely on the principle of volition.

Furthermore, while for Aristotle the virtuousness of actions is materialized through their concrete substantive goals, for Kant the moral dimensions of actions and their matter, ethics and psychology are entirely separate. They are nourished by entirely different sources. In criticizing eudaemonism for reducing the motives of virtues and vices to the same class he opposes the moral motive to all other motives and accordingly separates virtues and vices between different object spheres.

According to Kant, the focus of morality is the moral law which differs from all other laws in that it possesses absolute necessity and in that sense is law as it is, embodies the idea of law consisting in its universality.

This law consists in an unconditional demand that man be guided in his decisions by subjective principles that could be elevated to the level of a universal law. This is the famous categorical imperative which represents the moral law in the shape in which it is given to man as an imperfect creature endowed with reason.

What does the moral law arise from? How can it be justified? Theoretical reason, inasmuch as it deals with cognition, begins with contemplation and ends with foundations. Practical reason, on the contrary, begins with foundations because it has to do with the ability to reify objects. The moral law is the principle that man as a thinking creature finds within himself, within his will. The theoretical application of reason encounters incomprehensible objects and antinomies. In the case of practical application the reality of pure reason is proved by the fact that it has become practical, i.e. the foundation of the will. As we are dealing with an unconditional practical law, justifying the need for that law would require an indication of the condition that underlies it, but then the law would not be unconditional. To explain why the categorical imperative is possible one can suggest the idea of freedom and thus interpret morality as growing out of freedom. Morality is the autonomy of the will, and this is not only a philosophical thesis, but a principle of ordinary moral consciousness. But the very next step, namely, the explanation of how the proposition of freedom arose, takes us beyond the boundaries of human reason. The most reason can achieve in an attempt to understand freedom is the moral law for the sake of explaining which freedom has been postulated. In the work Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals the last paragraph is called “Of the Extreme Limits of All Practical Philosophy”. Kant sees that limit in “explaining… how pure reason can be practical – to explain this is beyond the power of human reason, and all the labor and pains of seeking an explanation of it are lost. How can pure reason be practical, all human reason is wholly incompetent to explain this, and it is a waste of trouble and labor to try” [15].

We encounter the irreducibility of the moral law in attempting to answer the question of how it can be implemented. As for the effectiveness of the moral law, in that respect it turns out to be an unshakable wall that marks out the limits of the reasonableness of the human will in all its manifestations. It is embodied in the motive of duty which sanctions only those actions that do not contradict the categorical law. The motive consists exclusively in respect for the moral law and cannot be limited by anything else. Duty is commensurate with moral law in its being unconditional. It alone is the sole moral motive. Duty differs from all other motives and opposes all of them no matter how powerful and attractive they may be. It opposes inclinations in general and can be identified in its purest shape when it asserts itself contrary to inclinations. This is not to say that in Kant’s ethics inclinations are under moral suspect. It merely means that they acquire a moral sanction from above, through their correspondence to duty. Duty is a special level of motivation that is not neighbored to other motives (maxims) of behavior but towers above them and accompanies them. Its only task is to establish whether an individual’s intentions and decisions correspond to the moral law. Another feature of duty as a motive is that it cannot be and usually is not the only motive. Kant says, it is possible that not a single action in the world has been performed solely for the sake of duty. Duty remains duty, retains its beauty and value and perhaps even acquires them when it does not attain to the level of an action. This is not to say that there is no special class of concrete actions that would be preferable according to the moral criteria. It goes without saying. Such a class of actions is absolutely impossible within the logic of Kant’s ethic. But there is no individual example of which one could say with confidence that an action has been motivated exclusively by duty [16]. Kant  demonstrates that reason is pure as practical reason. But has it remained practical after becoming pure? While Aristotle’s ethics, as we have seen, deals with virtuous actions but fails to find their general foundations, Kant’s ethics is all about moral law and does not attain to actions. But the mystery of man as a moral creature and his task as a thinking creature consists in combining actions and the law.


Finally, one more page related to the theme I am discussing is associated with the name of the Russian thinker Mikhail Bakhtin.

Ethics has always associated morality with the responsibility of the individual. It perceived its task as (a) identifying the area of activity within the power of the acting individual, the area of his freedom and (b) exploring the possibilities of filling that area with moral content. Bakhtin also links morality with individual responsibility, but unlike others, he identifies these two concepts. Morality is not a characteristic of the responsible individual existence, it is such existence itself.

When we speak about an action, we have to distinguish its two aspects: the fact that an action has been performed and its content. When considered as a fact, activity is anchored in the concrete individual, is expressing the uniqueness of his life, on the content side the activity relates to the world and depends on it. In accordance with these two aspects of an action responsibility for it is also two-way: responsibility for the fact of the action and responsibility for its content. The first responsibility is moral, expressing as it does the moral essence of man, the second responsibility, according to Bakhtin, is a special one characterizing the person’s knowledge and skills. Bakhtin calls the special responsibility area  the theoretical world meaning everything that lends activity a rational and meaningful character and directs it along a considered and purposeful path.

What is most important is not the identification of two aspects of action and two types of responsibility, but the revealing of the nature of the connection between them, the comprehensive plan of the action as reflected in both directions. From Bakhtin’s point of view, the original and basic thing is the fact of the action or moral responsibility. Special responsibility is derivative, being a consequence and something added. The decision to perform an action does not depend on its content. Or, as Bakhtin says, there is no transition from the theoretical world to the world of actions, one cannot derive moral responsibility from special responsibility. It is one thing what actions are possible and it is another thing what actions this or that individual resolves to perform. One cannot know from the train timetable where one should go and whether one should go anywhere. We can’t get “Ought” from “Is”. The autonomy of moral responsibility and its primacy with regard to the special responsibility has been summed up by Bakhtin in an aphoristic form: “It is not the content of the obligation that obliges me but the fact that I subscribe to it.” There is no transition from special responsibility to moral responsibility. But the reverse transition is possible and obligatory. Moral responsibility is extended in special responsibility. After a decision to act has been taken further actions are determined by its content. Once a person has decided where to go he turns to the train timetable and, while remaining a moral individual, simultaneously becomes a passenger.

In the world that is the subject of special responsibility – the world of cognition, general definitions, aesthetic images, social norms, the decrees of power, scientific models, etc. – the individual functions as one of many, as one in a series, as a scientist, citizen, colleague, holiday-maker, spectator, athlete, etc, etc. He enters this world as a unanimity but not as a singularity. But man acquires singular individuality because he is included in being, and is there  and at that time  where and when nobody other can be because that place and time are already occupied. Moral responsibility is responsibility that one cannot shirk. Man cannot have an alibi from being (“non-alibi from being” is an important concept in Bakhtin’s doctrine), he cannot avoid acting and that is responsibility within whose framework the individual answers with his very existence, its quality and meaning. Of course an individual may avoid making decisions, like the cunning slave from the Gospel parable who buried his talent in the earth instead of taking the risk and using it, but such shirking is a decision nonetheless, albeit a bad one.

The responsibility that coincides with morality is not outside rationality, it is neither irrational nor anti-rational. It is more than rational. It is rational in a special way as the rationality of Being itself. Bakhtin formulates the following aphoristic thesis: “An action in its entirety is more than rational. It is responsible” [17]. An action is not identical with rational knowledge, it can only be experienced, it can only be seen from within because he who acts is within that act and the action is what is happening to him. The view from within, when the subject sees in the action not what he has done, but himself, is the only possible point from which an action can be viewed. An action is taken once and for all, it cannot be reversed and in that sense it is irreparable. A mistake made by one specialist can be corrected by another. But an evil act performed by Ivan cannot be rectified by Peter. Love that bonds me to one person cannot bond me to another. An action imprints itself on the individual’s life, becomes an element of the personality. It is absolute as a fact of Being. It cannot be said about it whether it is true or false, it cannot be cognized, or studied because it has to be performed first [18]. Thus, according to Bakhtin, an action is not the result of knowledge and skills, does not lend itself to generalization that would put it within some series. It cannot be a rationally weighed decision [19]. An action expresses, embodies and imprints on Being the very individual. An action is not rational to the extent that Being precedes cognition and to the extent that Being in its unique manifestation cannot be an object of knowledge. In order to make up the simplest sentence, “Blackie is a dog”, one must, first, have a Blackie and second, have at least one other dog, for example, Brownie.

The question arises: what to do about moral concepts, norms and ethical knowledge? After all, they exist for some purpose. According to Bakhtin, they belong to the world of theory and to the sphere of special responsibility. This means that they are not immediately involved in the performance of an act. Just like one cannot derive the being of a thing from the concept of a thing, so one cannot derive an act from the moral norm. Moral knowledge and skills, like any other knowledge and skills, are attached to the act post factum, after it has been performed. It is exactly as it was during the Creation: God first created heaven and earth and light and only then saw that this was good. God was creating according to Bakhtin. Or rather, Bakhtin reproduced the logic of Creation.


The mission of moral rationality consists in fitting an act into the moral ideas both of the acting individual and the surrounding people, society. Just like an individual mobilizes special knowledge and skills to make the act he has decided on more effective, so he mobilizes ethical knowledge and skills to make the act look good in his own eyes and in the eyes of other people. While leaving aside the analysis of the role of moral theory (concepts and norms of moral consciousness in its daily variety, as well as ethical knowledge), and merely stating that this role is controversial and often destructive with regard to morality itself, one has to make an observation that is exceedingly important in the context of the theme in hand.

Moral norms which form the basis of moral consciousness are divided into positive and negative, into prescriptions that say what needs (must, is worthy) to be done and proscriptions which say what categorically may not be done. There is a substantial difference between the two. The thesis whereby a moral act cannot be derived from a moral norm refers, strictly speaking, only to prescriptive norms. The requirement to love one’s neighbor does not tell the passerby what to do when a beggar is asking him for alms. The requirement to love one’s country cannot provide an answer to the question whether or not a state should obtain nuclear weapons. The duty to take care of one’s children does not answer the question whether or not one should be strict towards them. This applies to any prescription that has a moral status: it is too abstract to provide sufficient grounds for a concrete action. The point is different with the norms that ban something. They act directly and are  unambiguous in terms of their practical application. One of the conditions of the Pythagorean Union was the requirement not to eat legumes. They followed it religiously and the question of what a dedicated Pythagorean had to do and how in order to follow the ban did not arise. The same applies to all the morally sanctioned bans including such fundamental ones as “thou shalt not kill” and “thou shalt not bear false witness.” The compliance with the latter, however difficult it may be, has two features: a) it is easily hundred per-cent certifiable and b) it is hundred per-cent dependent on the will and the determination of the individual to follow them. In that sense moral proscriptions are unconditional and absolute: these are the identifiable features of morality.

The proscriptions seen as morally binding make it possible to flesh out the idea of morality as the limit of rationality. Morality (and this is its essential and distinguishing feature) is always associated with situations of choice, which process and outcome does not lend itself to rationally considered calculation. It represents the individual’s readiness to face the risk of uncertainty and to step into the unknown. A moral decision coincides with determination to act in accordance with one’s own decision only because it is one’s own, ignoring all the warning sensible voices. In the event of a moral choice man puts himself at stake. The choice is quite conscious, but it is conscious in a special way through what Aristotle described as “the eye of the soul”, Kant “the spontaneity of the thing in itself” and Bakhtin “forcible obligation”. Moral proscriptions represent that kind of choice and decision. They express the determination of the individual who has accepted them and has identified himself with them not to act in a certain way no matter what. Not doing that  (not succumbing to the temptation of revenge, lies, etc.) the individual knows of course what he does not do, but he does not do it not because he knows, but on the contrary: he knows because he has decided not to do it. Moral proscriptions cannot be justified, otherwise they would not be moral. Pythagoreans could not say why legumes should not be eaten, and moralists cannot answer the question why one should never kill and lie, at least they cannot do it at the epistemologically acceptable level; we know that many did not agree with the Pythagoreans and happily ate legumes just like many in our day disagree with the moralists and argue that in some cases it is not only permissible, but necessary to kill and lie. But both the Pythagoreans and the moralists accept their proscriptions as if they were not just truths but sacred and supreme truths, the truth of the truths. Their determination to follow these proscriptions is not the consequence of these proscriptions being true, on the contrary, as they see it - the truthfulness of these proscriptions  is the consequence of their determination to abide by them unconditionally.



1. Jacques Derrida. Cogito and the History of Madness // D.B. Goloborodko. The concept of reason in contemporary French philosophy. Moscow, IF RAS, 2011, p. 109 (in Russian).

2. This is the feature that forced Descartes to assume temporary rules of morality until he was able to identify the true ones. “That I might not remain irresolute in my actions, while my reason compelled me to suspend my judgment, and that I might not be prevented from living thenceforward in the greatest possible felicity, I formed a provisory code of morals, composed of three or four maxims”… (R. Descartes. Reflections on Method, Part III//Works in 2 vols. Vol.1, Moscow, 1989, p.263, in Russian).

3. This is highlighted by the example of Descartes who, while sharing Galileo’s opinion that the Earth moves, nevertheless, guided by his provisory moral rule “to obey the laws and customs of one’s own country” decided not to insist on the truth of his opinions “contrary to the authority of the church”.

4. We know from history that two and a half thousand years ago Socrates was poisoned in Athens. Homo qui sola ratione ductur is trumped by this “fact”: it does not only coerce, but convince. And it will not rest until reason assures for him that no force in the world can destroy this fact, i.e. until he discerns in it an element of eternity and necessity… It soars into the realm where truth resides. And then it does not matter for him what message the truth carries, i.e. whether the best of humans or a mad dog has been poisoned”.

5. R. Descartes. Reflections on Method. Part I// Works in 2 vols. Vol.1, Moscow, 1989, p.256, (in Russian).

6.  “In making the virtuous sciences Socrates is doing away with the irrational part of the soul, and thereby doing away also both with passion and moral character; (MM 1182a). Aristotle. Works in 4 volumes, vol.4, Moscow, 1984, p.297, in Russian.

7. “Neither was Socrates right in making the virtuous sciences. Because in the case of the sciences as soon as one knows the essence of a science, it results that one is scientific (for any one who knows the essence of medicine is forthwith a physician and so with the other sciences). But this result does not follow in the case of the virtues. For any one who knows the essence of justice is not forthwith just, and similarly in the case of the rest.” (MM 1183b (Aristotle, Works in 4 vols, Vol.4, Moscow, 1984, p.300 (in Russian).

8. “Virtue, then, is a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean, i.e. the mean relative to us); it is no easy task to be good. For in everything it is no easy task to find the middle” (EN. 1104a, 1109a), Aristotle, Works in 4 vols. Vol.4, Moscow 1984, pp. 87-92 (in Russian).

9. “To act, then, in accordance with right reason is when the irrational part of the soul does not prevent the rational from displaying its own activity. For then only will the action be in accordance with right reason.” (MM.1208a), Aristotle, Works in 4 vols. Vol.4, Moscow 1984, p. 360 (in Russian).

10. “Actions, then, are called just and temperate when they are such as the just or the temperate man would do; but it is not the man who does these that is just and temperate, but the man who also does them as just and temperate man do them.” (EN. 1105b), Aristotle, Works in 4 vols. Vol.4, Moscow 1984, p. 83 (in Russian).

11. “That practical wisdom is not scientific knowledge is evident; for it is, as has been said, concerned with the ultimate particular fact, since the thing to be done is of this nature. It is opposed, then, to intuitive reason; for intuitive reason is of the limiting premises for which no reason can be given, while practical wisdom is concerned with the ultimate particular, which is the object not of scientific knowledge but of perception – not the perception of qualities peculiar to one sense but a perception akin to that by which we perceive that the particular figure before us is a triangle; for in that direction as well as in that of the major premise there will be a limit. But this is rather perception than practical wisdom, though it is another kind of perception than that of the qualities peculiar to each sense.” (EN. 1142a), Aristotle, Works in 4 vols. Vol.4, Moscow 1984, p. 182 (in Russian).

12. “And intuitive reason is concerned with the ultimates in both directions; for both the first terms and the last are objects of intuitive reason” (EN.1143a) Aristotle, Works in 4 vols. Vol.4, Moscow 1984, p. 185 (in Russian).

13. Aristotle, Works in 4 vols. Vol.4, Moscow 1984, p. 187 (in Russian).

14. Ibid., p. 188.

15. Kant. Works in 6 volumes. Vol.4 (1), Moscow 1965. P.308, 2005 (in Russian). Foundations for the Metaphysic of Morals, Tr. Jonathan F.Bennett, p.51.

16. In general it should be noted that Kant’s ethic is devoid of any deductive examples of moral behavior. He does not absolve anyone from the motive of duty because duty makes it possible to identify man as a thinking creature and embodies his dignity, but for that same reason it does not allow itself to be privatized by anyone. Not surprisingly, we do not find in Kant examples from real life and history worthy of being emulated. He shied away from the very thought that one should look to anyone in making a moral choice.

17. M.M. Bakhtin. On the Philosophy of the Action. // Philosophy and the Sociology of Science and Technology. 1984, Moscow, 1986, p.83 (in Russian).

18. Bakhtin’s central idea of an action as the moral being of the individual can be illustrated by Aristotle’s well-known dictum to the effect that man is the beginning of an action, like father gives issue to a child. First, a child is the father’s action. It represents a change in the very being of the father and being in general. Such is the nature of any action, it changes the life of the actor. Second, an action is something as serious, relentless, fateful, eternal and troublesome as a child. A person cannot renounce his action, detach himself from it, just like the father cannot detach himself from his son because even if he renounces the son he is still attached to him more profoundly and tragically than before he has renounced him. Thirdly, the grounds (cause) for an action without which this singular action would never be possible, is the individual who has acted, just like the father is the determining cause of the child. Just like the father cannot say that it is not he alone that caused the appearance of the child, so a moral subject cannot say that it is not he alone that is to blame for an action. They cannot say so if they look at the action from within.

19. The idea of morals as the limit of rationality marking a transition to the suprarational sphere had been voiced by philosophers before Bakhtin when they linked morals with the reasonable essence of man although they did not conceptualize it. We have already cited Aristotle’s dictum who described a virtuous act as an ultimate that is fathomed not by science, but by senses, and moreover, a sense similar to the mathematical sense. Kant’s reasoning is also interesting in this connection. Kant says that if we could trace all the external and internal motives of man that would make it possible to predict his future behavior with the same accuracy as lunar and solar eclipses are predicted. But if we had a similar ability of intellectual contemplation then in our search for the paths of the moral law we would arrive at the “spontaneity of the subject as a thing in itself”. I. Kant “Practical Philosophy./Ed. By Mary J. Gregor. Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 219 (I. Kant, Critique of Practical Reason//Works, Vol.4(1), p.42 (in Russian).