Abdusalam Guseynov

Morality as the Limit of Rationality

XXIII World Congress of Philosophy: Philosophy as Inquiry and Way of Life, Athens, August 4–10, 2013.

Plenary Session

Philosophy is often understood in terms of public benefit as being synonymous with its application to other domains of public life such as politics, economics, education etc. The question I would like to raise is of an altogether different nature—namely, it is the question of whether philosophy can be seen as having any public or social value per se, before there is any further thought of application or usage. In particular, it is the question of whether it contains anything universally significant—something that could make it of interest to anyone as seen in the context of one’s personal evolution. And in order to answer that question, first we have to find out what philosophy is to the philosophers themselves and how it benefits them.

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Ethics has traditionally been considered one of the main outlets of philosophy in public and social life. Philosophical ethics is also referred to as practical philosophy—as opposed to theoretical philosophy. It is also a major factor that makes philosophy interesting to the general public. Some try to distinguish between philosophy, which is perceived as theoretical philosophy per se, in the strictest sense of the word, and ethics as its mere application, or practical aspect. This distinction is obviously erroneous.

The division of philosophy into the domains of logic, physics and ethics has been known since antiquity. They remain the three cornerstones of philosophy to this day, even though the process of differentiation has continued throughout the entire history of philosophy, represented by dozens of specialised disciplines today—and indeed well-represented in our congress programme. This understanding of the subject of philosophy provides a full scope of approaches to human existence, which is viewed in one of its three main aspects, namely, the intellectual, the natural and the moral. Philosophy thus assumes the responsibility for the human world—not in the aspect of universal knowledge, but rather in that of establishing its cohesiveness and comprehending the internal affinity between the ability to cogitate, the necessity of nature and the freedom of action. Thus, when the question of the purpose of philosophy is answered by someone who points out its ability to teach an individual some rules that apply to cogitation, perception of the world and right behaviour, the answer is only partially correct, because it does not reflect the unique nature of philosophy. Its uniqueness and the special nature of its purpose are as follows: philosophy attempts to address human existence as a whole, bringing into view the unity of all of its three canons: the canon of thought (logic), the canon of knowledge (physics) and the canon of action (ethics). There is another important aspect related to the above.

The ancients did not merely introduce the division of philosophy into three spheres—they also discovered the internal relatedness between them, one that places ethics in the focal point. According to the imagery found in the works of Sextus Empiricus, if we liken philosophy to an egg, logic is the shell, physics is the white and ethics is the yolk. Should the metaphor involve a garden, logic is the fence, physics is the trees and ethics is the fruit; in case of a human body, logic is the skeleton, physics is flesh and ethics is the soul. This interpretation implies that ethics, albeit a domain of philosophy, also represents its very message—philosophy’s unifying purpose.

When we refer to the ethical dimension of philosophy, we have to distinguish between the following two aspects: ethics as part of philosophy and the ethical orientation of philosophy in general. In the former case, we understand ethics as a specific philosophical discipline that coexists with other disciplines (such as epistemology, ontology, aesthetics etc.) In the latter case, philosophy itself is perceived as an ethical project. The correlation of these aspects is such that ethics explicitly defined as a discipline—ethics as the philosophy of morality—is the expression, extension and conclusion of the moral essence of philosophy in general. My idea is as follows: philosophy includes ethics and ends with ethics as a theory of morality because it was initially inspired and imbued by the moral message.

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Philosophy, which originated in Ancient Greece, was an expression of human yearning for virtue and perfection. An important fact to consider, to my mind, is that it was preceded by a heroic ethos. Historically (and, to a certain extent, also according to the views of the Ancient Greeks), philosophy became the alternative of the heroic ethos. Heroes are demigods born of unions between gods and mortals. They strive to prove their worth to their divine parents and stand among them as equals. However, they are incapable of it in the most direct and physical sense, for what stands between them and gods is the human nature they received from their human parents. Heroes challenge their own mortality. They attempt to compensate for the impossibility of physical immortality by attaining the immortality of glory—heroes stand out because of their strength, fearlessness and readiness to prove and defend their honour with their very life. Unable to reach godhood, they intend to compare to gods by performing great deeds and heroic feats. This is what the heroic ethos is all about. Philosophers have introduced a different understanding of human perfection—they associated it with verbal ability, intellectual capacity and knowledge.

When they first appeared in the cities of the Ancient Greece, philosophers caused wonder by their concern for abstract matters far removed from everyday necessities, their pondering of seemingly obvious issues, their loquaciousness, and their mental agitation, so alien to everybody else. But there was much more to them. The most amazing and implausible characteristic of these new characters was that they considered their issues and their intellectual agitation more important than social standing or prosperity—something they deemed to be of a secondary nature. Philosophers introduced a new set of values—a new ethos based on knowledge and the intellect rather than might and power. Philosophy really was, and remains, a strange activity, in that it happens to be something much greater than merely another human activity out of many. Philosophy is something that one lives and breathes. The most astonishing thing about philosophers is that they pursue their abstract thoughts (superfluous from the point of view of everyday existence) with the kind of seriousness and dedication normally reserved for things that are more important than one’s very life. To a philosopher, philosophy is a means of attaining one’s human identity and manifesting one’s subjectness. In one of his fragments (No. 101, Diels enumeration) Heraclitus says, “I searched myself” (ἐδιζησάμην ἐμεωυτόν)(1) He searched himself in the logos, the law and the mind of the Universe. The very same sentiment will be voiced again by Descartes in more than two thousand years in his Discourse of the Method—a description of the basics of his philosophy as well as a confession. At the end of the first part of his work, Descartes says that the method of cognition that he developed had stemmed from his decision “to study myself as well and to use all the powers of my mind to select paths which I should follow”(2). Finally, relatively recently Heidegger answered the question of the nature and purpose of philosophy as follows: “It represents one of rare opportunities for autonomous and creative existence.”(3)

All this evidence is illustrative, but hardly unique. Virtually every prominent philosopher has uttered something to that effect. What they mean is that to philosophers themselves their philosophical pursuits have an ethical (moral) value, being also imperative to the formation of their personalities. Going back to the comparison with the heroic ethos, it can be said that unlike that ethos, with its message of becoming godlike and finding glory among men, the philosophical ethos orients one towards attaining one’s own self, one’s own mind, and receiving one’s own approval from within.

Philosophers have appropriated the way towards perfection that they discovered as the name of their kind—the love for wisdom. Wisdom was defined as the truth—and not just any kind of truth, but truth in its perfect and divine expression—absolute and unsurpassable truth. Only the gods are wise—the lot of humankind is but to strive for wisdom. To be a philosopher means to yearn for beauty. Philosophical passion, or the love of wisdom, is known as thinking. Thinking is the subject of philosophy—something philosophy has introduced into human culture and keeps on supporting. Philosophers have associated human yearning for perfection, or the ideal and ultimate virtuous existence, with the fact that humans are rational beings and can only attain their authenticity through reason and reasoning, in a rational existence sanctioned by reason. Philosophy has introduced the conception that human yearning for virtue is actualised in the activity of thought and that an individual can only reach human perfection as a thinking being. In this interpretation, thinking isn’t merely one of human abilities—it is also the highest and the best form of human existence.

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Human beings are living things; as such, they are driven by passion and considerations of their own personal gain, but they also have the necessity to transcend the passionate to reach the domain of cognition—otherwise their passion cannot be satisfied. Being an entity capable of cognition, the human being wishes to understand the world and strives for objective truth; however, there is also the need to exceed the bounds of cognition as it doesn’t take their passions into consideration. Being capable of thought, humans try to fuse one with the other—passion and cognition, truth and personal gain. Philosophy elevates the human to the level of thinking—its purpose is to understand virtue as the truth and to wish for the truth as for virtue. There are two aspects of philosophical thinking that are of a particular interest to us—they distinguish it from scientific cognition.

The first aspect is reflected in the fact that philosophy transcends the limited and rigid scope of objective knowledge and constructs ideal and complete images of the world. I believe it was Russell who coined the witticism that science is something that you do know and philosophy is something that you do not. Indeed, philosophy has the tendency of going beyond the pale of exact knowledge. Its images of the world are developed up to the very final explanatory basics—in many cases they became complete and self-contained systems. However, they always have an axiological kernel and present a view of the world as seen from the point of view of human aims. If we speak of the cognitive status of philosophical images of the world, they can, to a certain extent, be considered intellectual utopianism. We are not referring to specific utopian projects that were often constructed within its framework—utopianism is characteristic for philosophy in general as a specific cultural phenomenon. For instance, Plato is not being utopian just when he builds a model of an ideal state— first and foremost, his utopianism is manifested as constructing a domain of ideal phenomena. State utopianism is merely a derivative of the utopia of the world of ideas. We can notice similar tendencies in other great philosophers. Spinoza defines substance as the all-encompassing foundation of the world, Kant speaks of a noumenal world, Schopenhauer describes the world as will. All these utopian conceptions and images are, of course, mere philosophical fantasies, for no one has ever seen, and no one will ever see substance, or noumena, or Will, nor will their existence ever be proved by anyone. However, they are constructive enough and represent an important element of thought activity, being the extension and conclusion  of cognition that makes it possible to receive intellectual answers to ethical aspirations of human beings. Spinoza’s conception of substance is a direct result of his understanding of happiness. Kant finds the foundation of his moral law in the noumenal world. Schopenhauer’s Will is expressed in his ethical pessimism. One cannot help thinking that implicit seeds of the ethical conclusions stemming from philosophical ontologies are present in the latter from the very start.

Ideal world images (models) result from the pursuit of absolute truth that is one of philosophy’s primary characteristics. Philosophy implies and defines the attitude of a human being to the world that is comparable to that of the world’s demiurge. It contains the idea of the sovereignty of human as a thinking being. This isn’t merely expressed as every philosopher creating their own image of the world, but also as the claim to its singularity made by each and every one of them. Philosophy is pluralistic in principle. It exists as a multitude of philosophies, each of which is equal to itself. If there is any generation continuity in philosophy, it is negative for the most part, for every new philosophy established itself as negation of earlier philosophies—as explicit or implicit substantiation of its veracity as opposed to all the other philosophies.

This is where we approach the second aspect of philosophical thinking—namely, the fact that philosophical thinking is by definition critical towards extant life forms.

Thinking has a very special relation to the reality of human existence. It transports one into a different world—the ideal world—that exists alongside with the real world as reflected by the senses—parallel to it, as it were.  If there’s anything at all inside a human being that can be described as autonomous and based on nothing but itself, it’s thinking. Once we become immersed in thought, we are no longer dealing with the real world, but rather an ideal representation thereof—we break the time and space boundaries of our existence. When we think, we can do or feel nothing else. A thought can only be continued with, or limited by, another thought; the process of thinking per se as studied from within in its internal logic is as endless as life itself. Obviously enough, a human being cannot think all the time. However, what concerns us now in this: once the thinking is over, it isn’t over because the process has reached its end, but rather due to some external factor. The very process of thinking, or cogitating, cannot be stopped—it is as endless as its subject, the world.

This property of thinking (its self-negating continuity) is manifested the most fully in the experience of philosophical thought. A philosopher’s thought does not begin where their predecessor left off—each time it starts from scratch, as if the philosopher were the first one to attempt it. And the object of thought is never some local problem, but rather the world itself, taken in its primordial nature. Intellectual utopia created by philosophical thought as a result of dissatisfaction with the real world becomes the reason for its criticism. The possibility of an ideal world makes us question the real world, the world it its present condition, and questioned it must be. The actual purpose of philosophy is to sharpen the mind enough to perceive the world critically, to sustain the necessity to ask question, to propagate the culture of doubt that permits no complacency even if something very good has been reached because something even better is possible. Therefore, philosophy with its ideals and the resulting propensity for doubting any result achieved in any domain is always incongruous—just like a person who keeps talking when somebody else tries to perform an action. Hannah Arendt puts it very well indeed:
“There are no dangerous thoughts; thinking itself is dangerous.”(4) One of the key functions of philosophy within the intellectual dimension is to maintain the continuity of thinking as the expression and the guarantee of human longing for perfection. And each time it fulfils this function by constructing a new intellectual utopia, thus also providing the platform for a critical analysis of achieved results of cognition and  practice.

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Philosophy combines its axiological approach to the world with the theoretical, or cognitive. This goes beyond the mere fact that philosophy studies the concepts of value and cognition and exposes their relatedness. It represents a union of the two in itself. Philosophy’s twofold purpose is to keep cognition within the field of human axiological vectors, which, in turn, are to be given a theoretically sound manifestation. This is the decisive factor that defines the place and the role of philosophy in society among other forms of culture.

Ever since Hegel there has been a tradition of distinguishing between the three main stages, or formations, in the development of European philosophy—the ancient period, the mediaeval period and the modern age. This division is very precise in the aspect that is of interest to us.

Pierre Hadot’s research demonstrates very well how ancient philosophy was cultivated as a special way of life and had a corresponding awareness of itself. It was a way of life in this very aspect—as a philosophy, a theory. Immersion into thought, concern for such issues as a human being’s goals, abilities and place in the world already represented a certain choice of a way of life. Socrates explained his inability to stop pondering such issues by claiming that he felt a special vocation—as though he was “made soldier by God himself.” Furthermore, theorising was perceived as a spiritual exercise—an exercise of will aimed at one’s transformation and purification. This explains certain traits of the ancient philosophical texts revealed by Pierre Hadot—namely, that their informative purpose was secondary to the formative; affinity to colloquial speech and actual circumstances was chosen over systematic impersonal narrative. Hence the use of dialogue, or the question-and-answer form, in philosophical contemplation—philosophical texts are seen as answers to certain questions; their purpose is not to express the truth, but to persuade the reader of its veracity, and they are addressed to a limited number of friends and apprentices—people capable of perceiving philosophical pursuits as spiritual experience. The personal, or spiritually formative and the interpersonal, or communicative, were the most prominent and even prevalent aspects of the ancient philosophy.

In other words, ancient philosophy was included in human lifestyle practices as a way of life. But there’s much more to it. It also claimed the position of the most highly-evolved form of life and the final stage of the human pursuit of happiness. Tradition attributes the actual term “philosophy” to Pythagoras, likewise the distinction between three primary modes of human existence—sensuous, or hedonistic, active, or civic, and contemplative, or theorising. These modes constitute a hierarchy where the contemplative, or theorising, mode of existence is considered supreme. This is the very way of life of the philosophers, and it corresponds the most to the attributes of a certain self-sufficient and tireless condition that is equal to itself and most often associated with people’s ideas of happiness, manifesting said attributes to the greatest extent. Every ancient school of philosophy developed its own version of philosophy that was perceived and practised as the perfect way of life. The hubris of philosophy that made it regard itself as the embodiment of perfection was the reason for its marginalisation and lack of any universal social role. It would be impossible for everybody to be a philosopher, after all—a philosopher in that highly specific school textbook sense, conforming to the ancient concept and criteria of a philosopher.

In the Middle Ages philosophy was assigned a secondary role. Its role in society during this epoch is usually defined as follows: “Philosophy is the serving girl of theology.” However, this is but one view of the issue—what we learn from this expression is that theology needed philosophy and used the intellectual arsenal of the latter for its own ends. There is another view, which concerns the question of why philosophy, with its view of itself as the highest manifestation of human wisdom, agreed to play a secondary part and became a slave of theology. I believe that the decisive role here was played by the following circumstance. In mediaeval society, the function performed by philosophy in antiquity—namely, that of a spiritually conscious way of life—became transferred to the Christian religion. Christianity associated the idea of perfection in human life with the belief in God. Thinkers of the Patristic epoch even called the Christian faith their philosophy, implying that Christianity had replaced philosophy primarily as a way of life to be considered worthy. Axiological functions of philosophy became the domain of religion and theology. Philosophy itself became curtailed to a mere technique of thought. Theology and philosophy existed in symbiosis. To make a rough generalisation, one might say that theology represented the axiological aspect of mediaeval thought, whereas philosophy played the part of its theoretical aspect. Thus, the only viable philosophy was religious philosophy.

The emancipation of philosophy and its independence from theology would only occur in the modern age, when philosophy allied itself with the nascent experimental science. This alliance was perfectly natural, according to the logic of cognition. However, an important fact is often disregarded—it concerns the axiological aspects rather than theoretical. In order to function autonomously, science became emancipated from the contemplative view of the world and proclaimed itself as a practical force capable of changing the world in such a way that people might find a tangible representation of their will for a perfect and happy life. Axiological perspectives associated with the possibilities offered by science have defined the dominant role that science began to play in society, similar to that of religion during the previous (mediaeval) period. Science de facto hijacked religion’s function of a morally elevating power, suggesting the opposite method for achieving it. Belief in God has been replaced by an active attitude towards the world and the promise of heaven above has been replaced by the promise of heaven on earth. Having allied itself with science, philosophy assumed a subservient position once again—one very similar to its former theological servitude. It used to be religious, but then it started longing to become scientific when one epoch replaced another. Philosophy  formulated three fundamental ideas at least that would herald the modern age as the age of science: a) the idea of necessity and the concept of nature’s self-sufficiency, the implication of which being that every problem can be solved within the framework of nature without the need for imaginary spheres; b) the idea of scientific approach as the universal approach to knowledge accessible to all people as rational beings; c) the idea of scientific, technological and social progress, capable of realising humankind’s infinite potential and satisfying its various needs. Philosophy has sanctioned the dominant position of science in society and bears responsibility for society’s unswerving faith in science as well as the near-messianic self-perception of the scientists. It has shaped the image of science as a morally transformative power. Francis Bacon is one of the most illustrative figures that we can refer to in order to understand how philosophy started to perceive itself and its role in culture. The Novum Organum by Francis Bacon contains a substantiation of the method of scientific empiricism; another work entitled New Atlantis describes the happy existence of humans in a world that has been transformed by science.

To conclude our brief overview of the history of philosophy’s attempts to fuse epistemology with axiology and the subsequent changes of the role it played in society, let us point out that presently it is faced by the necessity to take decisions of a qualitatively new nature. The situation can be described in a few words as follows: philosophy’s assumption that science as a force capable of altering the world would also act in the capacity of a morally elevating power has been wrong for the most part. Science and related material transformations in human society have not only exceeded the expectations of the past, but even the fantasies. However, no expected moral changes have ever taken place. External successes such as incredible growth of the level of human comfort did not bring about any inner growth in human beings. Today it has become perfectly clear that the way to moral perfection does not lie through the domains of science and the material progress that it engenders. We are not discussing the potential of science and technology here—it is vast and virtually limitless. But even if we assume science capable of attaining exhaustive knowledge of the world, answering every imaginable question and provide for as great an abundance of material goods as one may only imagine, will it do anything to solve the mystery of human existence or solve our moral problems? The synthesis of rationality and morality, or the axiological and epistemological attitude towards the world that was embodied in the ideals of scientific philosophy, is no longer regarded satisfactory today. Philosophy needs to rely on a wholly different methodology for solving its primordial problem—finding a rationally substantiated way towards dignified and perfect human existence is the problem that it needs to solve right now, and the way it solves it will define philosophy’s position in society.

It appears that philosophy has got no viable solution to this problem so far. However, what it has got is the awareness of the necessity of search—the awareness of being dissatisfied by the classical ideals of scientific philosophy. As I was preparing my paper, I have sorted through many answers given by the thinkers of the modern age to the question of the nature of philosophy, only to discover that they define it in a variety of ways, but never as a type of cognition. It is possible that this awareness of dissatisfaction will lead to a new synthesis. It would be edifying to quote the words said by Henri Bergson a little more than a century ago at the Fourth International Congress of Philosophy in Bologna: “What a strange force this intuitive power of negation is! How is it that the historians of philosophy have not been more greatly struck by it? Is it not obvious that the first step the philosopher takes, when his thought is still faltering and there is nothing definite in his doctrine, is to reject certain things definitively? Later he will be able to make changes in what he affirms; he will vary only slightly what he denies.” It is possible that this very negation, this pronounced critical attitude to the status quo of the world may help philosophy per se reveal itself as life philosophy today. The dominating spirit of bourgeois prosperity has to be denied—together with the very idea that existential problems can be solved by means of external comfort and unlimited consumerism.

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Philosophy as the longing for perfection evolves in that the very longing for perfection becomes the subject of philosophical analysis and transforms into ethics. In ethics philosophy finds the awareness of itself as a way of life—as a practice of rational existence. Philosophical and ethical approach to practice is defined by the fact that human behaviour is considered in its ideal perspective—the way it may and should become within the ideally constructed world. Philosophy is primarily interested in the moral aspect of human behaviour. Obviously, morality existed before ethics and people tried to be virtuous and do their duty a long time before the first study of virtue and duty was undertaken by the philosophers. Nevertheless, philosophy was the discipline that registered and delineated the ideal vector of human behaviour, demonstrating that it does not merely strive to be virtuous, but to be virtuous in the complete, absolute meaning of the word. Similarly to how philosophy tries to take its understanding of the world to the very extreme, ethics brings human aspirations for a virtuous life to perfection. It isn’t just interested in benefits pursued by human behaviour—it aspires for the supreme good, and it is interested not only in the diversity of people’s responsibilities, but their unconditioned responsibilities first and foremost. We can point out at least two distinctive characteristics of philosophical ethics as such: it perceives morality a) in a super-ethical perspective, and b) as expression of an individual’s subjectness towards the world.
The first crucial characteristic of philosophical ethics is that morality is regarded from a super-ethical point of view, which provides a perspective where the conflict between good and evil has been resolved by the overwhelming victory of good over evil, and where the pursuit of perfection can result in the attainment of the perfect state. It is manifested in the two-level structure of philosophical ethics which may exist in different variants  and be more or less extensive.

In antiquity, the idea of two kinds of ethics, or, rather, ethics and super-ethics, has been formulated and conceptually substantiated the most extensively by Aristotle and the Stoics. Aristotle distinguishes between two eudaimoniae—the secondary, or lower eudaimonia, which represents the happiness of an active existence and associates with ethical virtues, and the primary, or higher eudaimonia, which corresponds to philosophical contemplation and is realised in dianoethic virtues. Aristotle emphasises that the state of the first eudaimonia is only reached by human beings very rarely, and not because of their being human, but rather due to having “something divine” inside. This distinction between the two levels becomes the keystone of the ethical theory developed by the Stoics, who drew a sharp distinction between relative values determined by human nature and outer circumstances of human life and  manifested in preferred and rejected actions, and absolute values associated with the logos and embodied in the opposition of virtue and vice. This second level of actual virtue can only be reached by a very limited number of wise people—stoics believed that less than a handful of those could be named.

The two-level structure of philosophical ethics merged with the religious idea of two worlds during the Middle Ages, according to which the moral perfection of a human being and their struggle against their own sinful nature during their earthly life are to be considered from the super-moral perspective of existing in paradise. When Jesus was addressed as “good master,” he replied as follows: “Why callest thou me good? There is none good but one, that is, God” (Mark 10:18). Isn’t that similar to Plato’s idea and words that “wise is a great name which belongs to God alone?” (Phaedrus, 278d). The concept of a super-ethical level of moral behavior was of great importance for religiously oriented ethics. It was so important that without the context that it provides one can never understand the discussions about theodicy and the proportional relation between God’s grace and free will, which were so typical for ethicians during that epoch.

Modern age ethics was oriented towards the scientific ideal—the idea of a super-moral extension of moral aspiration is still there, albeit formulated in a rudimentary manner. Spinoza orients his entire ethical system towards the super-human perspective—perceiving God in the context of eternity. According to Hegel, morality is a manifestation of the objective spirit; however, the objective spirit is not the last stage, and its limitations are transcended by the absolute spirit, which is also a pre-requisite for the objective spirit’s existence. The ethics of the absolute spirit erode the boundary between good and evil, which makes it the postmoral and super-moral crown of the edifice of Hegelian thought. Kant remains within the limits of possible experience in his formulation of the categorical imperative. However, he does not stop there. He introduces the utopia of the Kingdom of Ends and the postulates of practical reason. The Kingdom of Ends represents a super-ethical perspective, and the postulates of practical reason serve to substantiate it. In this super-ethical perspective, morality transcends the limitations of duty and merges with a transformed existence.

A qualitative shift in the philosophical perception of morality occurred after Kant and Hegel. Philosophy started to doubt morality itself. Ethics has undergone the transformation from a discipline concerned with morality, its theory, into critique and rejection of morality. Its purpose was no longer defined as understanding the logic of a moral mind, bringing it to its logical conclusion and finding a more perfect wording for it, but rather the discrediting of morality and the exposure of its inherent hypocrisy and illusionary nature. Philosophy broke away from morality. The most consistent and open espousal of the new view of morality can be found in the words of Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche. According to Marx, morality is the tool used for enslaving the proletariat spiritually. He claims that future Communist society will have no place for morality or any of the other forms of social consciousness alienated from individuals. To Nietzsche, morality is the greatest lie and the essence of Tartuffery; he sees it as the manifestation of the slavish mind, Ressentiment of the weak and their impotent malice. Nietzsche described the perspective of the Übermensch—one who is beyond good and evil—to counter the morality of Socrates, Kant, the Christians and the Socialists. It has to be emphasised that Marx and Nietzsche share the main interest, which is transcending morality as opposed to becoming moral. They destroy the entire domain of morality and ethics. To them, the transition to the super-moral level no longer represents the extension or conclusion of the logic of morality—on the contrary, it is viewed as the result of abandoning it.

After Marx and Nietzsche, nobody appears to have expressed views as radical as theirs; nevertheless, they have recorded the crisis of philosophical ethics and greatly influenced its further development in that philosophical ethics would subsequently lose its trust for morality after having trusted it for millennia. It chose the path of antinormativism. This also applies to the subdivisions inside ethics that develop according to the tradition of school philosophy and remain true to the classical view of morality. All the differences between the Utilitarian, Kantian, meta-ethical, naturalistic and other theoretical approaches to morality notwithstanding, what they all have in common is contenting themselves with regarding morality as an object of cognition in the very shape that it assumes in reality. Basically, none of them allow for it to be regarded from without, or to have an extension and a conclusion in another perspective. In general, they do not allow for the existence of the secondary, or the super-moral level, which correlates perfectly well with the state of axiological confusion characteristic for philosophy in general as pointed out above.

The second characteristic of philosophical ethics is that it perceives morality as a manifestation of an individual’s subjectness. Philosophical contemplation of morality is focused within the question “What ought I to do?” This question elevates the individual to the level of the subject—one prepared and capable to act as though their activities and decisions were the only decisive factor shaping the world affected by their actions. Ethics has interested philosophy as a practice of its own—as a way of implementing its concept of perfect life (one organised rationally). First and foremost, it has been concerned with studying the possibility and the direction of this process. The issue was to find a philosophically substantiated programme of individually responsible behaviour on the basis of the will for choosing the best option for themselves, which is inherent in every individual and universal in this sense.

Similarly to how ethics was the focal point of philosophy, the focal point of philosophical ethics itself was the production of a normative programme of honourable behaviour and perfect lifestyle. Thus, the ethical ideals and practices of contemplative bliss, eudaimonism, Stoicism, Epicureanism, love, heroic enthusiasm, duty, rational selfishness etc. have been formed and penetrated the European culture within the borders of philosophy and largely because of it.

However, modern ethics has undergone a substantial shift even in this respect—namely, it can be described as a de facto rejection of the duty to point out the way for an ethically justified existence. Philosophical schools no longer develop any ethical normative programmes—either deliberately or as a matter of circumstance. Should a young person decide to use the works of Epicurus, Spinoza or Kant as existential beacons, they would find any number of recommendations for action in their philosophical works. But if they decide to turn to the philosophy of Wittgenstein, Husserl or Heidegger with the same purpose, they are in for a great disappointment. The systems offered by those philosophers contain no dedicated ethical part—they do not pose the question “What ought I to do?” And something one will definitely fail to find in their works is anything remotely resembling a generalising formula of morally sound behaviour similar to the categorical imperative. Even when these philosophers consider the actual problematics of ethics (in meta-ethics, for example), they usually fail to go any further than describing the norms and performing logical analysis of the same, researching the issue of criteria used in differentiating wrong from right and studiously avoiding saying anything about the nature of right and wrong. If previously philosophers would study ethics to ascend to the level of a moralist, this transformation is what they dread the most today.

Both philosophical critiques of morality and the rejection of the necessity to formulate universally relevant ethical and normative programmes from the part of philosophy relativate the very concept of a moral norm. There is no means of transitioning from the norm to the act. One must distinguish between an act in a variety of definitions and the fact of having acted. Moral responsibility for an action is associated with the fact of having acted. Mikhail Bakhtin, who is to be credited with the decisive role in substantiating the moral sovereignty of an action, is perfectly precise and aphoristic in his expression of this idea: “It is not the content of an obligation that obligates me, but my signature below it.” The search for the space of an individually responsible behaviour has been going on as long as ethics has been in existence. Now it has come to the conclusion that the space in question can be defined as the actual decision about the act that becomes the cause of it, and, consequently, that all the actions committed by a person pertain to this space. The basis of moral responsibility is not the logical procedure of adapting a private case to a general rule, but the kind of wisdom that manifests as the ability to make judgements in private cases and differentiate between the right, or the honourable, from the wrong, or the dishonourable.

The ability to make moral judgements and the morally responsible actions wherein it is realised do not stem from the individual as the subject of action—they establish the individual as a subject—a person. In this interpretation, philosophical ethics rejects the concept of a universal and obliging answer to the question “What ought I to do?”—it delegates the answer to every individual that acts. In this sense, each ethically mature individual is their own philosopher—insofar as they are morally responsible for their actions and the normative programme objectively defined by such actions. However, in order to be worthy of one’s ethical vocation, one must develop a philosophically critical Weltanschauung, which implies and demands that the world receive the sanction of reason—not just general, scientific, absolute etc, but rather the kind of reason that coincides with the reasoning of the acting individual where it matters, when a responsible decision is made. The individual who makes the judgement (or acts) and the individual who thinks have the following in common: in both cases (and, possibly, only in these two cases) the individual acts as an autonomous entity—one relies on oneself, one’s will and one’s reason.


Tarnslated by Mikhail Yagupov


(1)  Fragments by Early Greek Philosophers / Translated by A. V. Lebedev. Part I. Moscow: Nauka, 1989. Page 15.

(2)  Rene Descartes. Compiled Works in 2 Volumes. Vol 1. Moscow: Mysl, 1989. Page 256.

(3)  Martin Heidegger. Country Path Conversations. Moscow, 1991. Page 146.

(4) Hannah Arendt. Cogitation and Considerations of Morality // Responsibility and Judgement. Moscow, 2013. Page 242