Preface to Hartmann’s “On the Nature of Moral Demands”
Professor Nicolai Hartmann published his book, Ethics, in 1926. After Hartmann’s death, his essay, “On the Nature of Moral Demands” was published in German in 1955 in Volume I of his Shorter Writings (Kleinere Schriften I). Hartmann wrote this essay in 1949, the year before his untimely death.
Nicolai Hartmann demonstrates the importance of the philosophers with extreme positions and where they generally fail to capture the essence of moral values, especially regarding moral demands. Hartmann (1926/2017, Ch. 5c) writes in his book, Ethik, as is marvelously translated by Stanton Coit and republished as Volume I of III, Moral Phenomena:
The knowledge of one’s ignorance is always the beginning of knowledge. Even the knowledge of good and evil can take no other route than over this threshold of all knowledge alike…Seldom does a discoverer know fully what he has discovered. Nietzsche knew it as little as did Columbus. The successors inherit the field; to them falls the task of acquiring what they have inherited, in order to possess it…
It is in place here to say, although it cannot be confirmed until later, that the most fatal error on Nietzsche’s part is to be traced precisely to that one of his doctrines which in his time won the greatest attention—to his doctrine of the “revaluation of all values.” In that lay hidden the idea of valuational relativism. If values permit of being revalued, they also are capable of being devalued, they permit of being manufactured and of being destroyed. They are the work of man, they are arbitrary, like thought and phantasies. If this be so, the meaning of the great discovery is again immediately annihilated at the first step; for then the path over the threshold does not lead into a new and unknown realm which is still to be opened; there is nothing further to discover and to find; the bolt which had restrained is merely pushed back to admit free devising and inventing. But if that was the meaning of the liberation, one cannot understand why the long-checked source of invention does not now spring up and burst forth—or can it be that man is lacking in the spirit of invention?
In truth, the opposite has been proved. There has been no lack of fabrication, but what has been invented has had no power over man; it did not possess the force to convince his sentiment, to determine his real discriminating consciousness of value, to give a new orientation to his innermost being. For valuational consciousness, whatever else it may be, is in the first instance a sense of value, a primal, immediate capacity to appreciate the valuable. It has been proved that the sensing of value does not impotently allow itself to be transformed by a thing fabricated, that it is in itself something unaccommodating, incapable of being disconcerted, a unique entity, a law unto itself, a distinctive orientation of values.
Hartmann’s long appreciated analysis of the contribution and errors of Nietzsche’s philosophy is crucial for some students to surpass the seriousness and dreariness of Nietzsche’s dream of the super-man, his so-called morality of power with beauty, which became quite popular for people to replace their previous values with, also his questionable moral values of vitality and individualism, and his so-called immoralism.
Hartmann questions the philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, rigorously. How can individualism be prioritized as a moral value when we all begin our lives completely dependent? No human is born into this world already adapted to the environment. We all were, at least, totally dependent on others. And otherwise, we are largely dependent on environments manufactured by humans. Does it not take a village to raise a child? Are we not also dependent on others who have moral values and moral demands that give us collectivism rather than individualism?
“On the Nature of Moral Demands” by Hartmann offers a description of what morality looks like for each of us. It requires that you, the reader, come to understand your own set of moral values and moral demands that you have for yourself and others.
Background for Hartmann’s philosophy: There is a two-sided nature to moral values. They have either height or strength. For values you hold Highly, if you successfully achieve one in a concrete situation, you bring yourself self-praise or praise from others or both. But with moral values that you and others hold STRONGLY, when you fail to achieve one or violate one, you receive self-blame with strong feelings of guilt, and you are blamed by others for the shortcoming. Also, there is no way to escape in a way where any of us are guiltless since we begin with knowledge of morality, of good and bad, according to our own standards and demands, after we have made mistakes and recognized our own faults.
If a value is held Highly, such as courage, then it receives much praise when it really happens. One gives oneself praise or receives praise and approval from others. However, in such cases, the value is higher and weaker because one does not blame oneself or receive blame from others for failing to achieve it since the higher the moral value is, the greater the focus on moral praise is. For example, a teacher and a mother who saved students’ lives during school shootings are later praised highly, yet they would not receive strong blame for any failure to save them. Police officers, however, receive blame for failing to act courageously, and the blame is more intense, coming from anyone who holds the value of courage strongly, including the officers themselves.
For those with a morality that holds the value of courage strongly, there can be far greater moral demands that one places on oneself and others, and, in fact, there are greater moral demands when the situation arises and the one with the strong value expects oneself to act courageously. If a value is held STRONGLY, like courage, and one fails to be courageous during the opportunity to do so, one blames oneself with stronger feelings of guilt. Others who hold bravery strongly will blame the one who fails to achieve the act of bravery in real life when they recognize his or her failure in a concrete situation.
For example, a firefighter who freely stays away from harm during but near a burning building, without attempting to prevent damage and without saving lives, naturally receives harsh criticism from anyone who strongly holds courage as a moral value, such as professional firefighters. They blame the firefighter and expect self-blame and strong feelings of guilt in one who lacks diligence during the concrete situation, as it is a time of reckoning. Professionals criticize themselves for any failures related to either lacking courage (i.e., cowardice) or acting excessively in relation to courage (i.e., recklessness with unnecessary increases in risks).
Professionals criticize themselves for failing to meet their own moral demands. Sometimes they criticize themselves quite harshly. You criticize yourself harshly when your ego does not resist the value judgments you make about yourself.
As professional emergency workers hold the moral value of courage strongly, they place moral demands on themselves to reach the emergencies and perform courageously without deficiency (i.e., cowardice) or excessiveness (i.e. recklessness). Such demands that humans place on themselves are moral demands. This is important for wartime medics, Doctors Without Borders and journalists in war zones, for example.
Different people have different moralities. People’s moralities differ regarding the generation or zeitgeist one comes from as well as the geographic location (e.g., Europe, Asia, Africa etc.). However, there are conflicting moral value-sets shared by groups from the same place and time. Hartmann describes the transitions with careful attention to key philosophies of influence. Hartmann (III) writes of the law of Aristotle that “the current group of values is always that which corresponds at the time to the urgent life situation.”
With that being said, it is also the case that different moralities are required by different professions. However, each of the latter professions of journalists and other emergency workers morally demand courage strongly, but those who place value judgements on these people for their voluntary behavior often judge them highly for success in bravery and weakly for their failures.
W. A. Brant
On the Nature of Moral Demands
(Citation: Hartmann, Nicolai. (1955/2022). “On the Nature of Moral Demands.” Translated by William Allen Brant. Ethical Conflict Consulting. August edition. Original title: “Vom Wesen sittlicher Forderungen.” in Kleinere Schriften I.)
One definitely does not need to be a moralist to recognize moral demands, to subject one’s own life to them, and to judge the behavior of others, or one’s own, by their standards. We all do it more or less, when we quickly judge people and actions at hand; it is more difficult for us when it comes to our own person, not because we question the standards here, but because one’s own ego accomplishes resistance against the value judgment. Certain high requirements may well be disputed as to whether they are justified; But there are also much more modest ones, those of “simple morality,” of kindness, of being helpful, of decency, of obvious consideration, about which there is no dispute. Moral demands are so familiar to us that we first notice them where they will be violated, but then our denial there can certainly also be of general approval.
But one does not need to be an anti-moralist long to ask oneself: Why do we actually subject our lives to moral demands? The question is identical to the other: What is it with this that we are moral beings, that we recognize and reject the deeds of people, that we make an unwelcomed demand at all and call human behavior good or bad? Straightaway, the question must immediately suggest itself to the serious-minded in particular. After all, it is not so self-evident that we raise demands and assume them to be universally valid, even though they do not materialize themselves in life. Why are we not pleased with the way nature made us? Why do we require from people that they be different?
The question becomes very serious when one considers that there are highly organized living beings that simply live according to their specific laws and niches, reacting according to the instincts with which they are endowed, and who lack nothing. Is it the human’s hubris that one wants to be more than one is? Is one’s morality an arrogance and excessive as it makes demands? And is it perhaps the case that this arrogance now gets revenge on one—in an eternal dissatisfaction with oneself?
The last question, which is already somewhat sensational, may now be left out of the game here. But the basic question about the meaning of moral demands in general cannot be handled. And here—still far beyond all high ethical problems—the simple comparison with the form of existence of the higher animals gives a first decisive hint. Modern anthropology has shown convincingly that man is not naturally endowed with all the instincts that would suffice for his own needs. The helplessness of the child, the slowness with which it comes to mastering the simplest tasks are the eloquent testimony to this. The human does not come into the world ready, one must gradually develop into a fully developed human being. This happens with tedious adjustment and with practice of the individual, whereby the awakening and merely developing intelligence plays an increasing role.
The animal is, to put it straight forward, the more perfect being. It is equipped in its instincts with all the skills it needs. The human is not that, precisely because one is the higher, the spiritual being. It is an old misconception that “height” as such is already perfection. For a long time humankind believed that it was the “most perfect” being because it was called to greater things; humankind did itself the greatest injustice, because it even had to misconstrue the “higher” tasks posed by its freedom. In the sense of a greater overview of the levels of forms that compose the real world, one would prefer thinking the other way around: perfection decreases with increasing levels of being; the most perfect forms could perhaps be the atoms, but, in every case, the dynamic structures of the corporeal world never deviate from their strict natural laws. The organism already knows malfunction, deformity, illness, and in it there is the phenomenon of death; because only the living can “die.” The consciousness is extensively left to its own initiative; it distances itself from natural law, including the laws of the species of its carrier, the organism. The mental life has complete freedom, being able to hit or miss in each of its actions. The highest endowment is a dangerous endowment. The animal is endangered only from without, by the surrounding world; the human is endangered from within, from one’s own being. Indeed, the human is the highest being about which we know, but also the most imperfect for that very reason.
It should actually be obvious a priori (prior to experience) that a primitive being reaches perfection much more easily than a highly complicated one with incalculable possibilities. For the primitive, it is much less important to complete its character. But as that also is, what is incomparable about the human is that one is faced with tasks in one’s own nature, which it is up to one’s own initiative to fulfill. And this might be the meaning of Hegel’s word about mind, that it must always first make itself what it is.
Because the human is a being with a mind, one has much to develop, and perhaps one can say that one is never “finished.” That is also one’s advantage: only then can one adapt to new living conditions, turn to tasks of a higher kind; one is not committed to mere self-preservation, one can undertake something, one has “the freedom to go where one wants.”
This already begins in the cyclical processes of childhood, in which speaking and self-understanding is achieved, but also simultaneously growing into the human community and the mental environment; likewise in playing with things, in seemingly pointless conduct, in which the field of objects of things nevertheless becomes available to one. It continues through the age of maturity at work because it is also a cyclical process: it reacts to the effect, he learns by creating, and by mastering the matter he simultaneously comes to master and evaluate his own abilities.
In this context, one must also view human nature in respect to his larger tasks. Aristotle once defined him as the “naturally community-forming living being.” It is based on the opinion that man cannot live in any other way than in affiliation with other people, but thereby the requirements are set for bringing about this affiliation in the first place, and its form finds the sustainable shape of a higher unity first of all. It is because this unity is not given to him by nature.
From here one can derive a whole system of tasks, which the human manages through his “nature.” They reach up to law, to the state, to politics. The most obvious thing, however, is that man has to become a being capable of community up. The most obvious thing, however, is that man raises himself to a being capable of community. Because that doesn’t fall into his lap either. To do this, he must learn to fit in, discipline himself, make demands on himself that are not natural to him but rather conflict with the tendencies he has brought with him. He needs discipline in order to become capable of even the simplest community, but he must first win it.
It is obvious that this already provides a provisional answer to the question of the meaning and nature of moral demands. The human cannot live without asking them, and, in fact, first of all asking them to himself. This answer is initially only a general anthropological one and has the natural limits of such an answer. But if one follows its consequences, one very soon arrives at more precise information.
Because human beings are also beings that bring the corresponding abilities with them. Among these, that of activity ranks first. Activity is not the same as reactivity. The instinctive behavior of animals exhausts itself in reactions. Humans not only respond to given circumstances with their actions, they also set goals that go far beyond them. The human is the actual purposefully active being.
Purposive activity is not the same as purposefulness. Things can also be purposeful – for nourishment, for building, for defense — namely, if the human being or some other living being knows how to use them. However, they are not purposefully active, but rather whoever uses them is. The reactions of living beings are also purposeful, as are the instincts that stand behind them; they are functional in the same sense that all organic functions are functional so long as they function normally. But they do not require a purpose that has been predetermined for them, and there is also no purposive understanding (kein zwecksetzender Verstand) behind them. Its form is, as Kant called it, that of “purposefulness without purpose” (Zweckmaessigkeit ohne Zweck).
Nature sets no purpose. But the human sets them. He has there; spiritual consciousness, which is powerful in anticipation and preliminary drawing, it is the purposive being. Providence and predestination – the well-known predicates of deity – make up this ability. The characteristic superiority of the human being over the surrounding nature is rooted in them. It is not a superiority of strength – in this respect most natural forces are far superior to him – but of the spirit – of resourcefulness, of purposeful activity. He is able to capture the blind force of nature and use it as a means for his purposes. If the force of nature were also tied to ends, it would oppose his. But it is not bound by any, it follows their laws indifferently to the result, works according to them, regardless of whether it serves anyone’s purposes or not. Its form of action is the causal nexus, but in this nothing is predetermined.
Human activity is therefore doubly conditioned: by itself and by the surrounding world, the former by the human ability to set and pursue goals, and the latter by nature’s indifference to our goals. That certainly applies initially and only to material being. It makes it more difficult even for the organism with its much higher followings of natural laws (Gesetzlichkeit) and self-determination. In humans, however, one encounters the coequal opponent who purposefully sets and realizes goals; there one has to do with one’s own kind, and with that the circumstances becomes completely different.
The human opponent not only makes the game difficult for one, but also gives one new weight: the severity of the consequences is quite different if the object of the action is one of the same nature as one’s own person — in the same way a person, namely the person concerned with the action. This relationship is what makes the conduct the deed. The deed is responsible conduct because it does something to the person, be it good or bad. The simple basic form of the deed is a changing with things in relation to persons. In such changing, the sphere of living together is already encountered: every deed also affects living together, even if it only directly affects the thing. This is because the human needs material goods and is also affected by them.
Yet this determination of the deed is still external. First a look at the multiple interlacing of human interests, purposes and actions ushers in their nature. Hereby, situation is the key concept. This is because there is no deed without a given occasion, whether this may be an external or a more internal one. The deed always occurs from a certain situation in life and is naturally determined by it. What, however, is the nature of the situation? It is easy to see that it is always something else, individual, ephemeral, so diverse in its variability that it seems hopeless to search for its “general” nature. Nevertheless, one of such stands out. It lies in the following four moments.
- We cannot choose the situation, we “guess” in it, and mostly become ambushed by it. This also applies if we have helped to shape it through our own conduct because nobody fully sees through the consequences of their conduct; the real situation always turns out differently from what we foresee it to be. That is why it is like that because it is not composed of unpredictable factual connections alone, but always also the hidden attitudes and intentions of the humans, between whom it plays.
- Once we get roped into it, we can no longer avoid it. Everything that happens advances in time; there is the retrogressing to an earlier stage in thought — then we see how we could have avoided the impending situation —, but not in reality. So, we have to get through it, taking it upon ourselves, trying, searching and manage it.
- That further means: we have to deal with it, needing to determine and render decisions. It does not help us if we idly lay our hands in our laps. Also, the act of omission is a decision. Truly, it is also a deed in the ethical sense. And when culpable, the guilt falls back on us just as much as that from active behavior.
- Yet the situation alone does not tell us “how” we should act, it does not stipulate the way for us. It only limits the possibilities. It leaves the decision to us. This applies to both large and small things. We seldom notice it in its scope and perhaps only at certain meaningful turning points in our lives, if we have to decide from further visibility in the future. But it is basically the same in all the short moment-situations (Augenblicks-Situationen), in the blink of an eye. Only the importance of the decision varies.
Both the last two points clearly show the fateful nature of the situation. It consists in the fact that in it a moment of unfreedom and a moment of freedom are always interconnected with each other: in this we are not free “whether” we want to decide and act or not, we must decide, and we always choose in one or another way; the only thing left to our freedom is “how” we decide. We are forced to make free decisions, or in a nutshell: the situation is, for us, compulsion toward freedom.
That is in no way contradictory. Contradictory are the exaggerated notions of human freedom, and likewise like those notions of necessity. There is no absolute or complete freedom of human choice; it is always important to calculate very precisely with the existing conditions. These constitute the particular situation at every moment, and the particular situation cannot be changed by the human being. Yet there is also no all-determining necessity that relieves us of the decision, and something is always left remaining in our freedom. And concerning this something is the ethical essence of situations. But at the moment, viewed practically, our whole life is one single chain of situations never to be torn apart. For our whole life times, we are forced to decide freely from moment to moment.¹
Conduct is, viewed from here, the answer of humans to the already arising situation, insofar as it is not only that, but rather always and also necessarily co-determines our own decision as humans. In this way it differs radically from mere reaction. And here the difference between the human being itself and the animal guided by instinct can be grasped most clearly.
It comes off much to the disadvantage of humans. The animal is told by its instincts what to do in every situation. They do not tell it to the consciousness, but rather directly to the organism, and the organism proceeds according to them, it reacts in the way prescribed for it. The animal does not falter, it does not miss or go wrong, it is secure and well-guided by the power of the laws of its species. This is its perfection. The human does not have it so good. His instincts do not tell him what to do, except in the most primitive matters of self-preservation, and even then not always. His situations are complicated, he does not find a predetermined way out. He is situated with his freedom, he sees more than one possibility, the burden of the decision lies with him. He can go astray, he can neglect to do right. He is threatened from within — by the supreme endowment of his freedom, which he is forced to use at every step of life, during the aiming points through which he could decide, but neither through his nature nor through the situation are they given to him.
This is the imperfection in his nature, the inner threat in which he stands, his lack of counseling (Unberatenheit), and, so to speak, his abandonment by good and protective powers. That does not change the magnitude of the endowment, which just attaches to this freedom; because it is the reliance-on-oneself of the situated human being (Auf-sich-selbst Gestelltsein des Menschen), one’s breaking away from the services of the organism and natural drives, but with this simultaneously one’s ability of turning to other and far higher goals. But where does he get these from, and how are they given to him, when after all his nature is not able to give them to him?
Here is the gap in which the moral requirement substitutes. It means being in charge, directional tendency (Richtunggebung) in the decision that the situation commands from him. It kicks in right where instincts fail him. And thus initially, with it as the guiding principle in mind, does he become a being capable of deeds (handlungsfaehigen Wesen). The power of purposive activity and that of freedom still do not do it alone. Only when he intuitively sees something, which should be there, can his doings give a meaningful direction. This is because, regarding the situation, it means that he grasps something, which should happen in the occasion through him.
Meanwhile, it must remain undecided how he comes to the moral demand and how it is given to him. The question will keep us busy. The only important thing at hand is that the circle of abilities, which make him an acting being, initially conclude with this. Without an ought, which knows the direction, the purposeful ability to act remains meaningless, a mere transcending into the emptiness.
Nevertheless, before turning one’s hand to the investigation on the nature of moral demands, there is still something about the character of the deed, which was not included in the above determinations. It is the law of each deed that it goes into the future; the past is not to change, all access is revoked, but also the present is, in the proper meaning of the word, not something to alter more. It is that particular which has so become; changing it meant reverting back to the past in which its conditions lay. That is prevented for humans, it goes against the law of time and of temporal happenings anyway. The deed is also a happening, and it exists in the intervening of the ongoing course of events, so it certainly exists in the changing of the conditions, but only for what is still not becoming, the future. It changes thereon nothing that the time differences are sometimes very small, so that we practically have the feeling in which intervening is still in the present. The popular concept of the present is not a strict one, we also include what has just happened and what is to come. But in reality the time difference always exists, and all deeds, indeed all doings in general, go into the future.
One can also express it as: Only the future still stands open to the intrusion of human activity. What has once become is withdrawn from it. At the moment of everything that happens there, only what has already happened can be experienced, but not the futuristic. Here, so to speak, the curtain is drawn over the knowledge, which cannot be pulled away at will; only the advancement of time and happenings draw it away, but then what we get to see is no longer the futuristic and thereby withdrawals our influence. Experience comes, but it comes for the deed too late.
What follows is that precisely that part of everything that is happening that is most relevant to us and that is only accessible to us cannot be experienced by us, precisely as long as it is still open to us. It goes without saying that all sorts of metaphysical considerations can be linked to this paradoxical relationship; the whole thing looks like the cunning setup of a deus malignus (evil deity). But here that must stay out of play. This is because what is more important is precisely the narrowly measured remainder of the accessibility of the future for knowledge.
This is because knowledge does not exist in the experienceable (Erfahrbarkeit) alone. There is also the anticipating viewpoint, even if it is only attributed to human beings. If the human were incapable of “providence” completely, he would also be incapable of the deed as well. But it is an essential part of his peculiar position in the midst of worldly events—and if you will, his godlikeness—that he has a certain measure of providence. To put it figuratively, the curtain in front of the futuristic has a narrow fissure for him, and the little he sees through the gap already is enough for him to be able to plan, dispose, consider possibilities, and take precautions.
How that happened is an epistemological question. Its solution can only become a suggestion here: it lies in the a priori moment of our knowledge. The fact that we learn through experience in life is based on the fact that we generalize what we have experienced, not the same as strict generality or natural law, mostly to a greater degree only in the sense of the more vague analogy, which can also mislead us. Every generalization and every analogy contains a moment of the a priori, it involves future cases and thereby becomes the anticipation. There is no conclusion that will be drawn here, but rather we immediately expect that similar things will happen again in some similar circumstances; we have no guarantee that the expected will occur; the indication of experience is far too incomplete for that, and the analogy too vague. Nevertheless, with increasing life experience, the generalization that follows it can increase in assurance, the view of what is still advancing can sharpen one’s wits, providence can expand. The human has about as much providence as he practically needs, through which planning can ever happen; there is no fixed limit to their expansion.
What follows from this is no small matter. Initially, new light falls on the nature of the deed. The deed is, because it can only reach into the future, anticipation of the inexperienced, but not the completely unknowable. Anyway, the deed reaches into the unknown, and no one can take responsibility for everything one causes. Purpose and liberty go only so far as providence reaches. Deed is always a hazard. And knowing about the hazard fundamentally very well, albeit he can seldom gauge how far it will have repercussions. Something about “being in the dark” always continues to stick with it.
Now, however, the situation forces the human toward the deed, and the entire life is a chain of situations. One beholding, anyway, the nature of the situation — which certainly does not say what we have to do — and with that, its anticipation and risk, and so once again the role is able to be assessed in the deeper sense, which the moral demands play in our lives.
Moral demand not only says what we should do first and foremost, but also shines a light within the darkness of uncertainty, in which what is still unhappening is blurred for us. It has, therefore, from the outset, the same a priori character, to which all knowing of the future inheres. But here this character becomes purely visible. This is because it does not tell us what will happen, but rather what should happen, and, namely, what should happen through us. That, however, stands with far-reaching independence from it there about what will happen. And with that, it also becomes previously realized (vorerkannt werden) in another pureness and certainty. In fact, it never tells us directly what we should do or allow in a specific case, but it does tell us in general and fundamental terms. It is the same with every moral command or prohibition, every imperative, every value and disvalue that we grasp, even if it is only with the feeling of right and wrong. It is always a guiding principle that we find it on there, and the otherwise opaque is always cleared up by it.
Not always, and perhaps only seldom, the individual deed falls back to our decision. There is also the once gained, and won in the struggle of overall attitude (erkaempfte Gesamthaltung) in life, from which the deed sprung. After that, the decision lies in the overall attitude, and the same circumstances apply to it, too: also within it is the moral requirement of the decisiveness, be it at the moment that we follow it or counteract.
So, all the weight falls on the demand itself, on our knowledge of it, on what the good is, on conscience, on the consciousness of value and on the feeling of value. Whoever stands with a solid moral, on which there approaches no doubt, has it the lightest; one’s life becomes obvious, straightforward, his decisions cost him less reflection, and even the amount of overcoming, which he must bring, overlooks the lifestyle and the habit. He notices the moral demands as such, barely anymore, because they have penetrated his flesh and blood.
But that cannot be generalized at will. There is also the doubt about the moral demand, being at odds with it, the resistance from the natural incentives. And then it is important that our knowledge of them be well-established. But also apart from this, there is the philosophical question that often enough pushes one: what actually is the good, and wherein do we realize it?
The philosophy has not always asked about it. Philosophy had for many centuries already thought that it knew what the good is, and then only concerned itself with its more precise version and rationale. It was Nietzsche, who roused the question of its content again — with the assertion that the human always not yet know what good and evil is. Underlying the critique of the Christian moral, the discovery, that with altruism alone it is not done, indeed that the discovery, pursued in the extreme and taken absolutely, can also become a dangerous principle. With that, all the current philosophical problems became newly shaped; and perhaps one is allowed to say that it was designed in such a general and fundamental way for the first time.
It would not at all be too difficult with its reply, if the good were a single, self-evident principle that could not become neglected on serious reflection. That this is so, actually everyone believes it, who has their sensing of values firmly rooted in a traditional moral believes. In reality, all of these morals are one-sided and far from encompassing all moral demands. The philosophy has attempted to grasp the principle of unity by other means: through a direct inner perception a priori, with skipping over all particularity and all the conflicts that beset us. This is what Plato tried to do in his “idea of the good,” and so did Kant in his “categorical imperative.” But Plato could not show in what, at the moment, the content of the good should have been; the concept remained by the empty vision of unity, about what not to say. Kant, however, consciously established a merely “formal” law, which ignored all “matter” (i.e., of the content); it is because the objection has been raised again and again that the categorical imperative does not say what we should actually do.
It is not to be asserted here that the objection is right. After all, Kant himself supplemented the content in his great “Metaphysics of Morals” by developing the variety of special moral demands. And as far as Plato is concerned, it was already Aristotle who led the retaliation here: through an empty idea a human cannot direct oneself in life, one must fill it with content, first make a “human good” out of it, and that happens in its splitting into the multiplicity of ideals of virtue. These can concretely be on the mind of people and guide them.
The development of this thought in the “Nicomachean Ethics” has become exceedingly meaningful because it itself is not enough to make do, undertaking the splitting itself, but exposing the viewpoint as well, from which it takes place. This is because Aristotle proceeds here from the same multiplicity of the situations, which also underlies the abovementioned statements. But he does not take them in their unmistakable variety — which would amount to endless casuistry — but subjects them to a very specific typology that can be easily followed in life. Every type of life situation corresponds to a form of the morally good, a “virtue,” and this only comes into consideration where the relevant situation in life is given: bravery only in the face of menace, prudence (self-control) only in the face of awakened desire, generosity only where available funds are at stake, gentleness only where there is an incentive to anger, frankness only where social intercourse is intended to pretend or encourages a pose. Each virtue has its specific area of life in which it plays, as does each of its corresponding vices. A whole system of moral requirements emerges, and each of them is rooted in a particular aspect of human life. The differentiation of the moral good, in which its content becomes tangible, depends on the differentiation of the relationships in which man lives. Or to put it in modern terms: every moral value is strictly related to the type of situation that belongs to it.
If one now names the particular circumstances of the life situation that cause such a splitting of the good, its “matter” — following Kant’s procedure and in contrast to the merely “formal” law — then one can call an ethics oriented towards it as “material” And if one takes the now tangible demands in the sense of today’s conceptual language as “moral values,” then the ethics carried out in this way assumes the character of a “material ethics of values.”
But that is where the problem really begins. It turns out that almost all existing morality that has existed in human history tends to emphasize a specific value or even a narrower group of values and to regard it as the absolute good. Value groups of this kind are, e.g., those of happiness, power, community, the individual, bravery, tolerance, loyalty, justice, charity. The first four are still groups of goods values, the latter of genuine moral values; but that does not initially make any difference here, because they can all be documented by historically positive morality that actually exists or has existed; and the other value groups always disappear behind the preferred one, are obscured, as it were, and then play no leading role in life.
All of these morals claim to be the “true morality,” the only one that should apply to everyone. However, they do not rhyme with one another. The value groups can also be combined with one another, and this also happens in the cultures of old age and greater development, but they lose strength, pale in balance. Some of them also stand in clear contrast to one another, such as that of justice with charity; Justice can be very unloving, love unjust. The same applies to bravery and tolerance, pride and humility, neighborly love and deep love (the latter understood as shared responsibility for future generations). The law applies throughout: as long as people believe in the uniqueness of a certain morality, it is in force with them, it is the dominant, “positive” morality par excellence. This is of course an error, as the mere multiplicity of morals proves, but the error is common to all positive morals, no matter how far they differ from one another in terms of content.
The error can remain unnoticed as long as people live relatively isolated from each other. But isolation has boundaries. And besides, the moral also changes in one and the same people: one changes into the other when the living conditions have changed and another type of situation has become the priority. Or it changes itself slowly considering the continuous transition of circumstances. Truly, one can speak here of a typical transition that reoccurs in many folk cultures: as long as a people is in the hard struggle for existence, the heroic courage of the one usually comes out as the highest value; the community gains strength, its inner development starts, so the value group of justice dominates with the group’s inherited civic virtues; once state and legal life is well-founded, another, usually higher, value group takes its place, something that the wisdom and abundance, education, love, or other with which the balance and, quite easily, at the same time the dissolution of the moral introduces. But of course there are other transitions as well. Solely, it is always the law of Aristotle that prevails in it: the current group of values is always that which corresponds at the time to the urgent life situation.
How else the law of transition is to be understood, remains hereby a secondary question. The only importance initially is that there is a transition in morality and that it clearly indicates a certain relativity of morality. With that, we stand before the well-known question of value relativism, which has occupied philosophical ethics in many forms since the time of the Sophists and, in our days, has disastrously sunk into the general consciousness.
It is a matter of the question: are values only valid under certain circumstances? Will they, in the end, even be devised by humanity? Are they imposed on humanity by the holders of existing power or some other authority, for example, to be able to dominate them?
It is obvious what danger already the mere question poses. It is already the doubt about the validity of what is valid. That which alone can give support and peace to human life when fleeing from never-ending situations seems to falter. It had been so in Greece before, when it was asked whether the applicable law existed “by nature” or through “statute” (Φύσει or θέσει); it stayed that way until Nietzsche, who announced that the human could write whatever values, which he wants, on his tablets in order to “hang them over himself.”
One can grasp, place limits upon and theoretically construct the relativism that results out of this here in very different ways. As in the French Enlightenment, one can only use relativism negatively to dismantle the conventional validities; one can understand it individually as the power of the one to give oneself standards as one wishes. One can can also relate it to ages and historical circumstances, and, with this, one comes nearer to the phenomenon of transition in morality. In the latter direction, Hegel went with his thoughts that all of a people brings its own principle into world history; with this, it is very accurately in agreement that ethics does not occupy an independent place in his system, but rather merges with the philosophy of law, tallying and ignoring it in the philosophy of history. One can, however, also search further for the ground of the transition in the particular historical powers. This is what Marx did by making the respective, valid “ideology” dependent on the form of society, which is dependent on the economy, and, through them, further dependent on the form of production. It is monotonous whether one calls it materialism or not. The relativism of values remains the same.
The problem also remains the same in the modern forms of thought of pragmatism and extended historicism. And even if one classifies it with general relativism of truth — because knowledge of good and evil has the form of knowing —, and so this does not change the meaning of the problem. The value relativity in question, with this, proves itself to be merely a subordinate link as concerning a much farther-reaching relativization of all consciousness of being and consciousness of the world.
All this clearly amounts to the dissolution of all existing morality, and so to the collapse of everything that is able to give support, direction and guidance in life. The big question, however, remains whether the dissolution is right, whether it is true that the moral demands are exposed to this uncertainty — or, spoken formulaically, that the values themselves are relativized.
What actually makes the moral values so questionable? Other principles of the same general validity and the same absolute claim of validity are definitely not. One thinks of the laws of nature, of categories — in which there is certainly an altercation about whether we correctly grasp them in our conceptions or scientific judgments as they are, but not about whether they themselves prevail in the real world, transform or even would be relative to our setting or positing (Setzung).
It is two things which distinguish the position of values from the ones of the principles of being: there is no confirmation out of experience, and they express an ought. The first means that we must conceive it quite independently from all given experience and in a certain opposition to it; we must know what is worthy and what is worthless in order to appreciate the value or disvalue of human deeds because the deeds themselves say nothing about it. That is why we cannot experience it from them. This has been named the absolute apriorism of the values. But there is no criterion for such. That is why the human is exposed to doubt.
The second moment, however, is really the grave one: the values are for us questionable there because they place demands on us. They set themselves in opposition to the demands, that which is or that happened, and require that it be different and happen differently. They require from us that we be different than we are and act differently than we are inclined to act. That is precisely the meaning of norms, commandments, imperatives: they want something from us, they demand, they command and prohibit, they raise a request from authority. Certainly this corresponds very accurately to the role they are called to play in life, the role of guiding principles and management principles. One can also very well realize that it does not work entirely without them. However, the individual value, the individual demand, which only urges or denies something specific, is thereby not yet justified. One can also always think of it as being replaced by another.
So, one can also question: with which right do moral values raise their directed demands at us? Does the human not rather have an entitlement to self-determination? This could certainly have been sufficient with our freedom to follow or to deny the demand. However, is there not also a justified entitlement for humanity to choose the demand itself?
Or is it the other way around: do moral demands also have the power to enforce themselves in the real world? Do they also dwell within the power to watch over their fulfillment and to enforce them if necessary, so to provide authority themselves?
Obviously, that is not the case. They do not have this power. Entirely to the contrary. No experience is the more common experience than the violation of the commands. And even their “dominating” or “being in power” means something nowhere near what their recognized “validity” is in a human community, that they also would actually be followed in the actions. Its applying does not at all even remove the freedom of the will, it does not force the humans; one can always act opposingly, and one does it constantly without meeting the immediate revenge.
There is a greater distance between the commandments and the fulfillment of the commandments. One believes all too easily that only those who can give emphasis to the command can command. Of course, the humanly holders of power do well not to demand more than what they have the power to enforce, but in itself the powerless commandment is very much a possibility; in the relationship with rights, it is exactly for this reason that the constant concern of the existing power is to provide force to the commandment.
The moral values, purely as such, are far away from having such power. They are only ideal powers, not real ones, and their demands on humanity are ideal demands. They indeed command, but they are, however, powerless to determine the real will of the human, on their own accords. Kant expressed it in this way: the will is not subordinated to them as it is under the laws of nature. These dominate unchecked, things follow them steadfastly. These moral commands are not steadfastly followed by the human. He has the freedom against them, to follow them or not. They are, therefore, weaker than natural laws. They prudently indicate toward the direction of higher determination, but they truly do not guarantee this direction in the human behavior. If they did that, the human could not do anything other than fulfill them, one would be in one’s own way a complete or perfect being (vollkommenes Wesen). But the perfection or completeness would be equal to that of the animals, whose laws of direction operate in their instincts. If he had no freedom, he would therefore also not be a moral being (sittliches Wesen), and his perfection would not be “moral” perfection („sittliche“ Vollkommenheit).
All of this is included in the simple-sounding sentence that moral principles are merely commandments (demands) that can also become trespasses. However, the sentence is also thereby not yet exhausted: the powerlessness of values has a reverse side, revealing the nature of humanity, insofar as its demand turns him. This is because now the human being stands out as the one who has the power to materialize and achieve the demand (die Forderung zu Verwirklichen). And if human freedom has just shown its negative side, as the power of rejection and contravention, it now shows its positive and real face — as the power to fulfill demands and to materialize values.
Straightaway, the powerless of the values raises the human to its position of power, indeed to one’s significance in the real world, and, so to say, to one’s unique dignity and creative role in it. The values are dependent on him as the materializer, instructed from what they demand. They do not determine directly like laws, but rather, if at all, only mediated through his will. If one wants to give this a larger and metaphysically fuller expression, then one must say: because values are not real powers of their own accords, they can only determinedly interfere in the real world if a real standing power in them captures their demands and brings them into operation. One such power must be that of a being, which possesses the clairaudience for its calling, and, apart from that, the abovementioned faculties of providence and predestination (purposive action), which the activity and freedom has.
Only the human is such a being. The human has the role of mediator between the ideal realm of values and the harshness of the real, which characterizes worldly happenings and human lives. He can carry the ideal demands into the world and, within his range of limits, reshape what is becoming (das Gewordene umgestalten). He is called upon to be a co-creator of the world. Without his assistance, it remains unfinished at its highest layer. Upon the creative element in him turns the demand to complete it.
Whether these words are too great for such a common matter as the relationship between commandment and freedom, one may have a different opinion. Over the magnitude of the matter, about how it goes, will bring no argument from anyone who has captured its sense. There is no problem that addresses people more urgently and whose emanations reach further into actual life. Whoever understands one’s own nature, the mere being of humanity, to want to make sense of one’s own life, will always assess this problem and must search to resolve it.
However, regarding the wonderful flipside, which shows the powerlessness of values in human nature, one is disallowed to forget one’s own double sidedness. Because this powerlessness is what makes the values themselves so questionable: the values raise the highest claim, assert an absolute right of determination (absolutes Bestimmungsrecht), but do not have the strength to enforce themselves. They become, in this way, the real with the determination, to which their demand is directed, dependent on the human — namely in the literal sense of his “good will.” This is because thereafter it depends at the moment on everything whether this itself applies or not to one.
It is unsurprising that the same powerlessness of values, which gives the human so much power and significance also seduces him to refute their authority. And the human succumbs to seduction, he mistakes real effect with ideal (timeless) existence; he thinks at the moment that what cannot enforce itself has no claim to validity. And so he declares the ideal demands to be relative — to him, the human being itself. But then there are no longer any limit to their resolution. He is concerned thereby with keeping them for his work, which he can also destroy, overturn, reshape or replace through something else.
But naturally he also recognizes the inherent danger in such an overthrow. Somewhere deep down there is an eternal requirement for support, for guidance in life, or for something in general about which one can believe. The tendency towards a solution evokes the counter-tendency to set the moral demands upright again, their firmness, to secure authority, if possible to embed them in something absolute. The traditional belief that they are the commandments of the deity does not approach this; it gives preference that the real power appears to be given with it, which at the moment watches over the commandments also to become “upheld.” With this, then, the obnoxious powerlessness of the values would be removed.
As long as the happy belief is granted, all strife and all doubts rest. One day, however, it falters itself. This cannot be avoided in the duration, because even the power of God in the world (as one understands it) proves to be limited: those alive are witnesses of how time and again the wicked triumph, the righteous suffer, as the ungratefulness or the self-interestedness dominates. From the guardianship of a higher power over the fulfillment of the commandments is nothing to be seen. Metaphysics seeks to steer this doubt, seeks to “justify God”; the crumbling away of the confidence cannot stop it. The human is let down again. There he, however, cannot live without aiming points, direction and guidance, he looks around for another entrenchment.
He finds it in the withdrawal to his own human nature. As long as one understands this as the pure subjectivity of the individual, nothing but arbitrariness could be found in it. But is the human not still something completely different? Is there not a deeper “nature of humanity” in which everything that lies in his “determination” is also predetermined?
When that applies, there must also be a reflection on this “being.” And then the thought immediately suggests itself that even those moral demands, which the human already has acknowledged — albeit as always one-sided and in a changeable range of selection (in schwankender Auswahl) — are anchored in his own inner being, and the human has only erroneously, with misjudgment about his own nature, sought them outside himself. The astonishing thing comes to light: the authority, against which one rebelled, as if it were one imposed on him, was he himself.
In several ways and by a circuitous route, this thought brings itself through. In the Kantian philosophy, the matured thought enters in the consciousness. There it is, itself in the moment, as the discovery of the autonomy of the human insofar as one is a “reasonable being.” This is because the reason is only one in all individuals, and the reason is “autonomous” both against the arbitrariness of all the particular goals and purposes as well as against the natural being and its tendencies in the human. The important thing here is that it is still always a question of those same moral demands, which, though scattered in the multitude of morals, always return and apply themselves wherever and however the situations of life emerge, in which they become paramount. The formula of the “categorical imperative” is disallowed to deceive regarding this, also even if it names none of them. Straightaway, the imperative in particular appears with the claim to encompass them all.
The critique of practical reason places itself as giving the discovery that for the moral there is no authority at all and no anchoring required in an external power, because it is much more the human itself who raises the moral demands. They are their own legislation (autonomy) of reason in us. The discovery is, therefore, basically a rediscovery of what is unique to us, which we had sought wrongly in external powers because we misjudged its nature. In this sense, Kant, for the Enlightenment as far as he was involved, gave a very positive and ideal interpretation: it had it in mind the human as a finding-of-oneself-again (ein Sich-Wiederfinden des Menschen), or as the “exit from one’s self-inflicted immaturity” („Ausgang aus seiner selbstverschuldeten Unmuendigkeit“). This is because even the human becomes mature, when he sheds the external authority and reflects on his self-determination himself.
It is now the matter of viewing the entirety newly again to grasp it. This is because the problem of the moral demands with this is not yet solved. Its validity is still excluded from the array of phenomena, which the relativism constitutes. With this, one cannot come to grips with the autonomy of reason alone. The reason itself seems instead to be split within itself or even to be inconstant. The analysis of the deed has, meanwhile, shown that the situation does not tell the human “how” he should act; his nature also does not tell him. The moral demand is straightforward, which the human required. Therefore, it could also come from outside. But it does not come from outside, the external instances have all failed. So, it must come from within, regardless of whether it is entrenched at the moment in a “fact of reason” or not.
From that, one must now be able to convince oneself of this. And there is a very good way to convince yourself of that.
¹ The metaphysical problem of how freedom is possible will not be dealt with here. I refer to the works “Ethics” (1949) from chapters 65-83 and “The Structure of the Real World” (1950) chapters 60-61. (Note: this comes from the footnote of Section II of the above essay)