Beyond Justice by Agnes Heller (1987)
As I have repeatedly argued, a just procedure is the condition of the good life – of all possible good lives – but it is not sufficient for the good life. Justice is the skeleton: the good life is the flesh and blood. The ‘good life’ consists of three elements: first, righteousness; secondly, the development of endowments into talents and the exercise of those talents; and, thirdly, emotional depth in personal attachments. Among these three elements, righteousness is the overarching one. All three elements of the good life are beyond justice. Neither the maxim of justice (the formal concept of justice) nor the universal maxim of dynamic justice applies to them in full, if at all.
All three issues to be discussed in this final chapter have a somewhat anachronistic flavour to them. The manner in which they will be discussed may be regarded by many as utterly outmoded. I must therefore state at the outset that I am taking this course quite deliberately. I apply the method that I recommended in the previous chapter, and have termed the ‘Cartesian moment’. When confronted with a cultural consensus, one must first presume that the consensus is false, and go through the problems once again before either giving consent or restating dissent. In what follows I shall talk in a positive vein about the self, morality, ethics, emotions, creativity and reason. Is this anachronistic? I hope not. Together with several others, I am swimming against the tide. Let us hope that the tide will turn.
In the previous chapter I made a case for an incomplete ethico-political concept of justice. I discussed both the socio-political and the ethical aspects, in separation as well as in their relationship of interdependence. The subject, the bearer of the ethical component, was identified as the ‘good citizen’ practising the ‘citizen’s virtue’. But I added that, although not everyone need be a ‘good person’, in order to make the model workable, some must be. The universal values to be actualized were identified as the values of freedom and life. However, I added that the actualization of these values is the indispensable and yet insufficient condition of the good life. The subject of the good life is the good (righteous) person.
The key concept here is the ‘righteous person’. To discuss this concept we must leave behind all social utopias, and turn to the most general problems of moral philosophy. Even so, no detailed elaboration of a moral philosophy is intended here. The objective of this section is far more modest: not the landscape, just a sketch, and in addition one in need of correction. It is a first attempt, far from completion. But the canvas cannot be left empty.
Morals comprise those human bonds which have been internalized. This proposition is not meant as a definition. In fact, the opposite applies. If all internalized human bonds are moral, or at least include a moral element simply by being internalized, then the concept ‘morals’ escapes all sensible definition. It is possible to define the various constituents of morals (norms, virtues, ideas, principles), but in so doing one does not define morals. Instead, one has given preference to one moral attitude as against another. It is also possible to distinguish between human bonds which in principle escape internalization, and all the bonds which are internalized and thus have a moral component.
If morals are the internalized bonds between humans, if social integration occurs via internalization, and all forms of social integration thus have a moral component, morals do not constitute a sphere. On the contrary, every social sphere is moral to the extent that the practices it includes require internalization. The greater the degree of internalization, and the more intensive the internalization that such practices require, the more manifest is the moral aspect. If we think in very abstract terms and disregard historical peculiarities, we can roughly state that, if a sphere becomes increasingly differentiated from all other spheres, one of two contrasting developments might occur: either the moral component becomes much larger, or it is substantially weakened. In modernity, the tendency of the latter to occur is easily observable. 
The theory of a ‘moral sphere’ has been invented against the ,marginalization’ of morals. Despite my sympathy for this motive, I consider the theory false. It is based on the tacit presupposition that the very existence of ideal objectivations indicates the presence of a sphere. Abstract norms, terms of virtue, are indeed ideal obj ectiva~ tions, but they do not and cannot constitute a sphere. Let me express this in very simple terms. In writing a philosophical treatise, we enter into a specific sphere (the objectivation, ‘philosophy’ is one of the sub-spheres of the sphere ‘objectivation-for-itself'). We observe the norms and rules of that sphere and thus perform a philosophical activity: we ‘do philosophy’. However, in observing norms or being virtuous we do not ‘do morals'; we engage in other things, such as politics, work, love, or even philosophy. Nor do we ‘do morals’ in acting courageously, but act under the guidance of the virtue ‘courage’ (an ideal objectivation), as for instance in war; in a social institution, when we give our opinion against overwhelming odds; and when we rescue people from fire, and the like. We can be guided by the same norms in different spheres and, incidentally, by specific norms in one or another sphere. If I understand him correctly, Habermas needed the construct of the ‘moral sphere’ in order to determine this sphere, in the spirit of his theory, as practical discourse. The solution is ingenious and seems to overrule my most serious objections to positing a ‘moral sphere': we can ‘do practical discourse’. If ‘doing practical discourse’ is equivalent to ‘doing morals’, then we can ‘do morals’. In ‘doing practical discourse’ we suspend, at least in principle, all other activities; thus we do nothing else. But the question remains: why do we enter into practical discourse? And what is the intended result of such a discourse? We enter into such a discourse because certain of our values have become shaky, certain of our norms problematic. The goal of a discourse is to establish consensually new norms and rules. Thus practical discourse is the procedure via which ideal objectivations are rationally constructed and substituted for previous, problematic ideal objectivations. However, the different ideal objectivations themselves do not constitute a sphere, even if they have derived from practical discourse. They guide us n actions or practices in one or another sphere, or in all of them. Practical discourse constitutes norms and rules for something other than discourse – namely, for action. Practical discourse is ‘doing morals’ in a sense completely different from that in which theoretical discourse about philosophical matters is ‘doing philosophy’.
To this point it appears that I have accepted Habermas’s view that moral norms are constituted by practical discourse, or at least that they should be constituted by such discourse. However, this is not my view. In chapter 5 I gave reasons for recommending that sociopolitical norms and rules alone should be legitimized via practical discourse. If the reader accepts my proposal, the entire edifice of the ,moral sphere’, even its most sophisticated version, collapses. Practical discourse conducted consensually to establish sociopolitical norms and rules cannot be described as ‘doing morals’. Such a discourse is political and social (socio-political activity), although this socio-political activity has a moral aspect (implication): the rules of discourse should be observed, and ‘observing the rules of discourse’ is a process that should be internalized as Sittlichkeit (moral custom).
This brief criticism of the ‘theory of the moral sphere’ opens the way to broader considerations. If moral philosophy concentrates on the problem of constituting norms, almost all the vital questions of ethics will be neglected: questions such as the moral content of actions, virtues, and moral character. Of course, we can leave this approach behind and fall back upon hackneyed attempts. Instead of taking as our point of departure the constitution of ‘good norms’ we can choose as a starting-point primary motivations such as attraction/repulsion, sympathy, self-preservation, and so on. We can also try to deduce morals from reason, interests, and the like. But, whatever explanatory or evaluative principle we choose, it will be impossible to deduce all moral phenomena from this principle. Such an attempt can be given away altogether, or moral phenomena can be distorted by putting the same straitjacket on all of them. Or – and this is by far the most attractive solution – one can complement the main principle with secondary principles (as Kant did). The gist of the matter is that, since morals is not a sphere, no homogeneous medium of morals exists or can be theoretically constituted. Each and every time we attempt to construct a homogeneous medium of morals by deducing moral phenomena from one principle (or one main principle), the complex and multifarious nature of moral-related phenomena escapes our grasp.
Although only spheres or sub-spheres are characterized by a homogeneous medium, one sphere stands out for its heterogeneity: this is the sphere of ‘objectivation-in-itself’, the primary social sphere, the fundamental sphere of everyday life.’ There does not exist and cannot exist any single principle which can homogenize this sphere, nor can any theoretical principle be constituted to perform this task. However, all heterogeneous activities guided by this objectivation can still be connected by a shared meaning. These activities remain heterogeneous. They cannot be deduced from one another, and are not even directly related to one another, but together they constitute a ‘meaning’ called ‘way of life’. Let us briefly imagine a society with a single sphere of objectivation, the sphere of ‘objectivation-in-itself’. Activities having a moral component can be related only to this sphere. So how could we gain access to all the heterogeneous elements of the ‘moral bond'? By examining the way of life itself. This procedure is not so perplexing as it appears: every practising anthropologist does precisely this. Let us now imagine a more complex model containing many spheres: the sphere of ‘objectivation-in-itself’, various socio-political institutions, and the sphere of ‘objectivation-for-itself’, which in turn contains a number of differentiated sub-spheres. Clearly, there are many possible ways of life in such a complex model, and some form of meaning is borne by every one of them. However, within this framework certain ways of life are considered exemplary compared to others. This is because it is assumed, first, that people engaging in one of these ways of life have internalized to the maximum degree the human bond and act accordingly; and, secondly, that these people have accorded the highest possible level of meaning to their lives. The homogenization of the most heterogeneous moral principles, norms, activities, attitudes and feelings is performed within the way of life of the good person. Accordingly, the category ‘the good life’ should not be deduced from one or another principle or idea of morality, nor should it be conjectured from one or another specific human motivation. The image of the good life is the absolute starting-point of moral philosophy, and in fact of all moral philosophies, with the exception of utilitarianism. Moral philosophers formulate a concept of the good life prior to embarking on the quest for principles and motivations. For Plato and Aristotle this was self-evident, as they were able to rely on a preliminary consensus on the hierarchy of values. Although at this time a measure of pluralism had already emerged, it was still possible to distinguish in a reflective manner the good or the better way of life from the bad or the undesirable way of life through reinterpreting the traditional hierarchy of values. In modern philosophy similar efforts become problematic. Why this particular way of life and not another is the ‘good’ one is a question simply unanswerable by reinterpreting traditional values in the spirit of their traditional hierarchy. Philosophers thus perform a handstand: they construct ‘first principles’ or ‘natural’ and ‘elementary’ motivations in order to conjure up the very good life they have already presupposed (quod erat demonstrandum, to speak with Spinoza). The future-directed attitude of modernity had to be curtailed in order to return, via a ‘historical detour’, to the ancient method. This is why Hegel’s moral philosophy is a disappointment.
Briefly, the problem to be faced is as follows. The traditional starting-point of moral philosophy is the good life of the righteous person. The different (and in relation to each other quite heterogeneous) components of morality are homogenized only in the good life of righteous persons. But, if different ways of life compete with each other, and one must be chosen from among several (the problem discussed by Weber), the traditional starting-point of moral philosophy becomes inaccessible, at least for those who treat the problem with all seriousness. To deduce one form of life as the ,good’ from first principles of ‘primary motivations’ is to avoid the problem rather than face it.
What is called the ‘formalism’ of Kant can be viewed and appreciated from this approach. Like the ancient thinkers, Kant made no secret of the fact that he ascended to the formulation of his moral principles and ideas from the image of the righteous person. The righteous person was for him the man of good will. The existence of the righteous person is first noted, and only then is the. question raised: how is the righteous person possible? The element of formalism appears in the image of the righteous person. All concrete constituents of the good life are absent. Since righteousness is defined by the good will, everything else is left undetermined. Thus the starting-point of moral philosophy is not a form of the good life but righteousness as the static and constant precondition of all possible good lives. And righteousness itself is not the sum total of virtues. If it were, we should already have a concrete image of the good life in the back of our minds, which we should not. If the good person is the person who wills the good, the concrete quality of the good can be left undetermined.
So far I have only referred to the starting-point of the Kantian moral philosophy, and this is as far as I intend to go. In the course of argumentation in The Metaphysics of Morals the good life is made fairly tangible, despite all formalism. However, Kant is no longer relevant to our inquiry at this point. Following his path, but not all his solutions, I offer the following recommendation for a moral philosophy. I shall start at the only point possible: the good life of the righteous person. Let us assume that we cannot say, and should not say, anything about the concrete properties of the good life. This follows from the conclusions of chapter 5. The incomplete ethico-political concept of justice relinquishes the intention of designing a model of the good life. It has been assumed all along that several forms of the good life exist, and that they are equally good. Thus a moral philosophy conceived within the framework of an incomplete ethico-political concept of justice should not comment on the concrete properties of the good life. It can even be stated that we cannot say anything about these properties, because we already live in a pluralistic cultural universe. Moreover, it is not the concern of moral philosophy to ask whether the good life as a total way of life is socially possible for everyone, for a number of people, or is possible at all. This question has already been raised and answered by the incomplete ethico-political concept of justice. As this concept deals with the examination of the socio-political conditions of the good life, moral philosophy must deal with the examination of the moral condition of the good life. And the moral condition of the good life is righteousness. Embarking on moral philosophy means accepting the fundamental tenet of all moral philosophies: that no good life exists without righteousness, and that only righteous people can live the good life. However, one is not at the same time compelled to accept the fundamental tenet of some moral philosophies that being righteous means living the good life. Rather, we define the ‘good life’ as the coalescence of the moral and the ,natural’ good, and associate it (sometimes vaguely) with the notion of ‘happiness’.
Thus the starting-point of my moral philosophy is not the good life, but the moral condition of the good life: righteousness. But, if we wish to abstract from all concrete elements of one or another good life, then ‘righteousness’ cannot be defined, following Aristotle, as the ‘sum total of virtues’. Our definition must be abstract enough to encompass all righteous persons regardless of their way of life. The Kantian ‘good will’ appears to lend itself to such an abstract definition, but does not actually do so, and this is not because of its formalism but because it excludes Sittlichkeit (moral custom) and action itself from the fundamental ‘Image’ of the righteous person. I believe that here it is best to return from Kant to the Platonian definition: that the righteous person is the person who prefers suffering injustice (being wronged) to committing injustice (doing wrong), where ‘committing injustice’ means infringing moral norms in direct relation to other people.
This definition of ‘righteousness’ I believe sufficiently abstract. The fact that a person prefers suffering wrong to committing it says nothing about this person’s way of life. Just what is considered right or wrong has been left undecided. The empirical motivation, too, is left undecided. Also, the definition is not maximalist in nature. The requirement is not that you should do good to everyone, but that you should not wrong anyone. Nor is it required that you should continuously suffer wrong (in other words, martyrdom and self-sacrifice are not mandatory), only that you should suffer wrong if the only alternative is to commit wrong. Finally – and this follows from what has been said before – the definition of righteousness is equally valid in societies with very few norms and regulations and in societies with very dense normative systems. References to the present as well as to the utopia of symmetric reciprocity can illustrate the viability of this definition. Owing to the preponderance of functionalist rules, in contemporary institutions moral decisions proper are infrequent. But, when such decisions (or choices) do take place, ‘basic righteousness’ still concerns suffering or committing wrong, and we still pass judgements along these lines. In the utopia of symmetric reciprocity there is room for people who do not enter any other social relationships but ‘civic ones’. In such cases, practising ‘civic virtues’ is tantamount to righteousness, because whoever does this does not wrong anyone. Of course, within ways of life having dense normative structures and multifarious human relationships, being righteous is more demanding.
Plato presented a particular definition of righteousness. He also attempted to prove in a rational manner the thesis ‘It is better to suffer injustice than to commit it’, and failed. Subsequently, several others have tried to do the same, and have also failed. In chapter 2 I discussed the hopelessness of this venture. Righteous people are in no need of proof precisely because they are righteous; for these people it is beyond doubt that suffering injustice is better than committing it. However, wicked people can rationally prove (as is shown in Plato’s dialogues) that it is better to commit injustice than suffer it. But they are in no need of proof either, precisely because they are wicked. For these people it is beyond doubt that committing injustice is better than suffering it. Usually, people are neither righteous nor wicked. Hence the righteous person is able to convince people in a rational manner that it is better to suffer wrong than to commit it, and the wicked person can, in an equally rational manner, convince people of the exact opposite.
It is possible to prove that it would be good for everyone if everyone were good, but not that it is good for everyone to be good. One cannot even enjoin a particular person to be good by referring to the assumption ‘it would be good for everyone if everyone were good.’ Accordingly, I recommend the discarding of this approach altogether, and the adoption of another – namely, the Kantian.
It is clear that Kant, when speaking of his ‘man of good will’, does not even bother to prove that it is better to be guided by good will than not to be, where ‘better’ relates to the material good. He simply points to the ‘man of good will’, to the subject worthy of supreme respect. Good will shines as a jewel. The jewel shines, therefore the jewel is visible. Righteous people do exist, and we know this because we see them. In these steps I have substituted the Platonian definition of righteousness for the Kantian. For this reason, we can take as our point of departure the fact that there are people who prefer suffering wrong to committing it. Whether such people are few or many Is Irrelevant. Yet, wherever morals exist, and as long as they exist, there will always be people who prefer to suffer wrong rather than commit it. No matter where we look, we shall always find righteous people. They exist.
I would formulate the basic question of moral philosophy as follows: righteous persons exist, how are they possible?
If we begin our inquiry with the Platonian definition of the righteous person, we gain the following theoretical advantages:
a We begin with the idea of the ‘good life’, but we can leave the concrete patterns of the good life undetermined, for we are concerned exclusively with the moral conditions of this good life.
b The concept of righteousness is abstract enough to leave both the content and density of moral norms undetermined.
c The question ‘How are righteous persons possible?’ can be answered by reflecting upon all the facets and elements of morals, for only in their entirety do they make the righteous person possible. There is no longer any need to connect systematically these facets and elements of the moral life, nor is there any need to deduce all of them from one or a number of principles or motivations. The actions, attitudes and motives of the righteous person comprise the juncture at which all these facets and elements meet and eventually coalesce. This coalescence occurs via the homogenization of all these components in and through the righteous character.
Righteous persons are possible because they exist. What makes them possible?
1 Good moral sense.
2 The existence of norms, provided that:
i these norms are conveyed by the society (group) of which the person is a member;
ii the three components of normative regulation (concrete norms, abstract norms, and values) have already been differentiated;
iii certain norms or values are (or at least one of them is) consensually validated.
3 Relative autonomy of the individual, in so far as:
i he or she can reinterpret the content of norms, can reject some, accept others, prefer one value to another (can say both ‘yes’ and ‘no');
ii his or her deliberations concern not only the ‘how’ but also the ‘what’ of the action;
iii there is a choice, if only occasional, between suffering and committing wrong in the person’s world.
4 Self-consciousness, in so far as: i the regulation of conscience (internal authority) complements the regulation of shame (external authority); ii there is an awareness that my action brings about something in the world; in there is personal responsibility (and the sense of this responsibility); iv there is self-reflection (the possibility of knowing the self).
5 Ethical discourse (on an everyday level and beyond), in so far as ethical choices and decisions can be problematized, criticized and credited.
6 A relative stability of the normative universe. At least some norms should be continuously valid (throughout the life of a generation).
7 A relative stability of the social universe. Certain consequences of actions must be foreseeable.
8 Good judgement in general, and phronesis in particular (both as primary and secondary judgement).
9 At least a minimum of rationality of intellect up to a maximum of rationality of intellect in order that: i commitment can be partially (not completely) guided by rational insight; ii the non-moral properties of the subject (viewed by the subject as ‘nature') can also be shaped (though not exclusively) by rational insight.
10 Goodwill as the desire to be good transformed by the actor into the cause of his or her actions.
11 The possibility of neutralizing (and not only channelling) wrong or accidentally irrational Impulses.
12 The possibility of transforming endowments into ‘virtuous faculties’ (as Lessi rig put it).
13 Rectification. Although all actions are irreversible, the majority of our actions must not be such that the moral component is irreversible.
The conditions which make righteous persons possible are in part objective, in part subjective. Some of these conditions are coextensive, certain others are not. Since righteousness is relative to social expectations, it is not necessary for every condition to be met for persons to be righteous. But the idea of the righteous person in modernity presupposes that all the above-enumerated conditions are met.
To sum up all these conditions of righteousness in one phrase, a person can be righteous if he/she has a conscious and self-conscious relationship to the norms and values of the community (society) of which he/she is a member, and if his/her actions are continuously and consistently guided by this relationship. Following Hegel, we can term the norms and values to which this person has a conscious relationship Sittlichkeit (moral custom), and the conscious relationship itself morality. Morality is the autonomous aspect, whereas Sittlichkeit relativizes autonomy (a situation where at least one socially and intersubjectively valid norm or value must be taken for granted, at least one value or norm must be accepted as a representation of ‘external’ authority). The states of absolute autonomy and of no autonomy at all are to an equal degree negative utopias. If, generally speaking, morality is the internalization of human bonds, then the rejection of all human bonds as a project (and only in the capacity of a project, for we simply cannot shed all human bonds) cannot be anything other than immoral. What we can legitimately call ‘moral autonomy’ is not the autonomy of the subject, not even that of our pure practical reason (a mere philosophical construct), but the way of life of righteous persons. The ‘good person’ has achieved the maximum degree of moral autonomy, not because this person is completely autonomous, which can never be, but because his or her moral character does not yield to social constraint.
The Platonian definition of righteousness is almost as abstract as the Kantian. It has, however, the advantage of being ‘minimalist’. Righteousness is defined as the forbearance of an act (a wrong), and not as doing good. Of course, if we do not wrong anyone, we have performed the ‘good’ in a negative sense, but not yet in a positive sense. But when I stated above that ‘righteous persons exist’, I had in mind not only those people who never deliberately wrong anyone, but also people who perform good in a positive sense, who do good even through refraining from doing so is not tantamount to doing wrong. (For example, people who volunteer to help others would ,not wrong those others if they did not decide to volunteer.) ‘Generosity, a readiness for self-sacrifice or to alleviate suffering for which one is not responsible – these and many other things of a similar nature pertain to a form of righteousness which involves more than the concept of righteousness defined by Plato. As I have repeated several times, people can be righteous to a greater or lesser degree. But everyone who suffers rather than commits wrong is righteous, even if not to the same extent. Supererogatory goodness is not the condition of righteousness. This is precisely why we can speak of ‘supererogation’ at all. In what follows, I shall term righteousness that is not of a supererogatory nature ‘honesty’, and the righteous person who suffers rather than commits wrong the ‘honest’ or ‘good’ person. The person of supererogatory goodness is always an honest person, but not all honest persons display supererogatory goodness. Those who exhibit the most sublime supererogatory goodness I shall term ‘transculturally good persons’, for this kind of goodness transcends all concrete and particular cultural determinations. Honest people are sometimes able to show supererogatory goodness, sometimes not. There is no fixed dividing-line between ‘honest’ and ‘transculturally good’ people. This is especially so considering that, if a person chooses to observe moral norms of a highly demanding type, he or she must stand by this commitment, and consequently must be exceptionally good in order to remain honest. At any rate, unless I indicate otherwise, when I refer in what follows to the ‘righteous person’ I have the ‘honest person’ in mind, and vice versa.
I have not made any attempt to prove that it is better to be righteous than not to be righteous. Instead, what I have tried to make a case for is the view that the righteous person has the highest degree of moral autonomy. However, it would be foolish to assume that everyone wants to be morally autonomous, even if this were possible. On the other hand, there are forms of relative autonomy other than the moral one (such as wielding great power). Of course, philosophers can prove that this kind of autonomy is ‘not the real one’. Persons of great power, fame or wealth are still subject to vicissitudes for instance, the hand of fate. Yet, because relative autonomy is ‘borrowed’ in such cases, it does not dwell in the self, and can be lost. Other philosophers point to the moment of ‘reckoning': faced with death, those who are ‘merely’ powerful or wealthy stand to lose everything, whereas the righteous can rely steadfastly on their goodness.
In fact, all these arguments are shaky, and can in practice backfire. Indeed, viewed from one particularly crucial aspect. righteousness cannot be lost, for we do not lose our readiness to suffer wrong rather than commit it. But, again, we can in a sense lose our righteousness without really losing it (as the readiness to suffer rather than commit wrong), especially amidst great tribulations, when our sense of proportion is disturbed, when our preliminary knowledge and practice proves insufficient to tell wrong from right. This has occurred more frequently in modern times than ever before. There is an unmistakable element of ‘good luck’ in making good our own righteousness throughout our entire life. Moreover, wealth, power and rank were considered ‘virtues’ in every pre-modern society, and have increasingly been considered ‘meritorious’ in modern times. A person who has attained great power, wealth or fame can, in dying, look back with satisfaction on the achievements of his or her life. Not even the argument that such people are controlled by external factors can be used here: the term self-made man’ tells the whole story. Achievement is self-made, success is self-made, and greatness can be as well, and each of these things may have little moral content, or none. And, as far as the Grim Reaper is concerned, and given that faith in the hereafter has largely disappeared, there is no evidence to suggest that the righteous will necessarily find peace in their final hour, and that the man of wealth, fame or power will be tormented by guilt. Rather, one could say that, if by some miracle humankind were granted immortality on earth, most people would prefer to suffer injustice rather than commit it, for there would be nothing to lose. One can be righteous precisely because one has something to lose in gaining something else. If there were nothing to lose, nothing could be gained either. But losing something means losing something, and what the righteous stand to lose is not a trifling thing. Thus people who choose what the righteous lose for the sake of their righteousness do not choose a trifling thing. The non-righteous prefer committing injustice in order not to suffer wrong.
Within the Jewish-Christian tradition, ‘suffering wrong’ has occasionally been elevated to a position of sublime distinction. However, the Platonian notion of righteousness has nothing whatsoever to do with this tradition. There is nothing sublime in suffering wrong. On the contrary, it is bad to suffer wrong, and we do not become righteous by virtue of so suffering. If we have no choice but to suffer wrong, we simply become miserable. And we can indeed both suffer and commit wrong, at which point we are non-righteous, even though we do suffer this wrong. In fact, we should not suffer wrong. No one should. We should not suffer wrong if we can do anything to prevent it, and we can do something to prevent it whenever we are not facing the choice of either suffering it or committing it. This is the choice we make, not the choice of suffering wrong.
I return to the basic question: righteous persons exist, but how are they possible? It is now appropriate further to concretize this question. Hence I ask: righteous persons exist today, but how are they possible today? Since this question can only be answered by a complete moral philosophy, discussion will be restricted to analysing certain new issues which have arisen in the latest period of Western modern development. Also, these issues will be raised solely from the viewpoint, and within the framework, of the incomplete ethico-political concept of justice. Put succinctly, the reference point of analysts is Time One (any Time One). This approach is determined by the objective of this book. I want to distinguish the good person (the righteous person) from the good citizen, the best possible moral world from the best possible socio-political world, the good life from just procedure. Since Time One is already here, I can refer solely to conditions (of righteousness) which are here. The analysis will be rooted in the absolute present. However, the method of both selecting and solving problems has the hallmark of a theoretical position which has crystallized around a social and evaluative position.
We live in a complex of pre-modern and modern normative patterns (modern to varying degrees). None the less, the trend towards a high degree of differentiation of moral norms, values and virtues is unmistakable. There is nothing novel in the differentiation itself, only in its extremity, owing to which the three constituents of normativity have completely separated. This means that the interplay among the three constituents is not socially reproduced as ‘taken for granted’. However, there is no morality at all without such a pattern of interplay. Thus groups of people must construct and reconstruct such an interplay again and again. We live in a pluralistic normative universe not because of a lack in shared norms, but because of a lack of shared interplay between norms, values and virtues. Let us take a final look on the ‘ancient situation’. The ‘city’ was at that time the supreme shared cultural value. The interplay between the ‘good’ of the city, moral norms and moral and cognitive virtues was shared and transparent. The interpretation was subject to change, but not the ‘Interplay’. Today this is no longer the case.
Indeed, values, virtues and norms are different elements of our normative universe. Values are social-material goods (Güterwerte), and are always utterly concrete. Even generalized or universalized values are ‘constructed’ from the building-blocks of concrete goods, or, alternatively, are analysed by referring to all the concrete goods of which they consist. This is exactly the procedure of the interpretation of universal values. But, the more generalized and universalized certain values become, the less consistent is their interpretation. There is no continuous relation established between concrete goods (values) and general and universal goods, and all concrete goods (values) split apart when considered separately as ‘goods’ (values), or as values for some persons and negative values (Unwerte) for others. Thus the supreme goods (values), life and freedom, exist in limbo, and do not provide any consensual hierarchy among values, not even a relative hierarchy. The assertion that social-material goods (values) are concrete means that they are active values in their concreteness. They are active as values if they are continuously validated by actions because they motivate action: people act such that these cultural values should exist, should flourish, or occasionally should be ‘Immortal’. These values include such things as the nation (my nation), the family, freedom of speech, progress, health, humankind, independence, welfare and culture (still!). And because they are concrete values they can in principle motivate human actions ‘towards themselves’. However, they do not underlie the actions of every person who is committed to them (either to some of them or to all of them). From the viewpoint of most individuals they are passive rather than active values.
Terms of virtue do not refer to anything concrete; every such term is a type. These terms typify the character traits and action patterns that are typically required for the actualization of values. Virtues are defined and redefined from the viewpoint of the active values validated by the (virtuous) action. Virtues make no sense except in relation to ‘material goods’.’ If values change, virtues can be dethroned. (Spinoza remarked that humility is not a virtue, a statement that was echoed by Kant. This is self-evident if hierarchy, earthly or divine, is not a value.) Virtues are reinterpreted, if the (active) values they are related to change (loyalty – to whom, to what?). There is only one single type of virtue which can be related to passive values: the cognitive. Reflexivity, rationality of intellect, the readiness to conduct ethical discourse – these virtues, among others, have become extremely important in modern times (and they undoubtedly are cognitive virtues), partly because of the passivity of most contemporary values in this paramount reality of so many single individuals. The only action we can continuously perform that is related to these values (or is performed in conjunction with them) is the speech act. But, of course, certain values are ‘active’ or are frequently ‘activated’ in our lives, and we need to mobilize virtues (other than the cognitive one) to actualize them. If this were not so, we could not ‘characterize’ our fellow-creatures in terms of virtues, which we are always doing.
Norms can be concrete or abstract. Concrete norms demand (and occasionally also command) the observance of customs. These norms can be rules, or something very similar to rules. They can be optative as well as imperative. Abstract norms, as mentioned, are transcultural, and I have called them moral norms proper. Moral norms proper are also related to values. These values can be termed ,yardstick values': they are the values by which we evaluate social values and virtues, and we call them ‘moral values’. Virtues necessary for the actualization of all values are always moral virtues, and are commanded by abstract moral norms. Moral norms proper can prohibit certain actions (such as murder or perjury) as wicked in themselves (these actions annul the value of a social institution or a character). They can also enjoin or recommend certain actions the practice of which makes the character virtuous and the institution valuable, regardless of whether or not they are regarded as such from the standpoint of concrete norms.
In traditional societies concrete norms change slowly. Such changes are hardly noticeable over a generation. Yet from time to time dramatic ruptures can occur. Very roughly, one could describe such changes as a process of sedimentation (concretization) whereby certain abstract (transclusteral) norms become new clusteral norms. Thus the new concrete norms will be functionally equivalent to the former ones: they are social customs and habits that are taken for granted and observed by the members of the social clusters to which they apply. At the dawn of modernity, however, this type of rupture was not followed by the process of sedimentation as I have just described it. Certain instances of the sedimentation of abstract norms into new and clusteral concrete norms did occur, but this sedimentation proved to be only momentary, whereas the rupture itself proved to be steady. When Tugendhat refers to concrete norms as norms which come about via the application of abstract norms (in action, decision and discourse), and describes this process as the moral learning-process par excellence he touches upon the most conspicuous feature of a pluralistic moral universe.’ To avoid any misunderstanding on this matter, it must be emphasized that the application of norms has always been part of the moral learning-process of the individual, but that normally no new concrete norm is engendered in this process. Pluralism of the moral universe is to be attributed not to the coexistence of different groups of concrete norms, but to the fact that these different groups are no longer clusteral; that they no longer stratify society, that they are no longer taken for granted. Put simply, individuals choose one or another set of concrete norms and can establish new ones via the ‘concretization’ of abstract norms (in principle it is already possible for two people to activate this process). Of course, the ‘traditional’ concrete norm has not disappeared. The real social milieu into which we are thrown by the accident of birth still furnishes us with initial concrete norms, and throughout our lives we continue to take several of these norms for granted (to a greater or lesser degree). But only some of these norms are ‘clusteral’. Moreover, since we can choose sets of concrete norms other than those we obtain by birth, we choose again and again our traditional norms in that we unwittingly stick by them.
It has become the creed of moral philosophy that morals in a pluralistic moral world are by definition more ‘rationalistic’ than morals in a pre-modern world. I should like to modify this thesis as follows: morals can become more rational in a pluralistic moral universe, but do not necessarily do so.
No morality can be completely rational. However, the optimal rationality of morals can be achieved if we choose ourselves as honest persons in a morally pluralistic universe. Every rational aspect of morality In modernity follows from the existential choice. My argument on behalf of this existential choice will be conducted in three consecutive steps. First, I shall briefly explain how and why moral rationality decreases in our modern universe, except for the existential choice of righteousness. Next, I shall explain my notion of the ‘existential choice’ and argue for the optimum rationality of such a choice. Finally, I shall discuss how the existential choice (of honesty) can be made good in a pluralistic moral universe.
Being rational is only possible through rendering meaning to one’s actions, if meaning is created through one’s actions. An action is morally rational if one acts in relation to a value (or several values) with the intention of maintaining this value via the observance of norms (abstract or concrete) or the display of virtues. If the value is passive (that is to say, one can neither maintain nor reject it by direct action), it is still possible to be morally rational by displaying cognitive virtues in conjunction with these values (for example, checking the value content of the institution in question in discourse). However, our modern world is not only a pluralistic moral universe, but simultaneously a functional social universe. Luhmann was on the mark when he insisted that within functionalist social institutions we do not act in a morally meaningful way. As he puts it, we can attribute meaning to institutions, but we cannot Constitute such meaning, for observing the rules in rationalized institutions does not require (moral) attitudes but requires only certain behavioural patterns. Translating Luhmann’s ideas into my theoretical language, it can be stated that if we enter into any rationalized institution, which we always do, we do not choose norms but become subject to rules. And we take these rules for granted. We never check them by moral standards. Also, because we do not constitute the meaning of the institutions in which we perform, as specialized human beings, one or another function, we do not relate to such institutions as to values either. We relate to them as to values only if we choose them. Rule conformity in rationalized institutions is not a moral matter at all (unless we have chosen the institution as a value or rejected it as a negative value). Large segments of our actions become morally indifferent, not morally rational.
Moreover, the very fact that different sets of norms are open to choice in a pluralistic moral universe means that moral rationality can be decreased even further. What is open to choice is not necessarily chosen. We can simply enter into a loose set of norms,’ not because we consider them to be good or better than another set for moral reasons, but simply because they suit our tastes, desires and interests. We can incidentally rationalize them as good, and even the process of rationalization can be cut short. And we can simultaneously enter into the rules of certain rationalized institutions. There is certainly a tendency here to live in a moral vacuum. We could give moral reasons for our actions, but unfortunately we usually do not do so. People are confronted less and less with the necessity to give moral reasons for their actions. Instead, they give psychological reasons if they give any reasons at all. This practice has become so predominant that the choice of values becomes replaced by the choice of goals. Of course, the same institution or project can be simultaneously a goal and a value. The difference lies in the actions oriented towards them. If the goal is a value, the actions are normative; if the goal is not a value, the action is instrumental. The practice of directly connecting individual psychology and a political exigency or objective, without the mediation of moral personality, moral norms or moral reasons, has become quite widespread.
In order to choose from amongst sets of norms (and not only enter into them) – in other words, in order to commit ourselves to norms and actions for moral reasons – we must first choose ourselves as the people who check norms and actions from a ‘moral point of view’, as the people who give the moral point of view preference over other (pragmatic) reasons. We must thus make an existential choice, by which I mean, with Kierkegaard, the choice of the choice between good and evil. The existential choice is introduced here not as an ontological but as a historical category. Of course, there has always been an existential element in the choice between good and evil. This follows from one of my fundamental assertions: that it is impossible to prove that it is better to suffer wrong than to commit it. If persons choose to be righteous, then they choose themselves as persons for whom the above statement is true, but this choice is not determined by the truth of the statement. However, even if there has always been a choice between good and evil, and in choosing the good one chooses one’s own self as a righteous person, making the choice itself was something not always open to choice. If norms and rules are reasonably coherent, the twin values of orientation of good and evil have priority over all other values of orientation ('good comes first'), and everyone knows what good is. Norms are external to the individual, and are normally embedded in meaningful world views of legitimation. There is no choice between norms, except in periods of crisis, even if they eventually become open to interpretation. To refer once again to Luhmann, attitudes, and not simply modes of behaviour, are required. It is only in modern times that the choice between good and evil has come to be seen not simply as a matter of course, and this is increasingly the case. This is why this choice itself must be chosen. In the main, if we make the existential choice, if we choose to choose between good and evil, then we have chosen ourselves as honest persons, as persons who give priority to moral reasons over other reasons.’ Thus we have chosen ourselves as persons guided by practical reason.
The existential choice can be made in a single gesture, but this is not necessarily the case. As Schütz has pointed out, we cannot fathom the notion of choice using a spatial analogy. A person never stands at point O, confronted with two or three possible paths, and then decides to follow path A rather than path B. The existential choice, like all other choices, comes about via a series of intentional acts in time. And it can miscarry if the first intentional act is not followed by the second, the third, and so on, just as it can be successful if the person has already chosen himself or herself as an honest person, as someone guided by practical reason, as someone who suffers rather than commits wrong.
If a person has not made the existential choice, his or her moral rationality decreases in comparison to the moral rationality of a person of pre-modern times. If a person makes the existential choice, his or her moral rationality increases in comparison to the moral rationality of a person of pre-modern times. This is so for the following reasons. First, the choice between good and evil is not
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