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The Moral Situation in Modernity

Author(s): AGNES HELLER


Source: Social Research, Vol. 55, No. 4 (WINTER 1988), pp. 531-550
Published by: The New School
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The Moral
Situation
inModernity.'

BY AGNES HELLER

have always disagreed on the essence of


X HiLOSOPHERS
of
humannature,theoriginsof morals,and theinterpretation
virtuesand vices.As a result,theyhave tendedto disagreeon
But when,conversely,
it came
theirmoralrecommendations.
to describingthe moralstatusof the world,theiragreement
we havedozensof
was overwhelming.
Today,on thecontrary,
each of whichspeaksa different
microcommunities,
language
as iftheywerecommunities
worlds.The
belongingto different
one schoolrefersto bear no likenessto the
moralsymptoms
moralsymptoms
thematized
byothermicrocommunities.
One particulardiscoursedissectsour worldin the termsof
inthisdiscourseassumethatthereare no
"nihilism."
Participants
longeranyvalidnorms,thatvirtuesare gone and that,on the
one hand,personsactinstrumentally
while,on theotherhand,
fit
into
external-institutional
roles
and requirements
withthey
outhavinganyintrinsic
moralmotivation
at all. Anothermicrodiscourserefersto thisselfsameworldas the climaxof moral
insofaras universalnormative
development
speechand moral
have
momentum
irrational
restraints,
rationality gained
against
and ethicaltutelage.The thirdtypeof microdisrepressions,
course dismissesboth the paradigmof nihilismand thatof
universalism-rationalism
as equallyemptytalkwhichhasno bearon our own moralsituation.Participants
in this
ingwhatsoever
thirdkindof discourseclaimthatliberaldemocraciesmaintain
quitea healthyand vigorousmorallifewhichis onlymildlyegoand yetwhichisalsopublic-issues
oriented
istic,fairly
pragmatic,
whenitcomesto concrete
decisionsconcerning
justiceand injustice.I leaveseveralotherexistingmicrodiscourses
unmentioned
SOCIAL RESEARCH, Vol. 55, No. 4 (Winter1988)

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532

SOCIAL RESEARCH

thelecturehallsof the
becausetheirimpactdoes nottranscend
of
the
the
three
mentioneddo. We
academy.However, impact
consumeour weeklydosage of Nietzscheand postmodernism
as it is presentedin our newspaper.
withour Sundaybreakfast
Duringthatsame afternoonwe willbe involvedin a heated
action.In theevening,we will
affirmative
discussion
concerning
on theTV and
watchthepicturesqueimagesof worldpoverty
beginto ponderhowwe mightbestbe involvedin remediesof
theframework
We arethusequallyincludedwithin
thatpoverty.
and universalliberaldemocracy,
of thediscoursesof nihilism,
isticrationalism.
And yetthe personwho is exposed to thisSundayplethora
of popularizedphilosophical
experiencesis nota nihilistat the
breakfast
table,a concerned,albeitmildlyegoistcitizenin the
rationalist
and a universalistic
afternoon,
bynight.Perhapsshe
is a bitof the first,the second,and the third,or perhapsshe
herworld
or at leastis capableofunderstanding,
understands,
In whatfollowsI would
in termsof all threemicrodiscourses.
and
like to take the positionof the innocentreader-listener
describedby each of the three
contend:All of the symptoms
discoursesare trulysymptomsof the moral life of modern
is moredecisiveor
societies,and neithergroup of symptoms
the
two.
Since
three
than
the
discoursesare
other
overarching
in
and mutuallyexclusive,and since participants
competitive
listed
admit
that
the
would
at
best
discourse
one
by
symptoms
have
been
mistakwhich
othersexistas secondary
phenomena
and vice
elevatedto therankofbasicfeatures,
enlyor wrongly
versa,myapproachmightappear at firstglanceto be eclectic.
to demonstrate
thatit is not.
It is myintention

Dictum
The Dostoevsky

is
aperu- if God does not exist,everything
Dostoevsky's
almost
all
since
ever
has
been
by
repeated
permitted-

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THE MORAL SITUATION

533

of "nihilism."This was so
of the microdiscourse
participants
irrespectiveof whetherthey believed that the predicted
is unavoidableforGod is
is permitted")
outcome("everything
anyhowalreadydead, or whethertheysharedthe hope that
thathe was only
God stillcould be keptalive or resurrected,
"in eclipse,"and thusthatthe moralworldorderwould,or at
least might,escape total destruction.Dostoevsky'sformula
brings the central issue into focus, and it is sharp and
perhapsthisis whyit is also misleading.If we
epigrammaticat its face value,it
is permitted"
takethe aperu "everything
means that there are no moral norms and rules, neither
and
concretenorabstract;thereare no regulations
whatsoever,
does
whatever
he
or
she
deems
in theend therefore
everyone
best forhis or her own sake, be it interestor pleasure.It is
obviousforeveryone,and it musthavebeen obviousforthose
the formulain the past,thata societyin which
underwriting
is
"everything permitted"is simplyimpossible.Since social
regulationis regulationby rules,there cannot be a single
is permitted,
fortheinfringement
societyin whicheverything
of rules is by definitionunpermitted.In a more pragmatic
formulationthis might read as follows:Societies without
ethicalreligions,lackingthe image of a deityendowed with
of rule in the
moralpowers,can stillhave verydense systems
of whicha large numberof actsare disapproved,
framework
evenseverelypunished.The formulaof Dostoevsky
mustthen
whichhas notbeen spelledout,onlyimplied,
meansomething
and as such understoodby people who share the same
The traditionin questionis theChristianone which
tradition.
includessignificant
moralelementsofJudaismand Hellenism.
formula"shouldbe
Againstthisbackground,the "Dostoevsky
read as follows:"If our (Christian)God does not exist,acts
which had been prohibitedin our moral traditionwill be
in the future";and, one could add, actswhichhad
permitted
been permitted-moreover,morallypraised- maybe prohibited in that future. It was exactlyin this way that the
"Dostoevskydictum"was interpretedafter the formidable

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534

SOCIAL RESEARCH

experiencesof Nazism and Stalinism.Not that Nazism and


In fact,bothprohibBolshevismhad "permitted
everything."
iteda widerangeofactivities,
evenideas.To mentiononlyone
example,theymorallydisapprovedof indulgingin empathy
withtheirvictimsor practicing
charitytowardthewrongkind
of people.Atthesametime,however,theypermitted
and even
in
instruunderpinned,
encouragedparticipation ideologically
mentalizedmassmurderwhich,in the spiritof our tradition,
is not,
The real issue,therefore,
shouldhavebeen prohibited.
believedit was,thatif God does not exist,we
as manyfirmly
cannottellgood fromevil.The real questionis whatshallwe
considergood,whatevil.
formulaeverything
thathas
If we read intothe Dostoevsky
arise.
onlybeen impliedin thetext,newquestionsimmediately
If there is no God, in other words, if the transcendent
guarantee and fountainheadof a traditional(Christian)
and spell,whatkindofactionswillbe
losesitsauthority
morality
It was exactlythiskindof inquirywhichunfolded
permitted?
of issuing
Reasonbecametheauthority
in modernrationalism.
In the
and underwriting
traditional
prohibitions.
permissions
one prohibitionafter
course of this "change of authority,"
becausetheyhad
anotherbecamecanceledout and invalidated
mere
a
or
a
been proven"irrational," prejudice
fancy.The
insiststhatthistrendis unstoppableonce
"nihilismnarrative"
reasontakesthe place of the dead God. This is allegedlythe
case sinceas soon as the validityof moralnormsis no longer
the evildoerwillask you
vouchsafedby the highestauthority,
to give your reasons for refrainingfromdeeds which he
practices.You willgiveyours,he willgivehis,and ifargument
of a moraldecision
is pittedagainstargument,no possibility
and
can be reached.Whatdecidesis interest,
force,comfort,
conformity.
There is no need to describemoderntimesas thehotbedof
in orderto facetheproblemwhichhas given
moral"nihilism"
rise to the nihilismnarrative.All the seriousmodernmoral
likeour ancester
havehad theirdayof reckoning
philosophers

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THE MORAL SITUATION

535

Jacob. If we do not noticethe marksof the struggleon the


body of theirphilosophy,thisis only because theycovered
themup withalternative
narratives.
Althoughtheparadigmof
nihilismis normallyassociatedwithNietzschebecausehe gave
it a positiveturnin the mostradicalway,the narrativehad
alreadymade its appearance a hundred years earlier.The
classicexamplesof reckoningwiththespecterof nihilismmay
be found in Diderot'sRameau'sNephewas well as in Kant's
moralphilosophy.Diderot'sphilosopher,the narratorof the
dialogue,recognizesduringthe courseof the discussionthat
the argumentsof his interlocutor,
the moral nihilist,are
unbeatable.It onlyremainsforhimin defenseof goodnessto
of the nihilist(an emotivist
moralgesture)
expresshis disgust
and to reaffirm
his ownresolution
to be, and remain,a decent
for
it
is
to
better
be
an
honest
man,
person than a wicked
clown.Of course,itcannotbe rationally
proventhatitis better
to be good thanevilunlessone can pinpointabsolute,eternal
norms.And ifone can, one does not need to proveanything.
Diderot'swork ends on the themeof an existential
choiceof
the
absence
of
a
God
In
moral
(and
absolutes),one
goodness.
can stillbe good if,and onlyif,one choosesoneselfas a good
person.Withoutdoubt,a choicelikethisis notrationalbecause
betweenall my reasonsand my resolvethereis the leap,as
Kierkegaardwas to pointout later.
Kant chessmatednihilismwhileat the same timeaccepting
If theoreticalreason
everypiece of nihilistic
argumentation.
(speculation,calculation,argumentation)was supposed to
precedeactionin validatingor devalidatingnorms,therewas
no longerany doubt in Kant'smindas to "everything
being
For
the
motivated
"thirsts"
for
man,
empirical
permitted."
by
and
would
wealth,power,
fame,
anyhowprove,and prove
that
whatever
he
desires
is good. Theoreticalreason
rationally,
does notprovidecertainty,
and yetitis certainty
whichmorals
mustbe based on. But certainty
eliminateschoice.And how
can one eliminatechoicewithoutbackingaway frommodernormsguaranteedbydivinerevelation?
How
nityto traditional

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536

SOCIAL RESEARCH

can one preserve autonomy,personality,and subjectivity


and
withoutchoiceand at thesame timerejectunderstanding
of
or
devalidation
moral
of
validation
the
sources
as
knowledge
and almost
norms?Kant has inventedthe mostsophisticated,
new
situation
createdby
to
the
answer
flawless,philosophical
of
on theone handand thediscovery
theincreasein rationality
thelimitsto reasonon theother.As is wellknown,thewhole
edificeof the Kantiansolutionrestson hisdual anthropology.
Eliminatenoumenal man and you will arrive at modern
nihilismpureand simple.Eliminatephenomenalmanand you
fromwhichthe
willarriveat speculativeformaluniversalism
for
actoris absent.Shouldone rejectKant'sdual anthropology
reason
or
theoretical
(includingintrospection
empirical
any
the fragilebalancebetweencertitude
and value preferences),
willbe upset.
and relativism
made theheroic
Hegel,whohad hisowndaysof reckoning,
ethical
and
refurbish
effortto rebuild
authority
innerworldly
he knew,much as Diderotand Kant had
named Sittlichkeit;
world
previouslyknown,thatpinpointingan existingsittlich
order withthe gesture:"here it is, theseare the normsand
rules to follow,"will not suffice.For the addressee will
certainlyretortby asking,"Why is that so? Why should I
worldorderand notthose
observethenormsof thisparticular
of otherones,or none at all?" Hegel believed,muchas Kant,
that in order to fight nihilism(and, he added, empty
order must shine in the light of
the sittlich
subjectivism),
absolute certitude.Hegel could make a case for a more
relaxed, elastic, and complex moral universe,for more
of
becausethebasicgroundwork
and moreleniency,
liberalism
his ethicaledificewas erectedin a fixedand rigidmanner.
World history,he contended,this supremejudge, had led
humankindto itspresentstate;theWorldSpirititselfpresents
us withthe outcomeof its own long wandering.Yet such a
balance is again utterlyfragile.Curtail the emphasis on
while maintainingthe grand narrativealone, and
Sittlichkeit
youwillgetan objectiveteleologyin whichtheethicalcontent

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THE MORAL SITUATION

537

The resultof
of subjectivetelosis of no relevancewhatsoever.
whichsupposedlyfurthers
thisamputationis thateverything
willindeedbe permitted
ofworldhistory
thedevelopment
and
nihilismreconfirmed.Or conversely,eliminatethe worldhistoricalnarrative,while maintainingthe emphasis on
and you willarriveat a pragmatismof a kind in
Sittlichkeit,
whichcertainmodernrulesof thegameare takenforgranted
withoutfurther
ado.
The solutionof existentialchoice (Diderot'simpasse)does
not require the backing of any particularmetaphysics,
ontology,system,speculativeedificeor anthropology.However,both Kant'sand Hegel's respectivesolutions,and to the
sameextent,mustbe backedup or even foundedbycomplete
they are convincingbut amid the
systems.Philosophically
vicissitudes
of modernmoralsthese completesystemscause
more problemsthan theycan solve. But thereare perhaps
otheravenuesto be explored.
Derrida embarkedon a voyagewhichdid not seem to be
worththe while:deconstructing
a seeminglyratherinsignificant paper writtenby Kant in 1796 (Von einemneuerdings
erhobenen
Ton in der Philosophie).From our perspecvornehmen

tive,itis nottheparodyof Kant'sutterly


pedanticapproachto
somethingessentially
unpedanticwhichis of relevanceto us,
nor even the apocalypticallusions unearthedfrom under
Kant'ssilencebyDerrida,butratherthewayin whichDerrida
In
magnifieswhathe termsKant'sgestureof reconciliation.
attack(unusualgiven
brief,Kantmountsan unusuallyvitriolic
hismildstandards)againstmystical
whoare abused
Platonists,
him
as
and in particularagainst
by
mystagogue-eschatologists,
and
Schlosser,whois accusedbyKantof castrating
philosophy
almostfinishing
offtheenterprise.
The realsurprisearrivesat
the end: the conclusionof the paper is the recommendation
that he, Kant, and his contemptiblephilosophicalenemies
should worktogetherforthe same purpose.We all wantto
makehumanbeingsdecent,he insists,
and we all wantto serve
themorallaw.Whateverour respective
philosophiesmightbe,

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538

SOCIAL

RESEARCH

we could venturethis supreme task together.I thinkthat this


small pedantic piece of writingby an old and declining man,
this awkward gesture toward alien philosophical tastes and
interests,is absolutelywonderfuland heroic. The attemptto
accept the modern condition of theoreticalpluralismwiththe
proviso that all philosophers should work for the same
practicalpurpose (more decency,obedience to the moral law)
is not merelyan exercise in liberal tolerance,it also expresses a
new philosophicalinsight.

We know that Kant needed his dual anthropology, in


particularthe factof reason, in order to prove the existenceof
moral law, although it could not in factbe proven in termsof
his own philosophicalconvictioneither. He needed it in order
to make a case forcertainty,the absolute, the categorical;to be
able to dismisschoice, even the choice of the self,the risk,the
leap. When he thereforeconceded that the cause of moral
reason, of moral law, can be furthered, presented, and
represented by completely different philosophers, whose
philosophieswere grounded in differenttypesof metaphysics,
in differentontologies and anthropologies, with this same
gesturehe resigned the tenetthatthe workof practicalreason
in the world can be grounded in a fullyrational way. For this
new positionit now sufficedsimplyto assertthatthose who did
not ground goodness completelyrationally,as Kant did, could
still, however, work for the same moral purpose. With this
gesture, the philosophical grounding of morals has already
been relativized. From this I would derive my preliminary
conclusion: It is ill conceived to establish a direct relation
between the increasingrelativismof worldviews (philosophies)
and the relativismof morals. Perhaps the opposite is the case:
Through absolutizingtheirown philosophies and worldviews,
philosophers contributemore to the relativizationof morals,
even to boostingnihilism,than by the acceptance of the mutual
relativizationof theirphilosophicalenterprises,by findingonly
a single and restrictedcommon ground: a few moral norms

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THE MORAL SITUATION

539

and valueswhichmightbe regardedas validand bindingfor


all of us.
The diversity
of worldviews,
and
philosophies,
metaphysics,
religiousfaithsdoes not bar the emergenceof a common
determines
the
ethos,unlessone of thecompetingworldviews
and theinterdictions
and does so
commandments
completely,
not onlyforits own adherentsbut also witha universalizing
aspiration.

The Individualas Universal

The categoricalfiguresof "thewhole"and "thepart,"as well


as the "one-several-many,"
firstmade their appearance as
at thetimeof
moral,political,and metaphysical
configurations
the birth of philosophy.Other metaphysicaland logical
figures,"the universal,""the singular,"and "the particular,"
becameheavilypoliticizedfirstin thenewage and also applied
to morals.In structural
terms,the singularprovedthe least
element
of
the
triad.There was no contenderfor
problematic
thispositionotherthanthe singleindividual,the personqua
actor,qua moral (responsible)subject.The universalturned
out to be the most problematicelementof the triad. In a
universalproposition,
the same is predicatedabout all (same)
cases. If therefore"the singleindividual"is the singular,it
followsthat "individualas such," that is, "all individuals,"
should be the universal.But thisnevereventuatedin actual
moral discourse. The position of the universalhas been
occupied by the notion"mankind,"whichis itselfpolysmie
and which can devote shades of meaningother than the
universalequivalentofall singularindividuals.Or, evenworse,
thispositionhas been occupiedbyanycategoryof integration
whichencompasses(eitherhierarchically
or structurally,
or
bothsenses)severalhumanintegrations
whichare no longer
polysmiebut simplynot equivalentto "all individuals."For

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540

SOCIAL

RESEARCH

how can an entitysuch as "the state" be identifiedwith the


universal? In order to substitute"the state" for "all individuals," one must supply a new singular for "the single
individual."This new singularis no longer "the human being"
but the "singlecitizen"or "the singleGerman, French,etc." We
thus have a moral agent, alias the "single individual," whose
relation to the universal (mankind, all human agents) is
mediated by the particular (e.g., the state), and we have a
moral agent (termed "single citizen," "the French," "the
German," etc.) who relates to a universal (the state) which for
him or her as a human being is not a universalat all, or at least
not meant to be such. One of the most serious problems and
dilemmas of modern morals is encapsulated in this seemingly
semantic-logicaldilemma.
The new occidental philosophy,as it had taken shape by the
seventeenth century, deduced moral facts (norms, ideas,
obligations,images of the right and the good) from a few
anthropological assumptions, that is, from certain "eternal"
attributesof human nature in general. An abstract and a
historicalanthropologicaluniversalismvouched for the explanation, for the genesis. As far as this genesis was concerned,
the propensitiesof each and everyman were the Propensities
of Man (of all men) as such, and it was only the social contract
which was believed to engender moral duties and obligations
of a proper (and concrete) kind. The citizen,as the singular
appertainingto the general,"the state,"was ethicallyrelated to
the state. However, the individual human being, as a human
being, could not be related to all human beings (its own
universal)withany kind of ethical ties,for "all human beings"
did not,and stilldo not,constituteany integrationwhatsoever.
As a result there were no obligations or duties which the
singular was bound to heed due to its membership in the
human race. Instead of being properly related to its own
universal,the singular termed "man" or "human being" was
now related to civil societyand the family.These integrations
were considered more particularisticthan the state, not only

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THE MORAL SITUATION

541

forHegel butalso forHobbes,Locke,and Rousseau.In a strict


philosophicalsense, Marx was rightwhen he claimed that
"man" is tantamountto the bourgeois,because the single
humanpersonwhosedutiesand obligations(insofaras he has
to his businessand his familyis precisely
any) are exclusively
the bourgeois.Yet the claimto be related,in a positivesense
and thereforealso morally,"to all humans," or to "humankind"or "to the human essence"above and beyondall
and determinations,
has also madeits
particularistic
obligations
appearance.A certainkindof secularized(or almostsecularsometimesin the formof Freemasonry,
ized) Christianity,
became merged with the concernsof modern theoriesof
naturallaw. This is the tendencywhich I will referto as
"modern humanism."In my opinion, humanism is not
identicalwiththeCartesianlegacyof subjectivism;
neitheris it
coterminous
withtheventureto place theindividualpersonat
the centerof the universe.Humanismdoes not stand for
c'esttoutpardonner;nor does it
leniency, for toutcomprendre,

standfortheattemptto makeall ofour moralnormsand rules


rational.There is an elementof subjectivism
in humanismbut
notoftheepistemological
kind.If someonetakesupon himself
or herselfcertaindutiesand obligationson behalfof an entity
(humankind)whichdoes not exist,the subjectiveaspect of
ethics(morality)
willunquestionably
be morepresentin sucha
in
than
the
same
gesture
person's relation to existing
with
a
dense
ethical
substance. In a direct
integrations
commitment
to the universalthereis a strongelementof a
certainkindofrationality,
whichI havetermed"therationality
of intellect."
This is particularly
so iftheself-imposed
dutiesto
a nonexistingentitycollide withduties imposed by existing
entities,forthe personlivingamid such a collision,unlesshe
remainson thelevelof a meregesture,normallygivesreasons
forpreferring
theuniversalto theparticular,
etc.Yet modern
humanism,such as the kindexemplifiedby Lessing,does not
center on the single person. Rather,there is a touch of
in modernhumanism,a commitment
to some kind
mysticism

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542

SOCIAL

RESEARCH

of common mana dwelling in all of us irrespectiveof our


nationalities,affiliations,religious commitments,metaphysical
creeds, and beliefs. This mana makes us turn toward each
other as we suspend our particular affiliations,without
abandoning or resigningthem; a mana which furthermorewe
do not lose except in the event of an ultimate moral
transgression.
Thinking in terms of "rights" has simultaneouslygained
prominence with modern humanism. Modern humanism
embraced "right thinking"as the negative aspect of its own
vision. Attributing"inalienable" rights to members of an
integration on the basis of their personhood could be
considered the single greatestcontributionof liberal theories
Modern humanism
to the development of modern Sittlichkeit.
norm
of
the rightsof man.
to
the
liberal
subscribe
must
simply
For if all particularistdeterminationsare to be suspended in
our intercoursewith other humans qua humans, then every
single individual being has to be protected against the force,
pressure,and interferenceof particularistintegrations(determinations).Thus modern humanism comprises "right thinking," but it also has both differentand broader connotations.
Millionencannot
The enthusiasticgesture of seid umschlungen,
human
of
the
defense
with
be equated
rights.One can ponder
whether"millions"are worthbeing embraced or what such a
metaphor is reallytryingto aim at.
It is in Kant's moral philosophythat all these threads were
tied togetherin a philosophicallyconclusive way. He shifted
both the individual and the particular onto the side of the
recipient, assuming that they will put up resistance while
receivingthe universal message. As members of the rational
world, we are universal. As members of the empirical world,
we are particularand singleentities;the moral law, humankind
as such and humankind in us, is the universal. Finally, the
particular(the constitutionof the republic,or the legal-ethical,
though not moral, world) is to be related to the universal. It
becomes clear from Kant's way of argumentationthat if all

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THE MORAL SITUATION

543

constitutionsare good, then theyare all also completelyalike,


and thatin the world republic (or Commonwealth),in the sign
of the eternal peace, all constitutionsand political arrangements must in fact be alike. Finally, Kant makes a minor
concessionto the particularand the individual,especiallyin his
Metaphysics
ofMorals,but theyremain mere concessions.
accused
Kant of being guilty of neglecting the
Hegel
particular and the individual. The freedom of particularity
and the well-beingof the individual rests in pluralism. "Civil
society," the sphere which comprises particularityin the
modern age, consistsof a varietyof institutions,integrations,
corporations,professionsand the like. Each of them develops
its own intrinsicSittlichkeit.
The state is tantamount to the
universal. The moral order of the state warrants the
universality(generality) of all the particularitiesemerging
around the institutionsof civil society.The individual,having
attainedthe highestformof subjectivity,
subjectshimselfto his
corporation relatively,but he subjects himself to the state
demands Einordnungin das
completelyfor supreme Sittlichkeit
Allgemeine,which in plain English means fitting oneself
that is, the state. So the
properly into generality/universality,
modern state is the main source of Sittlichkeit,
because it is the
universal- but which modern state? There are several states,
and Hegel appreciates wars among them also froman ethical
point of view. If all modern states represent universalityby
definition, then the universal is the particular, and the
particularis only termed universal. If two countrieswage war
against each other, is there never and nowhere any criteriato
decide whose case is just, whose is unjust, whose case is more
just or more rightthan the other? If there is no answer to this
question, then complete relativism is the end result. The
universalism of the world spirit will then result in the
simultaneity of unmediated yet conflicting particularities
whichclaim absolute loyaltyfromthe individualsbecause they
all identifythemselvesas the universal.
Modern humanismwas loftybut it did not provide the world

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544

SOCIAL

RESEARCH

with visible bonds, with a set of transparentnorms; in other


words: Sittlichkeit.
Instead, nationalism has supplied them.
Preciselyas Hegel predicted,it happened in war thatthe brute
egoism of the "spiritualanimal kingdom"was overcome. It was
whichmade the identification
the experience of totalitarianism
of the particular(a state) with the universal (humankind,the
end result of human history,etc.) deeply suspect. Although
"nation" has remained the major object of moral commitment,
or rather more so than ever, especially given that whole
continentsjoined the choir of nationalismand jingoism, moral
theory and philosophy has been forced to explore the
possibilitiesand realitiesin other directions.
All these directionscan be seen as recycledversionsof the
answersalready given to the dilemma some two hundred years
ago. "Recycled"does not stand here for the statementthat the
questions,or the inquiriesintothe answers,are exactlyidentical.
Obviouslythe experiencesof two hundred years have been digested, reflectedupon, and expressed. The word "recycling"
refersratherto the typesof answers and the tendenciesthey
represent.Modern humanism,especiallyin its Kantian version,
is again withus, and it has come to its fruitionin the theoryof
communicativeethics.In theframeworkof thelatter,individuals
raise trulyuniversalclaims,not simplyclaims which are in fact
particularbut onlytermeduniversal.This standalso impliesthat
we have once again relapsed back to Kantian formalism.The
dense ethicsof Sittlichkeit,
thoughmentionedand referredto,are
not reflectedupon in a positivemanner. Practicalreason becomes the twinbrotherof theoreticalreason, for phronesishas
disappeared fromthehorizon.Somethingsimilarcould be stated
Kantianslike Bair, Singer,Gerth,Gewirth,and
of self-professed
were believed to
the others.Whereas in Hegel all particularities
lead towardthe highestone termeduniversal,namely,the state,
modern typesof discourse revertback to the categoryof the
individual.There is such a greatvarietyof this"language game,"
to use one of theirfavoriteterms,thatonlycertainsalienttypes
can be mentioned.

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THE MORAL SITUATION

545

Closestto Hegel remainsthe discoursethatdominatesthe


philosophyof American liberalism.For Rawls, Dworkin,
and
Ackermanetalii thestateis identicalwiththeconstitution,
the ethos of human corporationis to be sought in a
whichis fairand thus right.Human right,the
constitution
mainpropertyof everyperson,is understoodas the rightof
the citizen.It is assumed that human beings who are well
conducttheirbusinesswithone
endowedwithrights(liberties)
anotherwhile respectingthe libertiesof otherswithinthe
frameworkof this selfsameconstitution.
The most rece
and
of
Walzer
make
a
Rorty
plea for a thick
writings
in the framework
of whicheveryparticipant
in
contextuality,
affairs
knows
what
whole
framework
is
all
about
and
the
public
whereeveryonesharestherulesof an ethicalworldand takes
themforgranted.
In my briefoverviewof theoreticalreflectionupon the
relationshipbetweenthe membersof the triad (particularat thedawnof themodernage, I did not
universal-individual)
mentionthe radical shiftin directionof the individual.Of
course, almost everythingappears sporadicallybefore it
becomestrulyrepresentative.
Aftercertainromanticprecursors,Kierkegaardis the firstphilosopherwho looks for the
source of moralityin the individual (in the individual's
existentialchoice of himself)withoutidentifying
the object
(territory,
sphere) or moral practicewith its source. The
individualqua individualis the universal,yetthe territory
of
morallifeis to be soughtin interpersonal
relations(including
The
discourse
initiated
particularity).
byKierkegaardneed not
be recycledbecause it has been continuouslyif not always
conspicuously
presentin our modernage.
"... A

The Contingent
Individual

In thefirstparagraphI mentionedthreetypicaldiagnosesof
our contemporary
moralcondition.I have added thattheyare

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546

SOCIAL RESEARCH

all in a sense correct.In the second paragraphI put the


and dissectedthe
paradigmof nihilismunder closerscrutiny
items belongingunder this heading. At that point, two
conclusionscould be drawn. First,the dangerswhichhave
been discoveredwithinthe paradigm of nihilismare not
preemptedby the assumptionthatthe diagnosesof the other
twoparadigmsare also correct.Second,it is notpluralismbut
ratherthe claim to absolutismwhich preventscompeting
and philosophiesfromfindinga commonmoral
metaphysics
ground.In the thirdparagraph,I continuedto presentthe
veryissue whichin my mind lies at the heartof divisionof
systems.I have added that the
philosophical,metaphysical
decisivedivisionis backed by life experiences,and thatthe
samedivisionhas been recycledfortwohundredyears,and in
alone shouldmake
some cases even more.This circumstance
and unilinear
us suspiciousnot only of too straightforward
or moraldecaybutalso of the
ofethicalprogression
narratives
of the discourse of "the healthymoral
self-complacency
traditionsof liberaldemocracy."Neitherin the case of an
of a vigorous
moraldecay,norundertheconditions
increasing
underthe
matter
for
that
and
moralprogression,
nor,finally,
auspices of the smoothoperationof the moderntradition,
be recycledagain
would the same theoreticalconfiguration
and again. If viewed from this position all apocalyptic
cutfairlycomicfigures.We haveheardso oftenfor
statements
"
such a long timethatwe are "right-at-the-beginning-of
or,
" the"real
we
are
that
thing,"
"right-at-the-end-of
alternatively,
thatapocalypticlanguagehas becomeeverydaylanguagefor
commonuse. But thereis equallya touchof thecomicalin the
convictionthatthose who learn to take a positivestand on
affirmativeaction have already solved the major moral
problemsof our time.
The simultaneous
particularizaprocessof universalization,
is equivalentto the appearanceof
tion,and individualization
as theconditionof the modernworld.If thereis
contingency
notWorldSpiritwithitsinherenttelos,thenhistoryas world

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THE MORAL SITUATION

547

so are all particularities


constituted
is itselfcontingent;
history
It
above
all the
by, or unfoldingwithin,this history. is
individual,the person, who becomes contingentand who
understandshis or her world and
knows himself-herself,
such.
When
as
situation,
discussingindividualsinsofaras they
are "situated,"a currentfigureof speech in modernmoral
individualperson.
we havein mindthecontingent
philosophy,
In recycling
theold questionsand theoretical
figures,whichis
unavoidablewithinthe same world-historical
epoch, moral
philosophiesof the presentwill have to concentrateon the
in
modernhuman condition,whichis one of contingency,
order to shape a moral philosophythat will apply to a
contingent
person.
moralphilosophy,
The rebirthof Aristotle's
the emergence
ofa certaintypeof neo-Aristotelian
moralphilosophy,
can also
be understoodfromthisperspective.
Aristotle's
moralphilosin
a
all
summed
the
and
answers
which
ophy
up
way
questions
had been previouslyposed and formulated,
and recycledin
such slightlydifferent
culturesas the Athenian,the Ionian,
and others.Insofaras it was possiblein a fairlystaticworld,
Aristotlemade an inventory
of the pluralityof Sittlichkeit,
of
the diversitiesof personaltastes,of the possibledifference
between the good citizen and the good person, to the
differentiation
of technefrom action. In addition, he, in
contradistinction
to the tragicextremity
of Plato,"settledin,"
so to speak,withhis moraland politicalphilosophy.Aristotle
came after the Greek enlightenment;he inventoriedthe
he offereda
of,and thelimitsto,reason,and finally
potentials
faircombination
of formalwithsubstantive
ethics.
Neo-Aristotelians,
at leastsomeof them,look fora modelin
thephilosophyof theStageritein orderto contrastit withthe
moral decay. Others,like Castoriadis
alleged contemporary
and Arendt,are more eager to discoversimilarities
between
our problemsand his,ratherthanoppose the ancient(read:
authentic)withthemodern(read: thedecadent).If we depart
fromAristotle'smoral philosophy,we willindeed findstark

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548

SOCIAL RESEARCH

contraststo, and great similarities


with,our modernmoral
worldand moralthinking.
The mainline of divisionbetween
of
morals
and oursresidesin theabsence
Aristotle's
perception
and presenceof contingency.
Even if his relationto his world
moral politicalindividual
Aristotle's
was relatively
detached,
He was not "situated,"he was
was farfrombeingcontingent.
whathe was and could nothave been anybodyelse. If he had
been anyoneelse,he wouldnothave had a place in Aristotle's
ethics at all. Because contingencyis not a philosophical
but
whichcould be replacedbyanyotherconstructs
construct
the life experience of the modern individual,a vexing,
butalso promising
experience(termedby Kierkethreatening
of
the
possibilityor anxiety).A moral
experience
gaard
whichremainsunaffected
suchas Aristotle's
by,or
philosophy
falls
short
of
authentic
matter
this
of,
necessarily
noncognizant
contemporaneity.
ofcomingto agreementon thedescription
The impossibility
of moral facts in modern life simply follows from the
This is whyan
ontologicalgroundingsituationof contingency.
attemptat agreementhardlyhas any chance.The recurring
complaintthat philosophersare "one-sided,"that theymiss
or perhapsall-important,
thisor thatequallyexisting,
aspectof
a
it
is
same
At
the
lifeis a moderncomplaint.
time,
pointless
one. One need not discoveroneself,one's own environment
and situation,one's own feelingand concern,in each and
One can absorba philosophy
philosophy.
everycontemporary
as theexpressionof thelifeexperienceof anotherpersonwho
as I am.
is as contingent
followsfromthis.
moral
relativism
no
However,
necessarily
thatmy life experiencesare expressedin
The circumstance
does
thoseof anotherin anotherphilosophy,
thisphilosophy,
or degrade philosophiesthemselvesinto idle
not transform
our
from
thedesireand theresolveto transform
games.Apart
is
into our own destiny,our contingency
own contingency
our
Whatever
vice
versa.
and
else's
situation
someone
certainly
are,we also havecommonbusinessto attendto.
contingencies

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THE MORAL SITUATION

549

Aftera longdetourwe are backat theconcludingproblems


of the second paragraph,back to Kant'sawkwardgestureof
in orderto make a commoncause formorals,
reconciliation,
forpracticalreason.
in kind,whetherthey
Particularmoralworldsare different
are religious,communal,cooperative,political,or something
else. To create "harmony"among the heterogeneityof
kindsof Sittlichkeit
or even to make the different
Sittlichkeit,
or
is
an
dense
equally loose,
enterprisewhich is
equally
world. (The world
doomed to failurein the contemporary
but
morals
are
concerned
less with
might,however,change,
prophecythan any other materialof our speculation.)The
modern individual (the singular) is contingentin every
Sittlichkeit,
yethe or she can choose himselfor herselfas well
as fallshortofchoosing,can be a personofconscienceas much
withinthe
as not, can be authenticas much as inauthentic,
world.
But
of
each
and
what
framework
about
everyparticular
theuniversal?Everyworldcan offerdifferent
explanationsof
and
of
the
or
of
theorigins good
evil,
goodness wickednessof
our race,yetit is the universalgesture,not the universalistic
explanation,that matters.By universal gesture I mean
in whathas been termedtheattitudeof modern
participation
in our capacityas "humanbeings
humanism.Doingsomething
as such,"doing it forothersas for "humanbeingsas such,"
doing it togetherwith others, in symmetricreciprocity,
solidarity,
friendshipas "humanbeingsas such"- thisis the
meaningof "universalgesture."It is irrelevantfromwhich
source one draws the strengthto do these things,for what
mattersmostis thatone doessuch things.Humankindis nota
universalcluster,ithas notworkedout itsSittlichkeit.
Yet there
are certainkindsof actionwhichwe all knoware right,good,
desirable,and commendable.Moral philosophiesmaymakea
case for such gestures.They can also ponder further,even
fortheemergenceof certainuniversalistic
remote,possibilities
moralties.
I have mentionedseveraltimesthatwe are recyclingold

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550

SOCIAL RESEARCH

and
themesand old solutions,albeit in new orchestrations
of
first
formulations
the
concerns
of
modern
the
variations;
moral philosophyare roughlytwo hundredyearsold. The
universal gesture,which is far from dependent on the
universalexplanation,has been tracedback to the old age of
Kant. However, the idea that moral universalismcan be
and
achieved not by surpassingcontingency,
particularity,
our
within
attitude
one
but ratherby changing
individuality,
and thesame formof life,goes backto Lessing,and has been
recycledby Hannah Arendt. If the process of recycling
sooneror latera fourthtypeof maindiscoursemay
continues,
emergewhichwouldjoin the discoursesof nihilism,formal
This new type of
and concreteparticularism.
universalism,
individualas itsstarting
discourserefersbackto thecontingent
or the
nor
to
therole-player
the
to
the
not
hero, genius,
point,
one-dimensional
puppet,but to a personlikeyou and me.

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