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July 27, 2021 / Congau

Imperfect Obedience

Having a duty is a moral relief. The moment you know what you must do, the tormenting considerations have found rest and all that is left is simple automatic thoughtless action. The private soldier who always follows order and never doubts his duty possesses an enviable peace of mind that is not available to ordinary moral actors cursed with independence and freedom. That is why any constraint and reduction of freedom represent a freedom from oneself and that unbearable human condition of lonely choice. 

But a paradox is not a solution and the conscripted man’s denial of responsibility is an illusion. We cannot renounce our humanity and achieve an animal’s liberation from ethics. Still, moral theorists have been trying to do just that. They have noticed that beasts have instincts that are equivalent to laws of nature within themselves. When a wolf kills it does what wolves are programmed to do, and with the necessity of a stone that falls to the ground. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, the theorists seem to reason, if humans also had a law of nature that commanded with the force of necessity – categorically and imperatively? Kant has given us such a substitute law, and many a self-appointed policeman has found comfort therein. A person who can’t do otherwise can’t be wrong.

We are always wrong and there is no escape from blame, for even if our constructed law were perfectly right and hit the mark on every occasion, it can never regulate all our movements the way nature leads an animal to its prey. Even Kant did not envision us having perfect duties to do what has not yet suggested itself as a definite alternative. You have a duty not to kill Mr. Smith and hopefully that ought not to be such a difficult task, but the opposite, to save his life, might prove more complicated, especially if you don’t even know this gentleman. Kant calls the first requirement a perfect duty but sensibly refrains to extend such an epithet to the second instance. Still, he insists on calling it a duty – an imperfect one. Imagine that. Mr. Smith is currently in mortal danger since he is hesitant to get vaccinated, but a word from you might make him change his mind. Clearly it’s your duty to talk to him, right? But Mr. Jones suffers from the same delusion and so do crowds of others and you just don’t have the capacity to reach them all. Nevertheless, you have a so-called imperfect duty to do so. What could that possibly mean? Not much really.

A duty that disappears into a mere hint without even having the character of a recommendation is not much of a duty according to any plausible interpretation of the word. Kant’s promising project that was to furnish us with a clear path through the wilderness of right and wrong disappears into the same quagmire of uncertainty that we are already so all too familiar with: The more we think about it, the less we know what to do.

July 26, 2021 / Congau

The Agony of Ethics

Ethics is the science of asking that exceedingly difficult question: What am I to do?

It’s a desperate question, isn’t it? When confronted with the endless possibilities of human life and the seemingly limitless freedom of the will, a little man may be forgiven for sitting down in despair and covering his eyes so as to not see the infinity of the starry heavens. Better to live in a bubble where the range is narrow and the alternatives are few and manageable. 

But even in the minimal scope of our daily world there is no escape. Problems appear; dilemmas constantly pop up and ruin our peaceful indifference. What is the right thing to do in this situation? My options may not be many, perhaps as few as two, but the agony of the choice may still be overwhelming.

The science of ethics is there to help… and to make everything many times more difficult. Maybe you didn’t even know you had a problem until you made the mistake of exposing yourself to the precepts of an ethical theory. Your quiet world may have been shattered forever the moment you realized that the answer was not a self-evident given and that another course of action might always be considered. 

However, chances are you were already a reflective sort of fellow and knew the twitch of conscience that occurs when one doubts one’s own action. In that case you were familiar with the essence of ethics even if you had never been bothered by any of those distressing theories. You may have been considering such notions as good and bad, right and wrong, and racked your brain about what was the appropriate thing to do at a certain moment, but you may not have had the method for sorting it out. That’s when systematic ethics can actually come in as a relief.

You hear the voice of the esteemed scholar Immanuel Kant instructing you to act as if the maxim of your action were to become a universal law, and you would immediately grasp the necessity of your next move. Or you could lend your ear to the venerable jurist Jeremy Bentham who would tell you to choose the action that would result in the greatest amount of happiness, and a few simple calculations would suffice to settle the issue. Being a devout deontologist (like Kant) or a utilitarian (like Bentham) does make life easier in certain respects. 

But as already suggested there is more to ethics than the resolution of definite dilemmas where a limited number of possible acts are to be scrutinized. If you are careful enough, maybe by taking shelter on a deserted island and living there far from the risk of causing injury to anyone, you may not do much morally wrong but you wouldn’t do much right either. On the other hand, by positioning yourself in the midst of a busy society, not only do you risk wrongdoing, but the possibility for doing right may just be too overwhelming for a frail soul. How do I know where to begin, and where to stop? How do I know what to do? Please give me a theory!

July 25, 2021 / Congau

The Necessity of Being Ethical

If ethics is not necessary, it is not ethics. If it does not have to exist, it does not exist.

Ethics describes what you need to do to be good, but if you don’t want to be good, is that an option? No, for if it were, it would no longer be a requirement and ethics is essentially a requirement.

Therefore it does not really make sense to ask “Why be ethical?” It is like asking “Why do I have to do what I have to do?” 

But why is ethics a requirement? How can anything be required of you, a human child who never chose to be born? No one can make demands on you if you in no way have forced your presence on them. A demand is something that is imposed on you from outside as a claimed repayment for something, but if no such thing is presumed to exist, the demand is at best unfair and at worst meaningless. However, if the requirement comes from yourself, it is not a demand and not a duty, it is just something you must do following the logic of your being. Do you have to eat? Yes. Is it a demand? Your duty? No. Do you have to be ethical? The answer is the same.

Is it a stupid question then? The reason why we need food may be too obvious to ask, but if a really deep and exact answer was wanted, it might be profitable to ask a nutritionist and then it would turn out that the question made sense. 

Nothing in life should remain unasked and especially not the matters of highest importance. What could be more important than what we are to do and how we are to live, and how can an answer to it be accepted if a reason for it is not provided?

Yet they keep telling us what to do. Be nice, be good! Don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t kill! And they refuse to tell us why. It makes intuitive sense, sure, but so does many an illusion and until an investigation is made the risk of deception is greater than we can afford. 

Why be ethical? Because it is a duty imposed on you from nowhere? Because society would fall apart if you did not contribute? An affirmative answer to this may have a pragmatic advantage but that does not make it true and if someone calls the bluff we are powerless.

No, it is not your duty to be ethical and society does fine without your tiny contribution, but you cannot do without it.

Why eat? It is not your duty and society may not need you to, but you need it yourself. It is a function of your being that you retain your being. Likewise it is also a function of your being human that you live like one. Being ethical is being human and since that is what you are, it is what you must be. Why that is so is another question, but it’s the only path of explanation available. You don’t have to be anything, including ethical, unless it is necessary for being what you are.

July 24, 2021 / Congau

Foundations of Utilitarianism and Deontology

Utilitarianism professes to give ethics a foundation: It is happiness. The distribution of the greatest amount of happiness to the greatest number of people is the measure of the ethical worth of an act. That may be well and good, but it does not explain why I should bother about being ethical and care about your happiness at all. It would surely be a nice thing to do, and you in particular would approve of my action, but what is there in this incomprehensible universe that can reasonably make such a demand on me? 

The greatest happiness principle is in harmony with the fact that we all want happiness. That is simply an analytic truth (inherent in the definition) since happiness is defined as “that which we want” without specifying what exactly it might consist of. Perhaps we could then rephrase it as an encouragement to give to people what they truly want. However, that only slightly shifts the problem: “Why would I care about what you want?”

One might think that since we are presumably all born free, we are at liberty to care about whatever we wish, and if that includes reducing the freedom of others, that might not be such a nice thing to do, but it wouldn’t count as a fundamental reason. It’s nice to be nice, but not strictly necessary. 

Some ethicists consider this general admonition to be the best we can do: you are strongly recommended to take your fellow humans into account, but if you simply refuse, nothing will convince you. 

A deontologist, on the other hand, a follower of the branch of ethics that holds that definite duties decide what we must do, has an edge on the utilitarian in this respect. Duties are as such fundamental: They are not asking for your agreement; they command and the origin of the commandment is necessarily to be found beyond the obedient subordinate. If God is the commander, nothing could of course be more absolute and fundamental and it is not up to you if you want to comply with the precepts. But of course, if you are in doubt as to what is really God’s order, you have not reached any farther. 

Deontological theories have ways of determining what our absolute duties might be. Most famously Kant tells us that we are obliged to obey the laws that follow from being rational creatures. If such laws could really be formulated, there should no doubt that a foundation for ethics has been found, but for one that is skeptical of the morality that emerges from Kant’s system, there is reason to suspect that something has gone wrong. At the very least we thought ethics consisted of being nice to people but the follower of a Kantian law cares more about obeying its letter than worrying about actual people who might suffer from our action.

If ethics has anything to do with kindness, a cold law, however fundamental, is likely to fail. Where then is the foundation of ethics?

July 23, 2021 / Congau

A Foundation for Ethics

There is a difference between right and wrong. Right? Well, we assume there is, so most of us would not be terribly cruel even if we could get away with it. At the same time, many of us love to play the skeptic citing subjective emotions and arbitrary habits as reasons for even our strongest convictions. It is as if we don’t take ourselves quite seriously, at one moment claiming to be right and at the next shrugging it off as just another whim. We say that x is right and are willing to die fighting for it, but in the abstract we deny the rightness of any xs and leave everyone to pursue their personal taste in indifferent liberty. This is inconsistent, to put it mildly.

If something is right, it is absolutely right, or else the term would be meaningless. A mathematical equation has a definite answer based on the principle of mathematics, and if there are no such principles, there is no answer at all – not even an approximate or tentative one. Now, the field of ethics is a lot more complicated than mathematics: In practical life there are always myriads of indeterminate variables floating around making the quest for absolute certainty impossible in practice. Nevertheless, we must assume there exists a possible answer to the question “What is the right thing to do?” or else we would not be looking for it. “Should I kill this enemy of mine?” you ask. I am not so liberal that I magnanimously shrug my shoulders and declare that that is perfectly up to you. Whether or not it is morally permissible for you to kill him, the question has a right answer. It may be hidden from us, but it is necessary that we look for it and we must believe that it exists, or else why are you asking it at all? 

It is true that other types of considerations do not admit of objective answers, one thing may be as subjectively beneficial or pleasing to you as another, but an ethical question has the property of some general validity and as such it is in the realm objectivity; it is assuming that a person in the exact same situation as you are ought to do the same as whatever you ought to do.

But to make such a claim, which in fact all of us frequently do, there needs to be a firm foundation for it – not necessarily as something explicitly formulated in our consciousness, but at least as an implicit prerequisite. Just like mathematics has its elementary premises that gives truth to a calculation, ethics must also have a basis if we are to make judgments that are more than a fleeting hunch.

But can such a thing exist? It has to, or else the ground under our feet would disappear and we might as well stop caring about anything. There would be no real reason to be ethical at all. To ask “Why be ethical?” is to ask for the foundation of ethics.

August 11, 2020 / Congau


Between the beginning and the conclusion there is a time when nothing happens. The play is dragging out and keeps repeating its initial points, becoming increasingly tedious and farcical. What is being said has already been stated many times, yet it can’t bring itself to silence for fear of its emptiness being revealed.

The interlude was a farce. The tragedy that occurred when history was first repeated, became ridiculous when it happened yet again and it was evident that no one had learned anything. The same mistakes were made. The actors went headlong into war and any moderately observant spectator could have seen and understood it. But there were no spectators, for everyone was a contemporary and a participant in the events, although of remote significance. Only when looking at it from afar, from the perspective of a disinterested spectator, can we grasp the meaning, or lack of it. Then we can laugh at it all, although weeping would have been more appropriate.

When we come nearer to our own time, we think we are approaching the conclusion, and our vision becomes blurred. What is, was meant to be, we think, and the nonsensical starts to make sense. 

The interlude of history got us to where we are, so although it was a farce, it was no more farcical than the present. We are now engaged in a struggle and we think it is important, more important than what ever was. The loud debates of yesteryear are forgotten. We don’t remember how enraged we were, but now we are angrier than ever and preparing for the final battle. Therefore we talk and keep talking, obscuring the line between words and noise. We keep going for fear of realizing the true meaning of what is going on. Better be silent then.

August 10, 2020 / Congau

My Pinion

The machine works. Observe it, please. Every little piece of it fits perfectly into every other. The pinion, that gear with its tiny teeth, keeps turning, smoothly connecting with a larger wheel and making it revolve. The whole instrument is running flawlessly thanks to each cog performing its function inside the whole. It is a good machine.

But I haven’t yet told you what kind of machine it is. The big wheel that the innocent pinion brings into motion, is a rack, an imitation of a medieval torture instrument made even more horrendous by modern technical ingenuity. It maximizes pain and suffering in a way we don’t want to think about, much less try to describe. This machine is evil incarnate. Still, I said it was a good machine, and I can repeat that statement. 

It is a good machine, although in my opinion, if anyone cares to know my opinion, it is bad, horrible, dreadful, atrocious. But when asked about it, what counts is the engine itself, regardless of what purpose it might serve outside of itself. It has an evil objective, but as far as the machine is concerned the perfect execution of its task makes it good.

“Good” is always relative to its purpose. The immediate purpose of anything is to work well for itself. Any organism can be judged by its intrinsic health. A good thing works as it is supposed to work, and that is not a moral issue. The moral good appears when the purpose is extended to a larger perspective, to something greater than itself, and the greatest good, or evil, is what has the farthest extension into the world at large.

The smallest pinion selfishly works only for its immediate purpose careless of the ultimate consequences its action. It’s not asking for my opinion.

August 9, 2020 / Congau


A double half is less than a whole. Many parts, considered as parts, never make up an entirety. The whole is indivisible.

A society is made up of individuals, thousands and millions of them, tiny pieces, and each one of them is the most complete entity. When everyone contributes his minuscule share, it finally adds up and forms a society. As such a society does not exist.

A society is not made up of individuals. One of them can be removed, thousands can be excluded, but this undefinable something that makes up a particular society will remain. The cultural or habitual collective constitutes a social behavior that is not dependent on what any number of individuals actually do. 

When describing an object, you don’t cut it into parts and analyze them separately. A machine may consist of nuts and bolts but studying each of these pieces separately will only confuse you about the meaning and purpose of the entire machine. A detail doesn’t make sense when separated from the whole. 

A half has no meaning. Why divide it in such a fashion? Why cut it through that particular line and not another? Only the whole is meaningful. 

But the whole is not self-defined. What is the most elementary unit? The individual is a whole, and society is a whole, but only when defined from its own perspective. One individual is not a millionth part of society, and one society is not an individual times a million. One element is chosen and called a unit and from that perspective it becomes one. Both the individual and society are wholes and neither of them is. It all depends on what you decide to focus on.

But once you point to it and give it a name, it is a whole without a moiety.

August 8, 2020 / Congau

The Myth of the Antre

We live in a cave. What we see are mere shadows flickering on the wall, imperfect copies of the real things as they exist in the realm of ideas. This Plato tells us. It is quite a sorry state, being surrounded by nothing but illusions or even plain lies with no hope of ever realizing the truth.

It is all we have and all we know. Life is misery, but sometimes we feel it is not so bad, especially when we allow ourselves to play along, accept the faulty appearances and pretend it is the real thing. There might be no real meaning in the dreary existence of a common wage earner, but he is no better off when thinking about it and despairing about its vast imperfections. Tell Plato that we don’t want to know the truth.

But might it not be possible to live contently in our shadowy world while still striving to see glimpses of the real reality, searching for truth from the basis of our daily trivialities? Getting up in the morning and going about your day in the midst of a phony society and fake information does not have to be depressive unless you take it all to heart. You can still amuse yourself by seeking to look through it all and decipher the real meaning of the false appearances.

“The unexamined life is not worth living,” says Socrates, Plato’s protagonist. At least that means that life in the cave can be worthwhile. 

Today, in the age of fake news, we may have stepped further down into the depth of the antre. The light from the opening has gotten dimmer as deception has become a more conscious intention. But we don’t have to succumb to it. Even deceit has some root in reality, and truth exists.



August 7, 2020 / Congau


There is an essence, and everything else is excrescence. Take any object, any phenomenon, any person, tell me what it is, and then describe it. What it is, is its essence and the description its excrescence. 

Now, it seems rather arbitrary to distinguish the two, doesn’t it? After all, what do you do when describing something other than explaining what it is? 

On the other hand, everything about an object is not equally important. The deer has horns, but it doesn’t need to have horns to be a deer; they grew out of the young animal that already existed. People have ears, most everyone, in fact, but it is an outgrowth and if someone lacked them, he would still be considered human, wouldn’t he?

What does it mean to be a deer? What does it mean to be human?

What does it mean to be an onion? They say an onion has no core. It consists of layers of layers and the innermost is just another layer, growing out of nothing. One might conclude that onions don’t exist, but since they obviously do, its excrescence must be its essence. We wouldn’t expect much of an onion anyway.

Is a human being an onion? Do our limbs and organs grow out of essentially nothing? The human body is an animal body, and as such it is hardly essential, since if it were, humans would not be any different from other animals. But humans are frequently defined as rational, and if that is so, that rational mind must be the essence and the biologically growing body the excrescence in a double sense. 

Any being is itself, and its outgrowth. There is an it, a subject that acts and grows. There is someone behind all the layers of appearance; or so we must hope. Are you there?