13 The Moral Norm of Sociality

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2015
Thomas Nemeth (ed.)Vladimir Solov’ëv’s Justification of the Moral Good10.1007/978-3-319-12775-0_14

[292]Chapter 13 The Moral Norm of Sociality

Thomas Nemeth 

Old Bridge, New Jersey, USA



Thomas Nemeth

C] In B, this appears as Chap. 10 and is entitled “The Moral Foundation of Sociality,” spanning pp. 337–358.


The true definition of society as organized morality eliminates two now-fashionable falsehoods: moral subjectivism , which strips the moral will of the real means for realizing itself in community life, and social realism , according to which given social institutions and interests have by themselves a decisive significance in life.2 According to the latter, the highest moral principles turn out to be at best3 only means or instruments for the protection of those interests. From this now quite prevalent point of view, one real 4 form or other of sociality is in essence the genuine and main one, although there are attempts to give it moral justification, to connect it with moral foundations and norms.5 , 6 However, these attempts to find the moral bases of human society show that not just a definite form of society, but not even sociality as such, is7 the highest and unconditional expression of the human being. In fact, if we were defined essentially as8 a social animal (ζώον πολιτικόν)9 and nothing more, this would extremely narrow the intension of the concept “human being” and at the same time significantly expand the extension of that concept. The concept of humanity would then have to include such animals as, for example, ants, for which social life as such is as much an essential characteristic as it is for the human being. The most authoritative investigator of ants, Sir John Lubbock, says, “Moreover, their nests are no mere collections of independent individuals, nor even temporary associations like the flocks of migratory birds, but organised communities labouring with [293]the utmost harmony for the common good.”10 According to the observation of this naturalist, these communities sometimes contain such a large population that, of human cities, perhaps only London and Beijing can be compared to them.11 Of far greater importance are the three inner characteristics of the ant community . First, they have a complex social organization. Second, individual colonies have definite differences in the degree of this organization. This difference is quite analogous to the gradual development of the forms of human culture from hunting to an agricultural way of life. It shows that the social life of ants emerged not in some contingent and exceptional manner, but developed according to certain general sociological laws. Finally, third, what is remarkable is the extraordinary strength and stability of the social bond, and there is an amazing practical solidarity between all the members of the ant citizenry when it is a matter of the common good.

Regarding the first point, if the characteristic feature of a civilization is its division of labor, then it is impossible to deny the existence of an ant civilization. Ants have an extremely sharp division of labor. There are very brave warriors, armed with exorbitantly developed pincer-like jaws with which they deftly grasp and sever the head of the enemy. However, they are unable to do anything else. There are worker ants, who are distinguished by their hard work and skill. There are citizen ants with the opposite qualities going so far that they are no longer able to feed themselves nor walk but can only make use of others’ services. Finally, there are the slaves (which are not to be confused with the worker ants).12 They were acquired by conquest and belong to other species of ants, a fact which does not prevent their complete devotion to their masters. Excluding such a division of labor, the high degree of ant civilization is proven again by the abundance of domestic animals they retain (i.e., domesticated insects from other zoological families). Lubbock notes (of course, not without some exaggeration) “…we may truly [294]say that our English ants possess a greater variety of domestic animals than we do ourselves.”13 Some of these domestic insects, carefully reared by ants, are used for food (such, in particular, are the honeyed plant-lice (aphidae), which Linnaeus calls cows of the ants (aphis formicarum vacca).14 Others perform some necessary social works, for example, serve as scavengers,15 and a third group in Lubbock’s opinion are kept for fun,16 like our pugs or canaries. The entomologist André presented a list of 584 species of insects that are commonly found in ant communities.17

Currently, for many highly populated ant communities the chief means of existence is an ample supply of plant products they have collected. Crowds of worker ants systematically and skillfully cut stalks of grass and stems of leaves—as if reaping. However, this similarity to farming is neither their unique nor their original means of subsistence. Lubbock says, “we find in the different species of ants different conditions of life, curiously answering to the earlier stages of human progress. For instance, some species, such as Formica fusca, live principally on the produce of the chase; for though they feed partly on the honey-dew of aphides, they have not domesticated these insects. These ants probably retain the habits once common to all ants. They resemble the lower races of men, who subsist mainly by hunting. Like them they frequent woods and wilds, live in comparatively small communities, and the instincts of collective action are but little developed among them. They hunt singly, and their battles are single combats, like those of the Homeric heroes. Such species as Lasius flavus represent a distinctly higher type of social life; they show more skill in architecture, may literally be said to have domesticated certain species of aphides, and may be compared to the pastoral stage of human progress—to [295]the races which live on the produce of their flocks and herds. Their communities are more numerous; they act much more in concert; their battles are not mere single combats, but they know how to act in combination. I am disposed to hazard the conjecture that they will gradually exterminate the mere hunting species, just as savages disappear before more advanced races. Lastly, the agricultural nations may be compared with the harvesting ants. Thus there seem to be three principal types, offering a curious analogy to the three great phases—the hunting, pastor, and agricultural stages—in the history of human development.”18

Besides the complexity of their social structure and their gradual cultural development, ant communities are also distinguished, as noted above, by the extreme strength of their social ties. Our author repeatedly informs us that “the utmost harmony reigns between those belonging to the same community.”19 This harmony is dependent solely on the common good. On the basis not just of observations alone but also on numerous experiments, Lubbock shows that in all cases where an individual ant undertakes something useful for the entire community but which exceeds its own capability, for example, dragging a dead fly or beetle that it encountered into the anthill, the ant always calls and finds other companions to help it. On the other hand, when an individual ant meets some disaster that concerns it alone, it does not usually arouse any sympathy, and no help is forthcoming. Our patient naturalist rendered individual ants unconscious many times by means of chloroform or vodka20 with the result that the fellow ants either did not pay any attention to these unfortunate ones or threw them out like carrion. However, tender concern over another’s personal grief has no connection with any social function and consequently is not inherent in the concept of sociality as such. In return, both a feeling of civic duty and a devotion to the common order are so great in ants that disputes or internecine wars among them never arise. Their armed forces are designated for external wars alone. Even in the most developed communities, which have a special class of scavengers and a special [296]breed of domestic jesters, not a single observer could find any sign of an organized police or gendarmerie.


Sociality is at least as essential a characteristic of the animals examined here as it is for humans. If, however, we do not want to recognize their equality with ourselves, if we do not agree now to accord all human and civil rights to each of the innumerable ants swarming in our woods, this is because human beings have another essential quality, independent of sociality. This quality, on the contrary, makes for the distinctive character of human society. It is that each human being, as such, is a moral being, or a person, having, independently of our social utility, an unconditional value, an unconditional right to existence and to the free development of our positive abilities. It follows directly from this that no human being under any condition or for any reason can be seen as merely a means for any outside purpose whatever. The human being cannot be only a means or an instrument for the benefit of another person nor for the benefit of an entire class nor, finally, for the so-called common good , i.e., for the benefit of the majority of other people. This “common good” or “common benefit” is a claim not on the human being, as a person, but on our activity or our work to the extent that it is done for the benefit of society and that, at the same time, provides the worker with a worthwhile existence. A person’s rights as such are based on our inherent and inalienable human value, on the formal, infinite reason in each human being, on the fact that each person has something special and irreplaceable and, consequently, must be an end in itself, and not a mere means or instrument. Such rights of a person are essentially unconditional, whereas the rights of society on a person, on the other hand, are dependent on a recognition of personal rights. Therefore, society can compel a person to do something only through an act of one’s own will. For otherwise the act will not be obligatory of a person but only the use of a thing. Of course, it does not follow from this (as for some reason one of my critics imagined)21 that the social authority [297]must request the special consent of each person for each individual legislative and administrative measure. Instead of such an absurd liberum veto,22 the moral principle logically entails (with respect to the political realm) only the right of each able-bodied person freely to change one’s allegiance as well as one’s religion. In other words, no social group or institution has a right through force to prevent someone from withdrawing as one of its members.23

The human value of each person, or what makes one a moral being, depends neither on one’s natural qualities nor on one’s utility. A human being’s position in society and how other people value someone can determine such qualities and such utility, but they cannot determine one’s own significance and human rights. Many animals are by nature more virtuous than many people. The conjugal virtue of pigeons and storks, the maternal love of hens, the gentle nature of deer, the loyalty and devotion of dogs, the kindness of dolphins and seals, the diligence and civic valor of bees and ants, etc. are all distinctive qualities that adorn our little brothers, but by no means do they constitute the predominant qualities of the majority of human beings. Why, then, has it not yet occurred to anyone to deprive the most rotten people of their human rights in order to pass them along to the most superb animal as a reward for its virtue? As for utility, not only is one healthy horse more useful than a great number of sick beggars, but even inanimate objects, for example, a printing press or a steam boiler have undoubtedly served the general progress of history more than entire savage and barbarian nations. However, if (per impossibile) Guttenberg and Watt had to sacrifice intentionally and consciously even one savage or barbarian for their great inventions, the utility of their efforts would not prevent that action from being resolutely condemned as immoral. Otherwise, we would have to accept that the ends justify the means.24

In order to have the significance of a moral principle, the common good, or common benefit, should be common in the full sense, i.e., good not only for many or even a majority but for everyone without exception. What is actually a benefit for all is thereby also to the benefit of everyone—no one is excluded, and consequently in serving [298] such a social benefit, taken as the goal, no one thereby becomes only a means or instrument of something external and foreign. A true society, which recognizes the unconditional right of each person, is not his or her negative limit but a positive addition. In serving society with selflessness, a person does not lose but instead realizes unconditional value and significance. For taken individually, each of us possesses only a possible unconditionality or infinity. This possibility becomes a reality only through the intrinsic union of each of us with everyone.25

The principle of human dignity or the unconditional significance of each person by virtue of which society is defined as the intrinsic, free consent of all is the sole moral norm.26 , 27 Just as there cannot be many moral norms,28 in the proper sense, so there cannot be many ultimate goods or many moralities. It is easy to show that religion (in its given, historical concrete sense), family and property do not contain in themselves moral norms in the strict sense.29 Whether something in itself can or cannot be moral obviously must be determined as one or the other by something else. However, it cannot independently be a moral norm, i.e., impart to others a character that it itself, perhaps, does not have. It is indubitable, though, that a religion may or may not be moral. How can such religions, as, for example, the cults of Moloch or Astarte (remnants or analogies of which can still be found today here and there), serve as the moral norm of something when their very existence stands in direct contradiction to all morality? Therefore, when we point to a religion as the normal moral30 foundation of society, we must still look whether this religion itself has a moral character,31 whether it agrees with the moral principle. Hence, the final foundation and criterion remains this principle and not religion as such.32 If we [299]see in Christianity the true foundation and the norm of all moral good in the world, this is only because Christianity, as the perfect religion, contains the unconditional moral principle. Should Christian sociality be separated in any way from the demands of moral perfection, the unconditional significance of Christianity would immediately disappear and it would then become an historical accident.33

It is also impossible to deny that the family may or may not be moral, not just in individual examples but also in its general given34 structure. Thus, the family in Ancient Greece —not those special heroic families, where the wife kills her husband and is murdered by her son or where the son kills the father and marries his mother—but the ordinary normal family of educated Athenians, which required the institution of hetaeras, and even worse,35 as a necessary complement, had no moral character. The Arab family (before Islam), in which new-born baby girls, if there were more than one or two of them, would be buried alive, was strong in its own way, but it too did not have moral character. It is also impossible to recognize as moral the very strong Roman family, in which the head of the house had the right of life and death over his wife and children. Therefore, the family too, not having an inherent moral character, must obtain a normal36 moral foundation for itself before imparting it to something else.

As for property, to recognize it as37 the moral foundation of a normal society, consequently, as something sacrosanct and inviolable,38 is neither a logical nor, for me, for example (as I suppose it also is for my generation) even a ­psychological possibility. The first awakening of conscious life and thought occurred in us under the thunder of the destruction of property in two of its basic historical forms: slavery and serfdom. This destruction in both America and Russia was demanded and accomplished in the name of social morality. A pseudo inviolability was brilliantly refuted by the fact of such successful involvement and approved by the conscience of all.39 Obviously, property is something that needs to be justified and that demands a moral norm and a support for itself 40 and by no means contains it.

Every historical institution, be it religious or civil, is a fact of mixed character. However, a moral norm,41 indubitably, can only be a pure principle, and not a mixed [300]fact. A principle that asserts in an unconditional form what should be is something inviolable by its very essence. One can reject it and not follow it. However, no harm is thereby done to the principle, but only to the one who rejects and does not follow it. The thesis that runs: “You should respect the human dignity of everyone; you must not use any person as a means or instrument” is a thesis that depends42 neither on a fact nor does it assert a fact. For this reason, it cannot be affected by any fact.

The principle that the human individual has rights does not depend on anyone or anything. However, societies and institutions obtain their moral character from it alone. We know that in ancient and modern paganism there were and are great cultural-national bodies with extremely strong families, religions and property relations, but all that notwithstanding they did not and do not have the moral character associated with human sociality.43 At best, they are like a community of wise insects that has a well-ordered mechanism but no purpose for which this mechanism serves. There is no moral good itself, because there is no bearer of it, no free individual.44


A certain vague and perverted awareness of the essence of morality and of the true norm45 of human society exists where the moral principle has no apparent application. Thus, in Eastern despotisms there is only one who has the full scope of rights46 and is correctly recognized as a genuine human being, or a person, and such dignity is accorded47 there to only one. However, transformed into an exclusive and externally determined privilege, human dignity and rights lose their moral48 character. Their sole bearer, then, ceases to be an individual, and as a real, concrete being with no possibility of being a pure principle, this being becomes an idol. The moral principle demands of human beings that we respect human dignity as such, i.e., in others as in ourselves. Only by treating others as persons are individual human beings themselves determined as persons. However, the Eastern sovereign finds49 in his world no one with full rights, only things without rights. Therefore, owing to the impossibility of having [301]any personal moral relationships with someone, he inevitably himself loses his personal moral character and becomes a thing—the most important thing, a sacred, divine, worshipped thing—in a word, a fetish or an idol.

In the civil societies of the classical world, the full scope of rights became the privilege not of one, but of several (in aristocracies) and of many (in democracies). This expansion was very important, since it, albeit within narrow confines, made possible independent moral interaction between individuals and, consequently, also personal self-consciousness, and realized, at least for a given social union,50 the idea of equal rights or justice.51 However, the moral principle by its very essence is universal, since it demands a recognition of the unconditional intrinsic dignity of the human being as such, consequently, without any external limitations. Meanwhile, ancient society —both the gentile troops of the Spartans, the Athenian demos and the original combination of both forms—senatus populusque romanus 52—recognized the true significance of the human being only within the bounds of its respective civil union. This is why they were not societies founded on the moral principle, but really only preliminary and approximate models of such a society.

However, the structure of this life is53 for us not just of historical interest. In essence, we have still not outlived it. Let us recall, in fact, what limited the moral principle in the ancient world and prevented its true realization. There were three classes of people who were not recognized as possessing any rights and not seen as objects of any moral obligation. Consequently, they were not considered to any extent as an end of an activity; they were not included in the idea of the common good and were considered only as material instruments or as material obstacles to this good. These classes were: (1) enemies, i.e., originally all foreigners,54 then (2) slaves, and finally (3) criminals. [302]Despite all of their particular differences, the legal status of these three categories of people were essentially one and the same, since that status was throughout equally immoral. There is no need to represent in some exaggerated form the terrible institution of slavery, which replaced, as is well known, the simple slaughter of prisoners. Slaves had a secure means of existence and in general were not treated badly. However, this was an accident, albeit a frequent one, and not an obligation. Consequently, it had no moral significance. Slaves were valued for their utility, but this had nothing to do with a recognition of their human dignity. As opposed to these useful things, which prudence dictates we should care for, enemies, both internal and external, as notoriously harmful things, were subject to ruthless destruction. Ruthlessness towards the enemy in a war could still be limited by respect for his power and fear of retribution, but towards defenseless criminals, whether real or imagined cruelty knew no bounds. In civilized Athens, even before any inquest, those accused of ordinary criminal offenses were tortured as the first order of business after being taken into custody.

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