The Unity of Moral Foundations

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2015
Thomas Nemeth (ed.)Vladimir Solov’ëv’s Justification of the Moral Good10.1007/978-3-319-12775-0_8

Chapter 7 The Unity of Moral Foundations

Thomas Nemeth 

Old Bridge, New Jersey, USA



Thomas Nemeth

E] As the contents of this chapter reveal, it was written subsequent to many of the other chapters. It is absent from B. §§I—X appeared in Knizhki Nedeli, 1898, #2 with the subtitle “From a newly written additional chapter in the second edition of my ‘Moral Philosophy’, now being printed”.§§XI and XII of this chapter appeared for the first time in the second edition of 1899. For the most part, the entirety of §XIII and §XIV up to the paragraph beginning with the words “The fact that the moral good” appeared as part of an article under the title “The Reality of the Moral Order” in Voprosy filosofii i psikhologii, vol. 31 (1).


When we do something wrong in some way, for example, when we actively, or even only passively, harm our neighbors by refusing to extend a helping hand to someone in need, we feel ashamed afterwards. Here lies the genuine psychic1 root of all human moral goodness and the distinctive characteristic of the human being as a moral creature.

Properly speaking, what is experienced here? In the first place, we have a feeling of pity for the injured party, something that was not felt at the moment of the injury itself. Among other things, this proves that the inner impulses of our psychic nature can stir us more deeply, as well as more forcefully, than can material motives. A purely mental reflection can evoke a feeling that would be deaf to external impressions. The invisible distress of another proves2 to be more real than a visible one.

Secondly, a new variation (even more vigorous) is joined here to this simple feeling (although it is already refined as a result of the absence of a visible object), since we not only pity those who we did not pity earlier but even pity the fact that we did not pity them at the time. We regret that we were pitiless. In addition to the regret for the injured party, there is now also regret for oneself as the injurer.

[164] However, these two psychological aspects by no means exhaust the matter. The feeling under investigation receives its entire psychic acuity and moral significance from a third aspect, which lies in the fact that the thought of our pitiless behavior arouses in us, in addition to the singular reaction of the corresponding feeling, viz., pity, the even more powerful reaction of another, apparently quite irrelevant feeling, viz., shame: Not only do we regret our cruel behavior, but we are also ashamed of it, even though there might be nothing specifically shameful about it. This third aspect is so important that it colors our entire psychic state so that instead of “my conscience bothers me” we simply say “I am ashamed,”3J’ai honte,” “Ich schäme mich,” “mne stydno.” In the classical languages, words corresponding to “conscience” were not used in ordinary discourse. Instead, they substituted words4 corresponding to “shame,” —a clear indication of the fact that the original root of conscience lies precisely in that feeling. What does this mean?


Besides a corresponding reaction from the injured moral element, the thought of admittedly violating any moral demand arouses shame5. This takes place even when there are no demands for shame within one’s own sphere (the relation of the human being to one’s lower or carnal nature). The given action, however, may not have been contrary to modesty or to a feeling of human superiority over material nature. That is, the distinction between the three fundamental foundations6 of human moral nature clearly must not become a division between them. These three roots to a certain degree are knitted7 together in one, and the moral order, viewed in its formative essence, is with respect to the totality of its norms only the separation and development of one and the same principle from this or that side. The feeling of shame, connected in the most down-to-earth manner with the fact of the sexual sphere, transcends material life and as an expression of a formal disapproval accompanies any violation of a moral norm to whatever sphere of relations it belongs. In all languages, as far as I know, the word corresponding to our word “shame” is noted invariably for two distinctive features: (1) [165] a connection with objects belonging to the sexual sphere (αιδώςαιδοία, pudorpudenda, honteparties honteuses, SchamSchamtheile), and (2) the application of these words to all cases expressing disapproval of a violation of moral demands in general. In order to deny the unique sexual meaning of shame (or the special shamefulness of carnal relations between the sexes) and equally in order to limit shame to this meaning alone, it is necessary above all to disavow the word, having recognized it as a senseless contingency.

The general moral sense of shame is only a further inner development of what is already contained in its unique original manifestation concerning the facts of sexual life.


The essence or chief concern of life—for animals—undoubtedly lies in the perpetuation through reproduction of new individuals of that unique form of organic being represented by this or that animal. I say that this is the essence of life for them and not merely in them, because the most important sexual interest, and which is unique of its kind, is experienced and sensed by them internally, though certainly only passively and involuntarily. When we see a dog, waiting for a dainty morsel, its pose, the expression in its eyes and its entire being indicate, as it were, that the chief nerve of its subjective existence lies in its stomach. However, the most voracious dog completely forgets about food when it is sexually aroused, and if this dog is female, she will voluntarily give up her food and even her very life for her puppies. Here, the individual animal recognizes conscientiously, as it were, that its own life by itself is unimportant, that what matters is only the preservation of a given type of organic life that was passed on through an infinite series of fleeting individuals. This is the sole form of infinity that an animal can comprehend. However, we can understand from this the enormous and fundamental significance the sexual sphere has for human life. If human beings are essentially more than animals, then in order to isolate them from the animal kingdom this intrinsic self-determination as persons must begin precisely here with this source, in this focus of organic being. Any other point would be [166] comparatively superficial. Only here does the individual animal sense the infinity of its species-life, see itself (as indeed it is) as only a finite phenomenon, as only a means or instrument of a generic process and without struggle and delay surrender itself to this infinite genus, which completely devours its individual existence. It is here in this focus of life that a person is aware of the inadequacy of the generic infinity in which the animal finds its highest goal. Our generic essence asserts its rights on us too, and through us this essence wants to be immortalized. However, our inner being answers such a demand: “We are not what you are. We are above you. We are not a genus, although we are of a genus. We are not a genus, but we are geniuses. We can and want to be infinite and immortal not in you alone, but in ourselves. You drag us into the abyss of your evil, an empty infinity in order to devour and destroy us, but we seek for ourselves the true and full infinity, which we could share with you too. What we have from you wants to be mingled with you and pull us down into your abyss above which we have climbed, but8 our own being, which is not from you, is ashamed of this mingling and is opposed to it. Our being wants as the only thing worthy of it that true unification in which both of the united members are immortalized.”

In the feeling of sexual shame, which establishes its enormous fundamental importance as the basis not only of material but also of formal morality, a person recognizes as shameful, and consequently as evil and wrong, not some particular or contingent deviation from a certain moral norm, but the very essence of the natural law to which the entire organic world is subordinate. What is important here is not so much that a person in general is ashamed as what he is ashamed of. Possessing this faculty of shame, which we do not observe in other animals, a human being could be defined as the animal that is ashamed. This definition, which is better than many others, would not, however, distinguish human beings as bearers of a unique world or of a new order of being. However, the fact that human beings above all and most of all are ashamed precisely of the very essence of animal life or of the highest fundamental manifestation of natural being directly shows that we are supernatural and super-animal beings. Therefore, in this shame the human being becomes a human being in the full sense.9


The sexual act embodies the infinity of a natural process, and a person, being ashamed of this act, denies this very infinity as unworthy of a human being. It is unworthy of a person to be merely a means or an instrument of a natural process in which the blind force of life perpetuates itself at the expense of individuals who are born and perish, replacing in turn one another. As moral entities, human beings do not want to submit to this natural law of replacing generations, to the law of eternal death.10 Human beings do not want to replace or to be replaced. We sense, at first vaguely, both the need and the ability to include within ourselves the full scope of eternal life . Ideally, we already include it within ourselves in the very act of human consciousness. However, this is not enough. We need to implement the ideal in reality, without which the idea is only a phantasy and a higher self-consciousness is only a form of conceit. The power of eternal life as a fact exists: Nature lives eternally and shines with eternal beauty. However, this is an indifferent nature—indifferent to individual creatures, which by their succession preserve its eternity. However, among these creatures there is one which does not accept such a passive role. It finds its involuntary service to nature shameful for itself and its reward, namely, personal death and the immortality of the species, to be inadequate. This creature does not want to be an instrument, but the possessor of eternal life. For this, it does not need to create a new life-force from nothing, but only to possess what nature gives and employ it for its personal use.

We call those people “geniuses” in whom the vital creative force is not fully spent on the external concern of carnal reproduction but who concern themselves also with the inner matter of spiritual creation in this or that sphere. A genius is a person who apart from the life of the species perpetuates him or herself and is preserved in the general posterity even though this person produces none of his or her own. However, if such perpetuation is taken as final, it turns out to be illusory. For it takes place on the basis of generations that come and go, replacing one another so that neither those who are remembered nor those who remember have a genuine life. The generally accepted sense of being a genius is only [168] a hint of the actual case. The true “genius” within us, which speaks loudest of all in sexual shame, does not demand that we have the highest gift for the arts and the sciences and become a famous name for posterity. No, it demands much more. As a genuine genius, i.e., connected with the entire genus, though standing above it, it appeals not to the chosen alone, but to each and everyone, cautioning each and everyone against this entire process of bad infinity through which mundane nature eternally builds life on dead bones, but to no avail.


The object of sexual shame is not the external fact of the animalistic uniting of two human individuals, but the deep and universal sense of this fact. This sense is expressed, above all, but by no means exhausted by the fact that in such an act a person submits to the blind impulse of a basic force. If the path that carries us were in itself good, then we should resign ourselves to the dark character of this impulse in the hope of, in time, seeing the reason for it and freely accepting what at first was an involuntarily submission. However, the genuine force of sexual shame is that in general we are ashamed not only of our submission to nature, but of our submission to it as something bad, entirely bad. For the path to which the carnal instinct draws us and against which the feeling of shame warns is one that is shameful from the start and turns out ultimately to be pitiless and profane. This clearly reveals the inner connection of all three moral norms that are already contained in the first. Sexual abstinence is not only an ascetic but also at the same time an altruistic and a religious demand.

The law of animalistic reproduction that we are ashamed of is the law of the elimination or supplanting of one generation with another, a law running directly contrary to the principle of human solidarity. Directing our life’s energies to the procreation of children, we are averted from our fathers, who are left simply to die. We cannot create anything from ourselves—what we give to the future, we take from the past, and through us our descendants live at the expense of their ancestors. They live by the death of the latter. So it happens in nature, which is indifferent and [169] pitiless, and we certainly do not answer for it. However, our own participation in this indifferent and pitiless natural concern is our fault, even though it be passive. We have a vague sense of this guilt already beforehand in sexual shame. We are all the more guilty in that our participation in this pitiless business of nature, which supplants earlier generations with new ones, immediately concerns those to whom we are especially and most of all indebted, to our fathers and ancestors. This matter, thus, turns out to be contrary not only to pity, but also to piety.


Here we have something like a great contradiction, a fatal antinomy, which in any case we must recognize even if we have no hope at all of resolving it. Bearing children is a good. It is good for the mother, who, in the words of the Apostle, is saved by it. It certainly is also good for the father, who participates in this saving business. Finally, it is good for those who receive the gift of life. Yet at the same time it is also indubitable that there is evil in carnal reproduction, not that contingent and external evil of any of the various disasters which the newborn inherit along with life, but the essential moral evil of the carnal act itself through which by our own agreement we affirm the dark path of nature. Its blindness makes it a shameful path for us. It is pitiless to the departing generation, and it is profane, because this generation is that of our fathers. However, only we can correct this evil of the natural way for humanity, and what we of the present generation do not do can be done by a future generation, who, being born by the same animalistic means can renounce it and change the law of life. Here is the resolution of the fatal contradiction: the evil of bearing children can be eliminated by this act of bearing children, which in this way becomes a good. However, the saving character of bearing children will be illusory if those who are born continue to do the same as those who give birth and likewise sin and die. Surely, all of the charm that children present to us, their special human charm is inseparably connected with the assumption and the hope that they will not be like us, but will be better than us—not quantitatively better by one or two degrees but essentially better, that they will be people of another life, that our actual salvation lies in them—ours and that of all our ancestors. Human love for children must contain [170] something in itself above what is in a hen’s love for its chicks. It must have a rational meaning. However what is the rational meaning of holding someone with delight and affection if the goal in life of this person is to be a future scoundrel, while we condemn an actual scoundrel now?11 If the future presented by children differs from the present only in the temporal order, then where lies their charm? If a poisonous plant or weed grows from this seed, where is the delight in this seed? However, there is the possibility of a better way of life that would lift us above nature with its dark and impotent desire, revealing to us and in us the completeness12 of power and light. This possibility lies in us as well as in children, but it is fuller in them than in us, because it is still retained intact, and not wasted as it is in us in a stream of empty and bad reality. These creatures have not yet sold their souls and their spiritual birthright to evil powers. Everyone agrees that the special charm of children lies in their innocence, but this factual birthright could not give us joy and delight if we were certain that it will certainly be lost. The idea that their angels directly see the face of the Heavenly Father would not itself provide any comfort and instruction if it were connected with the conviction that these angels now will inevitably go blind.

If the special moral charm of children (on which their aesthetic attractiveness is based) depends13 on a greater possibility for them of another way of life, then before giving birth to children for the sake of this possibility, should we not ourselves actually change our evil ways? To the extent that we do not have the power to do this, giving birth to children can be for us a good and our salvation. However, on what basis will we decide in advance that we cannot? Is our confidence in our impotence a guarantee of the future power of those to whom we hand over our lives?


Sexual shame does not concern a physiological fact in isolation and in its isolation with indifference. Nor does such shame concern sexual love in general, which can be unashamed and the highest good. The warning and later the condemning voice of sexual shame concerns only that path of animal [171] nature which is essentially bad for human beings, although at the present stage of human life it may be a lesser, necessary, evil, i.e., a relative moral good.

However, the genuine unconditional moral good lies not on this path, which at least in human beings begins with abuse. There is a positive side to human sexual love that for purposes of clarity and brevity I call “falling in love.” Certainly, this phenomenon is analogous to sexual desire in animals and arises on that basis, but it clearly cannot be reduced to this desire, if only not to reduce in general the human being to an animal. Its individual super-generic character essentially distinguishes falling in love from the sexual passion of animals: The object of “falling in love” is a specific individual, and the subject aspires to immortalize not the genus but the two individuals concerned. Apart from the other types of individual human love, e.g., parental, filial, sibling, etc.,14 falling in love is different owing particularly to the indivisible unity of its spiritual and its physical side. It concerns primarily the entire person. For the one who falls in love, the mental and the corporeal being of the loved one are both interesting, significant and dear to an equal extent, though in different ways. He is attached to them with the same intensity of feeling.15 What does this mean from the moral point of view? At that time when all human faculties are in blossom, a new spiritual-physical faculty emerges in him. It fills him with enthusiasm and heroic aspirations, and a higher voice tells him that it is not without reason that this faculty is given to him, that he can use it for something great. This voice tells him that the true and eternal union with another person, which the pathos of his love demands, can restore in him the image of a perfect human being and can serve as the basis for the same re-creation in all humanity. Certainly, the ecstasy of love does not say the same thing to everyone who falls in love, but the sense of what it tells is the same and represents merely from the other, the positive, side the very thing that sexual shame says. Shame restrains a person from following the improper, animalistic path, and the pathos of love points to the proper path and the highest goal for the positive, excess force that lies in this very [172] pathos. When a person directs this higher force there, namely, to the animalistic business of reproduction, he clearly expends it on an empty pursuit. The business of procreation in humans, just like in animals, does not demand that force. Procreation can be carried out quite successfully through an ordinary organic practice16 without any of the higher pathos of personal17 love. When a simple action b is sufficient to obtain the result18 c, but meanwhile a complex action a + b is used, then obviously the entire force of a is spent in vain.


The feeling of shame serves as the natural basis for the principle of asceticism, but the negative rules of abstinence do not exhaust the content of this feeling. The formal principle of duty is inherent in shame and forbids shameful or unworthy actions. It condemns us for doing such actions, but shame also has a positive side (in the sexual sphere connected with “falling in love”), which indicates the good things in life that are protected by our abstinence and19 endangered or even perish with our succumbing to “things of the flesh.”20, 21 In the feeling of shame, the desires of the carnal, animal path are opposed not only to the formal level of human dignity or of the rational super-animal faculty of infinite understanding and aspiration, but also to22 the essential integrity of human life, which may be hidden though not destroyed in this given state.

We face here the borders of metaphysics but without crossing over into them, without leaving the ground of moral philosophy. We can and must point to this positive side of the fundamental moral feeling, which is both factually and logically indubitable. Shame in its primary manifestation would not have that unique, vital character, would not be a localized spiritual and organic feeling, if it expressed only the formal primacy of human reason over the irrational inclinations of our animal nature. Surely, a person does not lose this primacy of the mental faculties when following the path against which shame warns. Something else is lost, something that is really and essentially connected with the direct object of shame. It is not without reason that sexual modesty is also called chastity .

[173] We have been deprived of the integrity of our being and of our lives, and in true, chaste love for the other sex we strive, hope and dream to re-establish this integrity. Such aspirations, hopes and dreams are destroyed by an act of momentary, external and illusory union, which nature, suppressing its shame, substitutes for the desired integrity. Instead, the spiritual and corporeal interpenetration and intercourse of two human beings is here only a contiguity of organic membranes and the mixing of organic secretions (discharges). This superficial, though secret, union only confirms, strengthens and perpetuates the profound factual division23 or fragmentation of the human being. Following the fundamental division into two sexes, or in half, the external union of the sexes results in a split into successive generations that replace and displace one another and whose coexistence leads to the creation of a multitude of separate, independent individuals, who on meeting are hostile to one another. Human integrity or solidarity is broken in depth, breadth and extent. However, this aspiration to fragment, this centrifugal force of life, is a tendency that can never be fully realized, although it is partially realized everywhere. In the human being, where it has the intrinsic character of an intended wrong, or sin, it resists and reacts against our intrinsic abiding integrity. In the first place, the fundamental feeling of shame, or chastity, opposes the mixing and splitting tendency of nature in our real or sensuous life. It rests also in the positive manifestation of shame, viz., in the pathos of chaste love, which does not reconcile itself either with the division of the sexes or with their external, deceptive union. In the sphere of the social life in which humans have already multiplied, the centrifugal force of nature manifests itself as the egoism of each and an antagonism of all. It provokes opposition to the same human integrity that expresses itself here as the intrinsic solidarity of externally disparate individuals mentally sensed in the feeling of pity.

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