Home > Philosophy > 1997 After Postmodernism Conference > Hatab (background)

ETHICS AND FINITUDE: Heideggerian Contributions to Moral Philosophy

Lawrence J. Hatab
Old Dominion University

From early in his thinking, Heidegger subordinated the question of ethics to the question of Being. Like other ontical matters, ethics could not be addressed adequately until the ontological question of Dasein's general mode of Being was given priority. Heidegger often indicated that this should not be taken to mean a rejection of, or indifference toward, ethics; rather, ethics, again like other ontic regions, has concealed within its mode of thinking a primordial dimension that can open up the way in which Dasein is in the world. My reading of this ontic-ontological differentiation is as follows: Ethics is rich in its analysis of normative topics but poor in attention to our being-ethical-in-the-world, in the fullest sense that Heidegger would give to such a phrase. This coordination of ethics and ontology suggests the possibility of taking up ethics anew once we have clarified the overall existential constitution of Dasein.

Although Heidegger often gives the impression of segregating ontology from "practical" disciplines like ethics, I am convinced that this was an analytical division and not a substantive one. Much in the early Heidegger has seemed promising for an investigation of ethics. But there is also a good deal of suspicion about the ethical possibilities in Heidegger (notably in the work of Habermas and Levinas). Given the Olympian distance of Heidegger's later thought (e.g., the claim that Denken has "no result" and "no effect"), and given his fascist politics together with the deceit and galling silence of the postwar years, the segregation of ethics from ontology can be interpreted as a more heinous division--that Heidegger's thought was or became indifferent to ethics, or worse, inseparable from something dark and barbaric.

I am not entirely swayed by this suspicion. I am one of those who believes that we can distinguish Heidegger the human being from his thought in some way. We can even distinguish between Heidegger's thought as presented to us from the potential for ethical thinking contained therein (in all periods of his thought, but especially in the early writings). Moreover, I also think it is possible to show, in some measure, that Heidegger's political commitments were not consistent with certain basic elements of his thought and its ethical implications. This is not to deny that Heidegger himself affirmed an idealized version of National Socialism that followed his thought in essential ways. My motive is not to rehabilitate Heidegger but to explore the ways in which his thinking can make an important contribution to ethics, and I aim to do this in terms of familiar intellectual concerns and social applications, not some arcane circulation of Heideggerian terminology. This is my project, then, and one that I will not shy away from calling moral philosophy; but most of my inspiration has come from Heidegger's way of thinking.

Moral philosophy must give up the model of ethical "theory," the insistence on rational justification, and the privileging of abstract principles over concrete situations. Ethics should be understood as the heuristic engagement of basic practical questions: How should human beings live? How should we live together? What are better and worse ways of conducting our lives? Moreover, ethics must acknowledge a prephilosophical, traditional heritage that presents us with a degree of consensus ahead of time regarding better and worse ways of living (this is an Aristotelian point reaffirmed by Heidegger). Taking our own society, we tend to agree already in a rough fashion and to a certain extent that lying, stealing, and killing are undesirable actions, that injustice, violence, cruelty, and indifference are worse than fairness, kindness, and concern. I dare say that such values are not unique to our culture or time either. The task of philosophy would not be to put our entire moral outlook into question or to discover some brand new system of values (nothing so radical has ever happened in history. Rather, moral philosophy should engage a fivefold task: 1) Analyze moral values as a cultural phenomenon. 2) Clarify the meaning of the values and norms we inherit. 3) Ask the question: Why should people be ethical in this way? This question is not a call for demonstration or proof to banish doubt or disagreement, but rather an existential and pedagogical question to address the developments, conflicts, and tensions in the ethical life. In other words, moral philosophy should be inseparable from moral education. 4) Ask the related question: How do people become ethical or unethical? What conditions or attributes or developments are involved in actualizing or blocking ethical potential? 5) Submit the tradition to critique, to uncover internal inconsistencies, conflicts, or failures, and to discover innovations needed to revise or alter tradition.

Given the difficulties that moral philosophy has faced so far in meeting this task, I think that ethics could benefit from Heidegger's thought in a way comparable to his revision of traditional ontology. Heidegger never claimed that rational or metaphysical models of thought are false or dispensable, only that they are not primordial enough, that something is concealed in their disclosures -- the radical finitude of Being -- that needs drawing out to renovate our thinking about the world. Heidegger also never denied the importance of ethics or the need for it in our critical time of history. I would proposes an analogy between Heidegger's approach to traditional ontology and a possible approach to ethics. Traditional ethical theories are not false or dispensable; they all show us something important about morality. But they have missed or covered over the radical finitude of human existence and the preconceptual lived world, attention to which can renovate our thinking about ethics. So the ethics that is put in question would be the traditional philosophical and metaphysical presumptions about moral values, and not the matter (die Sache) of how we should live our lives. If we attend in a Heideggerian manner to the existential environment (being-in-the-world) in which and out of which the ethical life arises, such a "pre-ethical" analysis should give us clues for a more adequate ethics in regard to its fivefold task described above. In the light of Heidegger's thought, ethics can be seen as a finite, existential, ungrounded world dynamic, a configuration that I think can significantly improve upon traditional models in moral philosophy.

The task for ethics should not be the search for a theory or principle that can survive rational scrutiny, that can satisfy the objective cognitive standards inherited from traditional logic and the sciences, that can give us clear and certain criteria to guide adjudication -- the orientation in such directions already means that ethics has been distorted from the start. We already are shaped by ethics, before we reflect on it. We must attend to this prereflective ethical world to better understand how values function in our experience, to open up the ethical life, its conditions, demands, and difficulties. In this way ethics is not simply a philosophical specialty, but a social project that keeps the existential claim of morality alive as an issue that people must continually engage. And I think that Heidegger's constellation of being-in-the-world can be effectively translated to prepare such an approach: The radical finitude of being-toward-death in connection with care, the threefold structure of understanding, disposition, and discourse, thrownness, Mitsein, and especially the dynamic between fallenness, everydayness, and authenticity--all this can be applied to our being-ethical-in-the-world. Now let me attempt to work out some details of this application.


Many ethical theories have searched for an objective, rational standard that can be as decisive in morality as in the domains of mathematics, logic, and the sciences (e.g., Platonic forms, the Kantian categorical imperative, the utilitarian happiness calculus). One way or another the hope is that we can discover a measure to legislate the affective conflicts and empirical contingencies of the ethical field. From a Heideggerian perspective, the futility of such a search is forcefully shown in the fact that even the most objective ontologies are deconstructed into the dynamics of an existential lived world. Since no form of knowledge can claim a purely objective, fixed warrant, it is short work to show that objective certainty is a chimera in ethics. Being-ethical-in-the-world can be specifically drawn along the same lines as Heidegger's general ontological configuration. Everyday normative involvement gives us access to a noncognitive environment that opens up the following conditions: The radical finitude of being-toward-death is the existential thrust of care, the urgency of concern for our possibilities in the world that can bear us in, and in which we can bear, our finitude. Human norms are fully intelligible in such a setting as various modes of "shelter" for beings that are continually subjected to conditions of finitude: death, loss, pain, failure, etc. But norms as such are no less finite than the world in which they arise, so "having norms" must be understood in terms of the conditions uncovered in a existential analysis: temporality, historicality, unconcealment, facticity, particularity, plurality--none of which can support the search for an objective standard.

One insight that a Heideggerian analysis can give to ethics is this: We are not first or finally ethical in an objective manner, by way of some theory or rational demonstration, which operate by reflectively standing back from world involvement. I am not discounting such operations entirely; I am pointing to the distortions and omissions that follow from an exclusive focus on rationality (e.g., the notion of a practical syllogism, which at best is mere retrospection, since it has no real existential force). We are first introduced to values by way of training, habits, and institutional influences, i.e., by way of a tradition already in place that gives us our ethical orientation in a prereflective immersion and transmission. Values become part of our nature before we reflect on them, and there is no reason to think that such a prereflective dimension ever can be or should be dissociated from the moral life. Even after maturation and reflection, being ethical will not be free of traditional influences, will not be detachable from our particular existential concerns, and will always require the moments of decision where reflection leaves off and action begins.

Being and Time gives us a model for orchestrating this range of noncognitive elements: Dasein is first molded by a traditional heritage, in a self-world immersional whole that precedes subject-object differentiation; Dasein's concern for its existential possibilities, which concern is "mine" (cf. Jemeinigkeit), is never absent in its deliberations; and each Dasein is faced with the possibility of authentically taking up its traditional heritage in a unique way, in terms of decisions that will open up individual pathways in the course of life. All of this--precognitive training, existential concern, and decision--shows the shortcomings in purely objective, rational moral theories.

In some respects there is historical precedent for the kind of ethical analysis I am trying to draw from Being and Time, namely the ethics of Aristotle. The recent publication of an early lecture course, Phänomenologische Interpretationen zu Aristoteles, gives us some fascinating material regarding both the relationship between Heidegger's and Aristotle's thought and the possibilities for ethics in Heidegger's early ontology. In this text Heidegger mentions the problems in absolutistic, transcendental moral systems owing to their detachment from a more worldly, finite, lived morality. It is Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, particularly its critique of Platonic moral philosophy, that gives Heidegger a historical focus for another beginning, both in ontology and in ethics (but this revision will have to go beyond Aristotle in significant ways). Aristotle presents a phenomenology of ethics in that he does not bracket tradition or experience; he examines what "appears" (phainesthai) in culture and then submits it to analysis, clarification, and puzzle resolution (1145b3-7). What is shown are a number of elements that disrupt the Platonic tendency toward rationalistic, universalistic, and perfectionistic conceptions of goodness. The good will be a human good (1095b3, 1178a5-15) reflecting the finite conditions of a desiring being, not to be measured against divine perfection; the good first requires habituation (1103b24-25), then mature deliberation in the complex choices of life; the good is pluralized, not uniform (1096a24-25), particular, not universal, inexact, not precise (1094b20-25), difficult, not easy (1106b30-35).

In a similar manner, Heidegger suggests an ethics that will accord more with the human world, that will renounce the comfortable, undisturbed, lofty distances of moral theories that, in their insulation, foreclose any realization of ethical possibilities in the actual experience of finite conditions. One interesting connection in this regard is that between Verstehen, Heidegger's notion of prereflective understanding, and Aristotle's phronesis, or practical wisdom. Phronesis is an inexact, deliberative finesse that guides our actions regarding a desired end (telos), or that for the sake of which (hou heneka) we act. Here the human good involves natural potentialities that we strive to actualize through deliberative choices. This fits Heidegger's sense of Verstehen, since it is connected with Seinkönnen, Dasein's potentiality-for-being, and das Umwillen, the for-sake-of that animates Dasein's actions. Ethics, for Aristotle, involves human potentials and the means and conditions needed to actualize these ends. A similar kind of ethical developmentalism can be read out of Being and Time, although there we notice a radicalization of Aristotle's formulations. The Kierkegaardian influences in Being and Time show an even more dynamic, open, and contingent atmosphere than Aristotle would allow. For Heidegger, Dasein's potentiality is never filled up in any way or even compensated for by the comfort taken in a metaphysics of divine actuality. Dasein is potentiality, and so full actuality is ruled out in principle. Moreover, despite the acceptance of tradition in Heidegger's analysis, the notion of authenticity opens up issues relating to the tension between individuation and conformity, which goes far beyond the gesture toward particularity in Aristotle, and which presents a more contemporary range of ethical topics regarding how we should engage social norms and controls.

The focus on potentiality in Being and Time permits two basic applications that pertain to ethics. First, so many of our values address the supports for and obstacles to human development (e.g., homelife, child rearing, meaningful work, social relationships, cultural pursuits). On a political level, certain social programs should be seen to stem from asking basic ethical questions: What are the desirable ends of human activity? What are the ways in which a human life can flourish and turn out well? What are the material, environmental, and educational needs that make such flourishing more likely? Everything from pedagogy to welfare to health care to civil rights can at least be addressed in a clearer light and more effective public discourse if we trace them to the fundamental existential concerns we all recognize and affirm.

Second, ethics itself is a human potential, the possibility of becoming a person who can live well with others. Attention to the human condition in all its facets would be an essential ingredient in moral education. The kind of analysis Heidegger offers in Being and Time is useful because it helps us understand what becoming ethical involves or requires--not simply value education, but how values constitute our very being-in-the-world, and what it takes to be able to enact our values. Attention to our sense of self and to the existential demands and difficulties of the ethical life have usually not been the focus of moral philosophy. I will develop some examples that address this problem shortly.

Being-ethical-in-the-world: The Problem of Subjectivity

It seems that ethics must involve something of a "call," something having a claim on us, something that draws us and motivates a commitment in the midst of counter-impulses. Such a call need not reflect the traditional force of a "command," but since normative matters always imply the human potential to alter one's behavior in the face of other (likely more ready) inclinations, then some sense of a "self-transcendence" is needed to capture the tone of "obligation" that seems so indigenous to ethics. In this regard I think that Heidegger's ontological critique of subjectivity can also bear fruit in moral philosophy. Many problems in ethical theory can be traced to the modernist tendency to ground values in a "subject," variously conceived in individual, collective, or cognitive terms. One way or another, Hume's division of fact and value retains its force as long as values are restricted to a subjective realm when measured against, and not measuring up to, the strict conditions of scientific objectivity. But since Heidegger's thought permits a deconstruction of objectivity, this opens up the possibility of reconciling the fact-value divorce that has made ethics so problematic since the Modern period.

Consider emotivism, the notion that moral values are merely an expression of affective preferences that have no cognitive status. A phenomenology of values would, I think, call into question the idea that my objections to torture, for example, are nothing more than personal preferences (and what could I say about those whose preferences support torture?). And is the objection to fraud in scientific research nothing more than a preference? Consider also moral egoism, which in my view amounts to an oxymoron. In effect it says that the right thing to do is whatever an individual wants to do--when it is this very condition of individuals pursuing any and every desire that generates normative thinking in the first place. "I should do whatever I want to do" is really the absence of an ethics. Individual subjectivity, then, is somewhat incoherent as an ethical reference, and it certainly seems to lack the sense of a "call" (what would it mean to say that I am obligated to follow my desires?).

Utilitarianism is somewhat of an improvement in asking individuals to adjust their actions to the general well-being of the community. But the community in this case is simply an aggregate of individual subjectivities, which does not therefore supercede the assumption that the good is nothing more than an internal affection having no external claim. Moreover, the criterion of collectivity contains the danger of majoritarian tyranny that has often plagued this theory, and the emphasis on instrumental reason seems to leave no room for the dignity of persons. Finally, since human well-being is the core of utilitarianism, one wonders how something like an ecological ethic could fare under its rubric.

The one modern approach that most satisfies the need for an ethical call is the kind of deontological theory inspired by Kant. Here the subject is the rational subject that discovers universal ethical principles solely through the exercise of reason by way of the categorical imperative, principles that are completely independent of personal or collective inclinations and empirical conditions, and that should command our thinking in the same way that other rational truths claim the mind's assent. But we can notice in Kant's detached, abstract route to universal consistency something analogous to metaphysical subjectism, as critiqued by Heidegger, particularly in the matter of technicity's totalistic oblivion of Being and finite dwelling. The strict segregation of the good from personal concerns and the contingencies of experience makes possible a kind of tyrannical formalism that becomes blind to the actual conditions of existence, and thereby not only inapplicable but dangerously inflexible (the good at any cost).

In different ways then, the orientation toward the subject in modern moral theory can be implicated in various problems that have continued to frustrate ethical discourse. Without claiming that Heidegger's thought can solve all these problems, I think his critique of subjectivity can give us a good start in addressing the underlying assumptions that foster these difficulties. First off we can see that Heidegger would object to "grounding" values in the subject no less than he would object to the "grounding" of any region of Being. But this does not annul values; it opens the realm of values to the overall configuration of finite being-in-the-world. As with other concerns of Dasein, values can be understood as uncovered in Dasein's world, and not simply in some inner subjective zone. As part of the world, values can be seen to have as much a "claim" on Dasein's understanding as other factical conditions into which it is "thrown." Notions such as facticity, thrownness, historicality, (and, as we will see, Mitsein) that operate in Being and Time can give relief from individualistic and subjectivistic conceptions of values, as well as from a hyperbolic conception of existential freedom that in the end sees values as arbitrary choices. And regarding the difficulties indicated in utilitarianism and Kantian theory, I think that the phenomenological analysis of being-in that subverts the subject-object bifurcation initiated by Cartesian ontology can likewise open our understanding of values to a dimension "ecstatically" situated in world involvement, rather than simply the rational calculation of human preferences or the pure abstraction of universal consistency.

Perhaps now we can better understand Heidegger's notorious objections to the term "value." We know that much of this came from his obsession with protecting Being from a reduction to human interests. Beyond ontological considerations, I am convinced that the same can be said for the moral domain, that renouncing the value paradigm is not a rejection of ethical concerns, but a protection of their authentic meaning from the distortion of reducing them to merely human, subjective estimations.

In general terms here we run up against the perennial problem of moral knowledge, of whether morality can have any cognitive status comparable to other modes of knowing. Much of modern philosophy has challenged the possibility of truth in ethics (especially positivism's inheritance of Hume's classic critique). But here again is the beauty of Heidegger's phenomenology. Ethics is indeed not a form of knowledge if truth is presumed to be the objective warrants of scientific rationality; values inhabit a realm of affectivity, uncertainty, contingency, and disagreement. For Heidegger, however, all knowledge must be deconstructed into the lived environment of the care structure, which amounts to a revision of what "knowledge" and "truth" mean. The aforementioned conditions of existential finitude are implicated in any form of knowing. In Being and Time, traditional assumptions about strict objectivity are demolished, but not in the direction of a radical skepticism or anti-realism. The difference between supposedly objective and nonobjective disciplines can be understood now as the degree to which existential concerns are implicated in their disclosures. Consequently, the so-called exact sciences are simply less existentially operational than history, art, or ethics. But then, given this continuum, ethics, in being simply more animated by existential concerns, can not on that account alone be deemed any less "real," any less "knowable," or, especially, any less "true"--if we employ Heidegger's interpretation of truth as aletheia, as a finite, ungrounded, process of unconcealment that can work for any form of disclosure. Heidegger should be read as a phenomenological realist, or, if you like, a radical realist, in that Being is disclosed through Dasein, not produced by Dasein (confusion and ambiguity on this point was part of the reason for the Kehre). But the disclosure of Being is a finite, dynamic, and pluralized process that subverts traditional philosophical confidences. The irony is, and this is a major contribution to moral philosophy, that the features of ethics that had often weakened its claims to knowledge and truth in traditional discourse can now be seen to strengthen those claims, as along as knowledge and truth are given proper postmetaphysical alterations.

Ethics and Dwelling

Dwelling (Wohnen) is a word that occupied Heidegger's later thinking. But it is completely consistent with, and expressive of, the nonobjective-nonsubjective configuration of being-in-the-world delineated in the early writings. The word "dwelling" captures both "subjective" and "objective" tones (human meaning and the environment which we inhabit), but in a single, indivisible, existential term. The word in all its resonances becomes Heidegger's replacement for traditional subject-object ontologies. In Letter on Humanism, Heidegger takes up the Greek word ethos in its sense of abode and dwelling place, and concludes that his ontological investigations might then be called an "original ethics" (p. 235). Although this answer is a typically unsatisfying "end run" around the specific question regarding the possibility of ethics in Heidegger's thinking, I believe that we can go beyond Heidegger's ontological fixation, that a normative ethics can benefit from attention to ethos-as-dwelling, that we can ask questions about how we dwell ethically, and how we should dwell in the world. Heidegger's notion of dwelling offers two main contributions to moral philosophy; the first points back to and summarizes preceding sections of my text, the second points forward to the rest of my essay: 1) Values can not be understood as either objective or subjective conditions; they are modes of being-in-the-world. 2) Being-ethical-in-the-world must be understood as radically finite.

For Heidegger, from beginning to end, from being-in-the-world to the fourfold, dwelling means being at home in the finitude of Being, in its mixture of presence and absence, especially in terms of human mortality and the limit conditions of unconcealment. Dwelling is contrasted with the "flight" from Being indicated in the closure of metaphysical systems and the quest for certainty and control. Dwelling names something like what the poet John Keats called "negative capability," the capacity to live with conditions of uncertainty, or as I would put it, a reconciliation with finitude. Although dwelling has a positive content suggesting a sense of placement in the world to counter radical versions of skepticism, phenomenalism, or anarchism, it also presents a deep challenge in that we must exist in a world without foundations, guarantees, or ultimateresolution of existential difficulties.

The same radical finitude can be shown in our ethical dwelling. In fact, this finitude has always been acknowledged in moral philosophy, but it was deemed a deficiency that either needed correcting or that prevented ethics from achieving intellectual legitimation. The moral life is always faced with cognitive, psychological, empirical, and practical limits, which are effectively expressed in the mixture of presence and absence that rings in Heidegger's favorite word, aletheia, unconcealment: Values are not grounded in proof or demonstration; the moral arena is marked by disagreement and conflict; moral situations are often complex and ambiguous, where outcomes are uncertain, where goods conflict with each other, where a balance of differing interests is hard to gauge--but we have to decide and sometimes all we are left with is an abyssal moment of choice; we sometimes fail in our aim for the good, or in doing good we sometimes instigate harmful effects; extreme or degraded environments can ruin ethical potential; ethical commitments often require risk and sacrifice, which makes anxiety and mixed dispositions inevitable. The value of Heidegger's notion of dwelling is that we are forced to give up the idea that such conditions of finitude are "deficiencies." This is the ethical world, and the myth of pure "presence" must be surrendered in moral philosophy no less than in ontology. The problem with ethical beliefs that insulate the good from limit conditions is not simply a philosophical flaw. There is an irony that history has demonstrated all too often: The "purer" the concept of the good, the greater the capacity to do evil on its behalf. With a definitized ideal, the world now appears "fallen" and in need of reform; when elements in the world continue to resist or fall short, there arises a potential to commit terror in the name of "salvation."

Human Nature and Finitude

Heidegger's thought challenges traditional essentialist assumptions about human nature that have played an important role in moral philosophy. Do we not need to discover or posit something essential, universal, and unified in human nature to shape the idea of a "common good" that can overcome the divisive strife that plagues us? Is not the denial of a metaphysics of humanity a significant threat to ethics? This is an important question that faces postmodern thought, but I believe that a nonessentialist description of human existence can speak to many important problems in ethics. In the early Heidegger, Dasein's radical finitude is indicated in its "transcendence," which means--as is made clear in What is Metaphysics? and in the notion of being-toward death--being held out into the Nothing. The core of Dasein is not a definable essence but an abyss that is not reducible to any state of being. But the abyssal dimension of human existence makes questioning and disclosure (from concealment to unconcealment) possible. It is also, for Heidegger, the origin of freedom, which addresses the need for decision and choice in ethics; radical finitude is also radical openness, the antitheses of deterministic closure.

In addition, abyssal transcendence leaves us with a nonessentialist version of personhood that can, I think, intercept a number of morally problematic beliefs and practices. Many human abuses can be traced to reductionistic pictures of human nature, where the self is traced to some positive property or condition, be it individual, group, or universal reductions (e.g., egoism, tribalism, or Enlightenment universalism). The trouble starts when an "other" is encountered (when the egoist encounters another ego, when the tribalist encounters another tribe, or when the universalist encounters differences or resistance to the presumed definition of "human nature"). To see the human person in nonessentialist terms is to refuse all reductions, to weigh potential more than actuality, concealment more than full disclosure, process more than finished states, uniqueness more than universality. What humans ultimately have in common, then, is the negativity of finitude, i.e., the fact that we do not have a definable "nature." But this negativity can help disrupt all the definitional references with which we frequently promote ourselves and demote others. Since human persons can not ultimately be fixed by any designation, then all the abstract categories of race, gender, ethnicity, class, and the like that fuel so much trouble can be intercepted by a negative correction. Such categories do have a use, but not as substantive designations. The "other" becomes a mystery (in relation to our presumptions), which can cash out in ethics as a warning against fixed beliefs that are implicated in hatred, discrimination, exploitation, and abuse. Although the negativity of radical finitude might be unsettling, we should attend to the ways in which "positive" ascriptions are implicated in injustice. Renouncing such ascriptions can have an important consequence in ethics by gathering a Heideggerian word that has much moral resonance: Seinlassen. In letting-be, there are tones of non-interference, openness, recognition, respect, and release.

Mitsein, Mitleid, and Fürsorge

The negative tone of the preceding analysis can be balanced somewhat by attention to the world configuration in Being and Time. The world in which Dasein dwells is the rich array of meanings and concerns that, though finite, give positive content to existence. One of the features of the world structure that is most pertinent to ethics is the phenomenon of Mitsein. "Dasein is essentially Being-with." Being-with-other-Daseins is equiprimordial with being-in-the-world. Mitsein is the basis of Dasein's everyday sense of self, which is not strictly speaking an "I" but das Man, the "they-self." Even authenticity is not a departure from Mitsein, or even from das Man. Here Heidegger is continuing a tradition (inspired by Hegel) that sees human existence as essentially social; the human self is primarily a "social self." We are not first and foremost isolated ego-atoms that relate to other selves only secondarily. Everything from mutual dependence to child rearing to education to the phenomenon of recognition lends support to the idea that we become individuals only in and out social relations. This is the sense in which Heidegger describes Mitsein as a world-phenomenon, as something in which we find our being.

One of the consequences of Mitsein for ethics is that we are liberated from the philosophical problematic of "arguing" for a social context to challenge egoistic or individualistic paradigms. In various ways the individual is others, relationships come first. Being-in-a-with-world suggests the following: Like other conditions that Dasein is in, that are there, in which Dasein ec-statically dwells, the individual self and other selves are not separate or even merely in a "relation." We are co-constituted by each other, we "exist" in each other in certain ways (being "in" love is a significant example). Such a structure provides an effective challenge to the hegemony of liberal individualism and its effect on moral discourse since the Modern period. Consider the following passages from Basic Problems: "Self and world belong together in a single entity, the Dasein" (p. 297). Since other selves are part of the world, a unitary constellation of selves is implied: "Dasein is determined from the very outset by being-with-others" (p. 296). Even the I-thou relation is something made possible by a more primordial world correlation: "The basic condition for this possibility of the self's being a possible thou in being-with others is based on the circumstance that the Dasein as the self that it is, is such that it exists as being-in-the-world. For `thou' means `you who are with me in the world'" (pp. 297-98). Such a structure opens up the topology of ethical relations. Since "self" is not ontologically individuated in the strict sense, even the "mineness" of Dasein does not suggest a confinement to individual self-interest, but rather an openness to the interests of others. The for-sake-of-itself of Dasein "does not assert ontically that the factual purpose of the factical Dasein is to care exclusively and primarily for itself and to use others as instruments (Werkzeug) toward this end" (p. 296). In fact, selfhood as a world phenomenon is "the ontological presupposition for the selflessness in which every Dasein comports itself toward theother in the existent I-thou relationships" (p. 298).

The idea that Dasein dwells with and in others helps us illuminate a phenomenon that is often addressed in ethics, namely compassion. Some moral philosophers have made compassion the centerpiece of their ethics (e.g., Hume and Schopenhauer), and I think the notion of finite being-in-the-world can go a long way toward strengthening such reflections and opening up important possibilities for moral philosophy.

Many of our values prescribe that we help others in need and refrain from abusing each other. The presence of compassion can be an effective force in living out these values (and its absence can account for not living them out). As shown in the words com-passion, sym-pathy, and Mit-leid, here we encounter an experience that "suffers-with," i.e., we share the pain of others. Compassion occurs when someone's misfortune actually touches us and alters our experience toward their pain, and "calls" us in a visceral way to do something about it. The marvel of compassion is that the pain arises in us even when we ourselves are not directly undergoing the misfortune. How is something like this possible? I think that the notions of Mitsein and being-in help to show how compassion is possible, and indeed the phenomenon of compassion is a perfect illustration of the existential validity of Heidegger's configuration of being-in-the-world. In compassion we are decentered, desubjectivized, our experience dwells in the other, and so it can not be understood as a subjective or objective condition, but rather as a curious, compelling, ecstatic being-with-the-other. Compassion, then, may be the deepest indication of Mitsein. There are a number of studies suggesting that compassion is something natural in humans, even in very young children, that it is not simply a matter of social conditioning. If this is right, then moral theories like egoism or utilitarianism that focus exclusively on self-interest are seriously flawed. But indifference might be no less natural, either. Nevertheless the issue of compassion and indifference can be given more force if we see them as basic existential conditions; this would deepen ethical discourse to the heart of our being. Might it be, for example, that compassion is a basic ethical disposition (Befindlichkeit) or mood (Stimmung) that attunes us to the moral life in a way that mere knowledge, theories, or rules can not? And might there be ways to cultivate this attunement or prevent its eclipse by other factors in the social environment?

One thing is clear (and this is a thoroughly Heideggerian insight): Attention to our finitude can open up the world in new ways; there is a fundamental connection between limit conditions and the disclosure of meaning. Specifically, our own sufferings can open us to noticing and feeling the sufferings of others. As in the relationship between being-toward-death and care, our experience of limits and loss can not only illuminate the urgency of our own concerns and vulnerability, it might be the best teacher in coming to care for others as well. Although human beings and cultures might differ in their forms of life, there is, I think, a common human understanding of finitude, of what it means to lose one's interests. Compassion in the face of pain, loss, and death can be the starting point for a cross-cultural ethics.

It should also be clear that compassion can not be sufficient for an ethics. It is not possible for human beings to experience compassion universally or continually. There will always be a limit to our experiential concern; some people will always count more to us than others, and heightened compassion whenever it occurs will not last indefinitely. But ethics can still draw on compassion as a familiar and esteemed phenomenon that helps articulate the ethical field, that serves as a reference for many of our values, and that therefore can function as a kind of "measure" (this is Werner Marx's term) for our ethical thinking and our allegiance to moral formulations that are cast in the non-affective, abstract form of rules, principles, obligations, etc. It would be naive to think that ethics and moral education can do without principles or the duty-inclination dynamic. But compassion can still serve as an effective focus for public discourse about regulations, maxims, laws, and government, all of which can in a way be called the ethical "lieutenants" of compassion; that is to say, laws and principles "stand in" for compassion, direct our behavior in its absence in accordance with its "measure," and in so doing ensure a more ethical world when its existential fuel is empty or low.

In the discussion of Mitsein I noted that even authenticity is not an asocial separation from others. In fact, authenticity can not be divorced from how Dasein can relate to others and be concerned for others in an authentic manner. This brings us to provocative passages in Being and Time (section 26) concerning Fürsorge, translated as "solicitude." I prefer to leave the word untranslated because it captures the sense of caring-for that is important for ethics. Fürsorge marks the way in which Dasein's being-with-others is different from its being-with entities other than Dasein, as in zuhanden, ready-to-hand relations. The difference must be that in Fürsorge our involvement is not with things of use, but with beings that, like ourselves, are needful. Fürsorge is essentially being-with, and even deficient modes like indifference do not depart from this social basis (p. 158). Heidegger's discussion of Fürsorge's positive modes (pp. 158-59) is of great interest because he distinguishes between "standing in" for someone's trouble, disburdening a person of his or her concern (a kind of paternalism?), wherein knowingly or not, the person becomes dependent and dominated, and another kind of Fürsorge that "helps the Other to become transparent to himself in his care and to become free for it." This kind of Fürsorge does not dominate but liberates persons for their own projects. This is the clearest sense in which authenticity necessarily includes attention to the authentic possibilities of others, a dynamic that has rich potential for ethics; in fact, it seems to me that here Fürsorge is another word for Seinlassen, letting persons be themselves and become themselves. Fürsorge, though, would go further to highlight the idea that sometimes we must cooperate and participate in people's development.


Aristotle's ethics focuses on virtues, or character traits and capacities that are needed to lead a good life and to decide and act in the proper manner in ethical situations. Virtue ethics has made something of a comeback recently, focusing less on rules and principles and more on the kind of person it takes to act ethically. Much in my analysis relates to such an approach, and I want to focus briefly on the virtue of courage with respect to an ethics of finitude.

Aristotle defines courage in relation to pain. The courageous person is one who can stand fast in pursuit of a good in the midst of pain or the risk of pain. A coward is someone who can not or does not act for the good because of pain or fear of pain. Although Aristotle's discussion generally focuses on the obvious example of courage in battle, I think we can add in all sorts of pains, losses, and risks, and consequently greatly expand the meaning of courage and cowardice in the ethical domain. In fact, to a large extent I think that courage could be called the primary virtue in the moral life, and our analysis of fintitude can help articulate why this might be so.

I have said that Heidegger's analysis of being-in-the-world involves a reconciliation with finitude, with the limit conditions of existence. One way of understanding the notion of fallenness (Verfallen) is that it is a hyperimmersion in beings as a refuge from radical finitude. Part of authenticity, then, involves a release from this fixation and a capacity to dwell finitely, to accept the movements of presence and absence more readily. It seems to me that such a capacity is exactly what courage means in our being-ethical-in-world. So much of our possessive and abusive behavior that is morally problematical can be understood as stemming from the fear of finitude, of the pain of lacks and losses. A good deal of greed, anger, and violence can be traced to the "fallenness" of self-absorption as a refuge from losses or the threat of losses (which losses can be material, psychological, social, ideological, etc.) Even moderation and self-control can connect with courage, in that the person who indulges appetites at the expense of himself or others is cowardly in the sense of not being able to withstand the "pain" of an unfulfilled desire (experienced as a "lack").

Moreover, courage and cowardice help explain how and why we often fail to live up to an ethic we affirm in principle and want to enact. In many respects, acting according to moral values involves risks, sacrifices, and uncertainties, which makes such enactment difficult and challenging. Honesty, for example, is not something that is risk-free or cost-free. The honest person is courageous in the sense of accepting such conditions, and the liar is in this respect a coward. So we could conclude that liars are not really affirming deceit as a "good" as much as they are fearing the consequences of telling the truth. If we recall a previous point about the role of tradition, we can say that a key task in ethics is not a radical challenge to our values (who would want to propose the abandonment of truth-telling?) but a recognition of how much courage it takes to lead a moral life. It might even be possible to extend this virtue to the question of compassion and say that compassion takes courage, and that indifference is a subtle form of cowardice, a psychological strategy to ward off the pain of real attention to human suffering. This analysis of the virtue of courage augments a central conviction of my essay, that an authentic ethical existence can be seen to mirror Heidegger's broader conception of authenticity, in being able to dwell in the finitude of ethical situations and decisions.


Authenticity, as I indicated in an earlier note, should be understood in terms of the tension between socialization and individuation, rather than a severance from society and tradition. Being-toward-death in a sense "clarifies" the average, vague, and ambiguous milieu of everydayness, so that Dasein can make its own path in the midst of tradition. Authentic, resolute decision, therefore, is not a reinvention of Dasein but an individuated "take" on, and taking up of, traditional patterns.

Authenticity in this sense of a tension between pattern and decision can be translated into ethics in two basic ways. First, decision is an ultimate category in the finitude of ethical dwelling. Given limit conditions and uncertainties, we must still decide. And often we must decide to rebel against an established convention, to disrupt it in our resolve. And even if we are clear about the good, ethics is finally action, which means that we must decide to enact the good in the midst of counter-possibilities, which makes being ethical in the end spontaneous, without cognitive or social support. The openness of Dasein's temporal futurity is an ineradicable condition of moral engagement. Ethics at bottom is groundless, but we must accept its finitude and still decide how to act. Second, in the area of human development, there is the matter of deciding for the ethical possibilities given in tradition, in the sense of passing from a conventionalistic affirmation of values to "owning" them, to internalizing them rather than simply following external influences. This, of course, has been a traditional ideal of Western education. Both of these basic elements of ethics that I have outlined can be expressed in terms of Heidegger's general dynamic of authenticity, as a coming to one's own decision in the midst of finite world involvements, and in terms of temporality, as a bringing to presence of future possibilities in the midst of an appropriated past.

The problem with traditional moral theories is that they want to "definitize" and "detemporalize" ethics by grounding the good in some fixed scheme; and they bypass the abyssal element of existential decision by modelling ethical deliberation along the lines of demonstrative and calculative techniques that in a sense decide things "for" us (I don't "decide," for example, that 2 + 2 is 4, or that "Socrates is mortal" in the classic syllogism). Demonstrative "decidability," in fact, would erase the sense of responsibility for choices that also animates ethics. As I have said, it is not that these theories are mistaken. The familiar models in moral philosophy all show us something important in ethics, but fail in their reductive groundings and exclusions. The ongoing and unsettled debates between egoism, utilitarianism, deontology, libertarianism, communitarianism, and so on, deconstruct into the elements of finitude sketched in this essay. Ethics, like any other form of unconcealment,is a mixture and oscillation of presence and absence. When we focus, for example, on group interests, we conceal individuality, and vice versa; when we focus on principles, we conceal empirical contingencies, and vice versa; when we focus on obligation, we conceal inclination, and vice versa. The point is that ethical situations usually involve a complicated interplay and tension of these concerns--this is the difficulty of ethical life. Authentic decisions do not have to mean "correct" decisions, but something like the attentive ethical finesse of Aristotle's phronesis, a deliberative capacity for responsive and responsible choice. But as radically finite, an existential finesse would hold more of a tremble than Aristotle's comfortable tone would suggest. To balance this discomfort, we should keep in mind the nonsubjective features of Heidegger's world configuration, so that ethics is not taken to be so radically finite as to seem arbitrary. Moral commitment, though uncertain, has its truth.

[After Post-Modernism Conference. Copyright 1997.]

All contents Copyright 2003 by The Focusing Institute
Email comments to webmaster