Chapter 22: Ethics

Martin Buber: The Life of Dialogue
by Maurice S. Friedman

Chapter 22: Ethics

Buber defines the ethical as the affirmation or denial of the conduct and actions possible to one ‘not according to their use or harmfulness for individuals and society, but according to their intrinsic value and disvalue.’

We find the ethical in its purity only there where the human person confronts himself with his own potentiality and distinguishes and decides in this confrontation without asking anything other than what is right and what is wrong in this his own situation. . . . One may call the distinction and decision which rises from these depths the action of the preconscience.

He goes on to explain that the criterion by which the distinction and decision are made may be a traditional one or one perceived by the individual himself. What really matters ‘is that the critical flame shoots up ever again out of the depths’ and the truest source for this critical flame is ‘the individual’s awareness of what he "really" is, of what in his unique and nonrepeatable created existence he is intended to be.’ (Eclipse of God, op. cit., p. 125 f.)

It is clear that one foundation of Buber’s definition of ethics is his philosophy of dialogue with its emphasis on wholeness, decision, presentness, and uniqueness. Another is his philosophical anthropology with its emphasis on the potentiality which only man has and on the direction which each man must take to become what only he can become. It might seem, however, that this emphasis on an inner awareness which gives one the power of distinguishing and deciding between right and wrong is a type of moral autonomy which contradicts the dialogical nature of the rest of Buber’s philosophy. Buber makes it clear, however, that he is talking about neither ‘moral autonomy’ nor ‘moral heteronomy,’ neither self-created morality nor morality imposed from without. (Ibid., p. 129 f.) Pure moral autonomy is a freedom that is simply ‘freedom from’ without any ‘freedom for.’ Pure moral heteronomy is a ‘responsibility’ that is simply imposed moral duty without any genuine freedom or spontaneity. The narrow ridge between the two is a freedom that means freedom to respond, and a responsibility that means both address from without and free response from within.

Thorough-going moral autonomy destroys all concept of morality because it destroys all notion of value. Buber criticizes, for this reason, Sartre’s definition of value as the meaning of life which the individual chooses:

One can believe in and accept a meaning or value . . . if one has discovered it, not if one has invented it. It can be for me an illuminating meaning, a direction-giving value, only if it has been revealed to me in my meeting with being, not if I have freely chosen it for myself from among the existing possibilities and perhaps have in addition decided with a few fellow creatures: This shall be valid from now on. (Ibid., ‘Religion and Modern Thinking,’ p.93.)

Kant’s ‘moral autonomy’ is not thorough-going in this same sense, for its self-legislation does not refer to the self as the final judge of value but rather to universal reason and to the kingdom of ends to which one belongs by virtue of being a rational being.

Looking back now on all previous attempts to discover the principle of morality, we need not wonder why they all failed. It was seen that man was bound to laws by duty, but it was not observed that the laws to which he is subject are only those of his own giving, though at the same time they are universal, and that he is only bound to act in conformity with his own will -- a will, however, which is designed by nature to give universal laws.... I will therefore call this the principle of Autonomy of the will, in contrast with every other which I accordingly reckon as Heteronomy. (Immanuel Kant, Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals, trans. by Thomas K. Abbott, with an Introduction by Marvin Fox [New York: The Liberal Arts Press, 1949], p. 49 f.)

Kant’s categorical imperatives, ‘Act always on such a maxim as thou canst at the same time will to be a universal law’ and ‘So act as to treat humanity, whether in thine own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end withal, never as means only,’ are actually in one sense imposed from without. In order to follow Kant one must suppress one’s existential subjectivity in favour of a rational objectivity in which one participates only by virtue of having previously defined the essence of value as one’s rational nature. It is, in fact, a clear example of the ‘objective’ masquerading as the ‘subjective,’ and nothing makes this clearer than Kant’s suspicion of all empirical actions as probably in fact tainted by some non-moral motive. Nothing is good for Kant except a ‘good will,’ nor does he ever seriously envisage the possibility of turning to the good with the ‘evil impulse’ in such a way as to unify impulse and will (Immanuel Kant, Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals, trans. By Thomas K. Abbott, with an Introduction by Marvin Fox [New york: The Liberal Arts Press, 2949] pp. 11, 16025, 31, 38, 47 f. The inclinations themselves, being sources of want, are so far from having an absolute worth for which they should be desired that, on the contrary, it must be the universal wish of every rational being to be wholly free from them’ [p. 45].) It is just such a split as this that Buber avoids, and it is for this reason that he can speak of ‘intrinsic value and disvalue’ in a more genuine sense than either Kant or Sartre.

Buber’s concept of the responsibility of an I to a Thou is closely similar to Kant’s second formulation of the categorical imperative: Never treat one’s fellow as a means only but always also as an end of value in himself. But even here, where Kant’s and Buber’s ethics seem to join, there is an essential difference. Kant’s sentence grows out of an ‘ought’ based on the idea of human dignity. Buber’s related concepts of making the other present and not imposing one’s own truth on him are based on the ontological reality of the life between man and man. (Buber, ‘Elemente des Zwischenmenschlichen,’ Op. Cit., section 4). To Kant the respect for the dignity of others grows out of one’s own dignity as a rational being bound to act according to universal laws. For Buber the concern for the other as an end in himself grows out of one’s direct relation to this other and to that higher end which he serves through the fulfillment of his created uniqueness. Thus Kant’s imperative is essentially subjective (the isolated individual) and objective (universal reason) whereas Buber’s is dialogical. In Kant the ‘ought’ of reason is separated from the ‘is’ of impulse. In Buber ‘is’ and ‘ought’ join without losing their tension in the precondition of authentic human existence -- making real the life between man and man.

The dominant ethical debate in our age, that between moral absolutism and moral relativism, is carried on exclusively in terms of the subject-object relationship. The ‘objectivists’ posit the absolute nature of values and tend to ignore the fact that a value is always a value for a person rather than something with an absolute, independent existence. They speak, like Wolfgang Köhler, of the ‘objective requiredness’ of values, and, like Eliseo Vivas, they describe the relation to these values as the relation of a subject to an independent object to which man simply responds. (Wolfgang Köhler, The Place of Values in a World of Facts [New York: Liveright Publishing Corp., 1938]; Vivas, The Moral Life and the Ethical Life, op. cit., pp. 187, 190, 215-219, 237-246.) Wishing to rescue ethics from the identification of the ‘ought’ and the ‘is’ which is characteristic of the interest theories of ethics and of cultural relativism, objectivists tend to fall into a dualism which radically sunders man’s nature and his moral norms. Vivas, for example, posits the ‘objectivity of evil’ as the only alternative to its being merely subjective and defines morality in terms of the opposition between objective duty and subjective inclination:

The search for the right alternative forces on one a distinction between obedience to something objective and obedience to what one desires, obedience to self.... The ideal, of course, of moral education is that the distinction be totally erased. But only a weak, sentimental, shallow, Pelagian attitude toward human nature would conceive of the ideal as within the reach of men. The City of God is not the City of Man; man cannot hope to rear a perfect city. Normally, therefore, the distinction between what we desire and what is right is very sharp, and the two terms of the distinction are apprehended as more or less exclusive. (Vivas, The Moral Life, p. 239)

The ‘subjectivists,’ on the other hand, reduce all value to the subjective interest of individuals or cultural groups. This type of objective description of subjective phenomena tends to make the ‘is’ equal to the ‘ought’: it implies that one ‘ought’ to accept the values of his cultural group just because they are those values, or that one ‘ought’ to follow subjective interest just because one has this interest. This subjective-objective confusion destroys the essence of moral philosophy because it cannot in fact establish any distinction between sheer objective description of what takes place and the discovery of the ‘normative,’ that is, of the values which determine what man ought to do. (Cf. Ibid., Part I -- ‘Animadversions upon Naturalistic Moral Philosophies.’)

The fact that different groups have different values is usually immensely oversimplified in popular thought. ‘Groups’ are regarded as static, distinct, and homogeneous units rather than as dynamic and interacting ones. The individuals in these groups, moreover, are regarded as cells of an organic whole rather than as persons interacting with each other in relations some of which are of a more and some of a less determined nature. As a result, the cultural relativist tends to lose sight of his concrete existence in the overwhelming preponderance of the collectivity. Insecure as an individual, he tends to project his forgotten ‘I’ on the group and to absolutize the group and its values.

Here we see the clear path that is taken in our day from the denial of all values to their false absolutization. It is no accident, in my opinion, that the most important historical application of Nietzsche’s philosophy of the superman was not in the direction of individualism but of collectivism. Both nihilism and cultural relativism leave the individual apparently free to do as he pleases without referring to moral values but actually in terrible insecurity until he can find something more than himself that is of value. The superman and totalitarianism offer this something more than oneself, and both are characterized by the fact that they do in fact remove all intrinsic value from the individual and make him simply a means to a greater goal in which he can symbiotically participate. Hence, both in the end mean the denial of freedom, personal integrity, and personal responsibility in the name of a value which turns out to be more tyrannically absolute than any that preceded it.

Thus whether the I or the It, the subjective or the objective is stressed, the failure to see moral problems in terms of the relation of I and Thou ends in the submission of the I to the world of It. Buber, through his dialogical philosophy, avoids not only the ‘objectivism’ of the moral absolutists but also the ‘subjectivism’ of the cultural relativists. If values do not exist for him apart from persons, neither can they be reduced to subjective feeling or ‘interest.’ The value lies in the between -- in the relation of the I to a Thou which is not an It yet is really other than the I.

Here we find the crucial distinction between Buber’s dialogical philosophy and pragmatism, which resembles it in a number of other ways. As Paul Pfeutze has pointed out, both the dialogical philosophy and pragmatism emphasize the concrete and the dynamic, both reject starting with metaphysical abstractions in favour of starting with human experience, both insist upon ‘the unity of theory and practice, inner idea and outer deed,’ and both insist on the element of faith and venture. (Paul E. Pfuetze, The Social Self [in the thought of George Herbert Mead and Martin Buber], New York: Bookman Associates, 1954, pp. 274, 295 n. 131. William James writes in ‘The Will to Believe’: ‘The more perfect and more eternal aspect of the universe is represented in our religions as having personal form. The universe is no longer a mere It to us, but a Thou, if we are religious; and any relation that may be possible from person to person might be possible here.... We feel too, as if the appeal of religion to us were made to our own active goodwill, as if evidence might be forever withheld from us unless we met the hypothesis half-way.’ William James, Essays in Pragmatism, ed. by Alburey Castell [New York: Hafner Publishing Co., 1949], p. 106 f.) Despite these resemblances, the ethics of pragmatism differs from that of Buber’s dialogical philosophy in two central points. First, pragmatism is entirely based upon the subject-object relationship, and this means that, contrary to its claims, it is actually given over to the abstract and static world of the past rather than the concrete and dynamic present. This is shown clearly in the appeal to scientific empiricism as the test of values rather than to the direct and concrete experience of the I-Thou relation. Second, pragmatism, like all interest theories of ethics, has no way of escaping the subjectivism which grounds all value ultimately on subjective feeling, nor is this any less the case because of the objective methods that pragmatism supports for the judgment of whether our actions will in fact produce the values that we think they will. (Cf. Marvin Fox, ‘Discussion on the Diversity of Methods in Dewey’s Ethics Theory,’ Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. XII, No. I [September 1951], pp. 123-129.)

It is the domination of subjective-objective thinking that has produced the traditional but false dichotomy between ‘selfishness’ and ‘unselfishness,’ egoism and altruism. There can be no such thing as pure ‘selfishness since no self originates or exists in isolation from others and even the most subjective interest is still of a social nature. On the other hand, since in every action we enter into relations with others which involve both ourselves and them, there can be no such thing as pure ‘unself ’ishness. Karl Löwith suggests that the real meaning of egoism versus altruism is the question of whether we relate to others for our sakes or for theirs. The situation is better described, in my opinion, by Erich Fromm’s suggestion that true love of others does not mean denial of self nor true self-love denial of love for others. (Löwith, Das Individuum in der Rolle des Mitmenschen, op. cit., pp. 71-76; Fromm, Man for Himself, op. cit., pp. 119-141. On the implications of dialogue for egoism and altruism cf. also Karl Barth, Die kirchliche Dogmatik, Vol. III -- Die Lehre von der Schöpfung, Zweiter Teil [Part 2 of third volume published separately] ]Zurich: Evangelischer Verlag, A. G. Zollikon, 1948], p. 312 ff.)

One cannot divide up a relationship into two separate parts one of which is ‘mine’ and one of which is ‘thine’ and then choose between them. One can only choose by one’s actions and attitudes to move in the direction of relationship and reciprocity --I-Thou -- or separateness and mutual exploitation -- I-It. One’s giving to the other may indeed be at the expense of something that one wants and needs oneself for the best of reasons. But this does not mean that one is sacrificing one’s self in the giving. One is rather affirming one’s self through a response that takes one out of the realm of domination and enjoyment into the realm of real personal existence. Up to a certain point, this applies even in a relationship in which the other person treats one strictly as It, for the other must be a Thou for us unconditionally and not dependent on how he treats us. No I-Thou relationship can be complete without reciprocity, however, and our ability to treat the other person as Thou is, in fact, limited by the extent to which he does or does not treat us as a Thou. True giving is giving in relationship, whether it be the gift of material support or the gift of a caress or a word. It is only possible to give in a very limited degree to one who remains resolutely closed to relationship.

Buber’s philosophy of dialogue not only finds the narrow ridge between the subjectivist identification and the objectivist sundering of the ‘is’ and the ‘ought,’ but it also radically shifts the whole ground of ethical discussion by moving from the universal to the concrete and from the past to the present -- in other words, from I-It to I-Thou. Buber does not start from some external, absolutely valid ethical code which man is bound to apply as best as possible to each new situation. Instead he starts with the situation itself.

The idea of responsibility is to be brought back from the province of specialized ethics, of an ‘ought’ that swings free in the air, into that of lived life. Genuine responsibility exists only where there is real responding. (Between Man and Man, ‘Dialogue,’ p. 16)

Most of the traditional ethical values -- not killing, stealing, committing adultery, lying, cheating, and so forth -- are in fact implied in the I-Thou relation, but not as an absolute code. Rather these traditional ethical values must be understood as the symbolic expression of what takes place when people stand in true dialogical relation to each other. It is unlikely in most cases, for example, that one could truly express one’s responsibility to a Thou by killing him. The traditional values are useful and suggestive, but one may not for all that proceed from them to the situation. Rather one must move from the concrete situation to the decision as to what is the right direction in this instance.

No responsible person remains a stranger to norms. But the command inherent in a genuine norm never becomes a maxim and the fulfillment of it never a habit. Any command that a great character takes to himself in the course of his development does not act in him as part of his consciousness or as material for building up his exercises, but remains latent in a basic layer of his substance until it reveals itself to him in a concrete way. What it has to tell him is revealed whenever a situation arises which demands of him a solution of which till then he had perhaps no idea. Even the most universal norm will at times be recognized only in a very special situation.... There is a direction, a ‘yes,’ a command, hidden even in a prohibition, which is revealed to us in moments like these. In moments like these the command addresses us really in the second person, and the Thou in it is no one else but one’s own self. Maxims command only the third person, the each and the none. (Ibid., ‘The Education of Character,’ p.114)

The responsible quality of one’s decision will be determined by the degree to which one really ‘sees the other’ and makes him present to one. It is here, in experiencing the relationship from the side of the other, that we find the most important key to the ethical implications of Buber’s dialogue -- an implication that none of the other thinkers who have written on the I-Thou relationship has understood in its full significance. Only through ‘seeing the other’ can the I-Thou relationship become fully real, for only through it can one be sure that one is really helping the other person. To deal lovingly with thy neighbour means to recognize that he is not just another I but a Thou, and that means a really ‘other’ person. Only if we see a man in his concrete otherness is there any possibility of our confirming him in his individuality as that which he must become. ‘Seeing the other’ is for this reason of central significance, not only for ethical action, but for love, friendship, teaching, and psychotherapy.

To see through the eyes of the other does not mean, as we have seen, that one ceases to see through one’s own. The Thou ‘teaches you to meet others,’ but it also teaches you ‘to hold your ground when you meet them.’ (I and Thou, p. 33) Ethical action is not altruism and self-denial. Nor is it an impartial objectivity which adjudicates conflicting interests as if from the standpoint of a third person. It is the binding of decision and action in the relation of I and Thou. The best example of what this means in practice is Buber’s reply to a public statement of Gandhi about Zionism and the Nazi persecution of the Jews. Gandhi, in December 1938, suggested that the Jews in Germany use satyagraha, or soul-force, as the most effective reply to Nazi atrocities. The Jews, said Gandhi, should refuse to be expelled or submit to discriminating treatment but should, if necessary, accept death voluntarily. ‘If the Jewish mind could be prepared for voluntary suffering, even a massacre could be turned into a day of thanksgiving and joy that Jehovah had wrought deliverance of the race even at the hands of the tyrant. For to the God-fearing, death has no terror.’ In his reply Buber pointed out that Gandhi both misunderstood the nature of the Nazi regime and ignored the importance of the existence of India in his own successful work with the Hindus of South Africa.

No Jew in Germany could have spoken as did Gandhi in South Africa without being killed immediately . . . the martyrdom to which German Jews were subjected in concentration camps and dungeon-cells had no witnesses and, being unnoticed and unknown, could not affect public opinion or modify public policy. Gandhi, as the leader of 150,000 Hindus in South Africa, knew that Mother India with its hundreds of millions would ultimately stand in back of him. This knowledge . . . gave him and his followers the courage to live, to suffer, to resist, and to fight stubbornly -- though non-violently -- for their rights. (Quoted in Solomon Liptzin, Germany’s Stepchildren [Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1944], pp. 264-267.)

What Buber was essentially pointing out to Gandhi was that each one must have his own ground in order to deal justly with the other, that pure spirituality divorced from the concrete is futile and ineffective: ‘Would the Mahatma,’ he wrote, ‘who advises the Jews that Palestine is not a geographic district but an ideal within their hearts, accept the doctrine that India was not a subcontinent but merely an ideal wholly divorced from any soil? Is it not rather an ideal because it exists in reality?’ (The Jews cannot be responsible without experiencing from the side of the Arabs what it means for the Jews to have settled in Palestine, but neither can they give up their own claim.

We considered it a fundamental point that in this case two vital claims are opposed to each other, two claims of a different nature and a different origin which cannot objectively be pitted against one another and between which no objective decision can be made as to which is just, which unjust. We . . . consider it our duty to understand and to honour the claim which is opposed to ours and to endeavour to reconcile both claims.... Where there is faith and love, a solution may be found even to what appears to be a tragic opposition. (Israel and the World, op. cit., ‘The Land and Its Possessors’ (from an open letter to Gandhi, 1939), p. 231 f. For the complete text of Gandhi’s statement and of Buber’s reply to Gandhi see Martin Buber and Judah Magnes, Two Letters to Gandhi (Jerusalem: Reuben Mass, 1939), pp. 39-14 and 5-21 respectively.)

One can only be ‘responsible’ if one is responsible to someone. Since the human Thou must constantly become an It, one is ultimately responsible to the Eternal Thou who never becomes an It. But it is just in the concrete that we meet the Eternal Thou, and it is this which prevents dialogue from degenerating into ‘responsibility’ to an abstract moral code or universal idea. The choice, therefore, is not between religion and morality but between a religion and morality wedded to the universal and a religion and morality wedded to the concrete.

Only out of a personal relationship with the Absolute can the absoluteness of the ethical co-ordinates arise without which there is no complete awareness of self. Even when the individual calls an absolute criterion handed down by religious tradition his own, it must be reforged in the fire of the truth of his personal essential relation to the Absolute if it is to win true validity. But always it is the religious which bestows, the ethical which receives. (Eclipse of God, ‘Religion and Ethics,’ p.129)

The reason why it is always the religious which bestows and the ethical which receives is to be found in the nature of good as Buber understands it. The good for Buber is not an objective state of affairs nor an inner feeling, but a type of relationship -- the dialogue between man and man and between man and God. This means that the good cannot be referred back to any Platonic universals or impersonal order of the cosmos, nor can it be founded in any general system of utility or justice. It grows instead out of that which is most particular and concrete, not the pseudo-concreteness of the ‘empirically verifiable’ but the actual present concreteness of the unique direction toward God which one apprehends and realizes in the meeting with the everyday.

Good conceived thus cannot be located within any system of ethical co-ordination, for all those we know came into being on its account and existed or exist by virtue of it. Every ethos has its origin in a revelation, whether or not it is still aware of and obedient to it; and every revelation is revelation of human service to the goal of creation, in which service man authenticates himself. (Images of Good and Evil, p. 83. For a further study of Buber’s ethics and its relation to his philosophical anthropology and his philosophy of religion and the problems of the person and trust, cf. my essay ‘The Bases of Buber’s Values’ in Friedman and Schilpp, eds., The Philosophy of Martin Buber, loc. cit).