- Heidegger's Moral Ontology by James Reid
Those who occupy the minority position often exaggerate their predicament. But in this case Reid need not go beyond the actual situation, for it looks dire. He wants to show that there is in Heidegger a forceful and compelling ethics implicit to his early work (the Lecture courses into Sein und Zeit). He is very much aware of the special difficulties his project faces, including, but not limited to, the fact of his offering a philosophy of debatable significance, the fact of Heidegger's backing the Nazi regime, and the fact that Heidegger denies writing and ethics. So Reid must tease out the ethical strands in Heidegger.
Some of the richest sources of an ethics are found in Heidegger's critiques. Even an apparently nonmoral topic like Heidegger's critique of science assumes a number of background ethical conceptions, among which are that scientific experimenters be honest about their results and procedure. So ethics is a necessary condition for science. By making care preeminent Heidegger avoids scientism. This is certainly true of inauthenticity, if negatively. Heidegger's inauthentic person is curious to a fault, chatters idly, and is ready to conform his or her thought and conduct to the social norm. By contrast, the authentic person is decisive, courageous in the face of death, and ready to be moved by conscience. Authenticity includes facing up to the challenges of life, living up to your unique life, fully conscious that it must end. This awareness of the possibility of no more possibilities helps each one fasten on the possibilities that matter, and one returns to life under this understanding with sober joy.
Heidegger scholars concur about authenticity as a central ethical notion. Yet there does not seem to be a duty to be authentic. A main virtue of authenticity is its helpfulness doing ontology. Reid clearly differentiates Heidegger's ethics from Kant's universal ethics and, in fact, from any essentialist notion. In this connection, Heidegger sounds quite existentialist.
I have five reservations with respect to this book. First of all, Heidegger never claimed to write an ethics. In fact, he expressly says he is not writing an ethics. Rather, he was at pains to keep his readers to ontology. This should probably weigh more with Reid than it appears to. Second, as Reid notes, Heidegger's gravitation toward the Nazi party does not inspire confidence in his moral outlook. Despite later criticisms of the party, his time as the Nazi rector of his own university shows a heartfelt and unconditional allegiance to National Socialism. On Alasdair MacIntyre's account, it is Heidegger's moral errors that led him to National Socialism. Two kinds of error reflect a moral deficit for Heidegger. One error was to attribute philosophical motives quite foreign to the party. The moral origins of this error might include an uncritical overattachment to one's own point of view, intellectual sloth, or cowardice. A second error is to show insufficient concern for others' well-being. Since antisemitic measures were present in his administration, Heidegger notoriously failed this moral test. So, according to MacIntyre, we learn more about Heidegger's moral outlook from his failures than from latent allusions [End Page 625] from the early lectures. But to descry a latent ethics is probably possible for almost any philosophy.
Third, attempts to discern a consistent and integrated ethics nearly a century after the philosopher in question (Heidegger and Marx are the examples here) must count as some evidence that there are no such fundamental ethical principles to be found. One is brought to mind the efforts of Marxists to supply an ethical frame for their politics through Neo-Kantianism, utilitarianism, Aristotelianism, Christianity (liberation theology), and so on, without success and fall back on the overlapping consensus. Fourth, Reid pictures Heidegger as a relativist without belief in any fixed human nature. Heidegger thereby loses a main anchor for ethics. Fifth, Heidegger's agnosticism is evident in his remarks on death. Needless to say, a world of arguments has been arrayed against unbelief.