- Graven Images: Substitutes for True Morality by Dietrich Von Hildebrand
This is one among a growing number of books by Dietrich von Hildebrand republished through the valuable work of the Hildebrand Project. Somewhat difficult due to the complexity of its subject, this volume contains a deeply insightful and fine-grained analysis of what Hildebrand calls "substitute morality."
Hildebrand begins the work by contrasting substitute morality with antimoral or amoral ideals, with the case of pathological inhibitions that replace the eidos of morality with psychological coercion, and with the case of "formal value blindness" in which a person does not grasp the unique character of the moral as something indispensible for the human person. In these cases, due to one cause or another, the notion of the moral is simply absent, rather than falsified and deformed. In the case of a substitute morality, the themes of the moral sphere are retained, such as its indispensability and the requirement of submission to an ought, but a distortion and perversion of morality takes place. In its true nature, morality is not defined in terms of any specific moral value, but has only moral goodness as its denominator. In a substitute morality, some extramoral value becomes the "formal representative of the moral sphere," and is made the determinant of all of morality. This comes about through the person's interpreting the moral sphere in a way that allows for a compromise with pride and concupiscence. In other words, the person makes place within morality for the satisfaction of his pride and concupiscence, and chooses a fundamental determinant for morality that poses no challenge to them, or that perhaps even caters to them. This process occurs subconsciously, in a deep stratum of the personality. As an example, the nonmoral disvalue of "the vile," which does indeed accompany certain morally evil acts and may provide some motive for avoiding such acts, is now identified with the morally evil, and "the noble" with the morally good.
The result is that while in a formal sense the eidos of morality is retained in substitute morality, a disfiguring of the qualitative content of morality has taken place. The will to submit proper to the moral sphere is not unconditional, but has entered into a compromise with pride and [End Page 636] concupiscence, and the zeal of adherence, strong as it may be, is at best impure and may even be evil, since "it is fed and supported by the appeal that this substitute makes to pride and concupiscence." The one adhering to a substitute morality does not see the unique challenge of the moral sphere, its grandeur and transcendence, but is "imprisoned within himself; he lives in an intrahuman space, incapable of emerging to the awareness of man's metaphysical situation."
Further, in the substitute morality, a manipulation of the content of morality also occurs. The substitute chosen as the determinant for morality will inevitably make for the exclusion of certain moral values—the ones that might challenge the established compromise with pride and concupiscence—and often endow with a moral quality values that are in fact not of themselves moral. The person who has taken "the noble/the vile" as substitutes will be concerned only with moral actions having some relation to these, and exclude from his moral concern acts that are in reality moral but do not include the aspect of vileness or nobility. Hildebrand brings precision to the analysis by considering various kinds of substitute moralities. I will name only three. The first is the "heretic substitute" of altruism, in which a moral value is deformed and the moral point of view poisoned by the person's taking altruism in its relation to his pride, the satisfaction of which becomes central. This substitute has developed into a self-righteous indignation against others, and narrows morality to a "moralizing." A second substitute is that of tradition. This substitute shifts the locus of moral obligation from the intrinsic moral relevance of things to the fact of their having been handed down by tradition, equating...