5 - Heidegger and ethics beyond the call of duty  pp. 68-82

Heidegger and ethics beyond the call of duty

By Albert Borgmann

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Ethical norms and judgments are clearly implied in Being and Time, the book that established Heidegger's reputation. Heidegger coyly insisted that it was all dispassionate analysis, but the language of authentic, resolute, ready-for-anxiety, running-ahead-into-death existence is no doubt morally charged, as is Heidegger's scathing account of the distracted busyness of everyday life. Heidegger's uneasiness with standard ethics became explicit in his 1931–2 course of lectures on Plato's allegory of the cave, where he concluded his discussion of the idea of the good as follows: “It is not at all a matter of ethics or morality, nor is it of course a logical or epistemological principle. Such distinctions – they already existed, to be sure, in antiquity – are those of scholars of philosophy, not of philosophy.”

Heidegger elaborated his rejection of ethics in the 1947 letter “On Humanism.” But, chastened perhaps by his hapless political involvement in a movement that violated everything that could be called ethical, he conceded the need for ethics, however unsatisfactory it appeared from the standpoint of his own thinking. One may deplore Heidegger's determined move away from ethics. Or one may try to discover a continuing ethical dimension in Heidegger's later thought. But there is in fact something unsatisfactory and unrevealing in contemporary mainstream ethics.

In the modern period, standard ethics is concerned with obligatory principles of conduct, rules that tell you what you must do to be blameless.