Humans are defined in many different ways, and these definitions carry the marks of various disciplines. Among these, “Humans are value-generating beings” would be a prominent definition in terms of the “discipline of ethics”.
Of course, humans cannot be reduced to this, in that they are more than mere value-generating beings, just as they are more than human beings involved in “thought, action, morality, willpower, society, labour”, etc.
Every reduction stems from some sort of abstraction, and the different human definitions, as products of abstractions created by various disciplines within their own contexts, simply emphasize one or another aspect or characteristic of humans. We would thus be justified in stating the following: Humans cannot be understood through being reduced to individual definitions or categories based on abstractions; they can be better understood only through the “differentiated unity of categories”.
People, throughout history, have created “cultures” and “civilizations” by shaping life in accordance with their relations with nature, society and themselves, simultaneously assigning “meaning” to life. “Values” are produced within this process of assigning meanings, and as such, values consist of beliefs, ideas, actions and ideals “that are worth living for”.
Values leave their mark on the culture and civilization in which they are produced. The intellectual, psychic, social and spiritual lives of humans are formed around the values they choose and follow, and the adopted values are passed down to future generations through “customs” and “education”. In turn, societies form the “social and individual spirit” as they are molded by these values.
Many thinkers in human history have taken up the issue of values, with things to say about their “nature”, “quality” and “functions”.
Some thinkers focused on the “sources” of values, some on their “purposes” and “functions”, some on how they are “shared” and “adopted”, some on their “limiting” or “liberating” aspects, etc. Others, however, focus on “the value of values” in a search for the “ethics of values”.
Looking at the history of humanity, it becomes clear that every belief, custom, culture, civilization, philosophical discipline, logic and ideology developed its own understanding of values and its own set of values.
First “concepts”, and then “values” are produced out of life by a “thinking subject”, and remain subjective so long as they are limited to this individual subject. Concepts are socialized if they are communicated and announced through language. The “objective products” of human thought and labor gain their existence in cultural products, and ideas that turn into objects survive in history even if the society that produced them disappears. However, concepts that have become values cannot exist without “subjects” (humans) sharing and living them; and it is these concepts that create “civilization”. In cultural objects, we can find only traces and reflections of life and civilization (values), and not life itself.
The Problem of Values in the History of Thought
According to Socrates, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
Plato, on the one hand, claims that life must be built on the values of “goodness”, “integrity” and “virtue”.
Plato’s student Aristotle, on the other hand, suggests that “ethics is systematic morality”. In other words, ethics needs to be treated as a “system of values”, that is to say, in a “holistic” manner.
According to Hegel, “morality” is both traditional and customary, whereas “ethics” refers to moral values that are rationalized through the intermediary of thinking. Once values are rationalized and are turned into ethics, social life needs to be governed by “ethics” (law) and not by conventional morality, and people should be educated on the basis of “ethics”. According to Hegel, we pass beyond morality once “ethics” (a discipline created through thinking about morality) is rationalized. From now on, people are “ethical beings”, not moral beings. In other words, people become humans as they “develop a consciousness” of their morality.
According to N. Hartmann, “ethics” means having an overall vision of the nature of moral connections – there may be multiple moralities, but ethics is singular and disciplined.
According to K. Marx, “ethics” refers to not only conscious morality or “abstract” and “ideal” values that apply universally, being rather a problem of dialectical values specific to people’s actual positions within the social reality.
Thinkers explain ethical values on the basis of different sets of references:
1. Compliance with the natural order (cosmos),
2. Compliance with specific norms on which there is consensus,
3. Compliance with historical, phenomenal, actual and objective human reality.
Problems of Ethics
- The problem of the “highest good”,
2. The problem of right (principled) action,
3. The problem of free will,
4. The problem of self-expression and realization.
At the most general level, “good-related purpose” is the value of morality, and “purposefulness” is the point at which morality and ethics intersect.
In the case of morality and values as “efforts and motivation” for a purpose, proposals include:
– Devotion to God,
– Living in accord with nature,
– Living in accord with a specific society,
– Avoiding pain seeking pleasure, and
– Self-realization, among others.
If the purpose is described as “good”, the values that lead to individual health, security, well-being and happiness come to the fore.
If values are prescribed intuitively (through description), this is “morality”. If, on the other hand, knowledge of these values is put forth (through conceptualization), this is “ethics”.
Ethics of Values from the Perspective of Conscience
– Is examined on the basis of a sense of a priori values, or
– The status of reason as the final arbiter in the delineation of duties, or
– Products of social progress, or
– Products of education.
Ethics of Values in the Context of Free Will
– Proposals included examining free will on the basis of making free choices in the face of a given situation, and leading one’s life through one’s own decisions, for a certain purpose and benefit,
– Examining free will in relation to phenomena, as Kant argues,
– Examining free will in relation to the principles of causality and determinism, as determinists argue, and
– Examining free will in relation to the principles of indeterminism and relativity in microphysics, and in relation to libertarianism and freedom of action, among others.
Types of Ethics
In the history of thought, different types of ethics have emerged within different philosophical disciplines.
- Material Ethics of Values: Developed by M. Scheler and N. Hartmann, this view was proposed in response to I. Kant.
Instrumental values are relative to individuals, and moral values have their roots in instrumental values (material relations).
Moral values exist in relation to a “sense of values” – we cannot know about their “content” beforehand, but we can say that they are “necessary”.
Moral values are not born out of “experiment”, they need to be actualized.
- Formal Ethics of Values: The view proposed by I. Kant.
Formal ethics requires a value to be based on “structure and form”, not on the content of the value.
There needs to be a “will” to be bound by moral principles.
People are “autonomous” and free to the extent that they obey the laws that they make for themselves, as humans are heteronomous by nature, and are determined from the outside.
Categorical imperative: Act only according to that principle, whereby you can, at the same time, will it to become “universal law”.
Moral law is a “fact of reason”. The condition that moral law must be based on “free choice” and “common will” is a model for legal and political applications.
- Utilitarian Ethics: S. Bentham, Pears, James, Dewey.
“Moral law” is the well-being of society.
Morality is “self-love” and “wishing others well”.
The principle of utility: People’s actions have “moral worth” to the extent that they choose, from among many available options, the one option that generates the largest utility.
- Psycho-Logistic Ethics: D. Hume.
Actions are motivated by psychic phenomena such as “pleasure”, “pain”, “tendency” and “emotion”, and it is these phenomena that make actions worthy.
Our knowledge of “good” and “bad” becomes “moral” depending on “pleasure” and “pain”.
- Naturalist Ethics: Stevenson.
The sense of moral righteousness stems from “self-confidence”.
- Deterministic Ethics: Spinoza.
There is no freedom of action; every action is determined by a cause.
Causes that give rise to moral behavior should be identified.
- Ethics of Freedom: Fichte, Sartre, Heidegger.
Putting themselves at the center of the universe, people are free to the extent that they are able to make “self-awareness” a condition of moral action.
An unconditioned action, which is the product of a “special” and “specific” choice, becomes an unconditioned action only when people can realize themselves through such free action. In this case, “special” and “specific” actions are “validated” and “realized” as “the highest moral imperative” (existentialism).
The criterion of morality is “being oneself” (Heidegger).
This is a call to turn conscience into “being oneself”, or to “exist” rather than simply being present.
The ethics of freedom does not propose “pre-determined actions”, but rather offers “action patterns” to be filled with action.
According to the ethics of freedom (in the context of existentialism), the “ethical person” is concerned about their situation and tries to realize themselves in that situation.
The function of philosophical ethics is to analyze the different “moralities” that we come across in one way or another, thus gaining “knowledge” of them, and achieving “clarity” and an “overall vision” of our “choices”.
The ability to develop an awareness of values by questioning them needs to be turned into a discipline and taught to members of society; as if not, entire societies would live “intuitively” and “without awareness” in the midst of unquestioned values. Values that are not the subject of such an awareness derive their power from “customs” and “belief”, which is a state of affairs that requires negating the customs and beliefs of others. Distancing ourselves from people like us and limiting our interactions to people similar to us hinders progress, and leads eventually to collapse. As such, the values created in life should be re-evaluated as being in a meaningful relationship with the values created in other lives. This sort of an evaluation would make it possible not only to develop an awareness of one’s values, but also to change and gain “self-confidence”.
However, conceptual analyses and evaluations fall short of resolving the problem of values once and for all, in that “gaining awareness” is not the end point. The problem changes “nature” after gaining awareness, which means that values that are made the subject of awareness are now transferred from the field of intuition to cognition, and depending on one’s stance in life, given a conceptual structure. When this is the case, values are carried from the field of morality to the field of politics, and start to be used against other societies. “Conceptual alienation” emerges at this point, deepening the problem of values, in that “values” are turned into a weapon to be used against other cultures and civilizations.
The Self is the “carrier,” “implementer,” and “adapter” of the human consciousness. The transition from the intuitive self (passive) to the conscious, willing self (active) is only possible after gaining a thorough awareness of values.
Our “selves” are our identities; and self is the central institution of the conscious subject. The process by which self emerges overlaps with its functionality; thus, “the reason for the existence of the self” is simultaneously its “manner of existence”.
For humans, “existence” is the totality of meanings assigned to internal and external worlds. The internal world is the field of “selfness” associated with “emotional-affective” ties, and the “dynamics” between objects, images and notions. An important issue relating to the internal world is that we are not conscious of all our psychic processes.
Most relationships are experienced at the “unconscious” level, and these unconscious experiences have a great impact on consciousness, so much so that they significantly change the functions of the self and consciousness. The area left to the conscious mind, surrounded by the unconscious, is miniscule, and this “unconscious field” of the psyche, from which consciousness is barred, is filled by parents and the cultural environment through consciousness in accordance with the features and customary (intuitive) values of each culture.
Civilization has conscious phenomena, whereas culture is lived intuitively, and mostly at the level of the unconscious. This opposition is problematic in that it generates conflicts between identity and personality in the effort to live by one’s values and to spread them through cultures.
The Conceptual Other and Alienation
When philosophical knowledge, known as the discipline of the ethics of values, is transferred to society through education, political ideologies become involved in the process, and values begin to be used as instruments of political manipulation.
The concept of “the other” does not mean –contrary to the common misperception– “strangers”, but rather those who are excluded from society through alienation.
The “other” is born when a society “excludes” a “target community” by ascribing to them demeaning characteristics that conflict with the society’s recognized set of values.
“Strangers” are people we have not met or that are different from us, whereas the term “other” refers to a conscious process of definition, identification and exclusion.
The “process of alienation” involves stages of demeaning, forcing change, exclusion, excommunication and extermination.
Alienation is the “concretization of denial” as opposed to faith.
In the history of alienation, some examples are notorious in that they serve to feed conceptual alienation, and are reflected as contemporary attitudes.
The best example of “alienation” in history, in symbolic terms, is the “scapegoat”. The Book of Leviticus in the Old Testament (16:21-23) contains the following passage: “Then Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and sending it away into the wilderness by means of someone designated for the task. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a barren region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness.” As this example shows, alienation took the form of a “symbolic” ritual of purification, although there are other “rituals of purification” mentioned in holy books that include sacrifices and offerings.
Another example can be found in the “Christian culture”. As is well known, to become a Christian, one needs to be “initiated”. A person who merely accepts the Christian faith cannot become a Christian by themselves simply by exercising free choice. A candidate that chooses to become a Christian and wants to be included in the faith needs to be approved by the Church (Ecclesia: the community of believers), which is considered to be the “embodiment of Jesus”. Christianity is an institutionalized religion, and becoming a Christian requires the approval of the institutions of the Church. Therefore, alienation (exclusion, purging from within) in Christianity takes the form of “excommunication”, as the opposite of initiation. Excommunicated groups or individuals are excluded and alienated from the Christian community, as it is believed that excommunication helps purify the community of believers. The excommunicated are in this sense “scapegoats”.
Another example is found in “Anatolian Alevism”. Those who do not follow the rules and manners of the path in the “jem” (gathering) of the community of believers are eventually denounced as “those who have gone astray”, and are excluded and alienated from the community. However, Anatolian Alevis are wise enough to keep the door open to returnees –after a period of rehabilitation– by creating the institution of the “Hearth of the Strayed”.
The most significant example of alienation in history, of course, involved the “Jewish people”. Alienation has almost become the accepted fate of the Jewish people, who were first excluded and forced to migrate from Ancient Egypt, followed by the Babylonian exile, and then from Spain, from Russia, and unforgettably –as the last stage in the process of alienation– they were alienated within the enlightened(!) Europe through extermination in ovens and gas chambers. Even today, whenever a crisis befalls a country in the world, the Jewish people are the first to be turned into scapegoats. This has become such a serious problem that Western societies in particular have had to introduce legislation banning anti-Semitism.
This genocide perpetrated by Fascist Germany turned into a “social paranoia” and “vandalism” as a result of the stimulation of the unconscious through various (symbolic) methods of propaganda.
Today, alienation no longer targets specific individuals, groups, or communities, taking place at the level of civilizations in which the values of certain civilizations (Western) are used to alienate all other civilizations. This alienation has been turned into a philosophy of “conceptual alienation” (positivism), which has then been globalized and disseminated through education (positivist education), becoming a political project and escalating to the level of clashes of civilizations in which wars serve as rituals of purification. In these rituals of war(!), “scapegoats” are sacrificed in the name of the values of a specific civilization.
This comment, of course, does not target or aim to condemn Western societies. Humans are human, no matter where they live. The target of this criticism is the interest groups and organizations that control the levers of power, regardless of their societies and mentalities.
Ancient Wisdom and Modernism
Modernism –as a result of its project– severed people from their histories, traditions, customs and conventional values, while industrialization destroyed the “extended family” and created the nuclear family of parents and children. This, in turn, severed the connection between the past and future, and brought an end to continuity (decadence). There was no longer a connection between grandparents and grandchildren. In fact, it is culture that maintains this continuity in the relationship between grandparents and grandchildren. “When grandpa eats a sour grape, it sets the grandson’s teeth on edge.”
Modernism gave objects (products of industry) sovereignty over human relations. Today, people seek only to own things, and the more the better. When physical objects and things became people’s ideals, alienation is inevitable. In other words, what we own became the measure of the worth of our and other people’s lives. Values have thus been ground into dust in this “modernist and positivist” mill.
In ancient wisdom, people’s worth was not measured by what they owned, in that “becoming” was what mattered, not owning. In the words of Rumi, “I was green; I ripened and grew golden.” Similarly, Muhyiddin İhya said, “We don’t reach for unripe fruits.” In ancient wisdom, the “goal” was becoming mature, and life was treated as a “process of maturation”.
In his criticism of modernism, Erich Fromm says, “In our age, we have stopped being ourselves and have turned into what we have.”
Plato, the prominent philosopher and producer of ancient wisdom, argued that “People can achieve true ‘satisfaction’ and ‘happiness’ only through other people.”
Pythagoras, another wise man from ancient times, said “People are like the half of an apple, and the other half is a friend; a life spent without finding one is wasted,” underlining that people can become humans “through other people” rather than through objects.
İsmail Emre, a contemporary link in the chain of ancient wisdom, underlined this truth, saying “A human being is known through another human being.”
This can be summed up as: The “target value” that people identify as worthy of living by shape their “life relations.”
Modernism and utilitarian philosophy –whether in politics or other fields– led to the reduction of people to a lower level, turning them into an alienated being, the “other”, a thing among other things.
The problem of communication in modernism is not only a social or historical, but also an “existential” problem, in that a lack of communication between subjects strengthens (human) narcissism and selfishness, turning them into values(!).
The idea of an abstract individual in modern society affects the hierarchy of values and leads to a lack of communication, just as the idea of being part of the mass in traditional societies, paradoxically, led to the same result. Furthermore, abstract individualism alienates modern people by producing “artificial values,” while failure to be liberated from the masses pushes traditional people into a meaningless world that is devoid of “freedom”, “duty” and “responsibility”. It would thus be a mistake to view ancient wisdom as the opposite of modernism, as the opposite of modernism is the traditionalist society, and they face essentially the same problems, although in different forms. Ancient wisdom would thus also be critical of pre-modern societies.
That said, as modernism is currently the lifestyle that is forced upon us, it is rightly the target of most criticism.
In trying to obtain “objects of desire”, whatever the cost, modern people have distorted their personalities by “quashing” the weak and “submitting” to the powerful. As “self-interest” is the only thing that matters in this order, the powerful adopted “despotism”, while the weak took on “cunning” and “flattery” as their values.
The modern human is a hypocrite; seemingly kind and respectful and handing out compliments, but insincere to the utmost extent and all alone. Such basic values as friendship, wisdom, sincerity, trust, integrity and honor are now looked down upon as hurdles to success.
Modern Psychology and Ancient Wisdom
Modern psychology is indifferent to, and uninterested in the basic issues of human existence, focusing only on actual reality. It experiences life through objects, and tries to alleviate symptoms (symptomatic treatment).
Ancient wisdom, on the other hand, is based on a connection with the source and an interest in the purpose. It experiences life through humans, and the essence of this path is the mature person (al-Insan al-Kamil).
In ancient wisdom, the path of life is the path of the source (love) and the purpose (freedom), rejecting slavery to other people or objects.
A human’s being has its roots in the “self”, while personality has its roots in “objects of existence” and “social relations”. As such, humans construct themselves in accordance with the meanings they assign to their “being” and “relations”.
The “meaning generation model” (paradigm) of modernism and utilitarian philosophy imagine humans to be devoid of history, starting with appearances – humans being severed from their sources and mechanically constructed. They are based on economic relationships, and follow a path from economics to politics, from politics to law, from law to values, from values to epistemology, and from epistemology to ontology.
Ancient wisdom has a directly opposite model (paradigm). In ancient wisdom, ontology is the foundation, and the succession is from ontology to epistemology, from epistemology to values, from values to law, from law to politics, and from politics to economics.
The first model prioritizes “objects” (commodity fetishism), whereas the second model prioritizes “people”.
The project of modernism is a project of mechanism (institutional). It expects the mechanism to produce values, however the “mechanism cannot produce values”.
The widespread global dissemination of modernism is administered to people from other cultures, thus pushing them “out of history” (in terms of literature) and causing a cognitive and psychic fracture. The history of the disciplines of “science”, “art” and “philosophy” taught in universities –as institutions of positivist education in non-modern societies– scarcely mention people or values from their own civilizations, which has led to the spread of “devaluations” and “identity crises” through these institutions. Islamic, Indian and Chinese civilizations and their values, in particular, were forced “out of history” in these powerful educational institutions, and this conceptual and political alienation has inevitably placed hurdles in the way of relationships and exchanges of values among civilizations.
The fate of those alienated through modernism was either “submission” or “living in fear of destruction”. The Sword of Damocles hangs over the heads of “others” and occasionally comes down on entire societies under various motivations.
In short, the mechanisms of modernism did not produce values, but rather created a machine – a giant war machine. The fate of the “others”, on the other hand, is “Either independence or death!”**
* First published in Us Düşün ve Ötesi (Reason, Thought, and Beyond), no.6, 2002. Translated by Dr. Emre Eren Korkmaz, and revised by the editorial board.
** The last sentence refers to a quotation from Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the Founder of the Turkish Republic. The full quotation reads as follows: “This nation has never lived without independence. We cannot and shall not live without it. Either independence or death!”