I have written previously on the meaning of dignity, but I left out the theoretical underpinnings of my position. Setting politics aside, what are the metaphysical underpinnings of ethics? What of our moral judgments? Are there some fundamental criteria under which we can say that the current regime or the actions of our leaders is wrong? For, we believe in right and wrong, but we seldom have the resources to completely explain the foundations of our belief.
Decisively, morality is not relative, and there is a basis upon which our generation’s actions and situation will be judged absolutely. This basis involves not only dignity and freedom, which I have previously thematized; but, moreover, the whole structure of morality that rests on dignity and freedom is temporal – a matter of the future and its intimate constitution of history. The moral value of our lives is not now, but is coming to us as we become past.
Freedom characterizes a society that dignifies itself by being more than its history, but that, precisely in its break with historical determination, carries the idea of dignity forward to future generations. Recall that forgetfulness is evidence of something forgotten; likewise, a break is evidence of the relationship that is broken. In breaking with the past, in order to create and reevaluate our customs for a future, we prove our connection to the past. We must either reject or renew everything of value in its time. Thus, each generation evaluates its predecessor in terms of right and wrong, since nothing more generally corresponds to value than the judgments ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ Every generation thereby enters into history, and becomes, for the next generation, the subject matter of evaluation. Thus, although the present generation evaluates the past, the value of the present is set further off, to be discovered only in a future that is not yet determined by history, but that determines history.
Thus, right and wrong are tied to the decision to either reject or renew societal values. This decision confronts us irrevocably. Whether we affirm or reject value, or even if, in ignorance, we pass over it, the past receives its significance from an ever outstanding future. This means that, through value, and in respect to a future that determines value, all of time, all history and society, is put into relation under this single binary opposition: right or wrong? In this, everything we do is figured already into a moral framework, a moral consideration, that will hold us accountable, and all human activity will be responsible to a singular future.
The worth of our individual choices, and the societies that frame them, is not determined in the present moment by us. Rather, whatever we choose to do with our lives is open to interpretation by the next generation, which will evaluate our actions on the basis of right and wrong. We too are freed to evaluate our predecessors on this basis. And, this continuity of answering the call to evaluate the past – to judge it morally – establishes a lasting sense of right and wrong that is capable of spanning the duration of human history.
The meaning of freedom is revealed when one becomes conscious of the fact that the meaning of his existence is not yet determined – it is not determined by a set of facts, or situations, or even aspirations – rather, there is a world left outstanding that one is responsible to create, for better or worse, according to the moral sense. And this created world will judge everyone who participates in its creation. Thus, insofar as the meaning and worth of my life are not yet determined, insofar as they must be determined from a certain future perspective that is not yet here, then, just as we said above, I am free, and society is freed by me, since what is not determined by me can be determined by others, and is, for all, a matter of effort and having a free choice between right and wrong.
Now, human beings are not free to choose the meaning of right and wrong, but only between actions that are right and wrong. And, furthermore, they are only free to do this whenever they are in a free society. But, what is a free society? It is one that is liberated towards the possibility of evaluating its history. And this means that our moral activity must be concerned with freeing others towards the possibility of evaluating our actions. That is, we must not insist that we are right, we must not moralize, but freely choose to surrender the task of evaluating our moral actions to a future. This means that we must free the future, and not inhibit generations to follow from making their decision about us.
This freeing of others is liberal education, since only liberal education can bring the whole person into step with himself such that he can choose to surrender himself to the moral evaluation of his future others. By liberal education, again, I mean an education in the humanities. We must become steeped in the great ideas of our predecessors, and take up the initiative of renewing their projects, or renewing the value that we find there. So to speak, our most morally uplifting activity is carrying forward this task, and leaving it open for the generations to follow. In this way, human dignity will follow from our activities, because we will entrust the most dignifying ideas from history to the care of a future society. Entrusting societies with the preservation of human dignity is itself dignifying, as it lets the absolute value of everything we know and strive for rest with someone else. What could be more dignifying of others than entrusting the ultimate moral status of one’s very existence to another person? Nothing. For everything that one is lies in his actions and projects, and trusting someone else to care for preserving one’s creative efforts is the highest possible honor one human being can confer upon another.
To have access to this possibility, we must carry forward in the humanities, we must ultimately stake our value to a trust in the future. But this means, furthermore, that we necessarily fulfill our obligation to those who have entrusted themselves to us, taking their works and creations forward with us. And, this is possible only if, for us, the task of evaluation, of determining “right from wrong,” remains open. But we also have to hold the possibility open for others. If we pass judgment, and foreclose the same possibility for others, we do not succeed in dignifying other human beings. And what could be more dignifying of us than dignifying others? Nothing. For, educating one another, caring for each other as whole persons, is the only activity that our future others will consider when determining the value of our works.
Now, as a last word, let me say that freedom is not relativism. When I say we leave moral judgments open, I do not mean that there are no moral judgments. Quite the contrary, in fact. What I propose is that moral judgment acts from the end of time through eternity. It is simply our responsibility to recognize that we do not live at the end of time, and that we need to be conscientious with respect to those who will follow, for they are watching already, and they will hold us accountable to the task of making them free.