“You don’t treat another human like that!” Thus we may speak, with a trembling voice that simultaneously reveals our confidence. Perhaps to a person who harasses someone else. You just don’t treat people like that!
But what gives us the right to object? From where does our confidence come? Must it not be from the concept of the human? Perhaps we should bracket our passionate voice and instead soberly examine the concept “human being”: so that we may purely intellectually understand why it is wrong to harass people. Perhaps our conceptual investigation reveals some sort of inviolable dignity in human essence. The rest follows from the pure laws of thought.
I believe Socrates did something similar. He shook Athenians’ confidence in life through conceptual investigations that he indicated would lead them to the ultimate source of true confidence; to knowledge of the pure ideas of what is good and right. The Athenians’ mistake was that of simply being confident in life; as humans are confident. That confidence in life made them blind to the purer and more fundamental knowledge that can be reached by turning the gaze toward the concepts themselves.
These tendencies to purify what is intellectually binding in morality make me think of inventors of perpetual motion machines. They dream of machines that, through their ingenuity, can do what no ordinary machine can do. They just move and move, all by themselves, without any connections with the energy flows of nature and life. For they are so cleverly made immune to friction and objections.
The problem is that the purity of these unobjectionable constructions is achieved at the cost of no longer speaking to people; only to other dreamy seekers of perpetual motion machines.
The trembling voice characterizes ethics. Our confidence in life has no ingenious source in reason itself, which we should seek instead of being confident. This does not prevent us from reflecting on our ethical responses and develop our way of living and thinking, allowing our trembling voice to deepen as we seek our way through life.
Ethics is in the midst of life. A moral perpetual motion machine outside of any such living context cannot be constructed. There are limits to how reasonable one can be.