On Sakharov and Rorty: Without Morality, Liberty Is Impossible

Editor’s note: On November 6, 1992, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was inducted into the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences of the Institute of France, taking the place of the late Andrei Sakharov. During the induction ceremonies the cardinal gave the following discourse in French.

It is a great honor for me to be named a member of the Institute of France, as a successor to the imposing figure of Andrei Dimitriyevich Sakharov. I am sincerely grateful for this honor. Sakharov was numbered among the outstanding representatives of physics—his particular field of science—but he was more than a major scientist: he was a great man. He fought for the proper value of the human person, for moral dignity and freedom, and for this he paid the price of suffering, of persecution, of having to give up the possibility of further scientific work. Science can serve humanity, but it can also become an instrument of evil and thereby subject humanity to the full magnitude of its horror. Only when it has the underpinning of moral responsibility is it able to fulfill its true nature.

I do not know when or how the relationship of science to morality dawned on Sakharov in all its seriousness. A brief note concerning an episode that goes back to 1955 may supply a clue here. In November 1955, there had been some important thermonuclear weapons experiments which had caused tragic events: the death of a young soldier and of a 12-year-old girl. At the little reception which followed, Sakharov proposed a toast in which he expressed his hope that Russian arms might never explode over cities. In his response the person in charge of the test, a high-ranking official, stated that the job of scientists was to improve weapons and that it was none of their business how they were used; their judgment, he believed, did not extend to these matters. Sakharov commented on these words by saying that at that time he already believed what he still holds today: namely, “that absolutely no human being can deny his share of the responsibility for a matter on which humanity’s existence depends.” The official had basically—perhaps not even realizing it—refused to recognize a dimension proper to morality for which every human being is responsible. It is clear that in his mind there were only the particular areas of competence of a scientific, political, and military nature. The fact is that there is no particular competence which can confer the right to kill human beings or to have them killed. To deny the general human capacity to judge in matters that pertain to man as man is to create a new class system and thereby to debase the world, because then man as such no longer exists. To deny moral principle, to deny the existence of that organ of knowledge, prior to any specialization, which we call conscience, is to deny man. On many occasions and with ever greater insistence, Sakharov pointed out this responsibility of each individual vis-a-vis the whole, and the sense of this responsibility led him to discover his own mission.

Obedience to Conscience Never Loses Its Relevance

From 1968 onwards Sakharov was excluded from work involving State secrets; this made him all the more a representative of the public rights of conscience. From that time onward his mind focused on the question of human rights, on the moral renewal of the country and of humanity, and more generally on universal human values and the demands of conscience. He who so loved his country had to become the accuser of a regime that was pushing people into apathy, weariness, indifference, that was causing them to fall prey to external and internal misery. One could say, of course, that with the fall of the communist system Sakharov’s mission has been fulfilled; that it was an important chapter of history which is now part of the past. I think that reasoning in this way would be a grave and dangerous error. First of all, it is clear that the general orientation of Sakharov’s thinking regards human dignity and human rights. Obedience to conscience, even at the cost of suffering, is a message which loses nothing of its relevance even when the political context in which this message had acquired its special relevance no longer exists. I also think that the threats against humanity, which had become concrete political forces of human destruction with the domination of the Marxist parties, continue to exercise a certain influence today under other forms. Robert Spaemann recently said that after the fall of the utopia in our day we are beginning to see the spread of a banal nihilism whose consequences could prove to be equally dangerous. He mentions by way of example the American philosopher Richard Rorty, who has formulated the new utopia of banality. Rorty’s ideal is a liberal society in which absolute values and criteria no longer exist; prosperity will be the only thing worth pursuing. In his cautious but resolute criticism of the Western world, Sakharov foresaw the danger lurking in this loss of the human dimension when he speaks of the “fashionable liberalism of the left” or denounces the naïveté and the cynicism which frequently paralyze the West when it should be assuming its moral responsibility.

We find ourselves confronted here with the question that Sakharov addresses to us today: how can the free world assume its moral responsibility? Freedom can preserve its dignity only if it remains linked to its ethical foundation and mission. A freedom which consisted exclusively in the capacity to satisfy its needs would not be human freedom; it would remain that of the animal world. Stripped of its content, individual freedom destroys itself because the freedom of an individual can exist only within an order of freedom. Freedom needs a community content which we could define as the guarantee of human rights. To put it another way: the concept of freedom by its very meaning presupposes two other complementary concepts: the right and the good. We could say that conscience’s capacity to perceive the fundamental universal values of humanity belongs to freedom. On this point we must extend Sakharov’s thinking in order to adapt it appropriately to the present situation.

Sakharov was grateful to the free world for its involvement on his behalf and on behalf of other persecuted people; nevertheless he never ceased, on the occasion of many political events and in their aftermath, acutely experiencing the West’s failure. He did not consider it his task to analyze the profound reasons for this failure, but he did see clearly that freedom is frequently understood in a selfish, superficial manner. One cannot seek to enjoy freedom for its own sake alone; freedom is indivisible, and must always be seen as a mission for all humanity. This means that one cannot enjoy it without sacrifice and renunciation. It requires that one be on guard to ensure that morality, as a public and community bond, be understood in such a way that it be recognized—even if in itself it has no power—as a force which is ultimately at the service of man. Freedom requires that governments and all those who bear responsibility bow before that which presents itself as essentially defenseless and is incapable of exercising any coercion.

The Limits of Reason

At this level is situated the threat posed by modern democracies, which we ought to reflect on in the spirit of Sakharov. It is difficult to see how democracy, which rests on the principle of majority rule, can enforce moral values that are not recognized by a majority without introducing a dogmatism which is foreign to its nature. In this regard Rorty maintains that reason guided by the majority always includes a few intuitive ideas such as the abolition of slavery. In the seventeenth century Pierre Bayle expressed himself in even more optimistic terms. At the end of the bloody wars into which the great arguments of faith had plunged Europe, metaphysics, he claimed, was no longer of any concern to political life: practical truth was sufficient. There is, in his view, only one universal and necessary morality whose clear and true light anyone could see as soon as he opened his eyes a little. Bayle’s ideas reflect the spiritual situation of his century: the unity of faith had been lost, one could no longer hold the truths of the metaphysical order as a common patrimony. The basic and essential moral convictions with which Christianity had formed souls, however, were still certitudes beyond discussion; their pure proof, it seemed, could be discovered by reason alone.

This century’s developments have taught us that there is no such evidence that can serve as a firm and sure basis for all freedoms. Reason can very easily lose sight of the essential values; even the intuition on which Rorty relies does not hold true beyond a certain point. Thus, the idea which he cites that slavery should be abolished did not in fact exist for many centuries, and the history of the totalitarian States of our century show clearly enough how easily the concept can be denied again. Freedom can abolish itself, become sick of itself, once it has become empty. This, too, we have experienced in our century: a majority decision can have the effect of destroying freedom.

At the basis of the unrest which Sakharov felt before the West’s naivete and cynicism, there is the problem of a freedom that is empty and lacking direction. Strict positivism, which expresses itself in absolutizing the principle of the majority, will inevitably revert at some time into nihilism. This is the danger which we must confront whenever there is a question of defending freedom and human rights. In 1938, the politician of Danzig, Hermann Rauschning, diagnosed Nazism as a nihilist revolution: “there never was nor is there now a single goal that national socialism would not be prepared to sacrifice or to advance at any time for the sake of the movement.” Nationalism was no more than a tool which nihilism used, but was equally ready to drop it at any time to replace it with something else. It seems to me that even the events which we are watching with some concern in today’s Germany cannot be fully explained under the heading of hostility towards foreigners. Ultimately, at its root there is also a kind of nihilism which comes from an emptiness of soul: in the national-socialist dictatorship, too, there was never a single action which was regarded as evil in itself and always immoral. Whatever served the goals of the movement or of the Party was good, however inhuman it might be. Thus over whole decades a collapse of the moral sense was taking place; it was bound to be transformed into total nihilism on the day when any of the preceding goals no longer had any value and when freedom was synonymous with the ability to do whatever was capable of providing a passing attraction and interest to a life which had become empty.

Democracies Need Moral Convictions

Let us return to the question of how we can restore wholesome respect for high moral standards and rights to our societies and defend the right and the good against naivete and cynicism, without a similar force of right being imposed or even arbitrarily defined by external coercion. In this regard Alexis de Tocqueville’s analysis of Democracy in America has always made a strong impression on me. For this structure, which in itself is fragile, to retain its cohesion and make possible an order of liberties in freedom lived in community, the great political thinker saw as an essential condition the fact that a basic moral conviction was alive in America, one which, nourished by Protestant Christianity, supplied the foundations for institutions and democratic mechanisms.

In fact, institutions cannot maintain themselves and be effective without common ethical convictions. These in turn cannot come from a purely empirical reason. The decisions of the majority will themselves remain truly human and logical only if they presuppose the existence of a basic humanitarian sense and respect this as the true common good, the condition of all other goods. Such convictions require corresponding human attitudes, and these in turn cannot be developed unless the historical foundation of a culture and the ethical, religious judgments it contains are taken into consideration. For a culture and a nation to cut itself off from the great ethical and religious forces of its history amounts to committing suicide. Cultivating the essential moral judgments, and maintaining and protecting them without imposing them by force seems to me to be a condition for the survival of freedom in the face of all the forms of nihilism and their totalitarian consequences.

This is also how I see the public mission of the Christian Churches in the world of today. It is in conformity with the Church’s nature that she be separate from the State and that her faith not be imposed by the State, but rest on freely acquired convictions. On this point there is a beautiful saying of Origen which has unfortunately not always been sufficiently observed: “Christ does not triumph over anyone unless the person himself wishes it. He triumphs only by convincing: for He is the Word of God.” It is not of the Church’s essence to be a State or a part of the State, but to be a community based on conviction. However, it is of her essence also to be responsible for all and not to be confined to certain limits. Making use of her own freedom, she must address herself to the liberty of all, to ensure that the moral forces of history remain the forces of the present and that there arise ever anew those obvious values without which common liberty is not possible.

  • Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger

    Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger is now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. He was the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith during the pontificate of Pope John Paul II. Before his appointment to Rome, he was archbishop of Munich. He was a professor of theology at several German universities and the author of many books including ,Introduction to Christianity, Principles of Catholic Theology and God and the World.

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