A Ground for Ethics in Heidegger's Being and Time

Abstract
In this essay I suggest that Heidegger’s Being and Time provides a ground for ethics in the notion of Dasein’s ‘Being-guilty.’ Being-guilty is not a ground for ethics in the sense of a demonstration of the moral ‘ought’ or a refutation of moral skepticism. Rather, Being-guilty serves as a foundation for ethical life in a way uniquely suited to a phenomenological form of ethics, a way that clarifies, from a phenomenological point of view, why the traditional approach to ethics is misguided. The traditional attempt to ground ethics through demonstration or refutation depends upon a misunderstanding of obligation as an imposition that is distinct from, and inflicted upon, the subject in a way that is in need of justification. Heidegger’s conception of Being-guilty, on the contrary, identifies the basis of moral obligation in a form of primary selfobligation that is constitutive of human nature, rather than an imposition upon it. Although primordial guilt or self-obligation does not justify ethical obligation, it does ‘ground’ ethics. For it is the primary source and support of our ethical activity in two distinct senses. First, it serves as the condition for the possibility of our indebtedness to others—it enables us to be morally obligated. It enables moral obligation towards others by determining Dasein as ontologically indebted to care for its own being—a being which is, in turn, ontologically determined as care for others. Second, Being-guilty provides a criterion for distinguishing what we call ethical and unethical behavior. Ethical behavior is distinguished according to the appropriateness of one’s care for the other according to proper recognition of the nature of the Other’s Being as Dasein.
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