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Contemporary Russian ethics: the polarisation

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The article provides an overview of the key events and ideas associated with contemporary Russian ethics, as well as of publications significant to the theory of the discipline and the most sustained discussions. Notwithstanding the wide variety of topics, sets of problems, and ways of philosophizing that have emerged over the last two decades, this period is primarily characterised by a gradual conceptual polarisation and the development of two irreconcilable trends based on manifestly opposed foundations: the idea of the absoluteness of both morality and the individual responsible act, on the one hand, and the de-absolutisation of morality with individuals considered in actual situations of choice, on the other.

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    For example, in 1991 Ethical Thought published the article of Leon Trotsky entitled Their Morals and Ours for the very first time in Russian, alongside texts by John Dewey and Jean-Paul Sartre that discuss this work, and accompanied by The Ethics of Trotsky, an analytical article by A. A. Guseynov. The section that dealt with ethical thought in the West contained a number of translations: a fragment from Promethean Fire by C. J. Lumsden and E. O. Wilson and Yu. R. Furmanov’s article on evolutionary ethics, as well as the translation from Carol Gilligan’s book In a Different Voice, accompanied by an article with Olga Artemyeva’s commentary, and the translation of The Problem of Pain by C. S. Lewis accompanied by an article from Sergei Averintsev.

  2. 2.

    A total of thirteen books has been published today. They contain articles on theory, publications of modern and classical works on ethics, and discussions. Notwithstanding the open nature of the publication, the core cadre of the authors remains the same, comprised primarily of the researchers from the Department of Ethics of the RAS Institute of Philosophy.

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    Apressyan and Guseynov (ed.) (2001). Contains around 450 articles on ethical concepts, problems, normative formulae, and ethical postulates, as well as schools of ethics and related works. The publication sums up the world experience of research in ethics; nearly a third of the articles concern Indian, Chinese, and Arabic-Islamic ethical traditions.

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    Guseynov and Apressyan (1998). Guseynov and Dubko (ed.) (2004). Guseynov (ed.) (2013). Razin (2004). Skripnik (2004).

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    For example, Leo Tolstoy in his discussion of the ethics of nonviolence [the ethics of Tolstoy as a whole is considered in the works of A. A. Guseynov and M. L. Klyuzova (Gelfand)], and Michail Bakhtin—namely, his work entitled Toward a Philosophy of the Act, published in 1986 and later also included in the collected works of Bakhtin in seven volumes (1997–2012) (the notions of special and moral responsibility, the idea of the imperative oneness of the subject of morality, the non-alibi of being, the critique of gnoseologism in ethics, and the conception of the act) (see Guseynov 2001a).

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    Aristotle. Eudemian Ethics; Kant, I. Lectures on Ethics; Hartmann N. Ethics.(2002). [Translated from German by A. B. Glagolev. Yu. S. Medvedev and D. V. Sklyadnev (eds.)]. St. Petersburg: Vladimir Dahl, 2002. Rawls, J. (1995). A Theory of Justice. Nobosibirsk: NSU Publications. Jonas, H. (2004) The Imperative of Responsibility.In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age. (Translated from German, prefaced, and annotated by I. I. Makhankov). Moscow: Ayri-press. Arendt, H. (2000). Vita Activa, or On Active Life (The Human Condition). [Translated from German and English by B. B. Bibikhin. D. M. Nosov (ed)]. St. Petersburg: Aleteya. Arendt, H. (2013). Responsibility and Judgment. (Translated from English by D. Aronson, S. Bardina, and R. Gulyaev). Moscow: Gajdar Institute Publications. MacIntyre, A. (2000) After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. (Translated from English by V. V. Tselishchev). Moscow: Akademicheskiy proekt, and Ekaterinburg: Delovaja kniga. The publication of the works of M. Ossowska has also made an impact—Ossowska, M. (1987). The Knight and the Bourgeois.Studies in the History of Morality. (Translated from Polish. A. A. Guseynov (ed.). Preface by A. A. Guseynov and K. A. Schwarzman). Moscow: Progress.

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    They even claim having coined the very term “applied ethics” before its first documented usage in the English texts (2006).

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    The notion of the Golden Rule as used in Russian ethics was introduced in the A. A. Guseynov’s book The Golden Rule of Morality published in 1979, 1982, and 1988.

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    At the end of 1989 an international conference on the Ethics of Nonviolence took place in Moscow under the auspices of the Department of Ethics of the Institute of Philosophy (RAS). Afterwards, Pravda (with a print run of about 10 million copies) published a long interview with professor A. A. Guseynov (23 February, 1990), and the proceedings of the conference were published the following year (The Ethics of Nonviolence Moscow, 1991).

  10. 10.

    Opposing views on the principle of nonviolence have been developing throughout the entire period in question—in Guseynov’s studies on Tolstoy (the law of nonviolence as a form of the law of love) and research by R. G. Apressyan on the concept of the just war and the lex talionis (he proposes that the concept of the just war be regarded as the qualified, humanized principle of lex talionis, which serves as a normative instrument for limiting force). One school of thought claims that the prohibition of killing is absolute, the other only allows for the absolute nature of the principle “commit no evil” (accompanied by that of “choose the lesser of two evils” for situations characterized by conflicts of value) (Public Morality, page 475). It should be noticed that this rule is but another form of the principle “do good” and thus cannot serve as the absolute moral prohibition that directly turns into a negative action defining the space of humanity.

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    The so-called discussion on lying was initiated by R. G. Apressyan in December 2007, when he presented his paper on Kant’s essay titled On the supposed right to lie from altruistic motives. What was at stake was the interpretation of Kant’s example concerning the owner of a house in which his friend is hiding from a murderer intent on killing him and who has to answer the murderer’s knock and tell him whether or not his friend is hiding inside the house. An abridged version of the materials of this discussion was published in Chelovek (“Man”). With time the texts of most of the participants (R. G. Apressyan, D. I. Dubrovsky, E. Yu. Solovyov, A. K. Sudakov, O. V. Artemyeva, A. V. Prokofyev, O. P. Zubets, and A. A. Guseynov) were published in a special edition of Logos, together with articles by B. G. Kapustin, V. V. Vassilyev, A. G. Myasnikov, T. I. Oizerman, N. M. Sidorova, and A. P. Skripnik, who joined the discussion following the publication of the first batch of related materials (some of the articles in Logos issue were chosen for publication in a special edition of the journal Russian Studies in Philosophy (USA). Subsequently, more participants joined the discussion, reacting to the publication of the materials of the discussion and expressing their opinions on the matter. In the end a book appeared bearing what I believe to be a somewhat ill-fitting title: Towards the right to lie (2011).

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    There was an exchange of views in the press on the relations between religion and morality (on the pages of the Nezavisimaya gazeta) in the context of the new school subject, with professor Guseynov and Archimandrite Vsevolod Chaplin. The philosopher and the priest expressed manifestly opposing views on a number of issues.

  13. 13.

    Many specialists refused to participate in the work on this textbook. V. Yu. Perov, who had agreed to do so, eventually disowned his work due to unacceptable levels of tendentious editing and editorial meddling in general.


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Correspondence to Olga Zubets.

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Zubets, O. Contemporary Russian ethics: the polarisation. Stud East Eur Thought 66, 181–194 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11212-014-9208-z

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  • Morality
  • Ethics
  • Action
  • Subject
  • Absolute morality