Georgy Satarov: Shame, morality and citizenship

posted 11 Sep 2015, 13:58 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 11 Sep 2015, 14:13 ]
27 August 2015

By Georgy Satarov

Source: Facebook 

Oleg Kashin is a good journalist, well educated, with a fine mastery of the Russian language. And he is someone who thinks in an original way. Here, for example, is a quotation from a piece he has written to which I shall refer:

‘Just think of it: Sentsov announces from his cage in the courtroom that he is ashamed for the judges, for the prison system, for Vasilieva, for Putin. Absurd, isn’t it? But why is it absurd? Because Sentsov is not someone who bears any moral responsibility for the Russian Federation and the fascism that has taken hold of it. They made him a citizen of Russia by force…’

Very well put. These words draw a link, and a very precise one, between shame and moral responsibility. After all, a sense of shame arises when there is a problem with moral responsibility. In the first place, this is shame for oneself. For a failure to carry out one’s duty, for work badly done, for an immoral act. The Russian language allows one also to feel shame for someone else when you have moral responsibility for that person and are aware of it.  But this is also your own shame, for yourself, since you know that you have not managed to properly deal with your moral responsibility for another person. It is your (my) own fault. This is clear in the example where a teacher summons a parent to the school and tells them they should be ashamed because of their child. Here it is clear that the parent, in accordance with their social role, bears moral responsibility for the upbringing of their child.

And in Kashin's article, very important words follow linking moral responsibility with citizenship (with a sense of civic responsibility), if you are ashamed because of the representatives of government (of the state). You are ashamed because of them to the extent that you are aware of your own moral responsibility for them, for their words and actions, for the state, in the last resort.

Why do I consider this important? The end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century are periods characterized by a reevaluation of the essence of what it means to be human, and of human social relations. The crux of this reevaluation, based on vast new inputs from the social sciences, lies in the fact that the human being is above all a social being, differentiated by an essential (genetic) striving towards (and ability for) cooperation, by a capacity for empathy. Language is one of the expressions of this principle difference. The preservation of this social nature – whether we are talking about primitive tribes or the citizens of the contemporary state – is to a great extent founded on a sense of mutual moral responsibility among people living together in a community. Without this, human social relations disintegrate – whether we are talking about a football team or a state. And without social relations an individual will not survive, or will be forced to seek to survive, but at the same time turning into a wild beast.

A few words now about the state. According to modern conceptions, the state is a corporation founded by citizens for the production of those public goods which citizens would not want to produce themselves. An example of the founding document of such a state is, then, a Constitution. This is a very important notion. It means that the citizens come before the state. It also means that citizens are always morally responsible for what they have founded, and for those to whom they have assigned the functions of the state. When this moral responsibility disappears, the state becomes separate from its founders and, in the expression used by Kashin, becomes a weight on the citizens’ backs.

But Kashin does not take into account the fact that, simultaneously, the state ceases to be a state while it does not immediately ceasing to embody power. Power of this kind ceases to be a state when it violates its founding contract (the Constitution), when it no longer pays attention to the production of public goods, when it begins to use the power temporarily given it for purposes of its own self-interest. All this has happened in our polity. Therefore when we speak of Putin, the FSB, the courts, and so on, we shall fall into error if we think of them as part of the state. They are merely privatized institutions used by those in power for their own purposes, and having have no relation to the functions of a state. I repeat: this is not state authority, it is the rule of bandits, it is the rule of terrorists, gang rule, or whatever phrase you prefer. But it has nothing to do with a state.

My fellow citizens who so upset Kashin when they express a feeling of shame in relation to Putin, the FSB, the Investigative Committee, the courts, and so on, are displaying a sense of shame for themselves, for the moral responsibility they have suddenly come to feel for the state which at one time they took part in creating - a state which includes, among other things, the post of president. It is an expression of shame for the fact that those in power have become what they are, since we allowed them to become like that without an awareness of our moral civic responsibility and without acting upon it. This expression of an awakening civic awareness is unthinkable outside the framework of the state and of citizenship. Citizenship means moral responsibility for the state and the actions related to carrying out this responsibility. This becomes all the clearer as those in power become more vile before our very eyes. Kashin urges us to reject this feeling and the actions which flow from it. He urges us in a very striking manner, unambiguously, out of concern that he might end up on his own.

Returning to Sentsov: his endurance and courage are the expression of a sense of civic responsibility related to his citizenship of Ukraine, of which he is proud. Boris Nemtsov was the same kind of person. 

Translated by Simon Cosgrove